Monica Cortes Viharo (right) plays Jackie O., a prostitute at a crossroads, in Charles Pike’s Ghost Train Coming, a Performers Under Stress production. Valerie Fachman plays The King, a sort of guardian angel to Jackie O. Photos by Scott Baker
Sometimes a Tiki Goddess ends up as a sex worker seeking salvation.
Monica Cortes Viharo has a perfectly respectable day job running a U.C. Berkeley Learning Center and even more respectable side gig as the Tiki Goddess, a hostess of sorts, at her husband Will “The Thrill” Viharo’s Thrillville monthly B-movie extravaganzas at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theatre in El Cerrito.
She has yet another side gig as a busy Bay Area actress, and in her next show, the world premiere of Charles Pike’s dark comedy Ghost Train Coming for Performers Under Stress, she plays Jackie O., a lady of the evening finding redemption with what might be the ghost of Elvis.
In short, you’d be hard pressed to find someone leading a more interesting life than Monica Cortes Viharo’s.
The Bay Area native – she was born in the Hayward/Union City area, where she says the most interesting thing was the drive-in – got her taste for theater the way so many other actors did: in an elementary production of The Wizard of Oz. She was the Wicked Witch of the West.
“It was a life-altering moment,” she says. “Everyone thought I was insane because I had the little voice going and they were all like, `It’s just a play in the cafeteria.’ I didn’t know then I was Method.”
And like so many actors, Cortes Viharo attempted to pursue other, more potentially lucrative, fields of study but was eventually sucked into the Theatre Department at U.C. Berkeley, though she didn’t abandon her political science interests entirely.
She won a major theater prize that came with some money – enough for a down payment on her first car, which she only got rid of a couple years ago – but reality intruded on her theater career, and she ended up getting into the world of education, which eventually led to her current gig running student tutoring and technology programs at Cal.
Theater could have gone completely by the wayside if her husband hadn’t forced the issue.
“He encouraged me to do what I love,” Cortes Viharo says. “I credit him with my career because he basically locked me in my bedroom and said today you’re addressing envelopes and sending headshots to agents. From that, I got an agent, who I’ve been with for eight years.”
Commercial work, including appearances on “Nash Bridges,” the Bay Area-shot Don Johnson cop show that local actors referred to as “jury duty” because they were called to action so frequently, gave her some experience and financial wherewithal to pursue theater, her “true love.”
Cortes Viharo recently received a grant of $2,500 from the Theatre Bay Area ATLAS program, which aims to train actors to approach their profession as a true business, complete with career maps and mentors. The program also allows its select participants a slot in the TBA general auditions, which is how Cortes Viharo hooked up with Scott Baker, director of Ghost Train Coming and a co-founder of Performers Under Stress, which was originally founded in Chicago.
Now the actress finds herself in a wild play, which begins performances Thursday, Oct. 30 at The Garage in San Francisco.
Playing Jackie O., a prostitute looking for a way out, has been interesting for Cortes Viharo (seen as Jackie O. at right with Vincent Fasso as Melvin Purple).
“Jackie is at a crossroads in her life,” she says. “She has a pimp named Doc who terrorizes her in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and she has to decide if she can get out or not. She’s really very complex, very poignant and very funny. I get to do a little of everything: fall in love, get sexually violated, shoot someone, get into a major fight. And then there’s the guardian angel, the Elvis figure, played by a woman, who listens to Jackie and helps prepare her for what’s to come.”
The actor’s goal of doing bigger, meatier roles is certainly coming true with Jackie O., and that’s just fine with Cortes Viharo.
“This is not easy stuff,” she says. “I have worked out so many muscles doing this show. I’ve been looking for roles that are challenging, that force me to suck sometimes and reevaluate my approach. Jackie is great that way because she’s a total triathlon.”
That’s quite different from Cortes Viharo’s recurring gig as the Tiki Goddess at the kitschy Thrillville, where her major role is to display a lot of cleavage, run a trivia contest and spin a prize wheel.
“We sort of live in this world we call Thrillville, which is all about B-movies, monsters, robots, tikis – you know, ’50s and ’60s Americana, which I’ve always been into,” Cortes Viharo says. “It’s a lot of fun, but I’m so not a movie person. When the movie starts, I usually cuddle up and fall asleep. I joke that I’ve seen the first 10 minutes of every bad movie ever made.”
There may be more school ahead for Cortes Viharo – perhaps a PhD – and maybe some teaching.
“I’ve always been interested in theater as intellectual work,” she says. “I’d love to be in a situation where I can teach theater as literature or as history.”
Ghost Train Coming runs Oct. 30-Nov. 22 at The Garage, 975 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15 (or $7 at the door plus a roll of two dice). Call 415-585-1221 or visit www.pustheatre.com or www.brownpapertickets.com.