REVIEW: Tracing with Body and Music in Jeff Ho’s trace

Toronto, Ontario
Shelley Liebembuk reviews Jeff Ho’s trace, a Factory Theatre production in association with b current performing arts:

In his debut as playwright, Jeff Ho presents a solo piece that explores his family history through three generations of women. Structurally merging text and music, trace plays with the non-linear and conflicting nature of family memory, and candidly mines trauma and hostility alongside love and loyalty, through Ho’s artful embodiment and Nina Lee Aquino’s strong direction.

Jeff Ho. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Performed on a smartly crafted minimalist set of raised platforms with only two upright pianos as set pieces (co-designed by Aquino and Michelle Ramsay), the show centers on Ho’s skilled embodiment of the three core figures of Great Grandma, Grandma, and Ma. Notably, Ho chooses to embody these women without constructing gendered postures or attitudes for them. Instead, we are invited to read Ho’s body in performance for key gestures, stances, and tones (in both English and Cantonese) to decipher which of the three characters is being manifested. The choice is refreshing and intelligent. The character depictions are especially powerful in the precision and theatricality of individual vignettes. For example, the matriarchal presence of Great Grandma is beautifully portrayed in the first time she sets up a game of Mahjong: at once fiercely grounded in her stance, and expertly fluid in her smoking. Another vignette reveals Ma’s tenacity as a newcomer to Canada through a poignant reconfiguration of the piano as the elderly person Ma must attend to: lifting up the top cover of the upright piano, Ho gently leans against the piano and moves an arm into the narrow space between the hammers and the siding, enacting the careful gesture of cleaning someone who has soiled themself.

Structurally, the piece follows the form of a piano sonata in five movements, with an addition of a prelude and a coda. As Ho explains in an interview with My Gay Toronto, “As I tried to figure out the structure, how do we put a hundred years of memories, with gaps and time jumping, how do we make it fit? […] logic wasn’t the right way to approach it, but musically that was something we could carry.” This choice does away with the banality of a more linear autobiographical narrative, allowing for an affecting re-membering of bits of story across the differing perspectives of each character. It also has the promise of swiftly guiding its audience to distinct tempos; yet, in the performance, the shifts in rhythm remain too subtle, and the transitions between movements are marked primarily through their projected titles.

Jeff Ho. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The music in the piece also serves to voice the peripheral, male characters. As Ho elaborates in an In the Greenroom interview, “I didn’t want the men to speak, I wanted to hear the women and what they wanted to say, and we get the intention and feeling from the men from the piano.” It is at the piano that we discover the character of the playwright himself: first, as a small child, shyly playing and dangling his feet; later as a teenager, playing Les Mis despite his mother’s disapproval. During the emotional climax of the piece, as Great Grandma leaves her ill son behind during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII, the piano’s escalation reveals the traumatic event. The piano both escalates the conflict, and reduces the spoken text in favour of symbolic abstraction.

trace plays through December 3rd, at the Factory Theatre.

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Shelley Liebembuk is a dramaturge and theatre scholar. A postdoctoral fellow at York University, she is conducting dramaturgical research on multiple fluencies in Canadian-Latinx performance, funded by the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas. She is the dramaturge for Toronto Laboratory Theatre’s In Sundry Languages, and is also undertaking comparative research on multilingual dramaturgy in Germany and Canada. She completed a doctoral dissertation on the Latina body in performance at the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (2016); teaches acting and theatre courses; and is a graduate of the Atlantic Theatre Company’s acting conservatory (NYC).

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