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Memories of Underdevelopment 

Alec Mapa's jabs and japes

Thursday, Feb 6 2003
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Photo by Ted Soqui

I FIRST SAW ALEC MAPA'S ONE-MAN SHOW I REMEMBER MAPA when it appeared in 1997 at Taper, Too. Today I can't remember much about it except that for the next week my face and stomach both ached from having laughed so hard. Mapa is back, at Taper, Too's new Ivy Substation space, with a revival of that evening and a new work, Drama! Deftly staged by director Chay Yew, the two appear under the rubric Mapa Mia!, and viewers can see the hourlong shows separately, in repertory, or together on "marathon" nights.

Mapa is a high-energy and eminently likable performer. In I Remember Mapa, he mischievously bounds onstage like some tapdancing Bugs Bunny — cartwheeling and singing "Nagasaki," an old tune from the 1920s. ("Back in Nagasaki where the fellers chew tobaccy/And the women wicky wacky woo.") Then he unwinds an affecting tale about what he tartly calls "My Filipino-American Journey." This ironic description ruefully acknowledges how ethnic-flavored autobiographies are marketed today, at the same time revealing his own drama-queen self-consciousness. Like hip-hop lyricists, Mapa and other monologists borrow the golden rule bestowed upon every creative-writing class, "Write About What You Know," amending it so they talk about what they know — themselves. Unlike many performers, he has mastered the trick of making even the long pauses of life hiccup with laughter.

Mapa's observations about his claustrophobic home life with conservative parents are love darts, especially where his homosexuality is concerned. "It's only a phase" was the one non-Tagalog sentence Mapa would continually overhear his parents say, and he recounts a San Francisco childhood negotiating compromises with his macho father (tap-dance lessons instead of ballet, GI Joe dolls instead of Ken and Barbie) and searching for Asian role models which, except for Star Trek's George Takei, who played helmsman Mr. Sulu ("He wore a great mustard-velour top and could drive"), were scarce indeed.

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Ultimately, however, neither the lessons of family life nor of gay lifestyles form this show's driving moral; rather it's the curse of youthful success. At the age of 22, Mapa was brushed by the comet's tail of fame, in 1988 landing the position of B.D. Wong's understudy in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly before taking over the role of Song Liling in New York and on tour. Mapa is now 37, and his message, intentionally or not, is that he has never again luxuriated in such starry incandescence. There may be any number of reasons for this: theater and film's minuscule number of memorable Asian roles, pure bad luck or some self-destructive behavior by the narrator.

We'll never learn the reason, at least by watching this show, which dwells on the long gaps between Mapa's acting jobs. Viewed the second time around, I Remember Mapa seems a little too facile for its own good, and however unfair this might be, we sense our narrator cannot or will not explore his own story for a deeper meaning. Perhaps this is part of the artistic legacy from Mapa's early background as a comedian during his New York salad days — the goal of standup, after all, is to get laughs and not make the audience think too long about where a clown's pain comes from. Certainly, this show has a hefty share of rimshots that are funny but never developed: "I live in West Hollywood and work out, because it's the law!" he says, without following up on why that may be.

Like most American standup comics, whose shtick relies upon projecting the image of a reasonable person who is set upon by an unreasonable world, Mapa the monologist always puts himself in the position of passively absorbing the freakishness of others — of his family, friends, high school classmates, et al., as though he is the world's piñata. When such comedians and performance artists describe the confrontations of their lives, the descriptions are invariably followed by a response prefaced with, "And I'm like, . . ." as in, "And I'm like, whatever." But it's precisely the courage to define and explore the whatever that separates art from shtick and memoir from recollection.

Drama!'s shortcomings won't require a second viewing to be discovered. This monologue mostly deals with Mapa's youth, focusing on the drama club that lent the insecure teenager sanctuary from the butch terrors of San Francisco's George Washington High School. The club was a haven for the school's gay misfits and eventually gave Mapa a lifeline to local theater and the world beyond. Although Mapa offers well-framed snapshots of the kids he grew up with, along with various jobs he held, this segment of Mapa Mia! still feels underdeveloped. It is here that the audience's attention wanders and we begin to notice the traffic noises surrounding the Taper, Too's otherwise elegantly renovated digs.

The piece ends with an awkward attempt to stuff an adversity-overcome theme into a Hawaii AIDS run in which Mapa participated — it's simply too convenient to use a foot-race metaphor for life, especially when AIDS has entered the narrative so late in the evening.

By the late 1980s, he says, as though sensing what might be on his audience's mind, many of his friends were becoming infected with HIV. And yes, he conveys a moment or two of gay panic as he awaits the results of his medical tests — after all, he admits of his Castro District encounters, "I dated a ZIP code." But there's something missing, and we come away with the feeling that the beating we hear in Mapa's stories is not a heart but merely a pulse.

As it is now, Mapa could ease into a career as a gay Bob Hope. Certainly, the punning tenor of his shows' titles suggests endless possibilities that could, however, end up straitjacketing the performer. What's next? The Last of the Red-Hot Mapas? Throw Mapa From the Train? Such glibness comes fast and easy, but you wonder if Mapa really wants to make a career of being superficial. On the other hand, what he is trying to do — present insights on a life still in progress, with punch lines — is one of the hardest things to pull off in theater. Mapa has not yet made the transition between standup and performer; instead, he seems balanced on a high wire between comedy and confession — it will be interesting to see on which side of that wire he chooses to jump.

MAPA MIA! | Written and performed by ALEC MAPA | At the TAPER, TOO at Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City Through February 16

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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