Stepping into the Tarragon Theatre, a theatre where I personally have so much connective theatrical history with, was like coming home in a full-circle kind of way. It is one of the first theatres I worked in, in a matter of speaking, making it a part of my theatrical origin story, and I had not been back in over 35 years. So when one of the three characters inside this spectacularly fascinating and disconcerting play crawls out and begins telling us their complicated origin story, a tale that is an integral part of the overall thematic core of Ho Ka Kei’s (Jeff Ho) new coming-of-age play, Cockroach, I was struck by the intensity the lives within our collective and personal history and culture. An idea and web that entwines, tangles, and alters us as we grow, clawing and crawling forward into this complex world we inhabit, hoping to survive against all the odds stacked up against us. Some battle more. Some less.
Now my story is cut from a very different cloth (one I might tell at a different time), not the soiled diaper that is the birthplace of ‘the Cockroach’, a solidly captivating character played to the nines by a deliriously enlivened Steven Hao (Factory/Outside the March’s Trojan Girls…). The catnip-smoking delivery is awe-inspiring, both in the intensely constructed humor and his clarity of self, as he meticulously recounts his ancestorial and personal history in touching detail. It transforms our perception of the ‘where’ and the ‘what’ we are collectively experiencing, thanks to the exceptional writing by playwright Ho (Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land); Antigone: 方; trace). It scratches and demands, wrapping our heads up in and around parallels and symbols that deepen and twist our consciousness into knots so complicated and distinct that we can sometimes get snarled up and trapped within. But hopefully, find our way out.
Wrapping his words and themes around the complexities of xenophobia, homophobia, and the myth of the subservient Asian in Western culture, he delivers forth strongly crafted ideas of humanity and trauma that tug on our sense of well-being, each embodied inside a Cockroach who has plenty to say and bite into. The character digs in and chews most playfully, on lists and frameworks that seem both wise and disturbing, presenting with emotional force all the wacky and wonderful details of how he came to be, all in the presence and duty of one of the other characters, simply referred to as ‘the Boy’, played hypnotically by the agile Anton Ling (Theatre@York’s Everybody).
As the cockroach unpacks the undeniable quest for self-discovery and survival, this wild and twisted play drives forth with a vengeance. The play is filled to the brim with meaningful details, smart wordplay, and conceptual intruders, some of which don’t present their importance until much later on, after we have had time to sit in the sticky juices of this wild abstractionism. When the third character, ‘the Bard’, the cocky and wonderfully articulate ghost of William Shakespeare haughtily presents himself, the play flies high, finding its internalized dehumanizing conflict within, beginning with the long list of all the ways Shakespeare’s words and phrases have been injected into our minds and our collective English-colonized culture. And they are dutifully noted, each and every one, as you like it.
The journey of Cockroach feels intense and, for a minute, completely off its rails. I mean, ‘the Bard’ is entirely correct. His distinct footnotes to our language are clever and conceptually clear, listed off one after the other – something the playwright seems to take much joy in, listing ideas and formulations until the point is completely made. But I must admit I was confused and perplexed at first, even while being thoroughly entertained by the incredible Karl Ang (Shaw’s Saint Joan) as the ghost of Shakespeare. Where was this going? Yet, I had faith.
His interactions with Hao’s cockroach did, ultimately, deliver, elevating the ideas with clever skill, as we watch them clamor around, up and down the metallic playground crafted ingeniously by set and costume designer Christine Ting-Huan 挺歡 Urquhart (Grand’s Juno’s Reward) with strong lighting by designer Arun Srinivasan Soupepper’s Where The Blood Mixes). The two conceptual forces; the cockroach and the Bard, play against one another, doing a dance that represents an internalized symbolic battle, wrestling for inside control while ushering forth the themes embedded in the not-so-obvious historic time construct of “Hong Fuckin’ Kong.” It wasn’t clear at first, the importance of the city, but it slowly presented itself as predicted, as the play scurried forward.
The British were the ultimate intruders of this Chinese city, back in the time when the Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong to the British Empire in 1842 infesting the place with their colonializing language and culture thrust upon a population that was and is predominantly Chinese. And yet the label ‘cockroach’ is slapped forcibly upon those that the colonizers deem as “outsiders in their own city“, in their land, across this land, and the world at large. It is cruel and violent, this terminology; an intense way to push down, dehumanize, and belittle those ‘others’ that we are told to fear. Especially those immigrants from colonized lands trying to scratch out an existence in supposedly ‘welcoming’ countries like Canada. But “he will survive, endure.” We hope.
Even though Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the battle for cultural domination lingers on from within, particularly in the stories told to comfort; in moments of anguish and pain, hopefully helping those in need “to survive, to resist, to overcome, and to be“. Cockroach, like the character and creature, never gives up, interweaving the stories of the three in order to understand this dehumanization of the ‘other’. It unpacks the trauma; complications that were inspired by the playwright’s own disturbing experiences, laying out the battle of how an immigrant must endure in order to survive the unfathomable violence, racism, and the heat of its dehumanizing language and its complex digestion.
The ideals and language of those who survive are overflowing with heightened emotion and clever playful abstractionisms. Alienation and shame are embedded, yet somewhere in the construct of ‘the Boy’, the integrated construct falters. It distracts and detaches somewhat, rattling forward awkwardly, never fully completing its construct. Accompanied cleverly by the choreography of the brilliant Hanna Kiel (National Ballet of Canada’s When the Wind Blows) and the chaos of sound designed beautifully by Deanna H. Choi (Tarragon’s Light), the play tries its best to formulate a narrative that brings sexuality and abuse into the already crowded tank. The damaged boy and his desperation are flung forward, tenderly by director Mike Payette (Balck Theatre Workshop’s Harlem Duet) who attempts to find his way through the harrowing details of a heartbreaking interaction and upsetting transaction that are dutifully played out by ‘the Boy’ front and center. It doesn’t quite come together or pay off ultimately, with the others standing by patiently trying hard to help modify it into a pose that feels right and true.
Payette does manage in the end to successfully give birth to the 13 babies required of him, delivering the essential goods that are embedded inside this seductive exploration and examination. This is particularly true when ‘the Cockroach’ falls fatally for his distant relative, a lobster (Ling) by the name of Rosie that is trapped inside a restaurant’s tank. The humanity and violence of mankind are laid out extensively, serving up a metaphor for xenophobia and intolerance with an unmistakable emotional force. Overall, the play resonants, even if it leaves you wanting a stronger overall conclusion for ‘the Boy’ and for the troubling world that we must exist within. We walk out into the Toronto air, with our heads full of complications, well aware, and now more conscious of the troubles and trauma that exist and are born inside a garbage chute. Ho’s Cockroach captivates and invigorates, giving us a whole lot to bite into and understand, even if the overall meal might be too big and complicated to digest in just one sitting.