Review: Cockroach is a bold theatrical experiment

Ho Ka Kei's Tarragon season opener is an imaginative and powerful look at xenophobia, intolerance and survival


Review of Cockroach at Tarragon Theatre
Photo by Joy von Tiedemann

COCKROACH by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) (Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman). Runs to October 9. $15-$55. tarragontheatre.com. Rating: NNNN


Playwright and actor Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) is building quite the original writing résumé. Besides his timely, award-winning adaptations of the classics Iphigenia And The Furies (On Taurian Land) and Antigone, he’s written and performed Trace, his semi-autobiographical one-man, two-pianos show about emigrating from Hong Kong to Toronto. Now he’s created a bold play – his most ambitious yet – that defies easy summary or categorization.

Cockroach interweaves the stories of three characters. The eponymous Cockroach (Steven Hao) is, indeed, a many-legged insect (suggested with unfussy casualness by set and costume designer Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart), who recounts, with a last-creature-crawling swagger, his origin story, his innate memory of his ancestors and his search for a mate. Then comes the Bard (Karl Ang), the ghost of William Shakespeare, who cockily points out all the instances the English language, and much of its culture, has been affected by his oeuvre.

The writing for these two survivors is filled with clever wordplay and zany, imaginative leaps; there are nods to Kafka’s tale about Gregor Samsa, for sure, but there are also soaring, bravura passages worthy of a Salman Rushdie. And Hao and Ang seize hold of this rich, loaded language and deliver jaw-dropping, mic-dropping performances.

Ho is less successful, however, in creating and integrating the story of the play’s third character, called simply the Boy (Anton Ling). Although there are foreshadowings in Deanna H. Choi’s sound design, it takes a while for the Boy’s narrative arc to come together (I’m not sure that it ever really does), and for us to understand his connection to the other two. Which is a shame, because I think this damaged figure is the nexus of some of the play’s most powerful themes – xenophobia, homophobia, the myth of the subservient Asian in Western culture.

Director Mike Payette handles the technical and dramatic demands of the play with skill, letting his performers navigate Ting-Huan Urquhart’s multi-platformed set – which suggests a tenement skyline – with ease, and letting us imagine things as unlikely as a cockroach giving birth to 13 babies in a soiled diaper in a garbage bin.

Hanna Kiel’s choreography is an essential part of the production. Each character’s movement tells you a lot about how they take up space in the world. One of the show’s most haunting scenes happens when Cockroach (his movement never mere insect imitation) spots a distant relation, a lobster (Ling), swimming seductively in an aquarium. And I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most amusing scenes, which involves a famous singer’s wig; it’s too entertaining to spoil.

There’s a lot to chew over. Ho has found a powerful and disturbing metaphor for xenophobia and intolerance; at one point Cockroach mentions “Germans, Hutus and Chinese.” If the story of the Boy were more effectively interwoven into the script, the play might land with the force and emotional resonance it deserves.

@glennsumi

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