Drama played out on stage -- and in the actor's life

Times Staff Writer

The show business story is an enduring favorite in part because it's so universally understood. For what is life but a performance in which we're all looking for a little applause to know that we've done well and earned someone's approval?

Alec Mapa supplies a couple such tales in the solo shows "I Remember Mapa" and "Drama!" Presented in alternating repertory under the umbrella title "Mapa Mia!," they are the first of the Mark Taper Forum's Taper, Too program of developmental plays to be presented at the Ivy Substation in Culver City while the nearby Kirk Douglas Theatre is readied.

Simply yet imaginatively staged by Chay Yew, both shows tell the story of a gay Filipino American who grew up feeling like an outsider until he discovered the stage.

Presented in 1997 as part of the Taper's Asian Theatre Workshop, "I Remember Mapa" focuses on Mapa's brush with fame as understudy and, later, lead in the 1988 Broadway phenomenon "M. Butterfly," in which he played, as he concisely puts it, the "Chinese transvestite spy." It is the stronger work, with more to say about life and show business.

"Drama!," a new piece, looks back to high school days of yearning, experimentation and friends lost to AIDS. Though it's engaging enough, it recalls too many similar stories, from the gay monologue in "A Chorus Line" to David Drake's "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me."

In his late 30s and full of vinegar, Mapa all but shouts his lines in excitement and cracks jokes with antic wit, as though desperate for the audience's acceptance.

He sets up "Drama!" by first looking back at his work on the short-lived 2001 CBS sitcom "Some of My Best Friends." Entertainment reporters at the time wanted to know how he felt about playing a flamboyant gay character on national television. The role seemed stereotypical to some people, but Mapa found the character to be independent, empowered and, well, a lot like himself. "Ever since I was a little boy, I've been a great big girl," he dryly announces.

This carries him back to youthful fears of rejection by his Catholic family as well as the crowd at his ethnically diverse San Francisco high school. He found comfort first in classic movies and contemporary TV, which bred his show-business dreams. (A fantasy sequence envisions him in his own variety show, lip-syncing to "I've Got the Music in Me" while disco lights pulse.) He then found his "tribe," as he calls it, in that gay and lesbian support group otherwise known as drama club. Backed by friends and, ultimately, an accepting family, he faces his fears, embraces his identity and moves forward with pride.

In "I Remember Mapa," the actor finds positive reinforcement in the standing ovations that greet his work in "M. Butterfly," only to lose it again when the job ends and he can't find comparable employment. He waits tables at a restaurant where customers sometimes recognize him; he frantically pursues even the most humiliating acting jobs; he gets depressed. Sustaining him through this dark time is his mother's ever-determined admonition, "What's stopping you?"


'Mapa Mia!'

Where: Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City

When: "I Remember Mapa" and "Drama!" alternate Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; both shows Saturdays, 6 and 9 p.m., and Sundays, 5 and 8 p.m.

Ends: Feb. 9

Price: $20 apiece

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running time: "I Remember Mapa," 1 hour; "Drama!," 1 hour, 15 minutes

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