Stage Door Review
Monday, September 26, 2022
by Ho Ka Kei, directed by Mike Payette
Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto
September 22-October 9, 2022
Expectations were high for the play Cockroach since it is the first play of the first season programmed by Mike Payette as new Artistic Director of Tarragon Theatre. Unfortunately, Cockroach resembles many of the plays staged by Payette’s predecessor Richard Rose in that it seemed not ready to be workshopped, much less to be staged. Cockroach is the latest play by Ho Ka Kei (aka Jeff Ho), best known for his acclaimed play Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land) (2019). Anyone who expects Cockroach to have any of the features of that play – such as plot, complex characters, action or even dialogue – will be disappointed to find that Cockroach is abstract and unengaging.
When we enter the Tarragon Mainspace we are confronted with what looks like the work site for the construction of a set rather than a set itself. The design by Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart, who created the elegantly simple set for Iphigenia, is one of the least attractive sets ever seen at the Tarragon and it’s impossible to decipher what it intends to represent. There are two ground-level tunnels covered in translucent sheeting, two higher levels of platforms and a central entrance that looks like the plastic flap doors for a walk-in freezer.
Through this central entrance stumbles in Boy played by Anton Ling (they/them). They are repeating the sound “B2-B2-B2” while looking distressed and making repeated jerking movements. Soon two figures crawl through the tunnels – Bard (Karl Ang) on stage left and Cockroach (郝邦宇 Steven Hao) on stage right.
For the next half hour or more Cockroach delivers a lecture about cockroaches. This is followed by a shorter lecture by Bard, who, despite the short blonde hair, happens to be the ghost of Shakespeare. He speaks about how Shakespeare’s language has lived on in common everyday expressions. Finally, we get to hear something from Boy.
At some point during the long speeches of Cockroach and Bard, Boy has switched from the nonsense of “B2-B2-B2” to mangled lines from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. Once Cockroach and Bard are finished, Boy, apparently a recent immigrant from Hong Kong to Canada, has a vague but unpleasant encounter with a Canadian man in exchange for food.
Only by reading the Tarragon’s Audience Resource Guide which has links to articles about men suffering from sexual assault was it clear to me that Boy's unpleasant encounter must have been a sexual assault. Also only by reading the Audience Resource Guide which has links to an article about Dissociative Identity Disorder, did I realize that Hanna Kiel’s frenetic choreography and Boy’s odd muttering were meant to represent DID. Obviously, the explanation for what is happening in a play should be in the text. No one should have to look at outside sources to understand the action.
Thus, Ho has written a symbolic drama in which, sadly, we have no idea what any of the symbols mean. Why has Ho chosen Cockroach and Bard has the two influences on Boy. The only answer in the text is that they are both “survivors”. The length of survival is rather different in the two cases. Cockroaches have been around from about 300 million years. Shakespeare made his first written appearance in 1589. His texts as written were neglected, however, from 1660 until the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1764 from which time his influence grew. Ho’s notion that Shakespeare shaped the English language is therefore overstated. In fact, as English language expert David Crystal demonstrated in 2004, the King James Bible (1611) "contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source”. Given that Cockroach is some sort of symbolic fantasy, however, facts really don’t matter and Shakespeare is an easier target than the King James Bible.
Ho has a wider range of reasons for choosing Cockroach as a major influence on Boy. Cockroach explains that the term “cockroach” is used by those who oppress others. It dehumanizes them and thus helps justify their oppression. In 2019 in was noted that the police in cracking down on protests in Hong Kong regularly called the protesters “cockroaches”, an ominous insult since it was used in genocides by Nazis against Jews and Hutus against Tutsis. In Hong Kong it is used by Han Chinese against Han Chinese.
This fact alone would have been enough for a play about a conflict of identity in an immigrant from Hong Kong. Viewing Boy as torn between Bard as English colonizer and Cockroach does not work since the “cockroaches” of Hong Kong are fighting for the freedoms gained when Hong Kong was British crown colony. Now the Chinese under Xi Jinping are essentially re-colonizing Hong Kong to make it conform to the rule of Beijing.
