I really enjoyed My Little Tomato — until I started to get tired of it.
It’s audacious, that’s for damn sure. In Rick Tae’s new script, Keaton Chu inherits his parents’ produce farm when they’re killed in a freak accident. Produce wholesaler Joe McKinley interrupts Keaton’s grief to insist that he honour his delivery obligations.
Keaton’s family is Chinese Canadian. Joe’s Irish on one side and Japanese on the other. Keaton and Joe are both gay and, when they figure out they’re attracted to one another, things quickly get complicated. Joe reminds Keaton of his white “best friend” from university, who coerced him into sex then ignored him. Keaton is still carrying a torch for white guys and feels like he’s never been enough. Joe, who is a bit of a bar star, is sexually confident, but emotionally he’s just as lost as Keaton is — never white or Japanese enough.
Right off the top, director Cameron Mackenzie serves notice that he’s going to deliver a slammer of an interpretation. When the lights come up, the first thing we see is Keaton lying in a circular pool — it looks like concrete — neck deep in brightly coloured plastic balls, an agonized look on his face. (Sophie Tang’s set is terrific.) More balls rain down on Keaton from high in the proscenium and right away we know two things: this character is awash in grief and the storytelling is going to be surreal.
That surrealism comes straight out of the script. Playwright Tae has included a third character, MLT, or My Little Tomato, a drag-queen tomato, Keaton’s inner fruit, his smart-talking id, who shows up, in a little red leather harness and glossy tomato-shaped mini skirt (great costumes by Melicia Zaini) to encourage Keaton to embrace his sensuality. Soon, the actor playing Keaton also appears dressed as a potato, symbolizing his Irishness — his whiteness — and the challenges that presents.
Tae’s script is often witty. Speaking of his racial mix, Joe says, “So I drink Guinness and blush on purpose.” Keaton describes his primary modifiers — gay, Asian, Canadian — as “three sorries.”
Playing My Little Tomato, Shay Dior delivers a performance that’s huge in terms of visuals — posing, heavy make-up, flapping fans — and effectively laconic in its delivery. After encouraging Keaton to express his feelings in modern dance, MLT realizes, “Oh. Now I’m going to have to interpret it.”
Taylor Kare delivers an effectively hypervigilant performance as Joe. Because the actor is so invested in the character and the character’s mind is always working, always wary, the stakes are perpetually high and there’s always a reason to wonder what will happen next.
On opening night, Nelson Wong, who’s generally a strong actor, brought an off-hand charm to his work, but had a self-defeating tendency to yell a lot of his lines.
And here’s where the script and the production both get into the weeds: I sensed zero sexual connection between Joe and Keaton. The text gives them very few opportunities to explore tenderness or physicality: it stays locked in abstraction — to the point where MLT literally sits Joe and Keaton down for a therapy session. The script talks about the overlap of racial identities and rough sexual play, but never in theatrical language that feels compelling.
As the central relationship disappeared deeper and deeper into abstraction, I lost interest. Still, I thank the playwright and interpreting artists for applying stylistic vivacity to engaging thematic content.
MY LITTLE TOMATO by Rick Tae. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Zee Zee Theatre coproduction in association with rice & beans theatre. At The Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Friday, March 10. Running until March 19. Tickets
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