Inspired by Cao Yu’s 1936 Sunrise, a tale of social climbing set in Hong Kong, playwright Marjorie Chan has found contemporary counterparts for that play’s characters in Vancouver’s real estate and gambling scene. Amidst condos and casinos, the six Asian women of Lady Sunrise, playing at Factory Theatre, struggle to find or maintain their place in an exploitative system.
There is Penny (Lindsay Wu), using her brief beauty pageant success as social currency. Tawny Ku (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is a wealthy real-estate matriarch she latches onto. Banker Wong (Rosie Simon) ruthlessly holds her own in male dominated, high-stakes finance. Li, a casino dealer (Zoé Doyle), has an intimate view of the whole corrupt scene, but is at risk of being swallowed up and spat out by the establishment. Charmaine (Louisa Zhu), the cunning owner of a massage parlour exploits the young women she pretends to protect. And Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) is just one of those young women offered up to men with money, lost in a dream of promised glamour.
Chan’s play doesn’t judge any of these women. It provides us with a pragmatic, emotionally compelling context for even their worst behaviour. Giving each a chance to talk to us and each other, we slowly understand how they are connected and how each, in their own way, contribute to or rebel against a system that pits them against each other.
They cling desperately to a lifestyle that becomes increasingly unsustainable. Or, without the means to attain such a lifestyle, some scramble to maintain the appearance of affluence. It is heartbreaking to watch the women of Lady Sunrise invest so much energy into materialistic excess. Compelled to adopt modes of behaviour that undermine their humanity, they foster delusions of grandeur while their true value decays in shadowy neglect.
Director Nina Lee Aquino blends the story’s squalid realities with extravagant moments of glamorous colour. In stylized sequences, the actors mask their individuality in matching trenchcoats and gaudy coloured wigs, highlighting the spectacle of excess that lures and traps them. By contrast, the vulnerable and intimate moments feel disarmingly authentic.
Costume designer Jackie Chau’s sequinned jumpsuits, flashy suit jackets and gaudy tiaras are thrilling to behold, but their deception is eventually exposed, laying bare the corrupt system that they are meant to veil.
Camellia Koo’s tiered set is a nightmarish manifestation of the characters’ upward climb. Slanted walkways with glittery fringe rise up in forced perspective and loom disconcertingly over the characters and the audience.
The play deals with sad, awful things, but it never feels like a slog. Chan and Aquino have crafted an experience that, despite its bitter core, revels in the humour and playfulness the characters need to survive. And it’s a real thrill to see this powerful ensemble convey both the highs and lows.
Hope shimmers in the fringes of the story. A hand reaching out to pull someone away from the edge, a decision to reconnect with family: in a world that fosters such brutal competition, these small moments are poignant acts of defiance against a system that will kill them if it can’t profit from them.