Magic Theatre’s 'Gangster of Love' Tries to Do Too Much

The cast of 'Gangster of Love,' running at the Magic Theatre. (Jennifer Reiley)

Jessica Hagedorn is a bona fide Filipina-American superstar, having come of age in a San Francisco where poets were prophets, rock stars were seers, and a bohemian counterculture ruled the public discourse.

Mentored by Kenneth Rexroth, befriended by Ntozake Shange, and the driving force behind experimental music and poetry ensemble the West Coast Gangster Choir, Hagedorn published her first novel Dogeaters in 1990. It won the American Book Award in 1990, was first adapted into play form in 1998, and was recently produced in 2016 at Magic Theatre. Her critically acclaimed 1996 novel Gangster of Love, set in the San Francisco of the '70s, has inspired numerous Bay Area-based Filipina artists, including theatre-maker Michelle Talgarow and hip-hop MC Krishtine de Leon, a.k.a. Rocky Rivera, whose stage name pays tribute to Hagedorn’s feisty heroine.

Now, Hagedorn's post-Summer of Love coming-of-age story is having its own Magic Theatre debut, directed by Loretta Greco, and appropriately starring triple-threat performer/poet/musician Golda Sargento as Rocky Rivera.

What with the San Francisco setting, the continued support of Magic Theatre, a solid core of actors (many of whom have cut their teeth at Bindlestiff Studio), a performance incubator dedicated to Filipino-American voices, and a Gerbode-Hewlett playwrights commission, the conditions surrounding this world premiere production couldn’t be more auspicious. So it’s a bit of a letdown to be confronted with a piece that, for all of its pedigree and strength of source material, can’t sustain its own promise.

Golda Sargento as Rocky Rivera and Jed Parsario as Voltaire on their first night in San Francisco. (Jennifer Reiley)

The play opens with the teenage Rocky, her older brother Voltaire (Jed Parsario), and her mercurial mother Milagros (Sarah Nina Hayon) sailing into San Francisco on the “Star of the Sea,” following the path of Milagros’ sister Fely (Lisa Hori-Garcia), who’d come over from the Philippines some years before. They settle somewhat reluctantly into the “redlined” Western Addition, where it’s impossible to get a taxi to come and pick you up, and where the two children gradually become exposed to and participants in the San Francisco underground, from poetry readings and political rallies in North Beach, gay clubs in the Castro, and the rock 'n' roll remnants of the Haight.

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Throughout the play, Rocky’s willingness to try new things lead her into some very eclectic corners of the city. She’s befriended early on by an older poet, Declan Wolf (Lawrence Radecker), a character clearly based on Hagedorn’s own poetic mentor, ur-bohemian Kenneth Rexroth, and later by the excitable Carabao Kid (Sean San José) at the legendary Kearny Street Workshop, both of whom encourage her artistic development and see her potential. Subsequent friendships give her the opportunity to experiment further—with political consciousness, with sex, with drugs, and finally with rock 'n' roll, as she embarks on a musical phase with her own ensemble—The Gangster of Love—encouraged in a dream by the dead Jimi Hendrix (played by a game Lance Gardner in a pair of unimposing angel wings).

The Carabao Kid (Sean San Jose) at Kearney Street Workshop. (Jennifer Reiley)

But as the complex narrative unfolds, it becomes more and more difficult to keep track of the arc of the storyline. Characters pop in and out of Rocky’s life on a casual basis, often never to be seen again. A single brief scene introduces her to one of the biggest controversies facing the Filipino-American community of SF in its time, the demolition of the I-Hotel, for which she has no real response (adding to the confusion of its relevance, a timeline in the program erroneously marks the demolition site as where the Transamerica Pyramid was built). A major character goes missing from the play altogether, their disappearance barely remarked upon until the final scene. A single birthday party takes up three times as much stage time as a 10-year career in rock 'n' roll.

Throwaway references to notorious people and places including the Cockettes, the Zodiac Killer, Hunt’s Donuts and Esta Noche attempt to paint a picture of a particular place and time, but with the contrary effect of coming off as site-specific namedropping without adding real context. It’s hard to see that an audience outside of San Francisco, or one simply not as familiar with its past glory days, would even recognize half the references, let alone understand what mentioning them might be trying to convey.

Rocky Rivera (Golda Sargento) performs with the Gangster of Love. (Jennifer Reiley)

Overall, despite some strong performances — particularly from Sean San José as Rocky’s flamboyantly gay uncle Marlon, Dezi Soléy as her free-spirited friend Keiko, and Lawrence Radecker as a slew of mostly superfluous but well-acted roles — Gangster of Love suffers from what might be termed Adaptation FOMO. Reluctant to let go of the many characters who make the novel such a rich stew, this play simply cannot forge its own throughline. We get backstories of bankers and booksellers, and an amusing detour into Rocky’s first LSD experience, but we rarely get to discover how she really feels about any of it. And, clocking in at almost three hours, this erratically-paced show is simply too much commitment for the otherwise noncommittal.

On the other hand, three hours is the perfect amount of time to spend reading a new book. Do yourself and Rocky Rivera a favor, and make time to experience Gangster of Love in novel form instead.

'Gangster of Love' runs through May 6 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Details here.

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