Enrapturing Tales About a Philippine Family Unlike Yours
By: Victor Cordell - Nov 30, 2023
The stereotype of the submissive Asian woman has taken some major hits in recent times. Amy Chua’s eye opening “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” reveals the assertiveness and domineering of many Chinese mothers in demanding excellence from their children. In politics, a bold Nikki Haley looks to be Donald Trump’s biggest threat for the Republican nomination for president. And in the entertainment scene, the likes of Margaret Cho, Awkwafina, and Mindy Kaling have shown that Asian women can be as crass and brassy as anyone else.
Based in Seattle is Philippine-American author/performer Sara Porkalob. She has brought the first of her Dragon Trilogy, “Dragon Lady” to Marin Theatre Company and stunned the opening night audience with her breathtaking talent and captivating manner. Anyone who thinks that MTC was taking a lazy break by putting a one-person show on its stage would be badly mistaken. Not only does Porkalob dominate the arena like few solo performers, but the production values meet and sometimes exceed those of a conventional play.
Porkalob spins tales centering on Maria, a mater familias, raised in Manila. Personally, I find the following to be a spoiler, but since the promotional material reveals it, I’ll share that the content of the play is based on the performer’s own family history, but who knows to what degree of accuracy? Maria was Sara’s grandmother, and some of the sketches were shared with her favorite granddaughter on Maria’s 60th birthday.
Incredibly, the downtrodden episodes that are related are full of crime, deprivation, and despair, yet, if the show had to be classified, it could be called a comedy. But as an indication of how varied the play is, the theater characterizes it as a “solo cabaret musical.” Her poor family lived on the edge or outside the law, but Porkalob candidly recounts events with such brio that you figure everything is going to be okay. And her being here to pass on the legends partially affirms the optimism.
The narrative is grisly in part. Maria was forced to see her father’s fingers cut off by gangsters, and he would later be murdered by them. Her big break came when, after years of serving as a maid in a cathouse, she would become a public and then a private entertainer in the brothel. Before knowing his identity, she was swept into bed by a customer, the capo of the very gang that had killed her father. As told enthusiastically by Sara, Maria had noted that it was her first sexual experience and that they did it 11 times!
Maria did become pregnant soon after and married the American sailor who would give her the distinctive Hungarian family name. The question of paternity arises but any resolution is not revealed in the play. However, more fireworks followed.
The stories are told with great animation and joy. Porkalob captures every emotion, even bringing mist to her eyes and tears to her cheeks. But it is her wide-eyed exhilaration that energizes the audience. She cackles and coos; uses different styles of often coarse humor; flounces around using every bit of the stage; and has voices and affects for each of the roles she portrays.
What’s more, the performer sings both with considerable power as well as delicacy. Original songs with situation-specific lyrics as well as old standards cleverly advance the story line. And when it suits Porkalob, she even changes lyrics to familiar tunes like “House of the Rising Sun” to say what she wants them to say. The music also contributes to the everchanging tone and tempo that keep the act fresh for its 90 plus minutes. She makes the characters involving despite their distance, in many ways, from the audience. Almost all of the vignettes strike a rich vein, though some involving the children are overextended.
“Dragon Lady” is directed by Andrew Russell and takes place on Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s detailed interpretation of the Red Dragon Club in Manila with its whorehouse red décor. A scrim over a slightly elevated platform mutes the appearance of members of the band Hot Damn Scandal, comprised of guitar, upright bass, and trombone, that creates an astounding sound for the performer’s vocals, especially taking advantage of the mellow tremolo of the brass instrument.
More clarity would be useful to fill in the overarching narrative. No time frames are ever mentioned, though the action must elapse over 50 years. And while the family moves from Manila in Act 1 to Bremerton, Washington in Act 2, that shift is not made clear as soon as it should be. Among the situations that deserve closure are a little more about Maria’s marriage and separation as well as (another) murder that strangely seems to occur with impunity and without aftermath.
Nevertheless, the minutes fly by. Sara Porkalob is a great story writer and even better story teller who offers a memorable look at a family that is probably a little bit different from yours.
“Dragon Lady,” written by Sara Porkalob is produced by Marin Theatre Company and appears on its stage at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA through December 17, 2024.