“All that became of their kiss was longing.”
– “Monstress” by Lysley Tenorio, page 173
The measure of any great play is how long it stays with you when it’s over. American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Monstress” ultimately ends, sending the audience back onto Market Street after two hours in order for the audience to move on with their lives.
Yet even though this play had to end, the memory of it was just getting started.
In Lysley Tenorio’s short story collection of the same name, there are moments of great pain along with moments of wonderful levity, set against the backdrop of Manila, San Francisco and Hollywood. ACT’s adaptation of two stories in the book is a stunning, radiant piece that showcases the most wonderful joy and stinging heartbreak, an absolute tour-de-force directed with razor-sharp focus by the company’s artistic director Carey Perloff, sitting on a magnificent set designed by Bay Area stalwart Nina Ball. The play takes place in the new Strand Theater, a space dedicated to bringing forth a more intimate play going experience along with a new set of voices. In “Monstress,” Tenorio’s voice takes center stage, an author whose plays are beautifully varied, stories that give insight and illumination to its readers.
The Filipino people have a long and proud history in the Bay Area and California, yet the play is a reminder that they were also an extremely oppressed people in the 1930’s. After the Philippines became a US territory in 1898, which the US purchased for $20 million, Filipinos faced a cultural diaspora in the 1930’s and beyond, with many young Filipino men coming to this new country with the goal of making money and returning home.
For many, it did not work out like that. With the absence of many Filipina women, and with strict laws forbidding marriage and relationships to white women, laws that lasted until the mid-1960’s, many men of that era grew old and alone. Companionship came in the form of co-workers, men who shared fields full of produce, or those who toiled doing menial jobs throughout their younger days.
Take the story of Vicente (strongly presenced Ogie Zulueta) and Fortunado (powerfully understated Jomar Tagatac), who are a bit of an odd couple. Both men meet in a dance hall in tense circumstances, yet end up forging a friendship, with Vicente helping Fortunado get a job as a bellhop at the Parkdale Hotel, just a short cable car ride away from the International Hotel. Vicente is loud, boisterous sort, a man who loves to throw back Chinese Du Kang liquor and throw punches at his enemies. “Nado” on the other hand, is pensive and thoughtful, and finds warmth in Vicente’s friendship.
While the source material, “Save the I-Hotel,” adapted for this production with masterful skill by playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, is fiction, the story is set against the backdrop of truth. Kearny Street, the home of the City’s Manilatown, is where the International Hotel sat, a place where young Filipino men could rent a room for $6 a week. The hotel was nestled onto prime real estate and was a target for developers. Things came to a head 40 years later in the 1970’s, where many of these elder Filipino men were forced out of the only homes they ever knew. Preparation for the worst in the midst of vicious protests was commonplace.
Adaptations function best when the focus is on the character, not the backdrop. Yet in Gotanda’s adaptation, the backdrop does a remarkable job informing the characters and their choices, with Melody Butiu filling space lovingly with warm, textured renditions of standards in both English and Tagalog.
Painfully, Vicente’s choice to have the audacity to find happiness with Midwestern beauty Althea (an empathetic Danielle Frimer) has heartbreaking consequences. “We aren’t doing anything wrong,” rails Vicente. But Fortunado knows better than to believe that. If a man screams and no one cares, did he even actually scream?
The end of this piece is simply magnificent and does a remarkable job of coming full circle. One of the funniest scenes in the play is a dance lesson. And one of the most painful and powerful scenes is the implementation of that dance, this one a bit slower, a bit shakier, but oh so poignant.
Where both plays connect is really in the harsh reality of dreams. Filipinos in the 1930’s came to the United States for the same reasons that everyone in the history of the United States comes here; For opportunity, for hope, and for a chance to fulfill a dream. The second story of Tenorio’s is about dreams of stardom and Hollywood. Reva Gogo (a wide-ranging performance by Butiu) and her husband, film director Checkers Rosario (a dominant and tender portrayal by Campo Santo’s Sean San Jose, who also wrote this particular adaptation) are no power couple. Gogo is a B movie queen, stuck in her boyfriend’s mostly crappy films. Titles such as “The Squid Mother of Cebu” won’t exactly do much to build anyone a serious career. Yet Gaz Gazman (perfectly smarmy and funny Nick Gabriel) wants a piece of their action, bringing the couple from the Philippines to the film mecca of San Mateo, a city juuuuust a bit north of Hollywood, where Gazman’s Russian mother is not exactly a conventional production assistant. Gazman does not really have much of a pedigree, save for a second place student film award and a really deep basement, great for creating science fiction scenes where aliens probably come out of the ground.
The storytelling device was greatly assisted by the return of Tagatac, Zulueta and Rinabeth Apostol, who function as a Greek chorus of three, pushing plot and story forward in the funniest and cattiest of ways. Lydia Tanji’s brilliant period costumes, wonderful soundscape by Jake Rodriguez and some solid lighting from Robert Hand inform all of the play’s characters.
While this story brought forth plenty of side splitting humor, the pathos of the story is the missing connection, a couple who means the world to each other but begin slowly traveling down a different road. Notice the pain in the eyes of Gogo as she discovers what is happening. It is deep, it resonates on another level, a woman caught between two worlds – the world which houses the desire to do what you love, and the world of deciding what you need to love more at a specific moment in time.
The entire mission of a play like “Monstress” is to bring forth stories that connect our humanity to us. To that end, the importance of a piece like this cannot be overstated. These stories are not just Filipino stories, but quintessential American stories, rooted in the pain and anguish of navigating a new land, but also in the joy and love of connection.
There is no doubt the audience connects deeply to this production – a play where dance can be seen as a metaphor. The performers did a wonderful job of leading. All the audience had to do was follow.
And when a great partner does the leading, it’s the easiest, most beautiful and most painful dance in the world.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theater presents “Monstress”
Adapted from the short story collection written by Lysley Tenorio
“Remember the I-Hotel” – written by Philip Kan Gotanda
“Presenting…The Monstress!” – written by Sean San Jose
Directed by Carey Perloff
The Word: A magnificent evening, a show that allows the audience to delve into a painful past, but also the unbridled joy of humanity.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Nov. 22nd
The Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
TIckets range from $20 – $100
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org