Admirably gritty ‘Monument, or Four Sisters’ dives too shallowly into deep subjects

photo of Magic Theater's Monument
Jay Yamada/Courtesy

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Content warning: sexual, domestic violence

“Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play),” written by Sam Chanse and directed by Giovanna Sardelli, opened for its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre on May 14. The new play investigates the promising premises of climate change, feminism and AAPI sisterhood at an immensely relevant time. Marking strong progress with room for further growth, “Monument” is a worthwhile project that commendably aims to elevate silenced voices and narratives.

Though evidently created with important and intriguing ideas in mind, the play’s weighty components never quite fully mesh. A collection of too-short explorations down each dense path, the play feels more like three beginnings intertwined than one cohesive story. Despite some missed potential, “Monument” is wonderfully held up by a talented cast of Asian American women and succeeds in introducing the world to four necessary, seldom-told stories.

“Monument” explores the lives of four AAPI sisters — Amy (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), Constance (Rinabeth Apostol), Mac (Sango Tajima) and Lina (Lisa Hori-Garcia) — who are now adults after having survived a turbulent childhood with their stern, sometimes violent, father. Amy studies coral reefs and the devastating phenomenon of coral bleaching, Constance is the only woman and person of color in a writer’s room for a children’s show about sloths, Mac is trying to find direction after mysteriously leaving a job she loved and Lina has been hard to reach, drifting away due to a questionable relationship.

The play’s ambition creates its biggest challenge: the scope of experiences it tries to cover. Amy, Constance and Mac’s present frustrations with life and work explore the issues of environmental devastation, navigating the workplace as a minority and the effects of sexual violence. Already, three heavy subject matters are being told through three separate characters. That’s not to mention the effects of childhood trauma creeping into all three sisters and their concerns about Lina, which further complicates the conflicts.

Introducing so many stories plus the sisters’ backgrounds makes for a difficult task. Monologuing, especially from Mac, is frequently used to provide the complex exposition. Though Tajima’s impassioned delivery helps liven these scenes, the sisters are often talking at the audience for extended periods with almost no complementary action. Mac also breaks the fourth wall a few times throughout her speeches, yet its effect tends to be more confusing than engaging.

This makes several parts of the play feel slow, and the monologues take away time for the sisters to interact with each other; viewers learn much more about the sisters individually than they do about the sisters’ relationships with one another. This dynamic would not have only been incredibly interesting to explore, but feels necessary given the emphasis on familial relationships throughout the play. Both of these problems may have been somewhat amended had the monologues been shortened, and more information about the sisters was revealed through their conversations — and subsequent reactions to them — with one another.

The sister’s stifling, real-world frustrations are contrasted with episodes of Constance’s kids’ show, where all four actresses return to the stage to play a group of cartoon sloths who live in Costa Rica. In these scenes, some of Constance’s gripes with the show are seen in action. Not only do they effectively expand audiences’ understanding of her complaints, but they soar due to the comedic relief they provide in an otherwise serious story. The humor in the sloth scenes resonates due to the physical comedy, the timing prowess of all four performers and the phenomenal recreation of tropes in educational children’s shows.

The plot of the timely “Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)” may be spread a bit too thin, but the play overall displays well-intentioned storytelling talent. Though struggling to dive deep enough into the many themes it introduces, “Monument” takes theater — and the stories we’re allowed to tell through it — in the right direction.

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].