Sunday, November 27, 2022

Fringe Review: The Housekey Project

Who: Porch Light Theatre
What: The House Key Project
Length: 60 minutes
Where: Theatre Aquarius Studio (190 King William Street)
When: July 21-31 as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival
Tickets: $12 + $1.75 fee at https://boxoffice.hftco.ca/event/866:605/

This review feels a bit redundant. After attending The Housekey Project, the show closed with an exciting announcement: the run is officially sold out. Limited seating (ten per show) and an intriguing concept meant that there was limited supply, and more demand than it could accommodate. Perhaps there will be a future remount to allow more people to check out the work.

Audience members assemble in the lobby for this multi-disciplinary, site-specific piece. It starts before the show, as everyone is handed a radio headset, tuned in to the show. Anticipation builds, because how often are you handed a portable radio through which you will experience a theatre show?

A lantern-carrying performer builds on the intrigue, guiding the audience to its first location: a coat-check room converted into a performance space. Herein lies the first double-edged sword of the production: it becomes apparent that we’re going to different places, but that they aren’t really site-specific. The coat-check area didn’t really need to be a coat-check room. In fact, there is a motif in the first piece where a boarding call and other airport-styled announcements come over the headsets, so it feels more like we should be at an airport. First performer Darnie Tran (the first performer) did show off items on a coat-rack that represented different aspects of their fluid self-identification (boy, girl, neither, Canadian, Cambodian, Khmer, Vietnamese, etc.), but it wasn’t essential to the work that the coat-rack be inside, or outside of that coat-rack room.

Darnie’s story is fascinating, and is felt deeply, I think, by anybody who lives in our current world. Regardless of where we are born, we are made up of different identities from our heritages, families and expression of self. Tran’s narrative is thoughtful, and gives one a lot to think about. Their performance itself is low-key, however, and felt lacking in energy. Even some, small bursts of emotion felt about half-strength, and sometimes a little forced. At several points, Tran switches into additional languages in an effort to communicate as or with relatives.  Despite no knowledge of the language, the writing and the performance keeps these interactions clear.

The other performances are strong. Nicholas Simao does some really dedicated physical work, which also sets his piece apart from the other works in the project. His body twists and reacts to headset voices, both friend, foe and ambiguous. Angelica Reid gives a full character mostly through remarkable body language and facial expression. Oyinpreye Godwin gives us a touching portrait of a person who feels so small and vulnerable, saying a lot with very little movement.

The headphones play a key role in The Housekey Project, as the narrative is sometimes driven by voices from the headphones, but in other times by performers outside the headphones. However, in the show I attended, if the performers’ voices weren’t in the headsets, the headphones reared the dialogue almost inaudible.

In a production so reliant on technology, its imperative that the technology work flawlessly and fit the production flawlessly. In show I attended, leaving the headphones off means missing out on the broadcast audio; but leaving them on meant missing the live dialogue. In the final work of the night, the broadcast audio was almost inaudible, rendering that particular performance incomprehensible. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed either for future performances, or if a future run is scheduled.

Each area’s set is fascinating and intriguing in its own way. Strings of different coloured lights mark out playing spaces, and each place has its own, unique feel and style. Exploring these environs, crafted by Faith Mo (sets) and Sung Won Cho (lights), would be a revelation in and of itself. A lot of thought, work, and care has gone in to providing insight into the characters through their environments. While the specific performances aren’t necessarily site-specific in the traditional definition, the sets certainly are evocative.

Co-directors Karen Ancheta and Aaron Jan have undertaken a huge challenge here. Taking these risks, trying new ways to tell stories, and giving opportunities to young performers are all very admirable, despite the frustrations that existed within the performance I attended. And, again, with a sold-out run this early into the Fringe, obviously this show is something Hamilton is thirsty for.

Ryan M. Sero
Ryan M. Sero
Ryan M. Sero is a writer, among many other things, and has a long, loving history with Hamilton's theatre scene in particular. He is the artistic director of Make Art Theatre. He does what he does for Jody, Pippa, Emmett, Vienna, and Jude.

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