Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ga Ting at the Richmond Cultural Centre

Minh Ly's Ga Ting, a co-production by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and the frank Theatre Company that closes today after a very successful run at the Richmond Cultural Centre, is not your typical domestic melodrama. On a business trip to Toronto, the Caucasian Matthew (Michael Antonakos) visits Hong and Mei Lee (a perfectly cast BC Lee and Alannah Ong). The Lees are the Chinese parents of Matthew's dead boyfriend, Kevin, with whom he lived for three years in Vancouver. Matthew, excluded from Kevin's funeral, wants  some closure to his grief, and the Lees--or at least, Mei--wants to know more about Kevin's life with Matthew.

Alternating between Chinese and English surtitles, the play begins by exploiting over the meal Mei has prepared the awkwardness of the protagonists, upending various cultural stereotypes for comic effect. For example, the initially monosyllabic Hong baits Matthew about his gift of bamboo and even momentarily convinces him that he and his wife are Korean, before asking the mortified visitor if he sees any kimchi on the dinner table. Soon, however, things turn serious, as Matthew accuses the Lees of alienating their son by not supporting his choice of career as an artist, and by refusing to talk about his sexual orientation or his bipolar disorder. Hong, meanwhile, blames Matthew for Kevin's death by keeping him in Vancouver and introducing him to a depraved gay lifestyle (although never stated explicitly, it's implied Kevin has died of a drug overdose). Mei, meanwhile, attempts to mediate between these two hot-headed men, asking Matthew how he and her son met and chastising her husband for being so rude.

At times the circularity of these arguments can feel a bit static and repetitive, not helped by how long the trio sits at the dining room table. But Ly helps break things up structurally with occasional flashbacks, exploited nicely by director Rick Tae through lighting and sound effects: here we're filled in on some of the details of Matthew and Kevin's life together, as well as the depth and complexity of the Lees' love for their son.

Ly clearly struggled with how to end the play, and right now there are about four different dramatic climaxes, none of them entirely satisfactory. I would have left things with Matthew's gift of Kevin's painting--which, we're told, includes all present as part of Kevin's family, and which allows Hong to articulate just how talented was his son as an artist. But accompanying this is Matthew's revelation that just prior to Kevin's death, he had left him, unable to deal with his boyfriend's mood swings and drug use any further. This leads Mei, previously Matthew's ally, to swing over to her husband's side, in effect accusing Matthew of killing her son by not loving him enough. Dramatically I understand why this reversal of positions is there, especially when juxtaposed against the play's brief coda--which puts Matthew at Kevin's graveside sometime in the future, when relations with the Lees seem to have thawed, but which casts the Lees backwards into the past, when they first learn of Kevin's acceptance to art school in Vancouver. In the latter vignette, it is revealed just how proud both parents have always been of their son; but we also learn that it is Hong, and not Mei, who first intuits Kevin is gay.

I appreciate the way in which this helps to redeem Hong's character, hitherto in danger of seeming a one-note patriarch. But it feels that this comes at the expense of Mei's character, and the way in which she turns on Matthew seems a bit dishonest to me.

That said, Ga Ting is still a very affecting play, with much to say to multiple communities about who and what constitutes a family.


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