TRACE by Jeff Ho (b current performing arts/Factory, 125 Bathurst). Runs to Dec 3. $30-$50. factorytheatre.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNIn.
In Trace, Jeff Ho weaves an intricate and harrowing account of his familys immigration journey between two places, Hong Kong and Toronto. Combining his animated acting and virtuoso piano chops (there are two pianos on either side of the stage), Ho seamlessly integrates classical and show tunes into his complex story.
The multi-generational, transnational, non-linear narrative includes many characters but focuses mostly on Hos cigarette- and mah-jong-obsessed grandmother and her escape from China to then-British Hong Kong during the Second World War, and Hos own experience arriving in Toronto as a child along with his mothers extreme efforts to secure a middle-class existence.
With Hos fast-paced switching between characters, time and place it can be a bit hard to follow at the outset. Things become clearer as the narrative progresses, but a family tree primer in the program, or perhaps some onstage signaling of where/when a certain scene is taking place would go a long way.
One of the strongest elements is the variety of clever ways director Nina Lee Aquino has Ho use the two pianos they turn out to be for much more than just hammering out Mozart and Chopin to signal intensity and gravitas. In certain scenes Ho speaks one side of a fiery conversation, then uses a stab of the keys to indicate the response, with his choice of chord providing a clear sense of the exchange.
At other moments, different parts of the pianos become evocative stand-ins for sets and props. The opening top of a piano bench becomes a suitcase during a tense exchange with Canadian immigration officials. Later, a piano pedal operates the sewing machine his mother works on at night to supplement their income.
The epic scope of the narrative reveals piece-by-piece the family history and context including a disturbing secret for the intense pressure that Hos mother places on him. She thinks excellence in math is his only pathway to success as an accountant, and views his life-long passion and talent for piano as a dead end.
Hos Chinese-Canadian immigration saga will resonate with anyone whose family has been forced to relocate, conveying universal themes of hardship, escape and hope distilled through the anxiety of defying great expectations to chart ones own course.