THOUGHTS: Monstress at A.C.T.

Checkers Rosario (Sean San Jose), a horror film screenwriter, and his leading lady and girlfriend, Reva Gogo (Melody Butiu), plan their next film in Presenting...the Monstress!, a one-act play by Sean San Jose adapted from Monstress, Lysley Tenorio's collection of short stories. Monstress is performing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater through November 22, 2015. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Checkers Rosario (Sean San Jose) and his leading lady and girlfriend, Reva Gogo (Melody Butiu) in Presenting…Monstress. Photo by Kevin Berne.

San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater) has inaugurated its new Strand Theater on Market Street with a pair of one-act plays based on the short stories of Bay Area author Lysley Tenorio. The first play, Remember the I-Hotel, begins in 1977 during the historically infamous evictions of long-time elderly residents from Manilatown’s I-Hotel. In a flashback to the 1930s the play reveals the backstory of two of these long-time residents, Vincente (played with believable magnetism by Philip Estrera) and Fortunado (played by the versatile Jomar Tagatac). The flashback introduces the pair as recent immigrants from the Philippines who meet for the first time in a San Francisco dance hall. Vicente and ‘Nado bond quickly and become the closest of companions at work, out on the town, and at home at the I-Hotel. They are inseparable until Vincente falls for the fresh from Wisconsin 18-year -old aspiring journalist Althea (Danielle Frimer), and embarks on an illegal interracial relationship with disastrous consequences.

The second one-act, Presenting…Monstress, is a bittersweet comic tale about a 1970s Filipino monster movie “auteur” director and his beloved and much put upon muse (the delightfully stage-named Checkers Rosario and Reva Gogo, played by Sean San Jose and Melody Butiu). The pair are lured to California by the fast-talking American Gaz Gazman (a fun performance by Nick Gabriel) who has big-plans and a studio in the basement of his mother’s house in San Mateo. During their trip to the US, the love story between Checkers and Reva turns into a love triangle between Checkers, Reva, and  “Hollywood”.

While seemingly thematically disparate on the surface, both Remember the I-Hotel and Presenting…Monstress explore  the complexity of love and the complexity of the immigrant experience. The tales make it clear that the choice to immigrate is a difficult one. The immigrant experience often involves isolation, loneliness, and loss as families and loved ones are left behind. It also frequently involves daily struggles with racism and discrimination, poverty, and the risk of being financially preyed upon by those who would take advantage of cultural naiveté and lack of resources. These struggles are underpinned by a driving optimism stemming from a fundamental belief that America is a place where you can build a better life for yourself and achieve your dreams. Unlike many other tales of American immigration however, both Remember the I-Hotel and Presenting…Monstress provoke the audience to question whether or not this optimism is misplaced, and if it is, whether the losses and struggles were worth it.

Like any new play, this  production has a few kinks that need to be worked out.  The time-

Fortunado "Nado" Giron (Jomar Tagatac, left), Vicente Pacram (Ogie Zulueta, center), and Nick Gabriel (right), bellhops at the Parkdale Hotel on Nob Hill, serve a customer (Melody Butiu) while maid Althea Benton (Kelsey Venter, in background) looks on in Remember the I-Hotel, a one-act play by Philip Kan Gotanda adapted from Monstress, Lysley Tenorio's collection of short stories. Monstress is performing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater through November 22, 2015. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Fortunado “Nado” Giron (Jomar Tagatac, left), Vicente Pacram (Ogie Zulueta, center), and Nick Gabriel (right), bellhops at the Parkdale Hotel on Nob Hill, serve a customer (Melody Butiu) in Remember the I-Hotel. Photo by Kevin Berne.

jump bookends of Remember the I-Hotel were confusing, and this was not helped by somewhat uneven accents covered up by live (though lovely) singing in the critical introductory minutes of the play. That said, once the transition to the 1930s occurs, the story warms up quickly and the actors manage the difficult task of creating complex, believable, sympathetic, and flawed characters in the very short span of this one-act play.

Presenting…the Monstress in keeping with its B-movie theme, is told in a broad, hyper-real style. However, the delicacy of the love story between Checkers and Reva always keeps the narrative grounded, even within the engagingly over-the-top monster movie world.

Remember the I-Hotel and Presenting Monstress are by no means perfect adaptations of perfect stories, but they have a great deal of heart and beauty. They successfully draw you into the lives of the characters and deftly explore a historical and cultural point of view seldom represented on a major regional theatre stage.

Reasons to Go:

  1. #DiversityOnStage and diversity behind the scenes! In addition to featuring a predominantly Asian American cast, Filipino/Puerto Rican American writer and associate director Sean San Jose adapted Presenting the Monstress and Japanese American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda adapted Remember the I-Hotel from source material by Filipino-American writer Lysley Tenorio.
  2. These plays are rooted in San Francisco history, geography, and culture and will resonate with the Bay Area audience.
  3. Beautiful, soulful singing by Melody Butiu in Remember the I-Hotel. She also delivers a lovely, restrained performance as monster movie star Reva.
  4. Wonderful production values, including beautiful lighting, by Robert Hand , era-evocative costumes by Lydia Tanji, and a soundscape by Jake Rodriguez that is particularly fun in its use of movie sounds in Presenting…the Monstress.

Tips:

  1. Take the BART! The Strand Theater is right across the street from the Civic Center stop.
  2. It’s a small theater so there’s hardly a bad seat in the house, but two people in what I’d call the equivalent of box seats on the side seemed to have to move their chairs and lean to see.
  3. Subscribe to the fantastic Words on Plays for some great behind the scenes interviews and dramaturgy. In addition to enriching the experience of audience members, it’s also a great resource for educators trying to make cross-curricular connections.
  4. There is a café and seating in the lobby, so don’t be afraid to arrive early!
  5. Don’t sit in the first row if you are bothered by fog effects.
  6. Read up on the history of the protests against the 1977 I-Hotel evictions before you go. I feel that more prior knowledge of the history would have helped some of my confusion about what was happening during the play’s bookends.
  7. Catch it soon– this play closes on November 22nd!

Who should go: Teens and up, anyone interested in Bay Area history, classic monster movie buffs

Themes: immigration, the Filipino immigration experience in California, interracial and intercultural relationships, same-sex relationships, love, cinema, San Francisco history

Advisory: Brief depictions of violence and sex in Remember the I-Hotel. Fog effects.

Monstress plays through November 22nd at the A.C.T. Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. in San Fransisco.

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