The play’s faulty concept is not helped by Ho’s padding the already short (80-minute) play with non-essential detail. Cockroach’s long discussion of his love for a cousin animal, a lobster (they’re not even in the same phylum), may be cute but it has nothing to do with the fate of Boy. Cockroach wants to show humans as bad for eating his “cousin”, but Ho doesn’t have to invent the story of Cockroach’s “cousin” the lobster to demonstrate humans’ attacks. Cockroaches themselves are part of Southeast Asian cuisine and part of traditional Chinese medicine. Ho also conveniently fails to mention that cockroaches habitually eat their own dead and, if hungry enough, eat each other and their offspring. It undermines Ho’s dichotomy of humans versus cockroaches, but it is still true.
More padding comes with Cockroach’s an enormous list of collective terms for animals which makes one simply wish to google the terms instead of hear them enumerated ad nauseam. It’s fun to learn the term “katsaridaphobia”, fear of cockroaches, but the question here as with the majority of what Cockroach says, is “What does this have to do with Boy?”
The play’s tedium is caused by lack of clarity in focus. If Boy really is the focus of the play most of what Ho gives Cockroach and Bard to say is irrelevant and toomuch irrelevance soon becomes tedious. The prime factor alleviating the play’s tedium is Hanna Kiel’s vital but tortuous choreography. It is really far more through the non-verbal action of the three characters rather than anything they say that we get any idea of Boy’s suffering and Cockroach and Bard’s claims on him.
In retrospect we can see that there are multiple factors causing the fracturing of Boy’s identity. There is the Chinese versus Chinese conflict in Hong Kong that Boy is fleeing. There is the immigrant versus resident conflict that Boy faces in arriving in a new country. There is the English versus Chinese conflict of finding having to trade one’s native language for a foreign language in a new country. And then, confusingly represented as it is, there is Boy’s struggle to come to terms with a sexual assault.
Ho has Boy find the solution to all these problems in the final ten minutes getting in touch with his Chinese heritage via an ancient Chinese poem. This poem somehow puts him in harmony with whatever Cockroach and Bard represent. Needless to say, such an ending is unsatisfying since Boy’s heritage, made problematic by Beijing’s influence, is why he fled Hong Kong. Recalling a poem also has nothing to do with healing from a sexual assault which, in any case, by the end Ho has already forgotten about.
Under Mike Payette’s direction the three actors of the cast do all they can to give life to three symbolic figures in this plotless, undramatic play. Steven Hao plays Cockroach as a hip, streetwise dude with nothing but disdain for humans. Ho gives him such important topics as othering, xenophobia and genocide which don’t fit well with the easy-going manner Hao gives Cockroach but are necessary for the play’s theme. Cockroach’s love of ancient Chinese poetry also doesn’t suit Cockroach’s sneering attitude toward everything, but Hao does what he can to make the disparate parts of Cockroach’s personality fit together.
Ho gives Karl Ang’s Bard difficult speeches where Bard quotes from his work and immediately provides a gloss for the phrase. Ang makes this task look easy and still makes sense of the lines despite the many self-inserted footnotes. Ang gives Bard a generally self-satisfied attitude until near the end when Ho has Bard suddenly lament, for no clear reason, the kind of linguistic immortality he has achieved.
Anton Ling, in their first theatre production since graduating from York University’s Acting Conservatory, does a fantastic job both of reciting Ho’s deliberately garbled version of Hamlet’s soliloquy and of executing Kiel’s demanding choreography – wild, twitching movements that are far more vigorous for Boy than what Kiel has devised for Cockroach and Bard. Ling is a talent to watch.
Cockroach is Ho Ka Kei’s attempt at experimental drama but it is irredeemably confusing from its basic concept to its execution. To examine the psychological and social difficulties of a new immigrant from the now-turbulent Hong Kong could make a fascinating play since the new immigrant would have had seen many anchors of identity cast away. Sexual assault is a topic best dealt with in a separate play. It’s a pity Ho’s experiment is not successful despite the best efforts of the cast. Perhaps Ho will approach this subject matter in future in a more cohesive, more comprehensible form.
Photo: Karl Ang as Bard and Steven Hao as Cockroach; Anton Ling as Boy; Anton Ling as Boy and Karl Ang as Bard; Anton Ling as Boy, Steven Hao as Cockroach and Karl Ang as Bard. © 2022 Joy von Tiedemann.
For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.