The Women of Tu-Na House needs some massaging (a review)

Writer/performer Nancy Eng takes us inside a NYC massage parlor

Writer/performer Nancy Eng takes us inside a NYC massage parlor

I generally don’t like one-person shows. Because the onus is on one actor to relate a story, often without much more than narration, I find myself wishing I could just read the play. Thus, I headed to theSt. Vladimir Theatre to see the Toronto Fringe premier of The Women of Tu-Na House with some trepidation.

The one thing that gave me hope going in was that writer/actorNancy Eng had created a show in which she played a half-dozen characters. Thus, I hoped, there would likely be one or several characters I could latch onto. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way.

The Women of Tu-Na House practice a traditional Chinese massage technique at a New York massage parlour. As we learn through a series of vignettes, each woman ended up here under very different circumstances, and several of the women decided there was money to be made by offering additional services.

The tea server who was once a man

The tea server who was once a man

Interestingly, in the show’s program, Eng is quick to state that the women made their choices willingly and feel no shame in their actions. And yet, despite asserting that these women aren’t victims, at least half of the monologues tell stories of victimization, whether by husbands, home towns or customers.

But that aside, for me, the biggest challenge of the performance was Eng’s inability to inhabit the characters she portrayed. Although she told each character’s story—with some difficulty, as she routinely stumbled her lines—it never felt like she became those women. Try as she might, it was always Nancy Eng on stage and a bad French accent, for example, wasn’t about to change that.

The performance was also let down by a faulty sound system. Every time Eng changed character, the lights would go down and she would change costume. While this happened, the next character would explain her origin story in voice over. Unfortunately, the sound system kept garbling the voice over so that by the time the lights came up, I had no idea who Eng was portraying.

The host for happy endings

The host for happy endings

Seemingly recognizing the premiere’s challenges, she apologized to the audience during the curtain call for her rough voice and allergy issues. Even she, it seemed, felt that tonight’s performance wasn’t up to code.

The show has played to raves at other festivals; for example, it won Best of Solo at Hollywood Fringe. And I definitely thought there were some poignant and funny moments during the performance. I can only hope that the theatre and Eng manage to pull things together for the rest of the Toronto Fringe run.

[Adapted from a review that first appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

OverTime finds truth under artifice (a review)

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

“Being naked and too honest makes you predictable and maudlin,” chided one of the characters early in OverTime, which premiered tonight at the Robert Gill Theatre for the Toronto Fringe Festival. And for the next 85 minutes or so, the cast proved the exact opposite was true.

In some ways, watching OverTime was like redecorating a home, peeling back the decades of paint one layer at a time. As each coat is removed, you uncover the laughter and tears of that moment in time. And once the last layer is gone and the history is revealed, all that’s left is the truth.

It is only as the play deepens that we learn that truth is what retired school teacher Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) feared most when she uttered that line to her protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier). As Carla mentored Darby to become the next great playwright, she argued that mystery must be maintained.

Truth was also the motivation behind the other plotline of the play as young blogger and photographer Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to pull her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy) out of the safe environs of the hockey rink. A successful coach on the outside, Linus is a wreck inside, and Jewel wants to ease that burden.

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

OverTime playwright Romeo Ciolfi did an amazing job weaving these two story lines together. With each passing moment, it felt like another layer of paint was removed to reveal a bit more of the truth. And at least for me, the story was anything but predictable.

Sure, I felt Ciolfi could get a little heavy-handed with the metaphors. I would not have been surprised, on occasion to have seen a surtitle card reading “Metaphor here”, but I never felt they detracted from the increasingly tightly woven story.

What impressed me even more, however, was how the same layered revelations arose from each of the characters. With each passing moment, the characters became deeper and darker. Part of this richness was the writing, but I also credit the cast.

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Rarely do I praise an entire cast of a production, but I could not find fault with any of the performances. And no single actor deserves loftier praise than any other. To me, this was an ensemble performance. Remove any one of these actors and I don’t think this play would have been as good.

As with the play, there were times when impassioned performance became overwrought melodrama, but I largely felt these moments were the exception. These actors and their descent into raw truth had me mesmerized for 90 minutes, and I found myself praying we would go into overtime.

Without hesitation, I would watch this performance again and again, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

[Adapted from a review that first appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]