"He Played His Part in San Francisco"
In the spring of 2013, the Public Theater produced a dynamic Off-Broadway musical called Here Lies Love, set in the Philippines. It dealt with that Pacific nation’s political situation during the days of Fernando and Imelda Marcos, especially the latter. Cast with a nearly all-Filipino company, it was the product of David Byrne, one-time frontman of the Talking Heads, who’s neither Filipino or Filipino American.
In fact, until now, we’re informed, no Filipino American has ever written an Off-Broadway musical, so the May-Yi Theater Company’s Felix Starro, with book and lyrics by Philippines-born and raised Jessica Hagedorn, and music by Fabian Obispo, is, in this regard at least, a pioneer.
Unlike Here Lies Love, however, whose infectious title song still bangs around in my head, the much darker Felix Starro is far from sparkling, although its subject matter is provocative enough to unsettle your innards. Based on a short story of the same name by Lysley Tenorio, it tells of the title character (Alan Ariano, appealing but a bit young for the part), an aging specialist in the practice of psychic surgery. That, for the unitiated, is a fraudulent, pseudo-scientific form of faith-healing that enjoyed particular popularity in the Philippines, beginning in the 1940s. It also took root in Brazil, and has had celebrity advocates like Shirley MacLaine, who’s mentioned in the script.
If you’ve never heard of psychic surgery, or seen video of it in action, now is as good a time as any to check it out on YouTube, including a demonstration by James Rand revealing how it’s done. In brief, the practitioner, using only his bare hands, seems to reach into the patient’s body, drawing blood, and withdrawing the sufferer's “negativities” (Starro’s word)—in the form of bloody tissue—responsible for the patient’s ailment. Most debunkers claim that the patients’ benefits are placebo effects.
Felix Starro is set in 1985, when Felix, a well-known but fading psychic surgeon in Baguio City, believing he’s nearing his end, comes to San Francisco with his 19-year-old grandson, Felix Starro, Jr. (Nacho Tambuntang, pleasant), called Junior, whom he’s training to succeed him. The senior Felix’s reputation is such—he was once a glittery TV star (as a flashy musical flashback reminds us)—that many in the Bay Area’s Filipino community want to use his pricey services.
|Francisca Munoz, Caitlin Cisco, Alan Ariano, Diane Phelan.|
Felix hopes to earn enough money to ensure his final days back home, disregarding the danger he’s in there from a local who holds him responsible for a relative’s death. Felix admits his fraudulence to the skeptical Junior but also believes he has a special gift, one Junior knows he himself does not.
|Nacho Tambunting, Francisca Munoz, Alan Ariano.|
Although he can afford better lodgings, Felix occupies a shabby hotel room he’s stayed at before because of its nostalgic value. Visitors include a young, gay man (Ryan James Ortega), suffering from AIDS, for which Felix is unable to do anything; a wealthy matron, Mrs. Delgado (Francisca Muñoz); and Crystal (Caitlin Cisco), the pregnant, unwed hotel maid. We actually see Mrs. Delgado undergo the gory procedure, after which she claims that (for the moment at least) all her pains have vanished.
|Francisca Munoz, Alan Ariano, Nacho Tambunting.|
Felix’s hoaxes gradually catch up with him and he also finds himself in danger of losing his grandson, whose own need to survive requires him to use means no less fraudulent than his grandfather’s. While Felix is devoted to his homeland, Junior strives to leave its heat, poverty, and backwardness behind and stay, illegally, in the USA. He’s spurred on in this goal by his girlfriend back home, Charma (Diane Phelan), who keeps appearing in his imagination. In a major lapse, we never learn what Charma’s own plans for joining him are.
As instructed, Junior seeks out a florist named Flora Ramirez (the always excellent Ching Valdes-Aran), whose crooked sideline is getting aliens to pay a heavy price for false American identities. The Junior-Flora plotline therefore introduces the currently hot issue of illegal immigration, but in a shallow, passing way, including filling the rear wall with a projected image (design by Nick Graci) of hundreds of license-like photos.
|Ching Valdes-Aran, Nacho Tambunting.|
The issue is more a momentary distraction than a meaningful grappling with the problem. Last I heard, ICE was not currently targeting San Francisco's Filipino immigrants. It's something of a stretch, but what happens in the play can only very loosely be extrapolated to the current situation at our borders. Even if you're a strong immigration advocate, you may not support Junior's strategy.
|Francisca Munoz, Nacho Tambunting, and company.|
Felix Starro is neither an in-depth look at psychic surgery nor of immigration policies (remember, the show is set in 1985). It also sometimes can’t make up its mind if it’s a musical or a drama. Ma-Yi artistic director Ralph B. Peña has created several theatrically interesting moments but does little to alleviate the straightforward, ploddingly dramatic scenes, which crawl along at a snail’s pace.
|Company of Felix Starro.|
Many of the acceptably listenable but largely generic 17 numbers have a familiar Sondheim feeling, using the music to offer narrative information. Others are in various conventional styles with ordinary lyrics that won’t win any prizes for first-class rhyming, although a few songs have enough originality to linger a bit. One that might be cited is “Medley of Maladies,” listing various physical ailments, and Mrs. Delgado’s “Tango of Pain,” with its thumping Latin beat.
Paolo K. Tirol’s orchestrations for keyboards, guitar, and drums sound fine in the Clurman Theatre’s intimate confines under the musical direction of Ian Miller, and the company’s singing and acting is satisfactory, if uneven. Don’t, however, expect a Lea Salonga to emerge from the ensemble.
|Company of Felix Starro.|
Brandon Bieber’s choreography, mostly in the form of heightened movement patterns than traditional dance, is well-executed by the small, seven-member ensemble, all of whom—apart from Ariano and Tambunting-- play more than one role. Costume designer Becky Bodurtha thus provides numerous costumes (and wigs) for her busy troupers.
Felix Starro’s weakest contribution is Marsha Ginsburg’s determinedly dull, sickly green set, intended to suggest the dreary interior of a cheap room but also serving for multiple other locales, inside and out. Even Oliver Wasson's imaginative lighting can do little to alleviate the glumness. An upstage cubicle (functioning as a closet, bathroom, and room entrance) that the actors slide from side to side helps to slightly vary the space but, if any set could be said to be a distracting eyesore when something more abstract and imaginative was called for, this is it.
If a viable form of psychic surgery for theatre existed where someone could slip their hand into a show’s entrails and pluck out its negativities, Felix Starro would clearly quality as a patient.
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 21