Stage Door Review

Bad Parent

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

✭✭

by Ins Choi, directed by Meg Roe

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre & Prairie Theatre Exchange, Young Centre, Toronto

September 20-October 8, 2022;

 • Historic Theatre, The Cultch, Vancouver

October 13-23, 2022;

 • Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg

November 2-20, 2022

Norah and Charles: “What are we doing here?”

People were obviously expecting big things from Ins Choi. His 2011 Fringe play Kim’s Convenience had a spectacularly successful remount in 2012 and then went on to become one of Canada’s most popular television series. Three theatre companies combined resources to produce his follow-up play, Bad Parent, but audience are bound to be disappointed.

Kim’s Convenience the play presented a realistic situation and found natural humour in the interactions in a family-run convenience store that the younger generation has no interest in taking over. All possible bonds and conflicts among any two of the four characters combined with the general theme of first-generation immigrant ideals conflicting with second-generation ideals, provided a rich mine of humour and wisdom.

Bad Parent, in contrast, comes off as totally artificial and, strangely enough, is meant to seem so. The tagline that Soulpepper has given the show is “Parenthood isn’t easy. Especially in front of an audience”. Rather than the realism of Kim’s Convenience, in Bad Parent Choi tries to involve us in some metatheatrical trickery. The primary difficulty is that Choi never establishes the point of this metatheatricality and never consistently follows through on what he has established so that the whole play comes across as a hollow exercise.

What the play’s tagline means is that the play’s actors acknowledge the presence of the audience from the very start. The action begins on a set meant to represent a child’s nursery. Actor Raugi Yu is struggling with putting together a child’s bed from IKEA. Actor Josette Jorge enters and looks on in exasperation. They then take to standing mics and introduce themselves. Yu says that he is Charles and Jorge says that she is Norah. Now that their baby boy named Mountain is 18 months old they find that they are struggling with their many roles – as parents, as spouses, as people.

We think that Bad Parent perhaps will not be a play but rather some sort of he-said-she-said stand-up comedy routine. This section goes well. The mics emphasize the artificiality of the actors’ direct address and their quick back-and-forth exchanges make us look forward to an evening of witty dialogue.

Then the two ditch the mics and speak directly to each other as if acting out a realistic scene, except that periodically they turn to speak directly to us again without mics. Sometimes, the actor wants us to respond as, say, in answer to “How many people here think she is right? Put up your hands.” More often the actor asks a question and does not expect a response as in “See what he just did there?”

If the author wants to play games with the audience, the rules have to be clear. Choi destroys his initial set-up by ditching the mics. He then destroys his secondary set-up by sometimes wanting, sometimes not wanting an audience response, He further confuses matters when one actor or the other will return to using a mic. Towards the end Choi even has a scene where both actors speak to the audience one with a mic, one without. By this time we have no idea why Choi, or director Meg Roe, has even used mics in the play, much less what they are meant to signify.

Not far into the play we have to ask what “Parenthood ... in front of an audience” is even supposed to mean. Paula Wing, writer of the Background Notes, suggests that “This is a theatrical device, but it reflects reality, too. When you’re a new parent, it can sometimes feel like everyone’s got an opinion on what you should do ...”. The question is why Choi is using this theatrical device. If we are meant to represent society, Choi never once hints that this is so. We are spoken of only as “they” or “them” meaning us as audience and no more.

If Choi really wanted the show to be about two parents competing for support for the actions from the audience, then leave the lights up and make sure that all the questions asked demand a response from us. This would make the show more like a long sketch comedy routine but it would definitely be more enjoyable than having no idea what our role as audience is supposed to be.

If Choi really wants the play to be metatheatrical, why pretend there is any reality to Norah and Charles being a couple or that the off-stage crying is a baby? Choi already undermines actor-character identification by having Jorge and Yu play other characters. Showing that Jorge and Yu are merely actors playing roles has the consequence that we are never drawn in to Norah and Charles’s arguments about their relationship or their parenting. But as Choi has written it, we are not drawn in in any case since Choi surprisingly has nothing original to say about tensions between spouses or about tensions caused by having a baby. Even when he brings up a topic, such as parents not wanting their children to grow up, a major paradox of parenthood, he doesn’t explore it.

The plot of Bad Parent, as far as there is one, is that Norah hires a nanny because she hates household duties and loved going to work. She gets a job, has her own space and is happy away from her baby and husband. Charles, meanwhile, is still on paternity leave and given that he is a sound engineer fantasizes about how he would mix a song he once made up to encourage Norah when she was running a marathon.

The Filipina nanny named Nora (without an H) played by Jorge is exemplary in her job. Beyond that, however, she is a fantastic cook and Charles gets the idea of starting her up in business running a Filipino food truck. You may wonder what this side-plot has to do with a couple raising a baby and the answer is absolutely nothing. In these sequences the characters never even address the audience. Meanwhile, at work, Norah (with an H) seems to be flirting with unhappily married co-worker Dale played by Yu.

The problem with these sideplots is that Choi brings them up but does nothing whatsoever to develop them. On the one hand both plots are irrelevant to the main point of the play. On the other, if an author brings up a plot then he at least should take it to some conclusion. As it is both plots look a lot like filler in a play that has run out of ideas on its main topic about halfway through its running time.

This is all a great pity primarily because so many people will have such high hopes for the play only to find Choi not only has nothing to say but hasn’t found a satisfactory way to say it. It is evident that both Raugi Yu and Josette Jorge are gifted performers. Yu has a wonderfully wry manner of delivery and Jorge clearly distinguishes the confused but driven Norah from the efficient and humble Nora. (Why Choi should give the two characters such similar names should signify something, but here apparently does not. It’s yet another point raised but not pursued.)

It is clear that neither director Meg Roe not designer Sophie Tang know anything about 18-month-old babies. Tang’s set features a large IKEA-like bookcase filled with all sorts of baby items in boxes from top to bottom. Anyone with an 18-month-old will know that the bottom three shelves have to be empty or the child with pull everything out and make a mess or pull things on top of itself. Worse, the items in the boxes include plastic bags and toys with lots of choking hazards. Or is the unsafe nursery meant to show Norah and Charles are bad parents?

Much as you may have loved Kim’s Convenience, you will have to face the unhappy fact that Bad Parent may be well acted but is ill-conceived and ultimately has nothing to say. We will have to hope that Choi returns to form on his next play.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Josette Jorge as Norah and Raugi Yu as Charles; Josette Jorge as Norah and Raugi Yu as Charles; Josette Jorge as Nora and Raugi Yu as Charles. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.soulpepper.ca, vact.ca or www.pte.mb.ca.