In her one-actor family memoir with music, Sara Porkalob embraces an archetype to satirize, deconstruct and (with caveats) celebrate it.
What is a dragon lady? A term coined in the West to describe a cunning and mysterious, seductive and dangerous Asian vixen. An appellation that was conferred on film star Anna May Wong and on World War II propagandist Tokyo Rose.
The vividly sexual-racial stereotype was first popularized in the 1930s by the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates,” and it persists.
But in “Dragon Lady,” her commanding, irresistible one-actor family memoir with music, powerhouse Sara Porkalob embraces the archetype to satirize, deconstruct and (with caveats) celebrate it.
By Sara Porkalob, produced by Intiman Theatre, through Oct. 1 at Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way, Seattle; $20-$50 (intiman.org).
The lady in the title refers to Porkalob’s dynamo Filipino grandmother Maria, who at her 60th birthday party teases and regales her granddaughter (actually, us) with stories of her eventful life.
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Sashaying around Jennifer Zeyl’s bi-level set of worn Barcaloungers, shag carpets and family portraits, Maria is one hip and knowingly outrageous gal — busting a rap rhyme here, ordering a 5-year-old to execute a bully with a golf club there.
With versatile bravado, Porkalob (the show’s creator-star, directed by Andrew Russell in this Intiman Theatre production at UW’s Jones Playhouse) slips seamlessly in and out of characters representing the resiliency and trauma of three related generations.
The first chunk of “Dragon Lady” is played for broad, badass comedy that strikes its marks. Yet a dark undercurrent rises when the show suddenly jumps to a conversation between Maria’s three adult daughters, who are understandably bitter about their mother’s secretiveness and her neglectful parenting.
Much is revealed with a tonal shift back to Maria’s youth in the Philippines. We get a harrowing saga of child trafficking, sexual exploitation, gangster feuds and teen pregnancy, with sultry (and sometimes satirical) musical allusions to Maria’s time as a nightclub torch singer. (Porkalob, an impressive belter with triple-octave range, sings old standards and new originals, accompanied by a live trio — including a trombone that sometimes nearly drowns her out.)
As “Dragon Lady” moves on to Maria’s life as a cash-strapped immigrant mom in the U.S., with five kids and an estranged husband, the seriocomic tone darkens from black to pitch black.
There are lighthearted moments among her cute, resourceful tots (differentiated impressively in Porkalob’s rendering), with humorous sardonic asides from Maria. But the sheer terror of having an entertaining but elusive, untrustworthy mother hits home. In some heart-rending scenes, Porkalob’s own mother appears as a teen surrogate parent, desperately filling in to feed and care for her younger siblings.
To her credit, Porkalob doesn’t turn “Dragon Lady” into a simplistic, blame-mommy game. We are not spared the real pain inflicted by Maria’s misjudgments and narcissism. But we also hear Maria’s often-voiced desire to do “the best for my children,” while dealing with her own demons and surviving a culture that hardly embraces low-income, immigrant single women of color with many mouths to feed. If she’s a “dragon lady,” the author suggests, it’s because she had to slay some dragons herself.
“Dragon Lady” has had several prior productions, including hourlong and dinner-theater versions. Its expansion into a full-length, two-hour edition needs some surgical trimming. Sibling bickering can go on too long; some musical spots feel redundant. And though Porkalob does a terrific job conveying a complex narrative, the gangster backstory needs clarity.
In the end, it’s often the grandchildren who have the distance and empathy to forgive what a wounded child of a problematic parent can’t. Grandma Maria herself makes a charming cameo appearance in the show. But you can’t help wonder what Porkalob’s mother makes of “Dragon Lady.”
One further suggestion: It’s unclear exactly when chapters of the saga are unfolding. More of a historical context could enrich this already fierce, vibrant memoir.