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Zoe Doyle, Rosie Simon, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Louisa Zhu and Belinda Corpuz in Factory Theatre’s Lady Sunrise.

Joseph Michael

  • Title: Lady Sunrise
  • Written by: Marjorie Chan
  • Director: Nina Lee Aquino
  • Actors: Lindsay Wu, Ma-Anne Dionisio
  • Company: Factory Theatre
  • Venue: Factory Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to March 8

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Factory Theatre’s artistic director, Nina Lee Aquino, is the best theatrical talent-spotter in Toronto – and, with her latest production, she’s introducing another startling young performer to the city’s audiences: Lindsay Wu.

Wu, a recent graduate from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College, makes a great first impression as Penny, the lead character in Marjorie Chan’s new play, Lady Sunrise, now having its world premiere under the direction of Aquino.

When the audience initially encounters her in a luxury apartment looking down on Vancouver, Penny seems like she’s walked out of the viral online Canadian reality TV series, HBICtv: Ultra Rich Asian Girls.

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“Can you be addicted to lip-gloss?” she asks. “Ugh. Don’t look at my nails. They look like trash, like I pick fruit or raise goats or something for a living.”

These lines may be flat on the page, but Wu delivers them with great comic timing, punctuated perfectly with shrugs and pouts.

But Penny – who sometimes prefers to go by Lulu, because, as she puts it, pennies are “extinct” – is no mere caricature. We can tell from the beginning there’s more to her than meets the eye, and she carries a weight under her people-pleasing persona that will eventually be revealed.

A model who once earned the title Lady Sunshine as the runner up at a beauty pageant, Penny relies on others to support her lifestyle. She is financially supported by a mother figure named Tawny Ku (stage veteran Ma-Anne Dionisio), a woman with a huge real-estate portfolio – who believes it shouldn’t matter to anyone if her condo towers are empty.

Penny is also bankrolled by a boyfriend of sorts, a sketchy developer named Frankie Pan, who remains offstage throughout but is regularly mentioned.

Those three characters are looked down on by a respectable banker named Wong (Rosie Simon), the money behind the money they throw around. She’s a workaholic financial executive who tells us she always chooses bonuses over extra holidays. “What am I going to do with accrued vacation time when I’m dead?” she deadpans.

Lady Sunrise may involve well-to-do women wearing impressive dresses (the costume designer is Jackie Chau), but don’t mistake it for a light romp in the manner of Crazy Rich Asians.

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Chan’s play is, in fact, inspired by a 1936 Chinese drama about a courtesan called Sunrise by the playwright Cao Yu – who was one of the first prominent writers of huaju, a Western style of drama with spoken dialogue rather than the sung dialogue of China’s traditional music theatre. Cao Yu was himself inspired by writers such as Eugene O’Neill and Henrik Ibsen – and he even once played the role of Nora in A Doll’s House.

Imagining modern-day counterparts to the female characters in Sunrise, Chan takes us from the high rises to the underworlds of Vancouver and Richmond, B.C.

Li (the always sympathetic Zoe Doyle), a dealer at a local casino that Penny and Frankie frequent, tells her own story of hard luck that involves a tragedy connected to gambling addiction, and then there’s an older woman named Charmaine (a hard-edged Louisa Zhu) and a younger one named Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) who work at a massage parlour.

The two worlds are connected when Sherry spots Penny walking down the street one day and approaches her, trying to figure out how she can escape the sexual violence of the parlour and become an independent and high-priced sex worker. That’s not how Penny views herself, however, so the encounter does not go well.

It’s one of only a few encounters actually dramatized by Chan. Having seen a string of solo shows in Toronto over the past few weeks, I was excited to spend the night with a new play featuring six actors – and a little disappointed to discover that Lady Sunrise is mostly monologues.

The form does serve the play’s themes, however – these women are struggling individuals falling apart in an individualistic society. Aquino’s production also finds other ways for the actors to interact or at least overlap on stage. They walk on and off a series of black risers that twist up and back, a nightmarish staircase/condo tower designed by Camellia Koo, in dreamlike choreography by movement director Natasha Mumba.

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Mumba has also created some fun group dance numbers for the actors to perform together, which they do in fluorescent-coloured wigs. (These wigs reminded me of another courtesan named Lulu from early 20th-century drama, as seen in the Wedekind-inspired Lulu v.7 at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.)

Michelle Ramsay’s lighting keeps things very dark, even when the play’s tone is lighter. Truth be told, I found it tiring on the eyes to be able to make out the actors only so often. Luckily, their performances – and Wu’s in particular – shine brightly on their own.

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

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