In her one-actor family memoir with music, Sara Porkalob embraces an archetype to satirize, deconstruct and (with caveats) celebrate it.
What is a dragon lady? A term coined in the West to describe a cunning and mysterious, seductive and dangerous Asian vixen. An appellation was conferred on film star Anna May Wong and on World War II propagandist Tokyo Rose.
The vividly sexual-racial stereotype was first popularized in the 1930s by the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates,” and it persists.
But in “Dragon Lady,” her commanding, irresistible one-actor family memoir with music, powerhouse Sara Porkalob embraces the archetype to satirize, deconstruct and (with caveats) celebrate it.
By Sara Porkalob, produced by Intiman Theatre, through Oct. 1 at Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way, Seattle; $20-$50 (intiman.org).
The lady in the title refers to Porkalob’s dynamo Filipino grandmother Maria, who at her 60th birthday party teases and regales her granddaughter (actually, us) with stories of her eventful life.
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Sashaying around Jennifer Zeyl’s bi-level set of worn Barcaloungers, shag carpets and family portraits, Maria is one hip and knowingly outrageous gal — busting a rap rhyme here, ordering a 5-year-old to execute a bully with a golf club there.
With versatile bravado, Porkalob (the show’s creator-star, directed by Andrew Russell in this Intiman Theatre production at UW’s Jones Playhouse) slips seamlessly in and out of characters representing the resiliency and trauma of three related generations.
The first chunk of “Dragon Lady” is played for broad, badass comedy that strikes its marks. Yet a dark undercurrent rises when the show suddenly jumps to a conversation between Maria’s three adult daughters, who are understandably bitter about their mother’s secretiveness and her neglectful parenting.
Much is revealed with a tonal shift back to Maria’s youth in the Philippines. We get a harrowing saga of child trafficking, sexual exploitation, gangster feuds and teen pregnancy, with sultry (and sometimes satirical) musical allusions to Maria’s time as a nightclub torch singer. (Porkalob, an impressive belter with triple-octave range, sings old standards and new originals, accompanied by a live trio — including a trombone that sometimes nearly drowns her out.)
As “Dragon Lady” moves on to…