« Cafard » is one of the best new pieces of the season


From Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), directed by Mike Payette. Through October 9 at the Tarragon Theater, 30 Bridgman Ave. tarragontheatre.com or 416-531-1827

Sparkling with rich language, colorful characters and incisive humour, « Cockroach », the latest play by acclaimed theater artist Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), is an introspective exploration of survival, identity and of migration.

Its world premiere at the Tarragon Theatre, ably directed by Artistic Director Mike Payette and backed by a trio of incendiary performances, is by far one of the strongest new productions of the year.

Coming-of-age immigrant stories on Canadian stages are about as plentiful as new condos in Toronto – this season alone, you need look no further than « Dixon Road » and the Toronto Fringe hit “9428,” both fantastic — but Ho deftly breaks the mold of these oft-told tales by traversing ground rarely seen in theater.

Perhaps the word that comes closest to characterizing Ho’s mercurial, shifting play is « choreopoem », a term coined by American playwright and poet Ntozake Shange to describe his first work, « For Colored Girls who contemplated suicide / when the rainbow is at last.”

What ‘Cockroach’ and ‘for colored girls’ share is how text and movement, auditory and visual, are fused together to create a cerebral, out-of-body experience.

The proceedings are built around a loose narrative of three seemingly disparate characters: a shrewd cockroach (Steven Hao); a bard, or rather the spirit of William Shakespeare (Karl Ang); and a boy (Anton Ling) dealing with a traumatic event.

It’s ambiguous, at first, how the three characters are related. We first encounter Hao’s cockroach, smoking catnip on the stage ledge. For the first third of the piece, in an almost fantastic sequence, he recounts the journey of his life: from his conception at a Whitney Houston concert and his rather graphic birth in a soiled baby’s diaper to his trip to across the oceans from America to Hong Kong. and back east across the Pacific Ocean to Canada.

Then there’s the restless bard of Ang, lamenting his immortality and how his words live on in the minds and word of those who study his work. In an energetic scene, he leaps across the stage, spouting out sayings he’s made up and the plays they’re from. Are our thoughts really our own, he asks, if the words and phrases we use to form them come from someone else?

As the play unfolds, the insect and the bard bicker over Ling’s shy boy, whose hunched posture and forlorn eyes blend into the backdrop of the overwhelming gray urban jungle. what is Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s setting.

Their stories begin to intertwine and, in a way, become one. Seemingly insignificant details return with added resonance.

The insect and Shakespeare’s spirit, at least as I interpreted it, are part of the boy’s fractured self. The cockroach is the undesirable half: the pest, the stranger living in the shadow of other creatures. The Bard is what we inherit – our language, our adopted culture – but it may not really be who we are.

I hate to reveal how exactly the three characters come together, but I will say that the scene when it happens, near the end of Ho’s 80-minute play, is haunting and deeply moving.

That the journey to this point is so rewarding is in large part thanks to Ho’s text, which is dense and layered, peppered with lively humor and an idiosyncratic style that lets the lines fly offstage and bounce between characters.

Under the assured direction of Payette, the marriage between the material and the vision of the creative team is in perfect harmony. Hanna Kiel’s seductive choreography accentuates the poetry inherent in Ho’s script. Hao, Ang, and Ling twist, slide, and climb over each other and across the tiered set.

Each of the actors offers crackling performances. Hao and Ang are larger than life as a cockroach and bard, with a magnifying presence that consumes the 205-seat Tarragon Mainspace. Meanwhile, Ling’s silent performance as a boy draws audiences in with its subtlety and nuanced details.

There’s a lot to unpack in these three performances and in Ho’s ambitious new work – far more than is possible in a 700-word review. As I write this Monday, four days after opening night, I still find myself parsing the expressive language of Ho, as the layers of the artwork and the connections within continue to linger and to soak up my spirit.


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