Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Mixed Messages" (on Philip Kan Gotanda's "Remember the I-Hotel" and Sean San Jose's "Presenting...The Monstress!)

mixed messages
by Douglas Messerli

Philip Kan Gotanda Remember the I-Hotel and Sean San José Presenting…The Monstress! (based on stories by Lysley Tenorio) / A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater) at the Strand  Theater, San Francisco / the performance I attended, with Vance George, was at the Matinee on Sunday, October 25, 2015

For much of the first half of the 20th century many Filipinos must have felt their relationship to the US to be quite confusing, filled as it was with mixed messages. On the one hand, as a country under possession of the US, the values and productions of American culture were often introduced (and even imposed) upon the Philippines island culture; and, as we have seen in Kidlat Tahimik’s film (which I reviewed a few months ago on my World Cinema site) those US values often seemed highly appealing for the young. For much of the century, since Filipino’s were seen as American nationals, immigration to the US was relatively easy; and for many poor Filipinos it was tempting to travel alone to the US with hopes of making enough money to return to marry or to better support families some males left behind. 
     What they couldn’t have quite imagined that in that land of fabled immigrant possibilities, labeled simply as Asians, they would be forced into hard labor in the lettuce fields or in canneries, and that the good life proffered by American urban communities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles would rarely be available to them. As Asians they were herded into specific sections of the San Francisco, mostly near the Chinese and Japanese communities. For these mostly bachelor male immigrants work opportunities were limited, and white women were strictly off limits, with severe punishments for those who crossed the line. Many lived out their lives without having come any closer to a true collaboration with their adopted culture. 
      The two stories that are told in the two plays of Monstress, adapted from a book of tales by fiction writer Lysley Tenorio by Philip Kan Gotanda and Sean San José, both tell of Filipino dreamers who believed they might be able to enter and collaborate with the American Dream before realizing that they would be forced to remain on the fringes, and even then might evicted from the communities they had managed to establish. Both are tales in which the central characters are very much in love, but are often confused about whom and what they love most. And both demonstrate the fierce imagination and almost manic energy of Filipinos in a new, often inexplicable world. Yet, these two plays are completely different in tone. And the fact that both share the same actors and are directed by the same director, San Francisco’s A.C.T.’s Artistic Director, Carey Perloff, reveal the range of all of their abilities.

      Of the two plays, the first, Remember the I-Hotel, by Gotanda, seems to me the most profound. Based generally on true-life incidents of the 1920s and 1930s, it concerns the relationship of two Filipino men, Vicente (Ogie Zulueta), who has been working in San Francisco for some time, and Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac), a migrant worker who comes to the city from the farms near Stockton. The two, a bit like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Péchuchet, immediately take to one another, with the smarter, far more handsome, and certainly better dressed of the two, Vicente, taking the awkward rube under his wing and into his bedroom, explaining to him how to dress, dance, behave, and, love—without truly imagining that the two might soon also find love in one another. Vicente, a bit like Los Angeles’ Hispanic zoot-suiters, wears only McIntosh suits (the favored garment of nearly all well-dressed Filipino men of the day) and frequents the taxi dance halls, like hundreds of other Filipino bachelors. His hero is the boxer Speedy Dado (Diosdado Posadas), like Vicente, a small, bantamweight man with well-developed muscles who was undefeated until Newsboy Brown knocked him out in 1928.

      As Vicente quite literally (and in the play’s remarkable choreography, quite brilliantly) spins and twists into the seemingly dunce-like Nado’s heart, we suddenly observe the migrant farm-hand come to life, whirling into new, Fred Astaire-inspired dance steps that Vicente has never before imagined, and within the moments the two are dancing, each trying to lead as males, while Vicente desperately seeks to learn Nado’s original dance steps. Whether he learns anything or not hardly matters, he is smitten by his new roommate, who the day after he propels—the word which, in fact, might most define Vicente’s behavior—his newfound “cousin” into the world of hotel bellboy-hood. 
     Suddenly drink and food, like magic, is purloined from the leftovers of platters standing outside hotel doors, which, upon their return home, the two share in what becomes a kind of drunken celebration of their seeming potential: with gin (brought home by Vicente) and champagne (found by the quick-learner Nado), they revel in a private party which gradually shifts to a beautifully intimate moment as the drunken Nado gently kisses the almost passed-out Vicente, who awakens to assertively kiss Nado back.
      Clearly, given the next few scenes, wherein Vicente falls in love with the sexually open hotel cleaning woman, Althea (Danielle Frimer) from Horeb, Wisconsin (the antithesis one might imagine of his own cultural upbringing: she prefers mustard to the hot peppery Filipino concoction he offers her), Vicente is now clearly a sex-needy heterosexual or, maybe a man who has definitely not come to terms with his own sexual desires. Unfortunately, the playwright doesn’t overtly explore the dimensions of Vicente’s desires or delusions.

    Propelling the story forward, Vicente and Althea are determined to enter one of the hotel’s empty suites to demonstrate their love. Jealous and feeling deserted—after a late night homosexual encounter under a San Francisco bridge—Nado calls the police to report his friend’s, ironically, equally “illicit” sexual activities.

