In Buddhist thought, time doesn’t move forward as we understand in the West. Rather, life moves in cycles, a concept which in Sanskrit is called samsara. It’s only when we let go of pain and bitterness that we can move beyond samsara, embrace enlightenment and leave the material world behind.
These ideas are central to David Yee’s wonderful new play — and it’s typical of Yee’s irreverent imagination that they’re communicated by a wisecracking Buddhist monk (John Ng) who meets the central character Sin (played by Yee himself) in a Hong Kong bar.
Circularity is fundamental not only to the play’s subject matter but its structure. Its central event is the funeral of Sin’s father, from whom he was long estranged. Sin is half-Chinese, from Toronto, and struggling to follow up on the success of his first novel (a biography with many parallels to that of Yee, who won a 2015 Governor General’s Award for carried away on the crest of a wave, not his first play, but certainly his most acclaimed).
But the plot also moves back.
The scenes set in Hong Kong are interspersed with ones in Toronto between Sin and his girlfriend Nine (Rosie Simon), in which time goes in reverse, from him packing his bags to go to the funeral, back to the point a few days previous when he got the news of his father’s death.
It’s a complex formal approach that asks its audience’s patience (as does the show’s length, two and a half hours including intermission). But sitting with the play and allowing it to work on its own terms brings great rewards, with Yee’s great sense of humour and a confident, crystal-clear production by Nina Lee Aquino providing a lot of entertainment.
Things happen in this production that wouldn’t happen in real life: suitcases contain flame and water, inanimate objects speak, characters cough up pearls. They suggest the action is actually happening in Sin’s addled psyche, and seem also to rely on elements of Chinese cultures and philosophies.
I say “seem” out of awareness that the play draws on traditions and knowledge not familiar to me as a North American of European heritage. It moves between Western and Eastern reference points, like its central character and many on its creative team.
The hard lesson Sin is tasked with learning is that of hao tsun, the virtue of filial piety, and the reason he resists this is at the heart of the play. Kai believes in hao tsun, but beneath his droll demeanour he’s full of his own rage and resentment. How to be a good son and a good father, when a family spreads itself across cultures and continents. If someone has been wronged, does this absolve them from wrongdoing?
These questions are brought to life in the clashing, often hilarious relationship between Sin and Kai and in their interactions with Sin’s father, Tien Wai, who eventually appears thanks to the play’s twisty time structure. Ng plays not only the monk and Tien Wai but other memorable characters; the production is a showcase for his considerable comic talent and dramatic gravitas.
Yee seems less confident with female characters: Nine really only exists to serve Sin’s story and her big speech critiquing the patriarchal nature of Chinese culture comes out of nowhere. While in a number of other ways (including Kai’s quirky obsession with skin-care products) the play subtly explores Asian masculinities, this speech bangs its point too squarely on the head.
The physical production features very little furniture, simple and effective costuming (Joanna Yu), props only where necessary and light sometimes doing the work of scenography, as with the indication of the dead man’s coffin via an illuminated rectangle on the stage floor (lights by Michelle Ramsay). Robin Fisher’s set of angular black pillars and surfaces usefully breaks up the Factory Mainstage playing space and takes good advantage of its depth. A moody soundscape by Michelle Bensimon adds texture and structure.
This classy staging is co-produced by Factory Theatre and Fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company, of which Aquino and Yee (respectively) are artistic directors. It launches Factory’s Beyond the Great White North season, which promises to explore Canadian identity through six plays by artists of colour. Offering rich insight into the experience of living between cultures, Acquiesce starts the season on a high.