Two plays tackle family dynamics, to varying degrees of success: Theatre Smith-Gilmour's As I Lay Dying and fu-GEN's Ching Chong Chinaman.
As two plays currently in Toronto theatres demonstrate, family sagas have been around for generations.
At Theatre Passe Muraille, production company Theatre Smith-Gilmour gives William Faulkner’s doomed Bundren clan from the novel As I Lay Dying its first adaptation for the stage, while at the Aki Studio Theatre in the new Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park, fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a very contemporary examination of an assimilated Asian family living in California. Each production has its own way of making viewers feel grateful for their time in the theatre, and extremely grateful for their own family lives.
Theatre Smith-Gilmour is first and foremost a family affair, led by the husband-and-wife team Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour. This time around, they’ve placed their daughter Nina in their cast of seven actors who portray the production’s 15 characters. The story follows the Bundren family as they haul the corpse of their matriarch, Addie, 40 miles to Jefferson, Mississippi, to bury her in her hometown. Father Anse (Dean Gilmour) is a toothless trickster and a tightwad, and Dewey Dell (Nina Gilmour) finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy at 17. Cash (Dan Watson) is the dutiful eldest son. His younger brothers are Darl (Julian DeZotti), the outsider; Jewel, Mom’s favourite (Benjamin Muir); and the young and imaginative Vardaman (Daniel Roberts). But good luck figuring out what their names are without reading them first, because the cast’s inconsistent Southern twang renders about 35 per cent of the script inaudible.
As the audience tries to get used to the dense, accented language of Faulkner’s tale, the beginning of As I Lay Dying gets off to a slow start. When Addie (Smith) finally kicks the can and sets the meat of the plot in motion, the audience finally gets on board with the sprawling, two-and-half-hour-long show. There are some dazzling examples of Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s signature physical theatre. Andre du Toit’s lighting is excellent, particularly during a scene in which Cash, Jewel, and Darl attempt to save Addie’s coffin from being washed downriver. Even so, this epic suffers from inconsistent pacing and a jarringly disruptive fade to black in between each of its short scenes.
The physical performances are mesmerizing, but it’s too bad words dominate so much of the script, leaving the Bundrens stiff and upright instead of exploring the expanse of the stage. Dean Gilmour, however, is particularly irksome (in a good way) as Anse, especially when he first explains to us the notion that objects that stand vertically, like humans, should not be mobile. Unfortunately, the staging takes this advice to heart.
For something completely different, fu-GEN offers up the Canadian premiere of a new work from an American playwright. Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman is about as culturally taboo as it sounds, but with good intentions.
The Wong family is as American as apple pie. Ed (John Ng) brings home the bacon, while Grace (Brenda Kamino) begs for another baby. Sister Desi (Zoe Doyle) is consumed with her Princeton application, and brother Upton (Oliver Koomsatira) has big dreams of becoming a gaming champion and meeting the South Korean girl he’s been wooing online. Tell us if you’ve seen this sitcom episode before: Upton and Desi have trouble keeping up with all of their priorities, so they use an indentured worker from China, whom they call J (Richard Lee), to take care of their menial tasks and math homework, though he has his own dreams for his new life in America. Jane Luk plays a series of Asian women, including J’s mother, who works at several outsourced call centres in China; Desi’s Korean-sponsored child; a Chinese-American Princeton interviewer; and an unexpected little surprise for Grace.
Camellia Koo’s brilliantly designed set transforms the Aki Studio into a picture-perfect California home, complete with candy-coloured tiki lanterns festooning the ceiling. However, everything on the set—from the fridge, to Desi’s math book, to the iPhones—is still wrapped in its original cellophane or cardboard packaging. The Wongs may have everything they need in this American life, but that doesn’t mean they’re at all settled or comfortable with it.
Director Nina Lee Aquino, who recently got the job of co-artistic director at Factory Theatre, has a clear vision for the Wongs, and doesn’t flinch in taking a sledgehammer to their struggle to merge their American identities with their Asian heritage. She lets the Wongs almost completely self-destruct before capping it all off with a sombre and moving moment. Ching Chong Chinaman is an excellent Canadian introduction for Lauren Yee, and there’s a great tap-dance number, too.