Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
This week, fu-GEN Theatre presents Mixie and the Halfbreeds at the Pia Bouman School’s Scotiabank Studio Theatre. The play, by Japanese-Canadian Julie Tamiko Manning and Chinese-Canadian Adrienne Wong, bills itself as “a playful exploration of being mixed race in Canada.” In director Jenna Rodgers’ production, it lives up to this promise of a meaningful thematic focus and a sense of whimsy.
The show is a bit difficult to describe. The main throughline of the show is a series of short vignettes in which half-Japanese Mixie (Zoé Doyle) and half-Chinese Trixie (Vanessa Trenton) become neighbours, and then trade insights, insults and inspirations arising from their differences. Blonde, extroverted and fashionably vegan Trixie has a megawatt smile, a purposeful high-heeled prowl, and an over-the-top energy that fuels the self-help mantras she delivers in near-Valley Girl voice. Trenton’s magnetic performance walks right up to the line of self-parody, crosses it, then doubles back and forth across it throughout the play. Introverted Mixie, by contrast, is tentative, wistful and sometimes irritated: she sports her native black hair colour, and clutches at “Short Grain” (a toy filled with rice that packs a serious metaphorical punch).
While these two “mixies” are quite different, both are tethered to blond shadow figures sporting identical pink jackets (Dedra McDermott plays Mixie’s “blonde”, and Alexandra Crenian plays Trixie’s “blonde”). Mixie and Trixie recognize and speak to their silent blondes, and they can perceive each other’s. Are these blonde figures the selves they feel pressure to be? Selves they wish to be? Selves others wish them to be? Yes, yes, yes . . . and more. And these shadows inhabit a dream-life with other blonde shadows, forming a second active (and sometimes confusing) dimension of the narrative. While the shadows are all of different ethnic origins, the blonde wigs and pink jackets seek (unsuccessfully) to minimize visible external difference. At the same time, the voluntary or involuntary eating of rice – or the refusal to eat it – becomes a vivid metaphor for internal difference.
The third and final level of the action is a frame for the play, in which Doyle and Trenton, dressed in ringmaster costumes, serve as masters-of-ceremony. Interlocutors and entertainers of the audience, they sing, dance, and trade quips and insults. They also demonstrate different personalities: here Doyle’s ringmaster has the edge, while Trenton’s seems more genuine and a bit lower key.
On balance, the play refreshes because of its light touch. The wordplay prompts frequent laughter, and the questions prompt thought, but the action never gets too heavy – even in the stylized dreamscape. And the single biggest virtue of Mixie and the Halfbreeds is the total commitment of the two leads to their performance in all three levels of the narrative. They are especially energetic and winning in their ringmaster roles when the fourth wall drops and they speak directly to the audience. Some of these moments walk right up to the point where they could turn uncomfortable (as when they test the audience’s tolerance for racial slurs), but thanks to the script and the actresses, it stays “playful”: posing questions, inviting interested engagement, then moving on to explore other questions.
The set is sparse and fluid: its main elements are mirrored cases on wheels that are moved around to convey movement between the physical world and the dreamscape. Not accidentally, these are also the kind of cases used in that infamous trick of cutting a woman in half (alluded to at one point in the show) – on stage, they become a visible metaphor for the impossibility of cutting a “mixie” in two, or of neatly subsuming one half with another.
We came to see Mixie and the Halfbreeds the night after we saw Mirvish’s An American in Paris, and the contrast in the crowd and venue could not have been more striking. Mixie sported a younger and far more diverse theatre crowd, suggesting that fu-GEN is carving out its own place on Toronto’s theatrical map. And the liminal production space (a world away from the Princess of Wales Theatre) perfectly suits the show’s themes. Audience members mill about in the school lobby until five minutes before showtime, when they are whisked as a group out a door at the back of the lobby, and escorted across the pavement to the theatre next door. You take a little journey with your fellow audience members just to get to Mixie . . . and it feels right that what you find there defies simple categorization.
If you’re looking for linear narrative and tidy thematic realizations, you will be challenged by the episodic, sketch-like feel and the three shifting levels this play works on. But ultimately, it’s best – and most enjoyable – to go with the flow. The boundaries between the levels of the play . . . and which (if any) is “real” are not clear. And given the central questions about how “mixie” identity is conferred, claimed or constructed, isn’t that the point?
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What: Mixie and the Halfbreeds by Julie Tamiko Manning and Adrienne Wong; featuring Zoé Doyle (Mixie), Vanessa Trenton (Trixie), Alexandra Crenian (Trixie’s “Blonde”), Dedra McDermott (Mixie’s “Blonde”), Bethany Pethick, Diana Reyes and YUI (Chorus); Directed by Jenna Rodgers; Choreographed by Ming-Bo Lam
When: On stage until April 15, 2018
Where: Pia Bouman School, Scotiabank Studio Theatre, 6 Noble Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: fu-GEN.org
© 2018, Scott Sneddon, Sesaya