by Leon Aureus
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
At Factory Theatre Studio. Opened April 20, 2017.
It may well be time to retire Banana Boys, Leon Aureus’s stage adaptation of Terry Woo’s novel about the problems confronting five young Asian Canadians. The first work developed by fu-Gen Canadian Theatre Company in 2002, and a big hit then and subsequently in early 2004 at Factory Theatre, the Magnetic North Festival of 2005, it was remounted last fall at Factory, and now has yet another remount by Nina Lee Aquino, who has been part and parcel of the play’s success. I had reservations about the first and second versions, and these reservations have now grown to the point where I cannot support a work that seems terribly out of touch with contemporary Canadian social reality and with contemporary international theatre, where it is simply enough to be multi-cultural to merit approval.
There is no denying the historical facts about Canadian racism. Asians in this country were especially discriminated against even before Confederation. And many of the biases still prevail in certain sectors of the land. But there are successful Asians (especially Chinese) everywhere I look, and what I saw on stage hardly measured up as an accurate reflection of the Canadian Chinese I know and have seen around me, everywhere from Richmond Hill, Markham, Scarborough, Toronto, and North York to Etobicoke, Mississauga, and Brampton. But Banana Boys does not concern itself with these citizens, or with 21st century urban Chinese Canadians and their issues of psycho-sexuality, for instance, or vertical mobility. So, are there really “banana boys” today—young Chinese who are “yellow” on the outside, “white” on the inside? Perhaps, but parallels could similarly be drawn with other assimilated immigrants. The play thrives on its clichés and shallow representations. So, it presents us Rick, a BMW-driving businessman who boasts that he can see through things before they happen. He is a narcissist who boasts of having slept with over 60% of the women in his society, and he is defined by themes of conquest and domination, though his drug-addiction leads to his destruction. Jeff Yeung, looking like the oldest of the quintet, plays him mainly on one note, and grows increasingly monotonous. There is Sheldon, the guy who desperately wants a girlfriend. Darrel Gamotin has the requisite anxiety, but the role is narrow and does not allow him depth. As Luke, the DJ with the right dance moves but the wrong life ones, Miquelon Rodriguez is the largest Banana Boy in terms of physique, and he gets to play other small roles with enough versatility and colour to remain interesting. Oliver Koomsatira, in top knot, moustache and goatee, is Dave, the embittered drunk, forever volatile and forever violent—a provocateur whom is impossible to root for. Rounding off the group is Matthew Gin as Mike, the sensitive soul, pressured by his mother to be a doctor, though he yearns to be a writer. Gin also happens to give a sensitive performance, and perhaps the quietest one, which doubles his effectiveness.
There is no real plot. Monologues begin the piece, and episodes develop it, but they happen without a discernible arc or shape, and though there are amusing digressions (such as a beauty pageant or an amusing board game about love and relationships), these hardly go anywhere significant. And then there is the age-old cliché about small Chinese penises, as if this really mattered to anyone apart from a size-queen or a pseudo-sexologist. Nina Lee Aquino, who has an undeniable knack for moving her actors around a small stage, doesn’t know how to draw performances from them. In fact, this time out, she loses control of her choreography, having the youth practically bounce off the walls, or rush up the aisle so that they can be seen only partially or not at all by various sections of the audience.
It was impossible to tell what decade the play is set in or where precisely. Much use is made of cellphones and modern music, but at the end Matthew is presented with a battered typewriter as the emblem of his real vocation. A typewriter, not a computer or IPad—surely an irony meant to draw attention to something beyond the mere fact that the play is out of its time.