"Monstress," presented by American Conservatory Theater, is based on two Lysley Tenorio's short stories about Filipino American life in the Bay Area.
The first story, "Remember the I-Hotel," was adapted by Philip Kan Gotanda and is the meatier of the two. The other is "Presenting ... The Monstress!" adapted by Sean San José, who acts in both and who works with director Carey Perloff as associate director.
"Remember the I-Hotel" takes place in San Francisco on Aug. 4, 1977, and in the 1930s. As it opens, two elderly Filipino American men are preparing to be evicted from the International Hotel along with all of its other residents while angry protests take place on the street below (sound by Jake Rodriguez).
One of the men, Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac), assists the other, Vicente (Ogie Zulueta), who appears to be mentally and physically disabled.
In the flashback to the 1930s, Vicente, who has lived in San Francisco for some time, befriends Fortunado, a more recent arrival who works in the asparagus fields of Stockton.
Vicente allows Fortunado to stay with him in his International Hotel room and gets him a job as a fellow bellboy at a downtown hotel.
Eventually the audience learns how Vicente became disabled. Suffice it to say, unrequited love and a forbidden relationship with a white woman, Althea (Kelsey Venter), were involved.
"Monstress!" starts in Manila where Checkers (San José) makes B-grade movies featuring his girlfriend, Reva (Melody Butiu), in a variety of monster roles (imaginative costumes by Lydia Tanji). His career is looking bleak when he's contacted by a fast-talking American film maker, Gaz Gazman (Nick Gabriel), who likes his films, wants to incorporate them into his own, and invites Checkers and Reva to California to work with him for a week.
Their dreams of Hollywood glamor don't match the reality when they wind up staying with Gaz in his San Mateo home and learn that his studio is in his mother's basement in Colma.
Eventually Reva must decide between returning to Manila with Checkers, whom she loves, and staying in California where she appears to have career opportunities.
It's all rather silly stuff, but the cast is excellent. Rinabeth Apostol, Venter, Tagatac and Zulueta serve as the ensemble for "Monstress!" just as the "Monstress!" principals serve as the ensemble in "Remember the I-Hotel."
Nina Ball has designed the utilitarian set, with lighting by Robert Hand.
Although it's hard to care about the characters in "Monstress!" the two principals in "Remember the I-Hotel" are far more intriguing, thanks to playwright Gotanda and the actors. Their characters are more fully developed, and the audience is left to speculate what happened in the years between then and the 1977 eviction, thus offering much food for thought.
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