A family’s turbulent life and times, brilliantly told, in ‘Dragon Lady’ and ‘Dragon Mama’
CAMBRIDGE — In trying to make sense of their complicated families onstage, some theater artists resort to rueful humor, some open up the sluices of raw emotion, and some stand at an anthropological distance, the better to see their subjects clearly.
With powerhouse writer-performer Sara Porkalob, it’s all of the above.
Actually, “all of the above’’ is not a bad description of Porkalob herself. After experiencing her astonishing “Dragon Lady’’ and the world premiere of “Dragon Mama,’’ it’s not clear to me what, if anything, this incandescent artist cannot do. The Oberon club — where the American Repertory Theater is presenting her solo shows in repertory through April 7 — should avail itself of the chance to save on lighting bills, because Porkalob is generating plenty of electricity all by herself.
She needs every ounce of her off-the-charts energy, because she’s got quite a pair of tales to tell. Porkalob traverses a remarkably wide performative range to populate those tales with dozens of vivid characters, bringing each of them to distinctive life with quick-sketch specificity. Across “Dragon Lady’’ and “Dragon Mama,’’ both of which are directed by Andrew Russell, she evokes the times and places those characters inhabit while developing themes of abandonment and hard-won connection.
Porkalob deploys a host of other storytelling gifts: a knack for both verbal and physical comedy (she bounds all over the bar, stairs, and upper level of Oberon in “Dragon Lady,’’ though she confines herself to a small rectangular stage for “Dragon Mama’’); dramatic acting chops that can rivet your attention in a chilling instant when re-creating an atmosphere of menace or violence; an ability to craft and execute quicksilver scene transitions; and a talent for cabaret-style song performance, with a voice that is virtually Broadway-caliber in spellbinding renditions of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale’’ and Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.’’ (She gets terrific support in “Dragon Lady’’ by a three-piece band called Hot Damn Scandal.)
“Dragon Lady’’ focuses on Porkalob’s Filipino grandmother, Maria Porkalob Sr., a mercurial, glamorous, and fierce woman with whom even gangsters trifle at their peril. As “Dragon Lady’’ begins, it is her 60th birthday, and Maria Sr. has stories to tell her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sara. “We are not like normal family,’’ she informs Sara, demonstrating a serious gift for understatement. Porkalob then reenacts Maria Sr.’s turbulent youth in the Philippines, including the time when as a young woman she landed a job in a nightclub, first cleaning toilets, then as a featured singer, which brought her into the orbit of some very dangerous people.
“Dragon Mama’’ is about Maria Porkalob Jr., Sara’s direction-seeking mother, raised in a trailer park in Washington state. At 13, she is so dutiful that she cares for her several younger siblings when Maria Sr. suddenly disappears without a word and doesn’t contact the family for two weeks before finally placing a blithe call home from Sea World (that episode, which is part of both “Dragon Mama’’ and “Dragon Lady,’’ is hotly disputed by Maria Sr. in the show). But Maria Jr. grows into a wayward young woman, compulsively drawn to drinking and partying, and not ready, after she gives birth to Sara, for the responsibilities of single motherhood. Leaving young Sara in the care of Maria Sr., Maria Jr. moves to Alaska and begins to explore her lesbian identity.
These details just scratch the surface of the ground Porkalob covers. Her palette is teeming with outsize personalities, from Ate Lola, the hard-edged, 35-year-old manager of the nightclub in the Philippines where the young Maria Sr. works, who makes a terrible demand before allowing the girl to escape her employ; to Greg, the 40-something white foreman of the fish cannery in Alaska where Maria Jr. works, who has a surprise up his sleeve; to Tina, a 27-year-old African-American singer whom Maria Jr. meets at a gay club and falls in love with, broadening the horizons of her life.
Porkalob pulls no punches in her depictions of the chaos that often enveloped her family, but “Dragon Lady’’ and “Dragon Mama’’ amount to fundamentally loving portraits. You sense that she is trying to understand these women who helped to shape her — and to understand what shaped them. Her combination of emotional honesty and next-level virtuosity is hard to beat.
Porkalob is currently at work on “Dragon Baby,’’ a third part of the cycle. Commissioned by the ART, it will resume the story where “Dragon Mama’’ leaves off and focus on her years in Alaska. Unlike the two solo endeavors, Porkalob told the audience after Thursday night’s performance that “Dragon Baby’’ will be a musical with a cast of 10. Personally, I can’t wait.
DRAGON LADY and DRAGON MAMA
Created and performed by Sara Porkalob. Directed by Andrew Russell. Original music in “Dragon Lady,” Peter Irving. Presented by American Repertory Theater at Oberon, Cambridge, through April 7. Tickets from $20. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org