Never turn your back on a Justin Huertas song.
The Seattle-based composer-playwright-actor pens such catchy musical numbers, they’re at risk of charting a path directly to your brain’s pleasure center without the rest of your critical faculties keeping up.
Take for instance, “Grown I Am,” a duet on ukuleles from Huertas’ new musical “We’ve Battled Monsters Before,” now on stage at ArtsWest through Dec. 26. Get sucked into its simple, hummable melody and risk missing the song’s deft twisting of its chorus from empowerment anthem into self-lacerating critique.
Huertas’ clever comic-book romp “Lizard Boy” spawned multiple regional productions after its 2015 Seattle Repertory Theatre premiere and his “The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion” was one of the last shows at ArtsWest before the pandemic shutdown.
“We’ve Battled Monsters Before” marks ArtsWest’s return to live performance and Huertas’ continued development of his brand of charming fantasy-tinged chamber musicals. (He also has “Lydia and the Troll” in development at Seattle Rep.)
Inspired in part by 16th-century Filipino epic poem “Ibong Adarna,” “We’ve Battled Monsters Before” is a two-hander in-the-round, starring Huertas and Rheanna Atendido as siblings whose ties bind and fray over their shared magical experiences. Guided by their Lola (“grandmother” in Tagalog), the pair have adventures in the Whisper, a realm where beastly creatures proliferate thanks to wishes made at just the right place and time.
Battling these monsters requires casting spells, and Atendido’s eager younger sister Adarna is more than willing to test out her abilities, even against the protestations of Huertas’ Diego. He has reason to protest: Adarna’s translation errors have a way of boomeranging back onto him, turning him into a werewolf or causing him to become a giant. Lola (also played by Huertas) does what she can to smooth things over, but Diego has a breaking point. Adarna’s bright enthusiasm and Diego’s brittle frustration chafe against each other even as their voices beautifully harmonize.
Running under 90 minutes in one act, “We’ve Battled Monsters Before” is narratively economical, sketching out just enough of a fantasy framework to slot in Huertas’ numbers, performed by Atendido and him on acoustic and electric guitars, ukuleles, cello and keyboard.
But the show’s true engine isn’t a story about spells and monsters; it’s Huertas’ Filipino heritage, and the joy and heartache therein. There are odes to chicken adobo and halo-halo and examinations of the national struggle for identity amid the Philippines’ constant colonization. Given the show’s depiction of the importance of the matriarch, it initially seems an odd choice for Huertas to play the siblings’ Lola, but the two-person cast eventually seems essential as Diego and Adarna find their opposition hardening.
On the surface, “We’ve Battled Monsters Before” is a show of simple pleasures. Huertas’ songs are tuneful but not showy, and his embrace of mythology makes for broad narrative strokes. Direction by Mathew Wright, ArtsWest’s artistic director, is effortlessly smooth, and the fabric-and-paper tree that canopies the set in Lex Marcos’ scenic design sets the stage for enchantment.
But beneath it all, Huertas has written a pretty thorny story about the wounds family can inflict and the compromises and concessions that are sometimes necessary to begin the healing process. Huertas knows when to underplay and when to take a big emotional swing, and his light touch and heart-in-throat optimism intertwine impressively.
At this point, I doubt anyone underestimates Huertas. But even though he’s working in a similar vein to previous work, he’s retained the ability to surprise with just a turn of phrase. Keep your wits about you in the Whisper.
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