A.C.T. plays don’t do justice to Filipino life in U.S.
I’ve never felt more like a gringo.
What did it? Two one-act, world-premiere plays under the rubric “Monstress” at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater in San Francisco.
Both allegedly track life in the Philippines, which I’d previously known little about, and life among Filipinos transplanted to the Bay Area.
I’d known even less about them.
The dual exercises in prejudice, fantasy and foreign culture are based on reality — but neither play comes close to realism.
“I-Hotel” is maudlin and demeans the immigrant struggle instead of the racism it intends to attack, and “Monstress,” based on a B-movie industry that actually flourished, is too puerile to make any point.
Certainly with the first play, advance knowledge would help.
Although director/artistic director Carey Perloff outlines it in the program, I hadn’t known the attempted eviction of elderly, low-income Filipinos from the International Hotel in 1977 “was a seminal event in San Francisco’s history and the rise of Asian American activism across America.”
My ignorance could be due to not having arrived in the Bay Area until a decade later — or having only one Filipino friend, a young ex-San Franciscan who’s been a history prof at Harvard, an erudite but eccentric guy who speaks flawless English and might make a compelling character in a play.
Not in either of these, though.
Both “Monstress” segments deal with vastly less sophisticated, heavily accented, cartoonish figures I sense might embarrass my pal, the urbane son of two physicians.
I, meanwhile, felt embarrassed for the eight actors, all of whom did exceptionally well considering what they had to battle — not only the stereotypical inbred prejudice in “Remember the I-Hotel” and contrived aliens in “Presenting…the Monstress” but two highly flawed script adaptations of short stories by San Francisco writer Lysley Tenorio.
Of the eight, each cast in both plays, Melody Butiu ranks among the most memorable.
She excels in “I-Hotel” singer with a mournful yet torchy voice, and in “Presenting,” she portrays an actress relegated to monster roles in her lover’s Filipino horror movies.
Fortunado “ (Jomar Tagatac, right) comforts Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) in “Monstress.” Photo by Kevin Berne.
Ogie Zulueta as Vincente, lost-soul hotel resident who befriends Fortunado, and Jomar Tagtac, as his betraying buddy, also turn in top-notch performances.
Still, I’m white not brown and don’t speak the Tagalog words and phrases sprinkled throughout, so I had problems relating to the characters — personally, ethnically, culturally.
In contrast, however, most opening night audience members — many of them drama students with backpacks — didn’t seem to have similar difficulty. They apparently found the surreal mega-melodrama of “I-Hotel” meaningful, and they laughed at the mega-campy humor of “Monstress.”
Regardless, magnificently colorful costumes by Lydia Tanji and a high, haunting set by Nina Ball should rate bouquets from all theatergoers.
As, indeed, should the direction of Perloff, who uses flashbacks, doorways and trap doors — and sleek cuts from hotel to ballroom to a dime-a-dance emporium — to best advantage.
Perloff also merits praise for experimenting with yet another glimpse into diversity, a vision she’s advanced for years.
I’d also place in the plus-column sprightly choreography by movement director Stephen Buescher.
Yet none of that can ameliorate the fact that — despite racial tensions being depicted impressionistically — “I-Hotel” lacks more than telegraphed drama, and “Monstress” — despite frequent allusions to antique Hollywood stars and blockbusters — feels as if it had been put together as a high school class project.
I suspect, furthermore, that myriad references to San Francisco streets might please a few locals but will likely disconcert anyone from anywhere else.
But maybe the biggest problem is that the two American Conservatory Theater plays may have been written for Filipinos who probably won’t buy tickets and not the gringos who might.
“Presenting” was adapted by Sean San José, who assumed the protagonist’s role in his own play, “I-Hotel” by Philip Kan Gotanda, which spotlights Manilatown, a ghetto along Kearny Street that housed those who toiled on farms, fisheries and canneries in the summertime but required more work in the city during the winters.
Come to think of it, that’s what I believe both hour-long plays need as well.
“Monstress” plays at the American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco, through Nov. 22. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, Matinees, 2 p..m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets: $20 to $100. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.