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theatre review

Jeff Ho wrote and and stars in trace, in which Ho voices his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.Dahlia Katz

The play begins with a great-grandmother worrying about rats: rats taking her food and rats taking her money – but not taking her cigarettes. There are no rats. But something gnaws at this old woman.

The new work, trace, which premiered at the Factory Theatre on Thursday, is a curious one-man chamber play in five movements, with a prelude and a coda. All parts are handled by the play's writer, Jeff Ho. In a story about bloodlines, sacrifices and generational parallels and echoes, Ho voices his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. There are a pair of upright pianos, which Ho expertly plays – a Chopin fan? – to represent the male side of the conversations.

It's quite a thing.

Chinese-Canadian Ho is a Hong Kong native who began writing trace while attending the National Theatre School. As presented at Factory, the two pianos rest on raised platforms, between which Ho negotiates. We hear a metronome, which director Nina Lee Aquino has set to a high pace. Ho and his new work move swiftly: Audiences will need to keep up, as the time-shifting story is without narration and not undemanding to follow.

Ho's great-grandmother, as he presents her, is a chain-smoking lioness. She fancies herself the Mahjong Queen, a self-appointed title that may or may not be warranted. As her own woman, she fled a Japanese-invaded China with two sons to Hong Kong.

Ho's mother is a chip off her old gran, leaving post-British Hong Kong with her two sons to Canada, where she worked three jobs to pay for, among other things, her youngest boy's piano lessons. She's infuriated that the instructor favours musical theatre and standards such as Dream a Little Dream of Me over Mozart. "There is no dream," she says. "There is only hard work."

She, like her grandmother before her, is a woman who does "what must be done," and one who believes that when someone is gone – A husband? A father? – they should be forgotten.

But the play is called trace, and, so, not everything can be left behind, try as we may.

There's an elegant fierceness to the piece and Ho's performance. He has panache and confidence, producing cigarettes with a magician's zip. As a playwright he is economical, occasionally using 10 words in Cantonese when 20 in English just wouldn't do.

He plays the piano to portray emotion – turbulent or poignant or playful as need be. His mother paid for his lessons. His great-grandmother paid for things too. Ho recognizes the debt.

trace continues to Dec. 3 (factorytheatre.ca).