Two One Acts Based on Stories by Lysley Tenorio:
- Remember the I-Hotel by Philip Kan Gotanda
- Presenting … The Monstress! By Sean San Jose
|Ogie Zulueta (Vicente) & |
Jomar Tagatac (Fortunado)
Commissioned by the American Conservatory Theatre, two one act plays probing stories of 20th Century, Filipino immigrants to the San Francisco Bay Area premiere in the new Strand Theatre with mixed results. Using a common set, cast, and director, the two plays explore the dreams, the harsh realities, and the search for love of new arrivals separated by four decades in their entries from the Philippines. One play engages with characters that show depth and nuance as well as both fun and dark sides. The other only brushes the surface of character development, presenting stereotyped and one-dimensional persona that result in audience apathy toward the story and the people involved. Unfortunately, the less successful one-act is the second presented and leaves the audience members in a subdued, rather blah state as they exit.
Based on real events that occurred in August 1977 in San Francisco, Philip Kan Gotanda’s Remembering the I-Hotel opens as two gentlemen are struggling with the painful and shaky moves of old age to dress in coat and tie. Outside the three, gigantic, beveled windows against a back wall, loud demonstrations can be heard and flashing red lights seen. One man, the stooped Vicente, is clearly confused and disoriented as his companion, Fortunado, gently and even lovingly assists him as a policeman barks at the door that they must leave at once from the now-condemned building. A flashback to the 1930s recalls how these two met as virile young men at a S.F. Manilatown social club for Filipino workers (10-cents a dance to pair up with local girls). Fortunado has arrived in America with no connections or money but is soon befriended by Vicente, who anoints him “my cousin who worked three years for the mayor of Seattle” and (with that quickly conceived story) gets him a job as a bellboy at a local, fancy hotel.
Jomar Tagatac (Fortunado) and Ogie Zulueta (Vicente) bring jovial and joking banter to their broken English parlance, and they prance around at times like two playful puppies as they spar while getting to know each other. Watching Fortunado trying to teach Vicente to dance is hilarious as arms and bodies fly in a whirlwind battle to decide who is going to be the ‘man’ and who, the ‘woman.’ The return favor of Vicente’s futile attempts to show Fortunado how to box brings its own set of laughs and pleasure. But these two also display a sense caring and mutual protection that is genuine, touching, and somewhat surprising to come from two twenty-something guys. There is a visible bond that develops as they share stories and food in their I-Hotel room and a baring of souls as Vicente levels that immigrant life is “hard … you get lonely … you get scared.” The relationship of the two also moves into new territory, one forbidden and not discussed in the 1930s (including by them). This singular development will impact both their lives in major, long-lasting ways.
Althea (Danielle Frimer), a maid aspiring to be a journalist, joins our twosome as an increasingly close friend and cohort. Althea is intellectually curious and determined in her questioning, willing to take cultural risks, and flippantly flirty all at the same time. She tries soy sauce but prefers mustard; and she could care less about being seen dancing with a “brown monkey,” as Filipinos are called on the rough streets of San Francisco. But such racist attitudes cannot be ignored forever and bring dire consequences to yet another, forbidden relationship that develops among this threesome.
As the three work at the hotel and are joined by other bellboys and maids, poetry in motion and sound develops through Philip Kan Gotanda’s well-chosen scripting and Carey Perloff’s imaginative direction. Passing hotel staff morph seamlessly into choreographed motions of bodies and suitcases, bodies and luggage carrier, and then right back into bell-hopping and folding sheets (directed in movement by Stephen Buescher). The play takes on added depths of beauty and meaning aided by the sultry, rich, and sexy voice of Melody Butiu who periodically serenades the story’s action on a nearby raised stage. The actors’ dialogues are punctuated by passing commentary and asides of otherwise silent, on-stage observers of the story who note emotions and thoughts we might otherwise not see. And all is set effectively by Nina Ball within a replicated Manilatown social club of the 1930s that easily converts into hotels of both poor immigrants and the visiting hoity-toity.
The totality of Remember the I-Hotel is moving and memorable. While it might warrant one more round of editing in spots to tighten the flow a bit, the play is a wonderful accounting of an important part of San Francisco and Filipino history as well as a stark reminder of how soon ago certain loves were dangerous to pursue.
As much as there is a depth to the first half of this evening of the two premieres, there is an overall shallowness to the second half. Sean San Jose’s Presenting … The Monstress also sets out to tell a forgotten history of the Bay Area and its Filipino migrant population, in this case about movie making in the 1970s. The play’s author undertakes himself the role of Checkers, a maker of Philippine B-class, monster movies that star his girlfriend Reva (Melody Butiu) in such envied roles as a giant squid in which she growls, screams, and flails all limbs but never gets to show her face. His latest movie has been relegated to one midnight screening per week in his native hometown, playing, as his producer laments, only to “peasants and prostitutes.” Checkers is about to give up his dream of movie fame when along comes a smooth-talking, all-smiling Gaz Gazman (Nick Gabriel) knocking on his door in blue glasses and wild Hawaiian shirt and offering to bring the couple to California for a joint, movie-making wild scheme. Landing not at a hoped-for Hollywood movie lot but rather in a basement studio of sorts in Colma (where the dead of San Francisco out number the living of the town itself), the couple is duped but is still full of eager hopes for international exposure.
All of this is told in this play about a film being made about a film being made. Rinabeth Apostol join our stars of the first act, Jomar Tagatac and Ogie Zulueta, as young filmmakers who want to document the story of failed, small-time makers of cultish, Filipino monster movies. The three are somewhat like a weak Greek chorus and are part of this play’s big problem. The two men are flaming queens who play into every negative stereotype of Bay Area, gay Asians while the woman is a kind of Asian Valley Girl. What purpose these bizarre portrayals serve the overall play never becomes clear. As the three prance around shrieking in over-acted voice and motions in the background, Checkers, Gaz, and Reva continue their story in the fore; but that story also does not develop far or fast enough beyond its initial set-up. The two male roles move nowhere in becoming any more than second-rate filmmakers with predicable, macho attitudes. Reva does become the heart of the story as an immigrant who sees possibilities in how to make the best of a bad situation, and Ms. Butiu is somewhat successful in drawing us into caring about her and what happens to her life. But even her story becomes convoluted and unresolved in the way it evolves and ends, leaving us as audience with hardly any reason or energy to award applause to an able, but misdirected cast who have been handed a too-weak script with large holes in it.
So disappointing and frankly boring is this second play that the power of the first is almost lost. Fortunately, with a day’s passing and some reflection, the Remembering the I-Hotel half of Monstress can be remembered and savored even as the evening’s entirety at A.C.T.’s Strand itself was an overall disappointment.
Rating, Remembering the I-Hotel: 4 E
Rating, Presenting … The Monstress!: 2 E
Monstress continues at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand, 1127 Market Street through November 22, 2015. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org or by calling the box office at 415 749-2228.
Photos by Kevin Berne