A few seconds into the play, Phan Ý Ly interrupts her co-performer, Hồ Ngọc Bảo Khiêm, to tell him that he talks too much. Phan is speaking out of character with genuine, affectionate frustration. At least, it sounds like she is. It’s hard to tell, because Stranger is improvised. Its exploration of gender roles thrives off confusion between authentic behaviour and performance.
Hồ’s objectionable speech was delivered in Vietnamese. He can’t speak English, but Phan can and switches between the two languages. Most of the Vietnamese speech is translated into English by an off-stage translator. The haphazard nature of this process even leads Phan to grumble “bad translator” at one point.
There is one other performer. Eddie Ladd appears in pre-recorded video clips projected onto the movable screens and wooden boxes that make up the set. She does not speak at all, communicating only through dance and mime. Ladd sports a cropped, military haircut. Her powerful physicality and fluid twisting of masculine clichés almost makes her seem as present as the performers on stage.
The performers sometimes move into the space between two translucent screens, with pixels of Eddie Ladd playing over them and their shadows. Ladd is Welsh, and this digital dance touchingly evokes how remote Vietnam is from the Europe, but the close interaction mocks the notion that gender roles might be any more straightforward in Vietnam.
In one section, small images of a dancing Ladd are multiplied across the screens. The result is an enlightened, photographic negative of a James Bond credit sequence. These video effects are ethereally produced by Paul Burgess. Towards the end of the play, Phan holds a sheet in front of herself to give the illusion that her head is on Ladd’s dancing body. This is a beautiful and fragile piece of improvisation.
Several scenes revolve around a baby doll. Early on, Phan crouches behind one of the wooden boxes and makes the baby dance moves that the performers will soon pick up themselves. In a later scene, Hồ plays solider before Phan comes on and forces his body into a series of stifling poses, while he resists.
The actors use the space with supple intelligence. The stage backs into the corner of a room and the sense of physical limitation is enhanced by the way Phan and Hồ interact with the clumsy boxes. The constraints of narrow gender roles are experienced in mundane but charged ways: the performers resemble teenagers pacing their rooms. Phan runs on the spot on one of the boxes and hits the side of it with something approaching the troubling, choked physicality found in the Japanese dance form butoh.
Phan has a determined sulk in her eyes throughout. Her understated but assured femininity plays artfully off Ladd’s more masculine poses. Hồ features less prominently than Phan, who also serves as a co-director alongside Rob Hale. The balance switches at the climax of the play when Hồ attempts to give Phan the doll. Phan has wrapped her hair around her face so she can’t see. Hồ comes into his own with the gruff and pleading manner he uses to direct her hands.
In a play characterised by the bravery of all involved, one risk stands out. Phan sits on top of a box, as if on a bar stool, facing Eddie on the screen. She pauses, says “I was supposed to sit like this”, and tucks her legs up instead. The pressure of careful rehearsal is suddenly indistinguishable from the cultural expectation of Phan’s family. Gender is all about moving in and out of character.
Stranger played at the Albany on 19 September. For more information, see the Albany Theatre website.