Everything is new about “Monstress”, the production of the American Conservatory Theater. The venue is the new Strand Theatre, the script comes from two short stories adapted for the stage and the subject is Filipino-American life both in San Francisco and in Manila.
“Monstress” comes from two short stories by Lysley Tenorio. They have been adapted by Philip Kan Gotanda and Sean San José for the stage. Its music is sung beautifully by Melody Butiu and dancing also accompanies the lively dialogue.
“Remember the I-Hotel” spans the times from the 30s to August 4, 1977 when the Filipino inhabitants of the famous I-Hotel on Kearny Street were evicted. This switching back and forth of50 years often makes the action a bit puzzling and out-of-joint.
The first one-act is the story of two immigrants, Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) and Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac), who meet in the hotel’s ballroom before a public dance. Fortunado is a new immigrant who works in the asparagus fields around Stockton. He has borrowed a ratty jacket from a friend and comes to San Francisco to enjoy the big city. Vicente takes him under his wing.
First Vicente tries to teach him how to behave at the dance and gives him some dime tickets to pay per dance. They practice dancing together, but wrestle about who is to be the girl.
The two form a very close relationship and Vincente helps him get a job as a bus boy in an upscale hotel on Nob Hill. Also working there is a Wisconsin girl Althea (Kesley Venter) who leads Vicente into a dangerous situation as white and colored do not mix in the 30s. Scenes of their love affair and the violence that ensues are seen through cloudy windows. The set is a marvelous creation of Nina Ball, well-known Bay Area artist.
Suddenly the the time period changes to the eviction at the I-Hotel with riots outside and the resulting hundreds of police testifying to the public furor that this caused. The sound design by Jake Rodriguez creates a world for us. The first one-act is an historical, psychological and social statement about the Filipinos in San Francisco.
However, certain awkwardnesses with ancillary characters coming and going only serve to confuse matters, especially the man who seems to be taking the role of narrator, à la “Our Town” at times.
After the intermission, the mood changes with “Presenting ….The Monstress”, a spoof on movie making both in Manila and in Hollywood. Checkers (Sean San José – assistant director and adaptor of this play) is a wannabe director of monster films in Manila. His leading lady and girlfriend Reva (Melody Butiu) tries to bring him to his senses and encourages him to make standard Hollywood type movies such as those with Doris Day and Rock Hudson that are so popular in Manila.
But Gaz Gazman (Nick Gabriel) comes into the story. He is a Hollywood director who admires and has researched Checker’s films. They start to work together. The other characters on stage including the very gay Tagatac plus Zulueta and Rinabeth Apostle dance, sing and act for us. And Gaz’s babushka wearing, chain smoking, foul mouthed “Niet” saying mother (Kelsey Venter) enlivens the work. The first three do a great rendition of Diane Warick’s “Do you Know the Way to San José”. And like the songs and dance in the first play, these moments keep the action pleasantly lively.There are many Hollywood in- jokes and great moments as they are mistranslated by Checkers.
Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s direction of the production and choice of the best in the tech crew (scenes by Ball, sound by Rodriguez, costumes by Lydia Tanji) make these plays reach a level of professionalism that only a theater like A.C.T. can afford. Lots of money was spent here. However, both scripts could have been tightened a bit, but this will happen if the plays go somewhere else for more productions.
“Monstress” demonstrates A.C.T.’s commitment to new works about the rich multicultural environment surrounding this marvelously designed new theater. It runs through Nov. 22. American Conservatory Theater, S.F. For info: (415) 749-2228 or go online.
© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.