Theater archives

Manila Envelops


Bigger doesn’t always mean better, but in a world of small-scale shows, Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters offers size relief. Finally, something with a vast scope, lots of characters, multiple stories crisscrossing each other. Hagedorn’s play attempts to put onstage the whole panorama of life in the Philippines in the last frenetic years of the Marcos regime. Colleagues who’ve complained to me about the play’s lack of story are really bemoaning its multiplicity of choices: Dine every night on only one dish and you’re naturally flummoxed by a giant menu. Still, there are menus and menus. Hagedorn doesn’t offer us roast dog—the title accusation is apparently a canard invented by American soldiers—but the items on her dramatic bill of fare vary widely in quality, and some have an unmistakably stale flavor.

Using a food metaphor seems ironic, since Hagedorn’s tactics often derive from Brecht’s epic theater, meant as a corrective to the “culinary” commercial kind. But that’s precisely why playgoing should be a feast, not a standard sequence of courses served up mechanically: You have to decide for yourself what you’re willing to swallow. But in our time, Brecht’s fast-switch strategies have become a standard sequence of their own. Too often, Hagedorn seems to be following the pattern reflexively.

A writer living in the U.S., back home for her grandmother’s funeral; a waiter with movie-star dreams and the usherette he romances; a junkie hustler who DJs at a popular dance club; the club’s drag-queen owner; a liberal senator’s daughter being romanced by a guerrilla commander: Dogeaters‘ characters are sprinkled up and down the social ladder. Nestled at its top are specimens of the ruling elite: A stop-at-nothing general; his trigger-happy aide; a beamingly corrupt industrialist; the general’s monolithically devout wife; the liberal senator, who is the general’s cousin; and of course Imelda Marcos herself, smiling over the islands’ “natural” beauty as she fondles a favorite pair of shoes. Like balls on a cubist pool table, the characters carom off each other in unexpected and sometimes far-fetched combinations. Whatever happens—a disaster, a coverup, an assassination, a kidnapping, a rape—everyone in Manila knows all the gory details, through the system of human telegraphy that cities under totalitarian rule tend to develop.

Not that the Marcos-era Philippines, a two-house dictatorship of the military and the oligarchy, was the most brutal of such places: One of the many things Hagedorn does right is to show how the good life trickles down—when it’s necessary for bribing or opiatizing sectors of the populace. It’s her mixed feelings about this Philippine version of consumer culture that lead her into structural chaos. Using a fictional pair of local TV stars as her emcees, she invites us sometimes to sneer at the crude imitation of Western pop kitsch, sometimes to critique it as exploitation, sometimes to relish it as surcease for the oppressed, and sometimes to view her own work as an extension of it, another prisoner of the Metro Manila media trap.

This last is especially unfortunate, since it virtually cues her to write her scenes as recycled versions of those we’ve seen countless times before: the nightlife kid with guerrilla connections, the innocent bystander gunned down because he’s seen too much, the torture routine in the general’s basement. No doubt all these things occurred, in some form, in the Philippines, but saying so doesn’t guarantee their validity onstage. To imply, as the script does, that they’re part of an ongoing reality soap opera lets the spectator off the hook. The pity is that Hagedorn’s grasp of the ideas and the facts behind her ornate tale is potentially powerful: The credit she gets, deservedly, for tackling such ambitious material seeps away in the script’s unsteady focus and by-the-numbers treatment. The pity’s redoubled by the freshness of the diction, zestily salted with Tagalog and Spanish, in which these conventionally built scenes are conveyed. Hagedorn’s ear for tone is a good deal more acute than her eye for dramatic character.

