Dreams, memory and the supernatural fuse with the gritty realities for young people of color living on the streets of Chicago in the west coast premiere of A. Rey Pamatmat’s play Thunder Above, Deeps Below at Bindlestiff Studio, the nation’s only Filipino American-run theater.
Over the course of two hours, we follow Theresa (Aureen Almario), the steely Filipina mother hen to a surrogate street family including Gil (Wil Dao), a transsexual from the Philippines, and Hector (Roy Landaverde), a Latino teen hustler who ran from his drug addict mother years before. Theresa holds the group’s collective stash of money -- earned from panhandling, Gil’s performances in a drag club, and Hector’s overnight stays with an older, married man -- as well their drive to save enough for bus tickets to San Francisco where they can start anew. Underneath her dourness lies incredible vulnerability stemming from her past and the loved ones she’s lost, which she only reveals via dreams and the occasional fever-induced state, moments when the play ventures to an otherworldly subplot. At first, I wasn’t sure how comfortably that subplot would be juxtaposed with the play’s urban realism, but it just works; we believe that these characters pound the pavement each morning, fueled by goals which are in turn fueled by grander dreams and fantasies of being loved, being reborn, or being home.
Culture, poverty, racism, sexual identity, family, fate, and the power of a dream are all addressed in Thunder Above, Deeps Below, yet Pamatmat and his cast deftly avoid ham-fisted approaches to such topics and allow the characters to shine above all else. Dao pretty much steals the show as the endearing Gil, providing the majority of the laughs and levity. It’s a monumental task to play a flamboyant transsexual without falling into caricature and it's Gil’s inherent sweetness prevents this from happening. If Dao’s Gil is the heart of the show, then Almario’s Theresa is the soul of it. With a heartbreaking monologue detailing her origin story (the play's comic book hero theme is subtle but impactful), her pain grounds Gil’s romantic whimsy and Hector’s childlike fury and guides us through a unique family tale.
[Full Disclosure: The writer and Almario are former classmates.]