Thursday, April 19, 2018

"The Gangster of Love"

The Gangster of Love
Jessica Hagedorn

Lance Gardner & Golda Sargento
Two pairs of eyes widen to reveal mammoth rings of white around dark, darting balls as a brother and sister sway with the ocean’s waves, looking for the first signs of the Golden Gate.  While the girl’s eyes sing with wonder and excitement, the boy’s silently scream of anxiety and maybe terror.  Their young, beautiful mother appears with a camera just as the world-famous bridge comes into sight; and the three émigrés from the Philippines pose for the obligatory pictures as they enter San Francisco Bay in 1978. 

And so opens Jessica Hagedorn’s coming of age story, The Gangster of Love, now in its world premiere as commissioned by Magic Theatre, based on the playwright’s own poetry-packed, psychedelic-tinged journey from the age of seventeen into early adulthood.  Under the inspired, inventive, even infectious direction of Loretta Greco, a fictionalized version of Jessica Hagedorn’s true-life story explodes into an epic-scale travelogue of a City bursting in 1978 with scenes, scents, and sounds foreign and fascinating to this young émigré.  Especially for any San Francisco resident of a Baby Boomer age, there are waves of smiles and chuckles among the audience at the references and scenes from the eclectic likes of Trader Vic’s Restaurant, City Lights Bookstore, Clown Alley, and the Elephant Walk along with a sound track of the songs those of us of that age still believe are the best ever written.  But what makes this sojourn into the coffee house poetry readings, street protests, and acid trips of that recent past especially important and uniquely different is that we are given our tour through time and place via a lens rarely seen on the American stage, that of a Filipina-American.

Rocky Rivera – a name she prefers to her given one of Rachelle – steps onto land and is instantly a young woman with a mission to explore neighborhoods full of love-and-life-teeming nooks and niches and to go beyond boundaries she did not even know existed back in her native Manila.  With a small notebook and pen always in hand, Rocky has been preparing for her destiny as a writer since early childhood; and this new poly-everything panorama of San Francisco becomes a perfect breeding ground for her as a budding poet and eventual musician.  

Golda Sargento impressively combines a determined, serious-minded, and inquisitive Rocky with that of a woman-still-girl who delights with brightened, childlike countenance in her many new experiences and friends.  She is also a typical teen who is one moment loving and adoring of her Filipina immediate and extended family and at other times, a belligerent teen who feels boxed in and too dictated by the expectations, traditions, and problems of that family.  As Rocky finds her new powers of presenting herself in poetry and music on stages small and large, Ms. Sargento transforms from head to toe into a Rocky full of self-found liberation, expressing words and ideas with roots in the sun-baked rice fields of a former homeland but now firmly planted in a poetry defined by the streets and alleys of her newfound home and self.

Golda Sargento & Jed Parsario
Contrasting Rocky’s journey of self-discovery is that of her brother’s, Voltaire, the boy with scared eyes who seems plagued with a pent-up anger over leaving his philandering father to come with his mother and sister to America.  Jed Parsario is a Voltaire often sullen and quiet in his tight-lipped broodiness; but when he erupts into an explosion of accusations and insults that can target an unsuspecting victim (like his mother’s Caucasian, banker boyfriend, Rick), his Voltaire is almost animal-like in his lashings.  As Rocky soars, he sinks.  The last time we see Voltaire is in a preview of an all-too-common, 2018 San Francisco street scene that is a reminder of how the mental-health decisions of an earlier Governor Reagan were already in 1980 having destructive impacts that now plague our City by the Bay.

As Milagros and mother of Rocky and Voltaire, Sarah Nina Hayon enters a room in order to be in the spotlight – a woman who is always on stage and at one point dramatically introduces herself as “a tourist, an immigrant, and a peasant.”  Every ounce of her being is part of her continuous act in a self-invented spotlight.  From vibrantly alive eyes to slightly twitching shoulders to pointing fingers on hands that move through space at supersonic speeds, Ms. Hayon deliciously delivers a mother who clearly can smother at any moment her children with overbearing love but who is also in combative competition with them in order to be the star of the household. 

