Los Angeles, October 26, 2015
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Los Angeles, October 26, 2015