It’s vulnerability, not her battle-ready exterior, that’s deepened this much-performed original of the “matriarchal musical traumedies” over the years. Sara Porkalob dazzles in one final Seattle run before heading east.
I wish I could tell you that you are no child of pain
But you have my blood in your veins
And trouble’s a family trait.
The more times I see it, the more incredulous I am that Dragon Lady is still so satisfying. No surprise that the show’s so good — Sara Porkalob is a master of her craft, and her family’s history has a treasure chest of battle stories to draw from. But how can a show I’ve seen so many iterations of still feel this rich, engrossing, and fresh?
Dragon Lady is that rare show that continually surprises.
Its premiere at the Seattle Fringe Festival in March 2016, on Annex Theatre’s stage, was my first introduction to Porkalob and her fabled grandmother, and I’ve seen nearly every (local) iteration — including dinner theatre at Cafe Nordo, and a mainstage production developed with Intiman Theatre and director Andrew Russell — since then. Back at the Fringe, it was called Dragon Lady: I’m Going to Kill You; a fitting title for a very funny show, in which a gangster grandma comes out swinging. That edition’s most memorable tale — where, in a perfectly (laughably!) even-keel tone, she hands off a weapon and dispatches her sobbing five-year-old daughter down the lane to bludgeon her bully, with instructions to kill — remains just as vivid in the current version. But this current take is more layered. It’s more vulnerable.
Porkalob notes that, after years of performing it, she finally feels like she’s grown into the role. And that really comes through on stage, particularly in this intimate staging at Cafe Nordo. Here, the “production” aspect has been stripped bare, with no set or props to speak of. The three-piece Hot Damn Scandal band performs from a tiny platform; and the lighting is moody as it dims, but not particularly theatrical. The performer shines — but even as she portrays numerous characters, it’s sometimes easy to forget it’s a performance.
Where the Dragon Lady has always been a warrior — and maintains that edge here — her vulnerability now gleams through the surface. Terror at the threat of losing her firstborn. Sorrow at not providing, at least not always, despite heroic efforts; and of saddling her eldest daughter, Sara’s mother, with adult-sized burdens at too young an age. Fear of her children’s judgment, later on in life. Reckoning with growing older.
But while Porkalob’s portrayal may dance with trauma — and it’s a must, in illustrating the highs and lows of her family’s three-generational journey — she’s also a master of humor. That combination slices the harrowing moments through with precision, sometimes in the very same line.
It’s her immediate, familial warmth and that disarming humor that make the Dragon Lady impossible to resist, from just about the moment she wanders out amongst her gathered guests. (The show is set during a family gathering for her 60th birthday bash, from which she’s hiding downstairs with granddaughter Sara and a new karaoke machine.)
Grandma may confront mortality with frets over aches and falls, but she dismisses it summarily with a hearty, “Not today, Satan!” Her fear of having a milestone birthday celebration ruined by her daughters dwelling on the past is tempered with anticipation of heading to see Boyz II Men at the casino — where, she explains, they’ll croon to her about making “love to me, like I want them to.”
The original Dragon Lady is not one dimensional, and few of us are; but in Porkalob’s latest portrayal she’s a particularly layered model of contrasts. For all her bravado and determination to live in the moment, she’s tinged with her doubt (to her daughter: “I didn’t want you to end up like me, Maria”); trepidation (“Who’s keeping me safe, Maria? Who’s taking care of me?”); and reflection (to her granddaughter: “I was free, Sara. I was free. But at what price?”).
A battle-ready warrior, gangster, destroyer of bullies. A matriarch who will put it all on the line for her family. An overwrought mother who wants to flee. Quick with battle stories, fearless, and tireless. That’s Maria Elena Porkalob: strong and soft; armored and vulnerable; tired but battle-ready. Battle-weary. Proud. And deservedly so.
She may be afraid of her family’s judgment and of delving into the past. But she’ll go there for Sara. And it’s a blessing for us to hear the legend of her highs and lows, portrayed and delivered with such mastery.
So take this with you
Will be of use someday.
After the run, Porkalob travels to the east coast, developing Dragon Baby, a 12-piece musical, with the American Repertory Theatre as the third piece of the Dragon trilogy; and performing the role of Edward Rutledge in the Broadway revival of 1776, at the Roundabout Theatre, this fall.
Dragon Lady and Dragon Mama run in repertory through 3/6 at Cafe Nordo (Seattle – Pioneer Square). All performances are now sold out; wait list information is available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre is wheelchair accessible, through an alley entrance — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.