Lance Gardner & Golda Sargento
The other seven members of this incredibly outstanding cast play both primary and also multiple secondary roles as both family and friends as well as representatives of the tuned-in, tuned-out multitudes of unique folk who populated San Francisco as the Seventies became the Eighties.  Lance Gardner is the amiable, soft-spoken landlord downstairs named Zeke who falls for an only mildly interested Milagros.  He is also larger than life with heavenly wings as a Jimi Hendrix who comes to counsel and advise Rocky in her dreams (Hendrix being the actual hero/muse of the playwright after she first heard him at the 1968 Monterey Jazz Festival).  Finally, Mr. Gardner is the night’s live percussionist -- sometimes a guy in the corner beating a bongo to punctuate read poetry and later playing Bugsy, the drummer of Rocky’s band.

Lisa Hori-Garcia is Milagros’ somewhat silly but big-hearted, younger sister, Fely, whose husband -- a jokester with a limp named Basilio -- is jovially portrayed by Chuck Lacson.  Each wonderfully doubles in other roles including a painfully shy, weepy poet (Ms. Hori-Garcia) and the legendary, stern-faced clerk of City Lights, Shig Murao (Mr. Lacson). 

Sean San Josée
Coming close to stealing the show in two different roles is Sean San José.  He first is the no-doubt-but-gay brother-in-law of Milagros who shows up for Rocky’s eighteenth birthday in an Afghan coat of fur and suede, lifting his turquois-ringed pinky and shifting his tightly panted hips as two of the many ways he expresses his own fabulousness.  Later -- still donning a distinct, thin strip of hair down the center of his otherwise bald head – Mr. San José is a show unto himself as the Carabao Kid, a revered Filopino poet and activist who gives Rocky her first chance at a public reading of her poetry.

Dezi Solèy
Rounding out the cast is Patrick Alparone, playing a mean electric guitar as Elvis and a member of Rocky’s band, The Gangsters of Love.  Lawrence Radecker covers with ease a wide gamut of characters as the dorky, straight-laced banker, Rick; the legendary poet, Declan Wolf, who mentors with care Rocky; and the outlandish drag queen, Fatima.  Dezi Solèy floats from scene to scene as the belly and hip undulating performance artist, Keiko.  As also an aspiring filmmaker, her smoothly speaking Keiko later escapes to New York, hosting Rocky in a wildly beautiful, music-filled, dance-enhanced LSD trip.

The Magic Theatre Creative Team has in fact created magic in every respect in producing this trippy, music-and-color-lush portrait of a San Francisco still known for puka-shell necklaces, wild-colored pants and skimpy tops, and fringe-swinging coats of suede -- all part of a rainbow array of period costumes by Ulises Alcala.  Hana S. Kim’s set is mesmerizing and exciting with its painted back wall of iridescent scenes of the City upon which her many projections provide memories of people and places of that near-past.  The twenty-five or so distinct scenes come and go with ease as members of the cast roll in and out and build together the many pieces needed to bring that era of apartments and clubs and street scenes back to life, aided greatly by the era-authentic props designed by Lily Sorenson.

Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting combined with Ms. Kim’s projections creates waves of water, floods of raindrops, skies crowed with stars, and dozens of other miraculous and stunning effects.  Sara Huddleston’s sound design brings the music of the era to real life as well as the sounds of a city that is popping with its own rhythm and energy.  El Beh directs the live music that adds so much vibrancy and authenticity to the entire ambience of the period portrayed.

Coming in at nearly three hours (including a short intermission), it does feel that there is some future editing to tighten up some of the world premiere’s many scenes or to eliminate a character or two, such as the banker Rick who adds little to the story.  The first half, though long, pops with much zing and zest with fascinating characters and twists/turns.  The second overall loses some of that zip and bogs down in places, taking on a bit too much of a band concert feel with lyrics largely lost in the loud electronics and scream-prone words. 

(One small but irritating aspect of the entire production that feels like it needs adjusting is how much smoking occurs that wafts into the first several rows of the theatre.  I found myself coughing and my eyes watering too much at times.)

However, as a world premiere, there is so much to like and admire about Jessica Hagedorn’s The Gangster of Love.  Hers is truly a sweeping story of a blossoming writer, her recently immigrated family, their Filipino traditions, and their new city with its teeming life of ethnic-rich backstreet and small-club entertainment and energy.  The unique voice and viewpoint of a young Filipina woman reminds us how richer we all are for those who have in our own lifetimes come from other countries and how important it is that this vibrant stream of new Americans is not allowed to dry up – despite all the vitriolic, anti-immigrant rhetoric rampant in our current world.  What our president refers to as “criminals,” we learn from this story are actually “gangsters” – outsiders and underdogs who are willing to do what is needed to be done to succeed.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Gangster of Love continues through May 6, 2018 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photos credit: Jennifer Reiley

1 comment:

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