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ACT’s ‘Monstress’ captures Filipino immigrant experience

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Ogie Zulueta appears in “Remember the I-Hotel,” a one-act play based on a story by Lysley Tenorio and onstage at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The two short stories by San Francisco writer Lysley Tenorio, “Monstress” and “Save the I-Hotel” (from his collection “Monstress”), which are adapted for the American Conservatory Theater stage under the umbrella title “Monstress,” both center on the Filipino immigrant experience in the Bay Area.

Each addresses nuances of that experience, and both involve fragile relationships.

Yet they are radically different in tone, which makes for a satisfyingly varied double bill.

The first one-act, playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s (renamed) “Remember the I-Hotel,” begins and ends on a historically important day in 1977 in that iconic residential hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown (a part of Chinatown). Two longtime, elderly residents, Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) and the apparently somewhat mentally disabled Fortunada (Jomar Tagatac), are preparing to be evicted.

Most of the play is a flashback to the 1930s where they met and bonded at a dance hall (Nina Ball’s elegant period set serves both plays well). It’s an era of overt racism, covert homosexuality and miscegenation laws.

When the extroverted Vicente falls in love with a white girl (Kelsey Venter), everything changes. For better or for worse, the years that follow—until we see them again in 1977 — are left to the imagination.

The writing, the cast, and Carey Perloff’s direction balance the story’s comic and tragic elements quite gracefully, enhanced by buoyant choreography (movement director, Stephen Buescher) and yearning 1930s big-band songs (with Melody Butiu as the dance-hall chanteuse).

Sean San Jose’s adaptation of the second short story, renamed “Presenting. . . the Monstress!,” is a comic delight, with strong acting under Perloff’s direction, and great sound design by Jake Rodriguez.

The Manila career of monster-movie director Checkers Rosario (San Jose) is at risk: Filipino audiences want to see only Hollywood blockbusters. New opportunities emerge when he and his leading lady/girlfriend, Reva (Butiu), who’s tired of playing giant, tentacled squids, have a chance to go to California: an American filmmaker (Nick Gabriel) wants to splice their celluloid monsters into his grade B films—which, it turns out, he shoots in his mother’s basement in Colma.

San Jose added a trio as a sort of chorus (in Tenorio’s story, Reva narrates the tale), and despite some initial confusion as to who is who and what exactly is happening, the play, under Perloff’s direction, becomes increasingly funny, with a lovely, wistful ending that adds gravitas to the general silliness.

REVIEW
Monstress

Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Nov. 22
Tickets: $45 to $90
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www. act-sf.org

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