A festive wonder twin with a frigid heart
DOGBERRY - Exie Abola (The Philippine Star) - April 1, 2013 - 12:00am

PETA’s D’Wonder Twins of Boac closed earlier this month after a five-week run, and the handful of notices that appeared both in print and online heaped unanimous praise on the production. On one level they were right; it’s a delightful show that had audiences rolling in the aisles, and it showcases PETA’s well-honed ability to entertain while making audiences think. What hasn’t been dwelt on is how it adapts its source work, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Since I’m late to the party, I’ll train my focus here.

On paper, the concept is audacious. The script by Rody Vera moves the story from Illyria, the fictional land of the Bard’s imagining, to Manila in the 1960s, in the dying years of the film industry’s golden age. Instead of merely relocating the story, the play recalibrates it, making it take on themes never dwelt on in the original.

It’s a brave move, but also perilous. Layeta Bucoy grafted Titus Andronicus onto a story of small-town politics in her Tinarantadong Asintado for Dulaang UP, to mixed results; the Shakespearean scaffolding was an awkward fit. On the other hand, Ricky Abad transplanted The Taming of the Shrew to Bicol in the early 20th century for Tanghalang Ateneo, to glorious effect.

In this version, Viola and Bastian (no longer Sebastian) are identical twins not from Messaline but from Boac, Marinduque, who decide to take their talents  they’re a song-and-dance duo celebrated by their townmates  to the big city. Cue the shipwreck that splits them apart, each thinking the other drowned. They then make their separate ways into Manila and into the movie industry.

Viola (Cris Villonco), now in male disguise as Cesar, becomes personal assistant to Doc Orsino, not a duke but head honcho of a movie studio locked in a rivalry with Donya Olivia’s. He pursues her love but not out of affection; he just wants their companies to join forces. Bastian (Chrome Cosio), meanwhile, is taken in by a handsome stuntman named Antonio who teaches him the ropes in the business.

In this version, Feste becomes the fey Luciano, a filmmaker who makes dim-witted entertainments that kill it at the tills. Malvolio is his dead-serious counterpart who makes dead-serious art films that win prizes but which no one watches. “High drama” versus “low comedy,” as Luciano puts it, is the problem, reminding us  as do director Maribel Legarda’s notes  of the recent Metro Manila Film Festival and its attendant controversy.

There’s something disingenuous about stating the problem as a clash of such extremes. If we paint it as, say, Thy Womb versus Sisterakas, the problem looks intractable. But there’s plenty of ground between them, as if “high drama” can never entertain, as if “low comedy” can’t ask tough questions. No need to look far. Shakespeare’s plays did so. Twelfth Night itself dwells on the fluidity of identity, especially of the sexual kind, and how easily  tantalizingly, dangerously  desire mutates; it’s also the wackiest of farces. (Harold Bloom complains that most productions aren’t zany enough.) In D’Wonder Twins, such questions are glanced at then dispensed with. The twins’ switcheroo is merely a plot device, the confusion just a laughing matter.

There’s zaniness in spades but a shortage of human warmth. Malvolio is a self-important buffoon, made judderingly delicious by Lao Rodriguez (it was a pleasure seeing him and other alums of Tanghalang Pilipino’s Actors Company, such as Cosio and Riki Benedicto as Antonio), but he’s just a buffoon. Antonio splits our sides with his take on the buff but gay man  asked if Bastian is male, he replies “Lalakeng tunay!” while brandishing a rapier with lascivious intent  but he’s no more than a type. So too is Olivia, given outsize flair by Shamaine Buencamino and Gail Billones  her dramatic entrance (a winding staircase, a chandelier, a gust of wind that ruffles her veil) would have made Gloria Swanson proudbut she’s merely a mogul playing spider to unwitting flies. Tito Toma’s manipulation of the wealthy but stupid Rudy (Sir Andrew Aguecheek to Toma’s Sir Toby Belch) is silly but never edges into cruelty. Pathos is in short supply.

