Uneven tone tilts ACT’s Monstress double bill

Oct 03

Remember the I-Hotel 05
Vicente Pacram (Ogie Zulueta, left) serves a Filipino dish to Althea Benton (Kelsey Venter) in the room he shares at the I-Hotel with Fortunado “Nado” Giron (Jomar Tagatac, center) in Remember the I-Hotel, a one-act play by Philip Kan Gotanda adapted from Monstress, Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories. American Conservatory Theater’s Monstress double bill is at the Strand Theater. Below: The Squid Mother of Cebu (Melody Butiu) grabs a hold of Melissa Locsin in Presenting…the Monstress!, a one-act play by Sean San José also adapted from Tenorio’s Monstress. Photos by Kevin Berne

Two of the Bay Area’s most interesting theater artists, Philip Kan Gotanda and Sean San José, were asked to adapt a short story from Lysley Tenorio’s 2012 collection Monstress for American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater as part of the company’s San Francisco Stories initiative and the New Strands play development and commissioning program.

The results make up the double bill Monstress now at the Strand, and while both plays, under the emotionally astute direction of ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff, are enjoyable, one feels like a much more stage-worthy enterprise while the other comes off as more of a light sketch.

The latter, San José’s Presenting…the Mnstress!, concludes the 2-hour and 15-minute evening, and that, unfortunately, dissipates the power and impact of the first play, Gotanda’s riveting Remember the I-Hotel.

San José stars in his play as Checkers Rosario, a Manila filmmaker who specializes in schlocky D-grade horror movies starring his girlfriend, Reva Gogo (the wonderful Melody Butiu). Deluded by dreams of Hollywood glory, Checkers can’t see that his talents don’t really lie in filmmaking, and just when it seems like reality is catching up to his delusion, a visitor from Hollywood arrives to open doors to cinematic stardom. So Checkers and Reva are off to California, but it turns out that Gaz Gazmann (Nick Gabriel) isn’t really a Hollywood mogul. He’s makes terrible movies in the basement of his mother’s San Mateo home.

Monstress 01

There’s fun to be had with the silly ’70s horror movies being made (the costumes by Lydia Tanji are a hoot), and Butiu gives a full-bodied, emotional performance as a woman caught between the man she loves and his fragile ego. But there’s not much there there, as they say. A sort of Greek chorus of Checkers’ fans tells the story and plays supporting roles, but this device tends to make the play seem sillier than it actually is.

This slight play is also done no favors following the evening’s first play, the emotionally resonant, utterly compelling Remember the I-Hotel. The story is based on an incident from San Francisco history – the razing of the International Hotel in 1977 and the displacement of its mostly Filipino inhabitants – but Tenorio and Gotanda tap into a story that transcends historical connection.

Bookended by the public demonstration and police presence that accompanied the 1977 evictions, the story takes place primarily in the 1930s, when San Francisco’s Manilatown was full of Filipino clubs and restaurants. In one of those clubs, a dance hall (beautifully rendered by set designer Nina Ball and versatile enough to evoke a number of locations), bellhop Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) meets migrant farmworker Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) taking a break from the Stockton asparagus fields. The two don’t immediately hit it off, but once Vicente nicknames his new friend Nado, they’re practically inseparable. They become roommates at the I-Hotel, and Vicente gets Nado a job at the hotel where he works.

Friendship quickly turns to love, or at least it does for Nado, but Vicente’s head is turned by Althea (Kelsey Venter), a white maid at the hotel (her race factors into the plot). Tension and betrayal follow, and once the action shifts back to the ’70s, we understand a great deal more about Vicente and Nado and the harshness of the eviction they’re facing.

Zulueta and Tagatac are astoundingly good in their roles, so much so you want to spend more time with their story and its complexities. All the while their story unfolds, Butiu appears behind a microphone on the small dancehall stage and sings standards like “The Very Thought of You” and “Wild is the Wind,” all a cappella. Her voice is gorgeous, and the songs lend a romantic and wistful underscore.

It’s a sad but somehow beautiful play, and it feels substantial to the degree that Presenting…The Monstress! feels frivolous. And that makes for an interesting but even experience.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Conservatory Theater’s Monstress continues through Nov. 22 at the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Leave a Reply