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Epic immigrant story loses focus in Magic’s ‘Gangster of Love’

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A family from the Philippines living in San Francisco is the subject of Magic Theatre’s premiere “The Gangster of Love.” (Courtesy Jennifer Reiley)

The most interesting character in “The Gangster of Love,” Jessica Hagedorn’s Magic Theatre world premiere adaptation of her own semi-autobiographical 1996 novel, is Milagros Rivera, the mother in an immigrant Filipino family.

Milagros (Sarah Nina Hayon, whose portrayal is wonderfully complex: funny and angry and sad), betrayed by her husband, has left Manila with her two teenage children, Rocky (Golda Sargento) and Voltaire (Jed Parsario), to sail for San Francisco.

It is 1970; the city is exploding with poetry and music and political activism, and each Rivera must find a way to fit into this new environment.

It’s a highly theatrical, nostalgic and yet timely story of struggling immigrants, with loud rock’n’roll sequences (guitar, drums, singing); dancing; party scenes; video projections; fanciful background scenery making maximum use of the Magic’s wide playing area (set and projection designs by Hana S. Kim); poetry readings.

And with an appropriately multicultural cast of 10, some of whom play multiple roles, it strives to envelop the audience in the Rivera family’s exciting new world.

But unfortunately, the central character, bookish Rocky, is not particularly interesting. As we watch her discover the North Beach arts scene of the era, her inner struggle — to become a poet, to be accepted, to find love — fails to gel.

Suddenly she’s admired and befriended, suddenly she acquires mentors, suddenly she’s writing good poems, suddenly she apparently has a boyfriend.

Nor can Sargento, in an earnest performance, find the nuances and personalized emotions that would make Rocky’s journey compelling.

Meanwhile, Milagros gets short shrift, and so, too, does the troubled Voltaire. His downward spiral is disappointingly underwritten, as is the quest of the besotted landlord (Lance Gardner, great in several key roles); his relationship with Milagros, potentially poignant, remains unexplored.

Among other impressive, but too-fleeting, performances, are those of Sean San Jose (exhibiting his enormous range as the flamboyantly gay Uncle Marlon, and as an activist poet) and, in several roles, Lawrence Radecker.

To try to shoehorn the bulk of an epic novel into a play is a challenge, and Hagedorn and Magic director Loretta Greco opted for a sprawling and atmospheric but essentially flat drama, gussied up with too many scenes and set changes; the story would have been better served by distilling a few elements to focus on the characters’ personal journeys.

The brief scenes between Rocky and an illusory Jimi Hendrix hint at how a narrower page-to-stage approach could have worked.

REVIEW
The Gangster of Love
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes May 6
Tickets: $20 to $65
Contact: (415) 441-8822, magictheatre.org

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