Those curious about the origins of Sara Porkalob’s considerable skills as a writer and performer need only see Madame Dragon’s 60th Birthday Party. The creator of this autobiographical show is ascendant in the Seattle theater world, recently being named to the annual list of future local arts stars published by City Arts magazine and earning a role as co-curator for this year’s Intiman Theater Festival. And here, in this (more-or-less) one woman show, the talents that have earned her those accolades are on full display, the performance a kind of cabaret act marked by dramatic, comedic, and musical highlights.
The backbone of this Party, though, is the story of the titular hero, who is introduced to the audience at Café Nordo as a grandmother, recalcitrant and spry, but a little achy. The setting is the mother-in-law apartment of son Ronald’s house. The family is upstairs preparing for the big celebration, while grandma is in the basement telling the harrowing and at times hilarious story of her life to the audience, a stand-in for her granddaughter—who we later learn is Sara herself.
Porkalob is a physically dexterous actor and the acting here is all very physical, without prosthetics, makeup, or a wig in sight. Any such props would just get in the way, anyway, as Porkalob proceeds to embody more than a dozen characters between a delicious Filipino-inspired menu from chef Aaron Verzosa at this dinner theater.
As a performer, Porkalob has the uncanny ability to shift almost seamlessly, not only between characters but between moods. And so we see her embody in one moment the grandmother and in the next an excited, gummy-mouthed four-year-old. There is a lot in between as well, with the actress playing five different siblings, often in one scene, sometimes for deep comic effect and at others toward sobering heartbreak.
Those are the two poles of this work, and the actress—who also wrote the work—navigates between them as a trapeze artist would, swooping from one to the other, often with little to prepare the audience for such high-flying maneuvers. Yet, there is never any whiplash. Rather, Porkalob is a gifted performer who knows how to effectively generate pathos and then use it to fuel her humor.
In one of the more memorable scenes of the production, for instance, Porkalob’s grandmother, here a young Maria living in the Philippines, is on the hunt for her newborn baby, stolen from her by the child’s father, a dangerous gang leader. She enlists the help of her brother, a rival gang leader whose visage and mannerisms Porkalob embodies with a powerful nonchalance. In order to rescue her daughter, her brother demands that the child be delivered into his care. Broken, Maria agrees and is soon infiltrating the gang’s lair with two of her brother’s heavies. Then, as if flicking a switch, she transforms into a “total badass!” Pulsing industrial music fit for Mortal Kombat pumps through the room and soon Porkalob is mimicking an athletic and frankly ridiculous fight, during which she actually rips out an enemy’s heart and eats it. The relief in the room is palpable, all the bottled up angst of this young woman’s life finding release in a brilliant turn of physical comedy. The baby is saved, and the journey continues.
These moments of levity are not always delivered in such an over-the-top manner. Porkalob has a talent—as both a writer and a performer—for inserting bits of delightful weirdness into her work. Sometimes it is in a look, at other times, a bit of dialogue. As young Maria is being wooed by the man who would father her child—performed with a deep, lulling croon by Pete Irving of the show’s excellent house band, Hot Damn Scandal—he says that he will lie to her. Her response: “Yes, but I like it, like chocolate on my ears.”
It’s unclear whether that was ad-libbed. What is clear, though, is that Porkalob’s wildly entertaining family life is likely responsible for her endearing wit, as well as her understanding of character. Her talents as a singer are familial too, the lineage revealed in a truly transcendent moment at the end of this can’t-miss show. Café Nordo, 109 S. Main St., firstname.lastname@example.org. Ends Jan 22.