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'Cockroach' by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)

Now onstage at Tarragon Theatre

Anton Ling and Karl Ang. Photo by Joy von Tiedemann

Joe Szekeres

‘Cockroach’ becomes a tightly compact emotional script of tremendous sensory highs and lows that rarely allows time to breathe. At times it became intensely riveting while at other moments I went into overload and couldn’t process it as quickly as I could.

You’ll have to pay close attention because Ho Ka Kei’s script is jam-packed with layers upon layers of xenophobia, prejudice, and racism.

We meet three resolutely focused individuals: Cockroach (Steven Hao), Bard (Karl Ang) and Boy (Anton Ling). That intentional reference to Bard is William Shakespeare.

We follow Boy’s story and what happens to him during a traumatic evening.

Director Mike Payette never allows the emotional intensity to unravel out of control. Instead, he and Hanna Kiel maintain a clear focus on Ho Ka Kei’s sharp dialogue and reactive, yet carefully choreographed, movement and allow their visceral intensity to speak for themselves.

And it spoke to me most certainly as a theatre admirer. However, there were times when I lost focus because so much back story and plot was delivered to me through these (what director Payette calls in his programme note) ‘extreme’ sensory highs and lows that I got tired of watching the production periodically.

I really had to study Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s set for a few moments during the pre-show and tried to make sense of the playing space. There is an entryway centre stage with two towers the actors will climb on throughout the show. Bard and Boy make their initial entrance through two transparent-looking moving platforms. During the production, Arun Srinivasan’s sharply confined lighting design gorgeously adds to the darkness of Ho Ka Kei’s story.

I walked out of the Mainspace theatre opening night strongly affected by two stagecraft elements woven meticulously together that became engrossingly hypnotic for me. The incorporation of silence while intimately linked to dance and movement conveyed a rather grandiose meaning. What might have appeared to look initially as a movement that men may not perform is handled with such grace and ease. There was complete silence in the house as we watched the movement.

After a complete blackout, approximately the first ten minutes involve tremendous physical movement where I felt myself holding my breath in awe of what I was witnessing. We are then introduced to Cockroach’s world of how he arrived in North America and what his place is within this society. Steven Hao’s grounded-in-the-moment performance as Cockroach made me fearful of him in the beginning. There are specific times when Hao speaks so quickly that I’m sure I lost a few elements of the plot.

Why would a playwright want to call a character ‘Cockroach’? When we, as North Americans, hear this word, all these horrific pictures come to our minds about these insects. Make sure you read the Audience Advisory Guide for background about the word ‘cockroach’ in Asian BIPOC culture and where this term was used derogatorily by the police in Hong Kong. Enlightening indeed, and I do hope this information is also shared in any talkbacks following performances.

Karl Ang’s Bard becomes a masterful storyteller of forceful precision who, like Steven Hao’s Cockroach, also commands the stage when required. We do know the Bard is a renowned storyteller who instinctively just writes extremely well. But the caveat –Bard’s stories for some reason are not truly universal.

Anton Ling’s Boy and their experiences during this traumatic male sexual assault are heartbreaking to witness. They uses their eyes in conveying a poignant depth of anger, hurt, fear and shame. Their resulting tears I believe have stemmed from Ling digging deep into his very being to convey such power.

Final Comments: In his Director’s Note in the programme, Mike Payette writes the following that made me wonder if I should return to see ‘Cockroach’ again: “The extremes [of survival in the world] exist synchronously within us…it is a complex negotiated journey…Sometimes we simply need to be reminded of what we have in order to redeem what was lost.”

Perhaps it’s time to return to see ‘Cockroach’ again and attend when there is an Audience talkback to learn more.

Running time: approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

‘Cockroach’ runs to October 9 at Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. To purchase tickets and other information call the Box Office (416) 531-1827 or visit

‘Cockroach’ by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)
Directed by Mike Payette
Choreographed by Hanna Kiel
Set and Costume Design: Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart
Lighting Design: Arun Srinivasan
Sound Design and Original Score: Deanna H. Choi
Stage Manager: Emilie Aubin

Performers: Karl Ang, Steven Hao, Anton Ling

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