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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | One Man And Two Pianos Unleash Four-Generation Family Saga In Trace

By John Terauds on November 19, 2017

Jeff Ho in Trace (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Jeff Ho in Trace (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Trace. Written and performed by Jeff Ho. Directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Factory Studio Theatre. To Dec. 3. www.factorytheatre.ca

Trace, a playwriting debut by theatre-school graduate and classically-trained pianist Jeff Ho substitutes music played on the piano for certain characters promises a different sort of musical theatre. It opened at the intimate Factory Studio Theatre on November 16 and will run through December 3.

Ho’s solo performance on Nov. 18 was a technical marvel, as he dashed back and forth through four generations of his family history. There is a lot to admire about Ho’s performance, the play itself and how its five-movement sonata-like structure of subjects carefully developed transcends its time and place to represent anyone who has an immigrant story in their background.

Ho’s family story layers several arrivals and departures centred around Hong Kong, where one great-grandmother fled to from Guangzhou on mainland China in order to escape Japanese invaders around the time of World War II. Great-grandmother is an iron-willed, chainsmoking mahjong fiend who manipulates everyone around her to do her bidding. It’s a pattern that we will see repeated down two generations of women to Jeff’s mother, who ends up leaving her “flighty” husband to find a better life for her children in Toronto.

There are many twists and turns in this matriarchal saga, where the women speak, but the men only find their voice through piano keyboards. Ho reveals details in piecemeal fashion, gently peeling the onion of family lore to reveal a pungent truth that bring tears to our eyes.

The play is elegantly structured, and director Nina Lee Aquino (who co-designed the treacherous raised set with Michelle Ramsay) keeps Ho moving briskly. There isn’t a single superfluous motion along the unbroken 80 minutes Ho spends on stage.

Jeff Ho in Trace (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Jeff Ho in Trace (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Trace only fails to live up to its musical promise. Ho cleverly substitutes short motifs on the piano for characters responding in dialogue during the certain scenes. At other times, Ho plays fragments of classical piano student classics from composers like Chopin and Rachmaninov, as well as snippets of Cantonese popular songs from bygone times. Only one extended sit at one of the two upright pianos on stage was, as far as I could tell, an original composition, and this one straddled the rickety fence between pop and art music.

It is a brilliant idea, but I could not detect sufficient coherence or consistency in how Ho applied it to make it rise above theatrical novelty.

But no matter, Ho’s play and performance are well worth catching. Their journey can find some way of resonating with our own presents and pasts — and we get to laugh and cry along the way.

#LUDWIGVAN

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John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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