By Austin Yang
Psychic surgery is described as a pseudoscientific medical practice in which the illusion of surgery is performed. Using fake blood, animal parts, and occasionally other props, the surgeon “extracts” the negativities from the patient’s body. For Felix Starro (Alan Ariano), a Philippine faith healer renowned for the “power” in his hands, the procedure carries a Catholic element; he prays to a patron saint before acting on the patient.
Felix Starro comes to San Francisco at the height of psychic surgery in 1985, during the tenure of Ferdinand Marcos, whose endorsement of psychic surgery mirrored the dubiousness of his reign. His 10-day sojourn is booked full of patients, ready to put their faith, and their bodies, in the hands of Ariano’s amiable Starro. However, the line between fraudulence and true belief, or rather, faith and fact, is something the show does not help to elucidate, even as painstakingly staged operating sessions yield returning customers with worsened maladies (a scene-stealing Francisca Muñoz) and the disgraced Starro is reduced to his flashbacks of once being a celebrated TV guru back in his homeland.
A homeland, incidentally, that others seek to leave behind. Starro is joined by his grandson of the same name (Nacho Tambunting), whose own agenda of finding a new life in America is urged by his girlfriend Charma (a fearsome set of pipes belonging to Diane Phelan) and undertaken by the resourceful Flora Ramirez (the indomitable presence of Ching Valdes-Aran). Junior, as the younger Starro is called, spawns a number of subplots with many of the supporting characters, most of which are left unanswered, leaving the narrative hopelessly scattered and uneven. In one instance, a forlorn Bobby (Ryan James Ortega) is turned away for a reason the audience is simply left alone to chew on. Another moment, featuring poignant projections by Nick Graci, feels particularly undercapitalized. Opportunities to address immigration and the complex intersections of religion and colonial powers in both Philippine culture and faith healing are grazed over at best. At a runtime of 1 hour and 50 minutes, this clunkiness definitely starts to bog the show down.
Not to neglect, of course, moments of genuinely heartfelt storytelling by an extremely talented cast that simply lacked unified consolidation. Fabian Obispo’s multifarious score (hints of Sondheim in between the spiritual harmony swells) sufficiently showcases their voices, especially Ariano’s veteran baritone, Tambunting’s spirited tenor, and Caitlin Cisco’s gorgeous timbre.
Ultimately, Felix Starro’s strongest aspect is the shared cultural heritage of its collaborators. Though at times two-dimensionally, Felix Starro offers an authentic portrayal of its Filipino characters, and its culturally rooted setting. This is made possible only with its almost entirely Filipino-American ensemble and production staff. It’s important not to forget that this kind of representation, even in New York theatre, is unprecedented, and that the future creation of more works with authentic representation will mean the continuation of this inclusiveness.
Felix Starro – Ma-Yi Theater Company
Book/Lyrics: Jessica Hagedorn
Music: Fabian Obispo
Based on the short story by Lysley Tenorio.
Director: Ralph B. Peña
MD/Vocal Arrangements: Ian Miller
Choreographer: Brandon Bieber
WITH: Alan Ariano (Felix Starro), Caitlin Cisco (Crystal), Francisca Muñoz (Mrs. Delgado), Ryan James Ortega (Bobby/Ramon), Diane Phelan (Charma), Nacho Tambunting (Junior), Ching Valdes-Aran (Flora Ramirez)
Scenic Design: Marsha Ginsberg | Costume Design: Becky Bodurtha | Lighting Design: Oliver Wason | Sound Design: Julian Evans | Orchestrations: Paulo K Tiról | Projection Design: Nick Graci | PSM: Christina Sison
Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes
Tickets can be found here.