Michael Greif’s production shows a similar slippage between its visual sense and its forward impetus. On David Gallo’s spacious set, a sort of atrium with a mezzanine and twin staircases, people and furnishings are in constant, attractive motion. The individual scenes, though, seem to happen in an unpaced, dreamlike stasis, never gathering force or linking, with those two grinning emcees there to defuse every moment. Fortunately, the sluggishness doesn’t hamper the energy of the largely Filipino American cast, varied in talent but uniform in wholeheartedness. Among the memorables are Mia Katigbak, bubbling with heartfelt insincerity as the female emcee; Hill Harper, rattling with anger and panic as the hustler on the run; Alec Mapa, hovering deliciously on the edge of screech as Perlita the gay bar owner; and Ching Valdes-Aran, whose sweetly steel-edged Imelda is balanced by her even steelier rendering of the general’s devout wife.

Leslie Ayvazian, the author and performer of High Dive, is a devout skeptic. This, as you might guess, is step one in a basic recipe for comedy. The second step is Ayvazian’s longstanding desire to perform, as she puts it, “a one-person show with a large cast.” To this end, she starts her work in the lobby, a half hour before curtain, recruiting audience members to deliver lines interrupting her monologue. High Dive, in which Ayvazian is alone onstage throughout, has a cast of 34. And she doesn’t save all the good lines for herself.

What Ayvazian’s skeptical about is risk: She herself, she tells us disarmingly, is uncomfortable about audience participation. But she’s married to a man who lives to take risks, to travel to remote places, to enjoy accident-prone activities like backpacking and mountain climbing. Ayvazian would rather stay home with a book. But she’s game, and she’s spousal. So her narrative covers what goes through her head while standing, terrified, on the high-dive board of a swimming pool at a remote Greek resort hotel. Will she or won’t she jump off? Refracted backward and forward in her routine, this tiny moment reveals her entire life, a chronicle of comic disaster.

Clearly, Ayvazian’s real tradition is that very American one, the telling of tall tales. I don’t know how many of her anecdotes I believe, but they kept me, and the cast around me, in continuous laughter. She tells them all with authority and—given that she’s never rehearsed with her ensemble—near-impeccable timing. The other 33 performers were better than okay. And the no-surprise surprise ending, to my surprise, gives the laughter an unexpected deep pathos.

Pathos and tragedy, in contrast, are the keynotes of Regina Taylor’s solo evening, Urban Zulu Mambo, three pieces by other black women playwrights woven together, somewhat too loosely, with a poem of Taylor’s own. Two of the figures Taylor creates, a homeless woman whose sole companion is her dog (via Suzan-Lori Parks), and a mother in mourning, ravaged by cancer (conceived by Kia Corthron), are embattled and battling figures whose endings can only be unhappy. In between comes a woman whose erotic attraction to a man she’s never met is the source of soul-shaking torments (graphed by Ntozake Shange). What the three pieces have in common is their writers’ resolute individuality.

Parks’s slides back and forth from third-to first-person narration, deftly using its impersonal tone to make us perceive the woman without the superficial realism that would make her a trite object of pity. The evening’s most fully realized piece, it’s also the least surprising. Shange’s meditation loops and twists, following the associative track of a poetic mind. Provocative in its ideas, it often seems to be spiraling down to nowhere. Corthron’s piece, densest of the three and least accessible, has the most vital energy and tackles social issues most head-on (with statistics, as is Corthron’s wont).

Yet within their differences, the pieces have a common refrain, which is the black woman’s desire to stand as herself, unencumbered by the burdens—stereotypical, economic, medical—the world puts on her. In this respect, the writers’ obstinate individualism amounts to an expression of solidarity. Taylor’s poem tries to convey this, but the sound system—murky like many elements in Henry Godinez’s production—muffles the effect till you get home and read the program insert. She conveys it better by her performance—taut, specific, unmannered but always marked by her own personality—which in effect makes the three figures facets of one persona. If the result seems less than fulfilling, the authors’ other works are easily available for more extended study.

Michael Feingold’s review of Kia Corthron’s Force Continuum

Michael Feingold’s review of Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood

James Hannaham’s interview with Suzan-Lori Parks

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