Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)
What possibly can a missing sister, a jobless actor, an unhappy TV writer, an impending break-up, sea coral, and sloths have in common with monuments and legacies? In Sam Chase’s Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play), the answer is actually quite a lot. Now in a rapid-paced, video-rich, completely fascinating, and often fantastical world premiere at Magic Theatre, Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play) explores a host of issues like the need for inclusion/influence when pitted against the cost to self-esteem, the drive to know all answers versus allowing a question to go unanswered, and the urge to leave a legacy or just to walk away satisfied with being forgotten. These and other dilemmas relating to self, career, and family are tackled from the perspectives and experiences of four Asian-American women (all sisters) in a play where there are no male characters on stage but where men play major roles – none positive – in most every scene. And to top it all off, humorous cartoon heroes pop in and out of the one-hour, forty-minute evening with abound and fun. Buckle your seat belt, and hang on for a wild ride.
As in any family, the grown sisters we meet both bond and bicker when together – sometimes in ways close and confiding, sometimes snarky and snarling. Three have met at the house of one while the fourth has been AWOL for months, not responding to messages or phone calls from the others. Issues – both immediately obvious and slowly revealing – of careers and relationships become topics of pointed inquiry and eventual sharing. The men in their lives – both past and present – hover like dark clouds in many of their conversations with these women carrying the burdens of remembering a father’s wrath and of dealing with men in workplaces who can leave them feeling as one flatly admits, “where I want to set the room on fire.”
Sister Mac speaks often of seeking “a space of mutual respect and belonging” like the one she felt at her past job before abruptly leaving. So much does she want that connection with others that she breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us as audience: “I’m trying to connect to you, but I can’t stop thinking about what you’re thinking of me and how I could maybe do something to make what you’re thinking of me be positive.”
Sango Tajima’s Mac smiles while speaking to us, but it is clear she is not happy or satisfied with herself. As she continues to seek our approval of herself while obviously doubting she will get it, she confesses things to us that her sisters do not yet know about her last job and the man who did something unacceptable that she will not now name. Sango Tajima provides an achingly arresting sketch of a young woman who is unsure of herself, who compares herself as inferior to her more accomplished sisters, and who is looking for some way now to find new connections, both meaningful and reviving.
But when Mac is with sister Constance, tensions rise and sparks fly. Mac resents Constance never taking her former acting career serious enough to attend any performances; Constance thinks Mac has never had any real goals and is jealous and resentful of her own success.
Constance is a TV writer of kids’ cartoons in which the hero character is a female sloth who is part scientist, part explorer, and part technical genius. Her created hero is totally heads-above smarter and braver than her slower-moving-and-thinking male sloths. But Constance is the only woman and the only person of color on a writing team where she must fight daily battles to keep her star character, Magdalena, from wearing an apron, having inch-long eyelashes that flutter, or riding a pink motor scooter. Rinabeth Apostol bristles from head to toe as she describes Constance’s encounters in the writing room with her male colleagues, and she near explodes just describing how her favorite kids’ animation movie – Ratatouille – is packed with rats who “all sound male, all present as male.” In her world, there are too many male rats everywhere.
Both sisters see marine-biologist Amy as the one always supportive of the them. In fact, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart does project an Amy who is on the surface optimistic, seeing the good side of her sisters when they complain about the others or demean themselves. Amy appears calm and organized, meticulously packing and re-packing days ahead of her next “survey-and-assess” mission of a remote island’s coral reef. Amy explains in detail to us and to her sisters the world-wide dangers to corals due to global warming – doing so with intense conviction and enthusiasm for the work she is pursuing. But Amy, too, has struggles with an impending sense of failure/doom – personally and professionally – that she is reluctant to show her sisters. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart shakes us to the core as Amy confronts discoveries that crumble her life’s achievements – at home and under water.
As each sister – individually and together – questions her worth to herself, to her family, and to the world around her, Sam Chase as playwright intersperses hilarious scenes from Constance’s animated series about sloths who are saving their own world from the evils of chipmunks. The missing sister, Lina (Lisa Hori-Garcia) – whom we have only met in an opening scene of the sisters as young girls – plays the heroic Magdalena with a smirky confidence and bluster that is delicious to watch. The other three sisters play ambling, bumbling male sloths who cannot do much more than make a mess of things while waiting for Magdalena to arrive on her motorcycle in order to rescue them.
During these sloth story interludes, the videos designed by Sarah Phykitt are a show unto themselves, allowing the combined live and projected cartoon scenes to be an integrated delight to watch. Her other videos throughout the evening display the beautiful reality of and underwater coral scape while a trip to a far-off island a journey by two sisters take on aspects of live-action, step-by-step panels of a cartoon strip.
Much of the fun during the sloth episodes comes from the costumes designed by Michelle Mulholland and properties created by Samantha Alexa, all highlighted with just the right flurry and flair by lighting designer Cassie Barnes and sound designer Sara Witsch. When an ancient Giant Sloth appears suddenly on the scene, Brooke Jenning’s skills and witty ways as puppet designer come into full and fun display.
To direct this challenging, innovatively conceived world premiere, Giovanna Sardelli certainly has brought to bear her many years as New Works Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Scenes that overlap two sets of action, that mix and mingle lecture-like monologues with intense sister confrontations, and that switch in a few seconds from live reality to cartoon escapades occur with clarity, emotional authenticity, and ease of transition.
Where sometimes the script makes it a bit difficult to direct a totally successful scene is when actors become almost professorial, that especially being true for Amy as she explains the state of corals and their algae or for Constance as she educates us about sloths and their algae. Such information is both interesting and a bit too academic in tone and delivery.
In the end, each of these sisters as well as the fourth sister’s cartoon image (Magdalena) is struggling in a male-dominated world to improve the world around them through their science, entertainment, performance, or heroics. Theirs mostly white, male-dominated world does not make this easy for them; and the playwright voices through them questions of how much to worry about legacy and how much it will matter in the future. The play and playwright could be accused of raising too many issues that are too lightly skimmed over and left in the end hanging. However, even with all its humor and intermittent silliness, there is no doubt that these many raised questions should lead to further thought and discussion by audiences lucky enough to attend this well-directed, skillfully performed, and imaginatively created Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play) during its world premiere by Magic Theatre.
Rating: 4 E
Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play) continues through May https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s2088.html29. 2022 in world premiere at Magic Theatre, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://www.magictheatre.org .
Photos by Jay Yamada