|Sara Porkalob and her grandmother The Dragon Lady (Joe Iano)|
The Dragon Lady
Theatre Off Jackson
Through July 30, 2016
Sara Porkalob has been extremely busy lately. She’s been acting and directing up a storm, despite fears of racist barriers in casting due to being an American of Filipino descent. She is a consummate performer, and I’ll bet, just on seeing her perform, that she’s got a bit of OCD tendency. Every detail is thought about and chosen carefully.
She first came to (non-school) notice in Seattle Public Theater’s 2013 production of Edith Can Shoot Things And Hit Them where she was part of a Gypsy Rose Lee Award-winning ensemble. She was pitch-perfect as a young, uncertain teen, and brought all the pathos and humor out of her character.
She graduated from Cornish College of the Arts and put her training to good use immediately. She has a lovely singing voice, and lent that to a leading role in Hair at ArtsWest, and Godspell at Taproot Theatre. She was in Fast Company for Pork Filled Players, 4000 Miles at ArtsWest, Emma at Book-It Repertory, and Bunnies at Annex Theatre. Most recently, she was a Chinese spy in a terrific production at Café Nordo, To Savor Tomorrow. She recently directed a killer play by Seayoung Yim at Annex Theatre, Do It For Umma, which will be remounted at Theatre Off Jackson this month and I highly recommend it!
Through much of that time, she was working on and presenting a solo show about her family and her mysterious grandmother who was referred to as The Dragon Lady. She presented several iterations of one-hour pieces, developing first one hour and then a Part II, continuing to look for what was important in the story she was trying to tell.
Now, she’s at Theatre Off Jackson – a theater where solo shows are often celebrated and co-produced – with a full length version with even more new material. The story always revolves around Grandma’s 60th birthday party where she’s hiding in the basement because she’s mad that she didn’t want a party and the family threw her one anyway.
This time, a big chunk of the story is about Grandma’s children, Sara’s mother and siblings. These siblings, we’re shown, had a tough life, and their mother was one of the main reasons. Dragon Lady, we learn, had an extremely tough life – tougher than her children, and indeed almost unbelievably difficult, as we learn in this production’s second act. Maybe that upbringing did not teach her proper mothering, and so while she apparently loves fiercely, she does so in a traumatizing way.
Porkalob brings together fascinating moments in the lives of her mother and siblings and then in the is-this-real? story of her grandmother to create a portrait of a life. She starts this story with a mother who has disappeared on her very young family of five!
Maria Porkalob, Sr.’s 13 year-old daughter, Maria Porkalob, Jr., has to take care of her four younger siblings, including a 4 month-old infant! And they’ve run out of food. So, 11(?) year old Ron finds a way to go begging for food in the most resourceful way possible. And it turns out Mom has decided to just go on a jaunt to Sea World.
This is not a funny story, but it is told with that consummate skill that Porkalob is able to demonstrate as a solo performer. She changes into each of her aunts and uncles at those young ages with lightning speed and the audience generally knows exactly which one is talking at all times.
In different configurations of the story, you might have met Dragon Lady before any of the rest of the family. Then, her daring, her spunk, her bravery, and her sheer unique character might win you over and allow you to forgive her faults of parenting a bit more easily. The choice here to start with the abandoned children and then later the adults trying to celebrate the birthday is a hard swallow to excuse Grandma.
Porkalob is still working on figuring out how much dysfunction to include – where bad behavior is truth, but is a real part of a fully-alive human, even as someone can be loved and lovable, as well. The development of this piece is not over and there will be another form of the story. In January 2017, she will be producing a cabaret and dinner version of The Dragon Lady at Café Nordo. That one may be more cover songs and probably a bit funnier.
But no matter which version you see, Porkalob’s ability to immerse herself into the characters of her relatives is fascinating, the story is amazing, and since everyone has clearly survived, and dare we think it, thrived, then we have to assume most of the trauma is in the past. Give yourself a treat and see this performance, either at TOJ or Café Nordo.