By Jeff Ho. Directed by Nina Lee Aquino. At Factory Theatre. Runs until December 3.
Strong, fearless women factor heavily in actor/musician Jeff Ho’s life. In trace, Ho celebrates three generations of women and how their steely, uncompromising spirit fortified and ensured the existence of his family.
Ho’s great-grandmother was the pillar. She was a single mother who left China for Hong Kong with her two sons during the Japanese invasion of WWII. Similarly, Ho’s single mother left Hong Kong for Canada with her two sons in tow. The play jumps in time and location as we follow the lives of these women, all played by Ho. In his energetic, lively performance, he flits from one character to the next, modulating his voice and accent as he takes on each role.
Ho is a gifted musician as well as a fine actor, and trace is presented as if it were a piece of music with a prelude, five movements, and a coda. Each musical section is projected on the back wall of the theatre. Truth be told I could not distinguish any difference in the style of the performance as I would have in a piece of music.
There are two pianos, one on either side of the playing space, with various platforms of different heights on the stage. Ho moves from platform to platform as he segues from character to character, shafts of light pouring on him as he goes, to beautiful effect. When he stops to play the piano, the music he makes offers emotional texture to the story.
The pianos even act as characters themselves, answering questions with a harsh note here, a ping there. It’s very clever. There is also inventiveness in using the pianos as props. In one scene, Ho was depicting a relative who worked in a hospital and had to clean up a patient who had soiled himself. Ho opened the top of the piano and, with a cloth, reached down, simulating the movement wiping the patient’s bum.
Telling this story is a huge undertaking, with all of the different characters and time periods, as well as trying to keep track of the Chinese names—foreign to my ear—and the characters to which they applied. Ho’s writing is funny, caustic, thoughtful, and informative, and his performance is impressive. But in spite of all that, I found trace often incomprehensible.
Aside from his growling great-grandmother, who magically conjured up cigarettes every time she appeared, I often couldn’t tell which character was speaking. I found this frustrating and would have loved a list of each character Ho played, along with their ages and their relationship to one another, to help me follow the story.
trace is a herculean effort by Jeff Ho, but definitely not a successful night at the theatre.
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