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.]

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