Rebirth of Slick: Monstress theater review
Two one-act plays based on a couple short stories by Filipino American author and Bay Area native Lysley Tenorio are currently up at the American Conservatory Theater’s swanky new black box theater in the old Strand movie house in the mid-Market district. As we hopped off of BART and walked a half block up to the theater I felt like I was in a real city, one with functional public transit and a lively street life, instead of the rapidly sanitizing tech-bro haven that San Francisco is becoming. But I digress–
Both of the one-acts that comprise Monstress are set in the Bay Area, though both are historical pieces. Veteran scribe Philip Kan Gotanda penned the first play, Remember The I-Hotel, and Sean San Jose, former performing arts director of Intersection for the Arts, wrote the second, Presenting . . . the Monstress! Gotanda’s piece begins with a short segment set during the infamous 1977 eviction night at the International Hotel, which all Asian Americanists know was the last bastion of the former ten-block Manilatown just next to downtown San Francisco and abutting Chinatown. Two elderly Filipino tenants, Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) and Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) prepare to vacate the single-room apartments that have been their homes for more than forty years. As the two shave and dress, they remember their youth in San Francisco back in the 1930s when Fortunado first arrived from the Stockton asparagus fields as a young man and met Vicente at a taxi-dancing joint. The play follows the trajectory of their friendship as they become friends, work together as bellhops at a fancy Nob Hill hotel, and pursue romance and the American dream. Along the way they meet up with a Midwestern girl named Althea (Kelsey Venter) and, as they run up against the harsh and brutal realities of racism, learn the limits of their freedoms in a pre-civil rights U.S.
As always Gotanda has a keen ear for dialog and for the small gestures that create a fully fleshed out character. Vicente and Fortunado’s roles are delineated through their playful banter with each other, the way that Vicente swaggers and shadow-boxes across the stage, and the mournful longing embodied in Fortunado’s glances at his best friend. Though the narrative sticks fairly closely to Tenorio’s original short story, in bringing it to the stage Gotanda enhances some of its small details. For instance, story has a throwaway line about Wisconsonite Althea and Vicente sharing butter and olive sandwiches with one one of their nights out. Gotanda expands this to a short but humorously telling exchange that illustrates the cultural differences between the Filipino characters and the American-born girl.
The sound design of the play is very evocative, anchored by several Tagalog pop songs crooned by a torch singer (Melody Butiu) that punctuate and enhance the dramatic action. Key among those songs is the classic love ballad Da Hil Sayo, which is also included in Curtis Choy’s documentary, The Fall of the I-Hotel. The play also opens and closes with a sound clip from Choy’s film as the voice of one of the activists protesting the I-Hotel eviction warns demonstrators that the police are on the way to the hotel. Gotanda and director Carey Perloff thus link the play’s action to the legendary acts of resistance from the I-Hotel demonstrations, bringing to life the struggles and injustices faced by the first generation manongs who made their home in the I-Hotel. The set of Remember The I-Hotel includes a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows behind which significant action occurs, and the audience is thus reminded of the historical events that took place in 1977 just beyond the walls and down the street from the Strand.
Remember the I-Hotel is a sublime and moving piece of work that, with the expansion of a few dance numbers or songs, could easily become a full-length play. The lead performers are excellent, with Vicente and Fortunado convincingly aging from young and sprightly twenty-year olds to elderly men in their seventies. Lydia Tanji’s 1930s costume design is right on the money, from the sharp tailoring of Vicente’s suits to the flower-print dresses worn by the female characters.
The same cast also appears in the second one-act of the evening, with playwright Sean San Jose taking a lead role. Presenting . . . the Monstress! follows the tale of a low-budget Filipino movie director named Crackers Rosario and his leading lady, Reva Gogo, who specialize in no-budget monster movies. Somehow the pair end up in San Mateo CA collaborating with an Ed Woodian director from the U.S. named Gaz Gazman who has a similar interest in creating cinematic schlock.
Set in the 1970s, Monstress features even more impressive costuming by Lydia Tanji including a powder blue leisure suit, neon green floral shirt and matching lime slacks, and suede platform shoes. The tone of this play is much lighter and more comical than Gotanda’s, with a pair of wisecracking queer Filipino commentators narrating the action. Melody Butiu anchors the play as the wide-eyed Reva who is simultaneously dazzled by and wary of the glamour of low-budget moviemaking in the U.S. Yet despite its wacky flashiness the play ends like I-Hotel with a wistful sense of longing and loneliness and as such the two one-acts complement each other nicely. Both are excellent interpretations of Tenorio’s evocative source material and both are great examples of the talent in the Bay Area Asian American literary and theater arts scenes.