The play is not completely drained of feeling, to be fair. Its two best scenes are its warmest. In the first, Cris Villonco sings what is otherwise a signpost song, the kind that stops the plot in a musical to tell the audience how a character feels. It’s a dispensable moment, but it occasions the play’s best soliloquy in Shakespeare. With dolled-up backup singers, Villonco launches into a tour de force featuring a careening melody line with quick lilting falsetto breaks, demanding both nimbleness and plenty of belting. It’s a moment steeped in theatrical artifice, but Villonco transcends it. She doesn’t look like a pop star strutting her stuff. She looks like a girl aching for love. We ache with her.

Soon follows a scene with Doc Orsino and Luciano, in which the two men teach the younger Cesar how to woo Olivia. Orsino (a fine Lex Marcos) too launches into song, also with his own trio of bewigged backup singers, in which we see anxiety peering through the professional exterior. “Ang gulo na,” he reflects, “pero lalake siya.” And for a while we glimpse a fragile person, unsure of his feelings and aware of how wrong they are.

But the moment passes. Cesar’s visit to Olivia is a hoot, what with the older woman lounging on a round bed lowered from the ceiling, Cesar barely able to slip from the needy grasp of Olivia’s mock despair. It’s funny, but it’s clearly a trick. Olivia feels no tenderness toward this young, pale-skinned boy.

And tenderness ultimately is this adaptation’s casualty. If D’Wonder Twins of Boac feels less like Twelfth Night than a diminished version of it, that’s because it nails the farce but tosses out the humanity. In place of Shakespeare’s warm heart speckled with autumnal melancholy we find, despite all the laughter provoked, a cold winter wind. I suppose that was presaged from the start, when the script swapped out love and put in fame as the object of the character’s deepest desires. (“Gusto mo bang sumikat?” is the question that stops people in their tracks.) This pale wonder twin of a play turns Twelfth Night’s set of oddballs into a gallery of grotesques, signaled most clearly by the pestilence of pompadours that infects it. (Even the cast’s headshots in the souvenir program are Photoshopped with wigs.) The hairpieces, not to mention all the patent leather shoes and the garish colors of the costumes, are visually emblematic of the way the characters are reduced to their surfaces. By this calculus Viola and Bastian never had a chance; they’re merely the latest meat for the grinder (of both the movie industry and the plot).

To its credit, between high drama and low comedy, the production chooses neither. Malvolio makes a giddy fool of himself, swapping his black and gray clothes for electric hues, and when he is banished from the stage, the play gives him the indignity of walking out with the overcooked language of bad action movies: “Pagbalik ko, dudurugin ko kayong lahat!” Shakespeare’s Malvolio utters similar words in a wholly different register, chilling the skin with his remorselessness.

But neither does Luciano prevail. He ushers in the unexpectedly downbeat conclusion by announcing the advent of a new low in our film history: the bomba flick. Lurid images from that era fill TV screens that descend from the ceiling, and as the music slows to a prurient pace, Viola and Bastian slowly and reluctantly strip to their undies, just the latest victims of a hungry beast. The cast sings the finale, “Akala nati’y happy ending, may nakatago palang dilim,” nodding to Feste’s “The rain it raineth every day,” the curiously pensive ditty that closes Twelfth Night. The stuck-up aesthete is gone, the panderer without conscience remains, and nobody wins. 

And yet, if D’Wonder Twins refuses to resolve the high drama–low comedy impasse, PETA’s recent history dismisses the dichotomy as false. Surely Batang Rizal; Juan Tamad, ang Diablo, at ang Limang Milyong Boto; Ismail at Isabel; Care Divas; and William; all staged within the last five years, show us that a story touching serious themes need not be devoid of sweetness, nor that entertainment be nutrient-free. They’re all delightfully engaging, and thought-provoking, too. (True, Saan Ba Tayo Ihahatid ng Disyembre? and Haring Lear were far more demanding, but they’re the exception that proves the rule, and when Nonon Padilla directs, you let him do as he damn well pleases. Besides, a good audience should be willing to take on the occasional challenge.) D’Wonder Twins is cut from the same cloth, but its bright colors notwithstanding, it doesn’t make as fine a fabric.

Then again, these are stage plays. Is PETA saying its offerings are superior to those of our movie industry? If so, it seems an arrogant claim, but, looking again at the list above, I find myself hard-pressed to disagree.

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Comments are welcome at dogberry.exie@gmail.com.

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