By: Angela Guardiani
November always makes me think of Margaret Atwood. I know that seems like a non-sequitur, but bear with me. In Negotiating with the Dead, she writes that, as a child, she hated having a November birthday because of its grim symbolism. No sunny summer flowers or Valentine's hearts for her! But as an adult, she “discovered that November was, astrologically speaking, the month of sex, death and regeneration, and that November First was the Day of the Dead. It still wouldn't have been much good for birthday parties, but it was just fine for poetry.”
Fellow Canadian and playwright David Yee has a new play at the Factory Theatre, and in keeping with the season, it's also about death and regeneration. Like poetry, it's deeply symbolic, complex and nuanced, and like Margaret Atwood, it engages with ideas of Canadian-ness and otherness. Beautifully staged and elegantly structured, Acquiesce will give you plenty to think about.
It's hard to summarize the story of Acquiesce in a quick synopsis. The play unfolds like a flower simultaneously forward into the future and backwards into the past, revealing its truth slowly and deliberately. To tell you the whole story is to strip the experience of its power. But I can tell you that the play centers around Sin Hwang, a Canadian novelist coping with his father's death with anger and bitterness. As Sin carries his father's body back to his native Hong Kong, we are shown that he carries other burdens, both visible and invisible, that affect his relationships with his girlfriend (the cryptically named Nine) and Kai, his strangely resentful cousin. As events move forward and Sin is given a monumental task to complete, we learn more about his past, and why he faces the world with such self-loathing disguised in sharp-edged wit.
It's impossible to talk about this play without mentioning how strongly it features Asian voices. Acquiesce is a dual production of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre and Factory Theatre, whose season this year is – for the first time – completely made up of artists of colour. The entire production is dedicated to exploring Chinese and Canadian identity. The Canadian-ness of it comes through in the mundane, the everyday, like Sin's Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack and smartass backtalk. The Chinese-ness is evident in images and symbolism. The set – beautifully spare, designed by Robin Fisher – features leaning pillars that look like joss sticks and delineate spaces not just geographically but in time, too. The pieces of baggage Sin carry hold shirts and underwear, but in brief, wordless scenes, they also hold water, light, ancestry, history. Scars – another form of baggage – are an important plot point in the second act, and instead of being portrayed realistically, they take the form of Chinese characters written across the body. Everything contributes to the visual poetry of the production.
There are only four actors in this play. Like the set, it's minimalist. Yee does double-duty as Sin Hwang; I have to admit, at first I didn't care for his brash acting style, but as his character evolved I found myself really enjoying his hilarious but bitter take on the character. Rosie Simon and John Ng are remarkably versatile actors, filling a variety of roles – a nosy fan, a bubbly funeral attendant – but also taking on Nine and Tien Wei, Sin's father, with power and gravitas. I think Kai is the most important character in the play. Both in the way he is written and in the way he is played (by Richard Lee), Kai explodes Asian stereotypes. He is funny but not a caricature – he has real depth, an identity beyond that of just being Chinese. He guides Sin on his journey and makes his own too, a mirror image of Sin's long, slow path of ignorance to enlightenment. In the end – which is also the beginning – Sin and Kai acquiesce to the injustices and pain they have carried and let go.
There's so much to see and experience in Acquiesce – it's dense, with a lot to say crystallized into an intense two hours. If you feel like exploring poetry, death, and rebirth, then a visit to the Factory Theatre may be the best birthday present you can imagine.
Photos by Dahlia Katz.