A trio of SoCal Filipinas earning extra cash by weeping and wailing at funerals may provide the title (and the hook) for Giovanni Ortega’s Criers For Hire, but it’s the play’s mother-daughter reunion and its look at a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in a new land that give Ortega’s delightful, charming World Premiere comedy its emotional heart and punch.
Gaya (Nicole Barredo) has spent most of her fourteen years in the Philippines, raised by a loving, nurturing grandmother while her mother Baby (Joan Almedilla) has toiled, first in Japan, and now in a Monterey Park nursing home called Live Long And Prosper, in order to keep her family free from the poverty that might otherwise be their lot.
Now, after nearly a decade-and-a-half of separation (during which Gaya’s communication with Mom has been limited to letters read and reread), the teenager has arrived to begin a new life in the USA circa 1990.
Not surprisingly, initial bliss soon gives way to the kinds of conflicts likely to arise between a tradition-bound first-generation American and her more forward-thinking second-generation offspring.
Gaya’s Columbian-American classmate Narcisco (Rudy Martinez) introduces the freshly-arrived Filipina to the pleasures of Alternative Rock and New Wave Cinema as well as to the importance of losing her heavy Tagalog accent.
Meanwhile, Baby’s boss Meding (Giselle “G” Töngi) and her American-born fellow crier Henny (Samantha Cutaran) seek out local funerals as CEO Medina bemoans her shrinking business and 20something Henny keeps her gal pals entertained with tales of her most recent fling.
Will Meding’s “Criers For Hire” ever return to its former 20-employee glory? Will Henny get to a fourth date with the latest Mr. Right? Will Baby and Gaya be able to overcome years of separation and create a real mother-daughter bond? Will Gaya learn how to speak like an American and, more significantly, how to cry?
Predictable (and at times over-the-top) the answers to these questions might be, but that doesn’t stop Criers For Hire from being another East West Players gem.
Ortega’s script works in many ways—as commentary on life in a new land, as a look back at the pre-Internet ‘90s, as a teen dramedy that would do John Hughes proud, and as a mother-daughter relationship play that will leave many audience members misty-eyed.
At the same time, those with ears untrained to English spoken with a thick Tagalog accent may find themselves frequently wondering, “What did she say?” particularly since there is much code-switching between Tagalog (sometimes subtitled but frequently not) and English that sounds so much like a foreign tongue that you may well wonder where one begins and the other ends.
Playwright Ortega would also do well to fill theatergoers unfamiliar with Filipino culture in on the business of “crying for hire,” which never gets adequately explained.
Still, these are relatively minor quibbles about a play that had me at Baby’s first letter from Mom and kept me enchanted throughout its brisk 80-minute running time.
Under Jon Lawrence Rivera’s deft direction, a couldn’t-be-better quintet of SoCal acting talents bring Ortega’s words (and Criers For Hire’s worlds) to irresistible life, from Almedilla’s earth-mother of a Baby to Barredo’s absolutely adorable Gaya to Töngi’s divalicious Meding to Cutaran’s sexy, sassy Henny to Martinez’s utterly winning Narcisco.
Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo merits big thumbs up for his richly-hued set, its sliding panels opening and closing Asian-style to reveal each new locale, though the smoothness of scene changes could be improved upon. Mylette Nora’s character/era-appropriate costumes and R. Christopher Stokes’ vibrant lighting are design winners too as are Lily Bartenstein’s ‘90s props (e.g. Meding’s humungous mobile phone) and projections.
Best of all is sound designer Howard Ho’s emotion-enhancing original musical underscoring and Almedilla’s gorgeous song that ties everything together in the end.
Alyssa Escalante is stage manager and Brandon Chang is assistant stage manager.
A bona fide crowd pleaser, and not just for the multitude of SoCal-based Filipino-Americans who will recognize themselves and their culture in it, Criers For Hire gets East West Players’ 2016 off to a pabuloso (in other words fabulous) start.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
February 17, 2016
Photos: Michael Lamont