Toronto-based performer Jeff Ho interweaves piano with narrative storytelling in his play trace
Jeff Ho wrote, composed, and performs trace, a one person chamber play about his family, playing at Factory Studio Theatre. Ho is a talented musician as well as being a talented actor and both skills shine in this piece about three generations of women in his family.
The women, his great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother, are strong, granite-hard women, willing to do what is necessary to make a better life for their family. It’s a fascinating story.
Ho’s great-grandmother fled China when the Japanese invaded in the Second World War and managed to get to Hong Kong with her son. This is really the central part of the story, if she hadn’t, she would have been killed by the Japanese and her family wouldn’t exist.
She’s a character I could admire but not like. Imperious, chain smoking, cruel to her daughter-in-law, she’s a matriarch out of touch with time.
When Ho was playing Great Grandmother it was obvious mainly because of the deep, raspy voice he used. The difference between Grandmother and Mother wasn’t so obvious; his voice was softer, so was his body language, but I found it hard to know which one was speaking until there was some context.
There’s no narration, the characters tell the story and the story isn’t linear. It’s fine, but it meant that I had to pay really close attention so that I knew what was happening. I think that being that focused on who was speaking meant that I missed some of the smaller strokes.
It took me until very late in the piece to realize that the male characters had no voices, that the pianos spoke for them.
trace is visually beautiful. Nina Lee Aquino and Michelle Ramsay’s set uses the entire stage area. There is a piano on either side of the stage and in between there are platforms of various heights. Ramsay’s lighting follows Ho as he moves around the stage, sometimes isolating him and sometimes making him part of the background.
I loved Joanna Yu’s costume design. In the beginning Ho is wearing a lovely three-piece cream coloured linen suit. As the play progresses he takes off his jacket, then his vest. At the end, when Great Grandmother reveals her great shame that she has hidden for years he takes off his shirt and is just in trousers and T-shirt.
The play is presented as a five movement sonata, with a prelude and a coda. I think that each movement was meant to signify the mood of the coming piece but my ear is sophisticated enough to hear the differences. I loved the music though, it was beautiful.
I have mixed feelings about trace. It’s a huge undertaking for one person and the result is impressive. My only quibble is that I found it difficult to know who was talking. That’s kind of a big quibble. Still, it didn’t spoil the evening for me, it just meant I had to work hard.
The upside was seeing seeing a beautiful piece, hearing beautiful music, learning an incredible story of survival, and being blown away by Jeff Ho’s talents.
If you’re open to working a bit, go see it.
If you haven’t been to a play in 20 years, or you’re a newbie to live theatre this probably isn’t one to start with.
- trace is playing until December 3, 2017 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St)
- Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 2:00pm
- Ticket prices range from $30 to $50. Student, Senior, and Arts Worker prices are available
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416 504 9971, and at the box office
Photo of Jeff Ho by Dahlia Katz