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Deconstructing ‘Bridges’: A candid outlook on romance

The actors may have natural chemistry, but isolation is the main driving force between Francesca (Ampil) and Robert’s (Ayesa) bond.

MANILA, Philippines - From the title alone, Atlantis Production’s latest project, Bridges of Madison County, sets itself apart from other musicals. On one hand, you have titles that are straight to the point, like Cats or Shrek. If not that, then labels that are purposely abstract that sum up the theme: Spring Awakening or Next to Normal being examples. But Bridges doesn’t actually even feature bridges all that much, and when it comes to summarizing an overarching theme, well, the play focuses more on alienation rather than forging connections. It’s had a rather colorful history: beginning as a 1992 Robert James Waller novel, it was adapted into a film that starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and, very recently, became a Broadway musical. And barely a year later, it is now here in Manila, thanks to director Bobby Garcia’s penchant for staying ahead of the curve.

Bridges of Madison County takes you back to 1965, mainly through the use of a set that exudes creativity with every part. The background alone is richly decorated with a milieu of portraits that comprise pieces of the puzzle that is rural Iowa, and yet this seemingly sparse farmland easily transforms into bustling fairgrounds, a photo studio or the Roseman Bridge itself, all in innovative ways. Art — mainly paintings and photography — plays a big role in the play, and thus has been infused into every aspect of the production, complete with transforming set pieces, shifting photographs and genuine rotary phones.

Given the Midwestern settings, most of the soundtrack is comprised of country songs and the cast does well enough in capturing that yodeling twang. Acoustic guitars are prevalent, but there are surprisingly no harmonicas to be found. The outlier is Joanna Ampil, whose songs command an operatic tone to further distinguish her Italian character from the rest. She plays Francesca, a homesick immigrant housewife who is home alone when a passing photographer, Robert, asks for directions. And the rest, well… You get the picture.

Mig Ayesa’s Robert is a drifter whose tales of yonder serve as the catalyst that bring the rest of the world back into focus for Francesca. The husband, Bud (Nino Alejandro), is a gruff war veteran whose love for family is the only thing left intact in his life. And Carla Geuvara-Laforteza and Bibo Reyes play their quintessential teenage kids, whose perpetual exasperations have drowned out their mother’s frustrations for years. Watching these foibles unfold are nosy neighbor caricatures Marge (Emeline Celis-Guinid) and Charlie (Jamie Wilson), whose funny bits keep the tone from regressing into a permanent state of melancholy. But rather than serving as reactionary tattle-tales, they are genuinely sympathetic toward everyone in the family and would rather defuse trouble where they see it rather than stir it up.

There are little extracts of humor here and there, but for the most part, the play is presented as a straight romantic drama. At first, I was wary — it’s not my favorite genre in the world, and as far as tales of affairs go, they’re a dime a dozen especially in this day and age. So what sets Bridges apart from the Nicholas Sparks formula of good-looking people falling in love in unexpected places? Well, firstly, the play is powered by guilt and remorse, and all semblances of whimsical romantic tones screech to a halt the moment characters actually contemplate the consequences of their actions. What stands as the main theme of the production is a somber riff, a violin solo that serves as a bookend for most scenes.

The musical never stops reminding you that a whirlwind affair is, first and foremost, an actual whirlwind, meaning it is a catastrophe for everyone involved. Characters are hyper-realistic in their biggest dreams and deepest flaws. There’s no card-carrying villain ex who goes into a murderous rampage during the third act. Each member of the family is fleshed out, and their mistakes are scrutinized to an almost depressing degree. Rather than a “me against the world” vibe for the main couple, it’s a battle of them against the audience. They attempt to prove that their love matters in the grand scheme of things, that it is a necessary disruption of the often demoralizing status quo that is home life. Brutally honest even in its display of family dynamics, some interactions are portrayed as ridiculous, and gut-bustingly funny, and at the same time, may hit too close to home.

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A drama about self-reflection and conquering regret, Bridges of Madison County is a refreshing contemplative drama amongst some of the louder, grandiose plays of today. “When I was born, I had tomorrows stretched before me. But the yesterdays piled up from that day on” — this is merely a sample of the lyrics that, along with clever dialogue and Old World charm, managed to evoke a standing ovation on premiere night.            

The fact that Bridges was made possible here so soon shows that times in the theater community are definitely a-changing — any Tony Awards watcher, for example, would normally have to wait years for any of its nominees to make their way here. Hot on its heels is Atlantis Productions’ upcoming Fun Home (slated for 2016), which won the Tony for Best Musical just this year. At this rate, Filipino theater nuts like myself will be able to breathe a sigh of relief — perhaps a savings jar for trips to New York or London won’t be necessary after all.

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Bridges of Madison County runs today, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza. For tickets, call Ticketworld at 891-9999 or visit www.ticketworld.com.ph.

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