‘Banana Boys’ packs a solid punch of meaning, energy and entertainment thanks to the dynamite performances of a strong ensemble cast and a lyrical script written by playwright, actor and producer, Leon Aureus, in his debut play. CJSF A&E’s Denise Mok applauds Banana Boys, which plays from February 24 to March 17, 2007 at the Firehall Arts Centre at 280 East Cordova, Vancouver.
Banana Boys, a play adapted from the novel by Terry Woo, aims to puncture the negative stereotyping attached to the derogatory moniker for Canadian-born Chinese: just like the banana, they are assumed to have white hearts (white values) under yellow skins. This play brings out the heartbreak and angst of five twenty-somethings who are transitioning from university life to cutthroat adulthood and troubled relationships in Toronto’s urban jungle. Their experiences transcend a specific culture: their troubles hit a nerve in us all.
The range of characters represents the imaginable mix you find in a young male clique: there’s Mike (Simon Hayama) the Med student who yearns to be a writer; Rick (Victor Mariano) the slick well-dressed One-Who-Has-It-All with looks, charisma and self-destructive ambition to match; Dave (Rick Tae) the cynical computer engineer who takes every racial remark personally; Shel (Parnelli Parnes) the sensitive and lovestruck Romantic eager for love; and Luke (Vincent Tong) the psych major who would rather be a techno DJ.
The story is told using a flash forward and flashback structure, as we are told about Rick’s death early on and how Mike is asked by his best friend Rick to record his emotional and psychic disintegration, expedited by constant abuse of pills and alcohol. This is sad indeed as if Rick, at 23, already knew he was doomed. The story unfolds as we recapture this breakdown and the significant people involved, interspersed with innovative and hilarious anime-like fantasy scenes, such as the War Zone and Sumo Momma sequences—physical humour par excellence.
Cutting the humour and creative playfulness of Banana Boys is a sense of disenchantment, for the loss of innocence of these boys, especially for Rick’s losing his way and being sucked into the dangerous deadly abyss of over-ambition, his living death and real death both predestined, ‘familiar like a scar you forgot you had.’ Victor Mariano plays the character with passion, pathos and conviction. Played sensitively by Simon Hayama and with brilliant lyrical delivery, Mike is the poet/seer/narrator who witnesses the breakdown of this band of friends and the destruction of his closest friend Rick. Agonizing between a writer’s objectivity and human vulnerability, Mike captures the series of events and pressures that tear this group apart. Dave, powerfully realized by Rick Tae, is edgy and dynamic as the angry CBC who places on himself the responsibility of avenging every racial slur or outrage he encounters, often only in his oversensitive mind. Shel, the lovestruck Goody-Goody tripped by jealousy played skillfully by Parnelli Parnes, in a performance that wrings our hearts and helps us jaded ones recapture the sweet innocence of a first crush. His cameo as Sumo Momma really stands out. Luke’s identity crisis is skillfully played by Vincent Tong and his chameleon changes of character and dancing are superb. All the actors in this ensemble move from their main roles to play all sorts of extra characters with fluidity and versatility. This production shines with this talented and committed cast.
The music, set design and lighting compliment this quality production, with superb attention to detail.
The script is strong with solid and lyrical writing. Some lines are insightful and stinging, while other truisms such as ‘love is an illusion’ represent the banality of modern life that resorts to meaningless generalizations. The play, however hard it tries not to, does perpetuate Asian stereotypes. For instance the female point of view is very weak or non-existent and the existing representations of femaleness are grotesque stereotypes: Big Momma who forces her son to be a doctor; Tasmin the trophy girlfriend and Cathy the absent heartbreaker and Shel’s tormentor. The only fair representation of a woman in this play is Dave’s girlfriend, Jeanette, admirably cameo’d by Vincent Tong (who mainly plays Luke). Jeanette is about to break up with Dave, asking him with heartbreaking irony, ‘You were happy once, Dave. I remember you were. What happened?’
Although the flash forward and flashback narrative structure mostly works, the frequency of time and place changes can leave the viewer confused and at times impedes the story-telling. The second half of the play is not equal in quality to the first half, with Rick’s deterioration scene kneeling before us too long and dragged out. Too much emoting and yearning for audience sympathy. The second part’s pace can be picked up a bit, too. The innovative use of Cantonese phrases mixed in the dialogue is good for those who know the language but again could leave some audience members out in the cold. I was also disappointed with the weak ‘happy ending’ when the remaining friends after Rick’s death say good-bye at the airport—feeling a bit forced to tie-up loose ends and comfort the audience.
Banana Boys is a thoughtful and provocative play that Vancouver audiences will embrace.
March 15, 2007