    Vicente is beaten into subjection, returned to their shared International Hotel room a broken man. But we never discover what those changes really mean between the betrayed and the betrayer. All we know is that below, on the street somewhere in the future, a protest is playing out, while the now dominate companion Nado is attempting to dress Vicente so that they might leave the building in which they live as commanded by the police. Are the protests against the inhabitants, we can only ask, demanding their extrusion? In some ways, they might well be, given that the whole of San Francisco aristocracy had long been demanding to turn their residence hotel into a grand parking structure.

     In fact, the noisy crowd below, so we discover upon reading the program notes, are the voices of students and other activists protesting the eviction of Nado, Vicente and dozens of others still living in the International Hotel on Kearny Street in 1976. Presumably, the two have lived together all these years in a kind of gauzy mist of friendship-domestic partnership whose borders were never defined. All we know is that the once dynamic dreamer, Vicente, is now an older, clearly defeated man who needs help to be dressed the way to which he has grown accustomed, and his self-defeated friend Nado has become a kind of older brother-mother-lover-friend, who keeps Vicente alive by reminding him of his (in)glorious past. 
      Had only Gotanda had been able to better delineate the facts of how things stand. It is almost that, in the playwright’s attempt to present this specific couple as representatives of the collective who were simultaneously being evicted, he has lost the story that matters most. Yes, a whole community of aging Filipino bachelors, horribly maltreated by the very society which they sought to embrace, was once more, in that year of 1976 when Diane Feinstein as San Francisco mayor, being displaced. What happened to these specific dreamer-lovers, to Vicente and Nado? We want to know, but are left panting for the story, while the larger and far vaguer larger story is played out.

      Certainly, Sean San José’s adaption of Tenorio’s Mistress is, superficially, far more upbeat. But, in fact, this campy tale of the Ed Wood-like Filipino director, Checkers (San José, himself, playing the role) and his monster-mistress, Reva (Melody Butiu, who played a beautiful torch singer in the previous play) has numerous dark corners. Checkers is the wonderful creator of Filipino films you’ve never seen about the Shrimp woman, the Dinosaur monster, and various other ridiculously hokey monsters which have reached only one theater in Manila, but have convinced their director that he is a genius. 
       It quickly becomes apparent that poor Checkers, deluded as he is, can only love his zaftig wife through the mythologies which he has created for her, and when his career goes sour, his love flags. Reva, on the other hand, wants only to play in American-like movies such as those of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and, quite amazingly, her voice, had she ever been given a chance to perform, is a bit like a Filipino version of Day’s lifting, slightly jazz-inspired, rasp. 
     Fortunately, this play is told, in Greek-chorus style, by a crazy trio of the brilliant Jomar Tagatac, Ogie Zuleta (both performing as kind of mad gay queens) and their apparently fag-hag friend Tala (Rinabeth Apostol), who, whenever the larger story flags, come to its comic rescue.

     Just prior to the Filipino cinematic breakthroughs of Kidlat Tahimik’s filmmaking, filmmakers such as Eddie Romero and the fictional Checkers of this work, depressed by the lack of reaction from their fellow countrymen, sought American collaborators. In Monstress the disappointed true-believer Checkers is sought out by the totally sleazy and self-deluded  Russian-American film-channeler Gaz Gazman (Nick Gabriel) who, having actually seen (something very few, evidently, have actually done) Checkers’ early films, wants to use them to complete his own zany version of double-headed-vampire-bat horror film. Gazman, a greater Ed Wood than America’s very worst director, outwits the Filipino dreamer Checkers by agreeing to take him and his wife, Reza, to “Hollywood” for what appears to be a serious cut-and-clip session.
      The only problem is that Gazman’s (a riff presumably on a gassed up Gatsby) Hollywood lies not even just outside Los Angeles (as it did in the original story) but, in San José’s version, is set up in the environs of suburban San Francisco, San Matteo and Daly City, the revelation of which brought great guffaws of knowing laughter from the San Francisco audience.

       When Gazman loses the actress he has determined to incorporate into this international mess of a story after she determines take a modeling job, he has no choice but to use Reza, the great “monstress,” as he describes her, for his leading lady. Demoted to the role of security guard, the dreaming Checkers gradually perceives that he has not only been taken advantage of, but has lost his lovely monstress Reva who has been hijacked by a dream of a dream of Hollywood stardom. Finally, the camera has discovered her face, and she, truly believing in her notions of romance, is ready to show it, leaving her shrimp-woman costumes to cinematic history. 
      It hardly matters, as the chorus twitters, what happens. This is bad satire as a Telenova romance. Will she or will she not wake up and return to the Philippines? Will she become the great actress, star of the worst movies ever made, she has always aspired to become? I won’t tell. You’ll have to come to San Francisco’s beautifully new A.C.T. Strand Theater to find out. Besides, I have to admit, I lost track of what was going on by the last few moments of this somewhat mindless, but well performed comic tidbit, which we all enthusiastically applauded.

Los Angeles, October 26, 2015