In Kathy Ng’s play, Happy Life, her characters are struggling to find a path towards healing and happiness in a world full of abuse, trauma, hate and pain. Using magical realism, the history of a real-life murder, sexual fantasies, tentacle porn, and a dark sense of a humor, she conjures the persistent ghosts in our lives (or apartments) who are hard to shake. A sizzling script that is stronger on the page, there’s still a lot to appreciate here in this ambitious production from company The Hearth.
Here, Birdy (Amy Chang) is attempting to get away from her abusive ex-husband and begin her happy life. She tours a forlorn one-room apartment and the realtor Ox (Viet Vo) “legally” has to tell her the previous tenant, Hermit (Sagan Chen), hung himself there. Before that, this was the site of the rape, torture, murder and dismemberment of a sex worker, Cat Mermaid (Priyanka Arya Krishnan). Her skull was sewn into a Hello Kitty mermaid doll and left in the apartment. Cat Mermaid tells us much of this in the play (this is based on the real-life murder of Fan Man Yee in 1999 in Hong Kong). Birdy decides to take the apartment.
Hermit and Cat Mermaid have reached a détente in sharing this apartment but are united in trying to keep Birdy from moving in. Birdy, who can see ghosts, is figuring out who she is now that she’s on her own. These angry ghosts are not going to stop her in her quest for self-discovery.
The ghosts have their own problems. The afterlife is bureaucratic and judgmental. Moving on is not easy and without a lot of choice. Maybe the living and the dead can help each other. Or maybe the ghosts’ resentment will spill over into the world of the living causing more harm.
It’s a smart, funny, and complex play that unspools a bit in its second act. Hermit’s sister, Mouse, who aspires to be an ethical tentacle pornographer, is the character I was left with the most questions about.
For a violent and difficult subject matter, Ng opts, at the start, for a sarcastic gloss. She’s not making light of any of this. It is more Cat Mermaid’s coping mechanism. As for the murder and torture, what is done is done. But this apartment is HER space and we are all just intruding guests. She is desperate to assert her presence and control over the apartment. Ng gives Cat Mermaid (and ostensibly Fan Man Yee) a voice so we hear from her about it in a plainspoken, straightforward way. This horror needs no underlining.
Ng’s play offers characters and settings that we don’t often see. Rape and abuse can often be the subject of stories, but the framing here is what sets this apart. What they have experienced, does not define them. Their desires, kinks, dreams, and aspirations are more the focus.
Ng explores how these characters experience and seek visibility and sometimes even crave erasure. I really liked her examination of the tension between what persists and what is scrubbed away. Bodies may decompose and disappear, but they’ve left a mark on the world and other people.
For a small budget production staging Ng’s fantastical and outlandish concepts, director Kat Yen’s handles them well. Dramatic lighting changes, booming sound effects, and blackouts help to usher in a plague of dead birds or beer foam seeping from a wound.
Through creative costuming, Cat Mermaid is a forcibly man-made hybrid creature—with cat ears and a mermaid tail. Unfortunately, Hermit’s make-up and costuming is less clear about what he has done to his body. I thought he had wounds from his hanging/decomposing and it was not until I read the script that I realized there was more going on there.
There is a conceptual through line about the external threat of the violent “Great Octopus,” Cat Mermaid slicing up his tentacles, and reframing this into feminist consensual tentacle porn fantasy, but some of that gets thematically and visually murky. The symbolism was not lost on me, but I had to go back to the script a little to clear things up.
Krishnan commands the stage and holds all of Cat Mermaid’s complex contradictions. She taps into the humor of the play and with her electric presence, makes the play come alive. It’s obviously difficult subject matter and having Cat Mermaid’s cunning playfulness at the center needs this kind of deft handling.
It’s an adventurous and expansive piece. It’s nice to see a company willing to tackle such a creative leap.