Theater Review: ‘Gangster of Love’ Both Funny and Heart-Wrenching

The cast of "The Gangster of Love." (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

The cast of "The Gangster of Love." (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. With this trenchant observation, Leo Tolstoy opened his masterpiece, “Anna Karenina.” In “Gangster of Love,” playwright Jessica Hagedorn takes that wisdom to heart. She follows the Rivera family as they are uprooted from a comfortable life in Manila and transported to 1970s San Francisco, and she reveals how each family member struggles to cope with their unfamiliar and precarious new lives.

San Francisco’s Magic Theatre is staging this world premiere of “Gangster of Love,” which Hagedorn adapted from her 1996 autobiographical novel of the same name. Magic Artistic director Loretta Greco, who also directed the play, pulled together an excellent cast who both shine as individual actors and work in exquisite harmony as an ensemble. Several of the cast members are affiliated with Bindlestiff Studio (a San Francisco-based Fil-Am theater group) including Jed Parsario and Chuck Lacson who are resident artists there. Some of the actors appeared in Hagedorn’s stage adaptation of “Dogeaters,” also directed by Greco, at the Magic in 2016.

(L to R) Sarah Nina Hayon as Milagros, Chuck Lacson as Basilio, and Lawrence Radecker as Rick. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

(L to R) Sarah Nina Hayon as Milagros, Chuck Lacson as Basilio, and Lawrence Radecker as Rick. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

The play – which manages to be at times heart-wrenching and at other times side-splittingly funny – begins as the Rivera family arrives by ship in San Francisco. Mother Milagros (the magnetic Sarah Nina Hayon) is thrilled at the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, while her teenage children, Rocky (Golda Sargento) and Voltaire (Parsario) can’t get their minds off the death of Jimi Hendrix.

But reality soon sets in, even for Milagros. Her delight at coming to America is deflated when they arrive at the dilapidated, cheaply furnished flat her sister Fely (Lisa Hori-Garcia) has found for them at the gritty edge of Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood past its prime, descending into drug use and despair.

Milagros, worried about rats and poor plumbing, tries to beguile their landlord Zeke (Lance Gardner), a gentle soul who is longing for his native Hawaii, into taking care of their apartment. He quickly becomes smitten with her.

And he’s not alone. Hayon captures just the right style of the affluent Philippine bourgeois matriarch who knows that she can charm the pants off any man: her humble landlord, the Wells Fargo banker who promises her a business loan (Lawrence Radecker), and even her sister’s new husband, Basilio (Lacson).

With an arch of an eyebrow or camera-ready smile, Hayon reveals not just her pretensions, but also a wide range of underlying emotions.

The aptly named Rocky – whose journey is indeed a rocky one -- seeks solace in books and writing. Not only has she dragged a whole trunk full of books from the Philippines, but she also attempts to augment her collection by shoplifting “Howl” and the “Story of O” from City Lights Bookstore.

(L to R) Lance Gardner as Bugsy, Golda Sargento as Rocky, Patrick Alparone as Elvis. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

(L to R) Lance Gardner as Bugsy, Golda Sargento as Rocky, Patrick Alparone as Elvis. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

She is nabbed by the legendary Shig Murao, one of the real historic characters depicted in the play, but rescued by poet Declan Wolf (Radecker), a character based on Hagedorn’s mentor Kenneth Rexroth, who invites her into his home lined with thousands of books and encourages her writing.

Rocky’s art really starts to flower when she attends a poetry workshop led by the Carabao Kid (Sean San Jose), based on renowned Fil-Am poet Al Robles. With just the right combination of swagger and tenderness, Carabao Kid urges the young poets on and exhorts them to follow his political militancy in preventing the eviction of the manongs from the I-Hotel, acting in solidarity with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Galeria de la Raza, and shouting “No to war, no to fascist imperialism and no to the oppression of women and Third World peoples.”

