Playwright Sam Chanse’s world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theater is called “Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play).” But like so many powerful plays over the years, it’s largely centered around three sisters.
Amy, the most grounded of the sisters, has an unseen partner and child and a seemingly stable life. Played by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart with apparent calm blanketing a reservoir of grief, she’s a coral reef researcher chronicling the devastation of those ecosystems due to climate change.
Sango Tajima exudes impish charm in childhood and interminable self-analysis in adulthood as Mac, who abruptly left a job she loved after a terrible incident with her boss that she talks around a lot but avoids talking about. In circular monologues she keeps apologizing for herself and endlessly critiquing the way she talks about the things she doesn’t want to talk about.
Rinabeth Apostol’s Constance is perpetually peeved, especially by her own job as one of the creators of an animated children’s program about sloths. As the only woman and the only person of color in the room, she’s always fighting an uphill battle to keep the show from becoming a train wreck of stereotypes, or at least even more of one than it is.
We experience the cartoon in animated snippets as part of Sarah Phykitt’s delightful video design and in funny live scenes with the four actors in fanciful brightly colored sloth costumes by Michelle Mulholland and appropriately cartoonish mannerisms. (Although the dialogue mentions the cartoon sloths speaking with stereotypical ethnic accents on the TV show, the performers don’t do that while playing the sloths.)
The fourth sister, Lina, is mysteriously missing, seemingly cut off by her family by a controlling partner. We only meet her as a child of indeterminate age in a flashback framing sequence, putting on a fantastical play with her sisters her. Lisa Hori-Garcia’s Lina is unenthusiastic about her role her in the kids ‘play but she bravely goes to placate the angry offstage father who pounds thunderously on the wall.
For most of the play Hori-Garcia appears only as Magdalena, the only female sloth and thus (as Constance poignantly complains) the one who has to be everything all at once: the cool motorcycle-riding one, the brilliant scientist, the hero always riding in to save the day.
In fact, the other three sloths are usually comically useless in their never-ending quests to save an orphanage from the evil machinations of a pair of always absent raccoon bandits. It’s only the one time that Magdalena doesn’t show up that they have to step up to do things themselves, and whether they actually accomplish anything is left up in the air. In fact, most of the threads that make up the play are ultimately left hanging.
The script is often quite funny and sometimes heartbreaking, especially in some of Mac’s soliloquys. Chanse creates a fascinating patchwork of overlapping speeches and more conventional scenes, peppered with fantastical sloth adventures and an epic road trip.
Some long stretches of scientific exposition about coral reefs and sloths, although interesting in their own right, put the action on pause.
Originally scheduled for Fall 2020 and delayed by COVID shutdowns, “Monument” has been in the works for several years under the stewardship of former artistic director Loretta Greco, interim AD Sonia Fernandez and new AD Sean San José. It’s compellingly brought to life by director Giovanna Sardelli, a strong team of women designers and a terrific cast of Asian American women performers.
Still, just as one of the four sisters is absent and seemingly unknowable, a piece of the puzzle that makes up the play feels missing. Whether or not that piece has anything to do with Lina herself is an open question, but the play is constructed of a lot of compelling parts that don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘MONUMENT, OR FOUR SISTERS (A SLOTH PLAY)’
World premiere by Sam Chanse, presented by Magic Theater
Through: May 29
Where: Magic Theater, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco
Running time: Two hours, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$70; www.magictheater.org