Sean San Jose as Carabao Kid. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

Sean San Jose as Carabao Kid. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

One family member who seems to have found his niche in America is Uncle Marlon (another star turn by San Jose), who makes a surprise appearance at Rocky’s birthday party, much to Rocky’s delight and Milagros’s dismay. An openly gay man, Marlon would have been marginalized in the Philippines in the Marcos era – but in West Hollywood he has had some success playing bit parts in movies – including “West Side Story,” where he got to hold Maria’s hand.

But, he explains, his glamorous life – filled with fancy Afghan coats and Dom Perignon – is not all its cracked up to be. Racism has still limited his career. As for “West Side Story,” a show about brown people, with two white leads, “I never got to dance in that big scene at the gym. And I was a trained dancer, mind you! But what did Jerome Robbins have me do? Hold Natalie Wood’s clammy little hand and give Richard Beymer the evil eye.” And during the filming of “Blue Hawaii,” Elvis used to say, “Don’t let that little coconut head steal my scenes.”

The cast and the creative staff of the Magic Theatre have brought Hagedorn’s memorable characters to life with humor, compassion, and pizzazz.

Parsario, as Rocky’s older brother Voltaire, gives one of the most moving performances I’ve seen on stage in a long time. Lauded as a child prodigy for his musical talent, by the time the family arrives in America, he has withdrawn into himself and angrily rejects that label. Though he and Rocky are close, with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry, he harbors deep, haunting secrets. He brightens when Uncle Marlon invites him to a gay bar. But his mental illness overtakes him and he descends on a downward spiral, genuinely breaking his mother’s heart.

Hagedorn says that she wants the play to not just be a “coming-to-America” immigrants’ tale, but an exploration of how someone becomes an artist. Indeed, many of the characters are artists: Voltaire is a pianist; Milagros a painter; Uncle Marlon an actor; and Rocky and her friends are musicians, poets, and dancers.

It is fascinating to watch Rocky start from jotting down impressions on a page, to ingesting Lorca and Rimbaud, to tentatively sharing her work at a poetry reading, to strutting on stage as a confident singer and bandleader. Sargento is most often seen with her bands Golda and the Guns, DeathGlam, and the Soft Starts. This becomes evident in the second act when she shines as a rock singer. In earlier scenes, she seems less at ease, especially alongside the brilliant acting of Hayon, San Jose, and Parsario. While other characters move subtly between moods, and deftly handle both comedy and tragedy, Rocky seems stuck in the mode of rebellious anger.

Several actors play multiple roles: Sean San Jose is outstanding as both Uncle Marlon and the Carabao Kid. Lacson is hilarious as Basilio, the upwardly mobile WWII vet who sings the praises of Daly City and as the stern bookseller Shig Murao. Gardner is engaging as the angel of Jimi Hendrix, Rocky’s bandmate Bugsy, and Zeke, the family’s kind and accommodating landlord, who falls in love with Milagros.

Hagedorn has found the perfect stage for her sprawling, powerful coming-of-age novel. The cast and the creative staff of the Magic Theatre have brought her memorable characters to life with humor, compassion, and pizzazz.

The Bay Area Premiere of Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn, directed by Loretta Greco, will play through May 6 at the Magic Theatre, Building D – 3rd floor -- Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. The entrance to Fort Mason is at the intersection of Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street. The performance schedule is Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday – Saturday 8 PM, and Sunday at 2:30 PM

Order tickets on line at or call the box office at 415-441-8822. Positively Filipino readers can get a 20% discount on tickets by using the code Gangster20 when purchasing.

Code GANGSTER20 is valid for 20% off tickets to all performances of THE GANGSTER OF LOVE thru May 6, 2018 Excludes the special $20 tickets for previews and the special $30 tickets for regular performances. Seats are best available. Not valid on previous purchases and cannot be combined with any other offer. All tickets are subject to availability. Subject to change. Service charges apply to all orders

Elaine Elinson

Elaine Elinson

Elaine Elinson traveled with the FTA Show in the Philippines and is the coauthor, with Walden Bello, of Development Debacle.

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