Grizzled is good
DOGBERRY - Exie Abola () - February 6, 2008 - 12:00am

People of a certain age have it tough these days. The culture we live in fawns over youth, and those no longer young — you know you aren’t when you see the ads on TV, on billboards, in the papers and magazines, and never feel that they are speaking to you — have few spaces in which they feel that they belong.

One such space is the arts. Often artists grow better as they grow older, because their art needs time and patience before it reaches its full flowering. In the first productions of the year by two of the country’s leading theater companies, this principle holds true. In Repertory Philippines’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Tanghalang Pilipino’s Kudeta!, two grizzled actors show the young’uns how it’s done.

In Rep’s Tuesdays with Morrie, that veteran is Jose Mari Avellana. A longtime performer on the stage and silver screen, Avellana hasn’t acted in a play for fifteen years. His return to the stage shows he’s very much on top of his game.

Based on the best-selling memoir of the same title by Mitch Albom and written for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and Albom himself, Tuesdays recounts the friendship Albom strikes up with his college professor. After graduating Albom becomes a successful but harried sportswriter (driving around with cellphone tucked between shoulder and ear, he admits that “Work is all week”) who revives his friendship with his now–terminally ill teacher. The material works well enough on the page, balancing an involving narrative with real-life pathos with. As a script, though, it teeters on the side of sentimentality. Writers Hatcher and Albom have distilled the book into its maudlin essence. The play earnestly wants to impart wisdom, but the banality of its own language and its relentlessly pithy aphorisms undercut it. (Examples: Love is the only rational act. No one exists alone. You’re the same person wherever you go. We must love each other or die. Make people your priority.)

In the hands of poor performers, the play would be an exercise in feel-good tediousness. Yet the performances of Avellana as Morrie Schwartz, the professor, and Bart Guingona as Albom keep the play from getting bogged down in treacle. Avellana in particular is simply astonishing. His physical transformation from a hale and hearty grownup into a man slowly wasting away with Lou Gehrig’s disease is a sight to behold. Schwartz’s slow and convincing deterioration begins with a slight twitch of the hands, then a tremor, then a slackening of the jaw and face, the slumping of shoulders, a slurring and slowing of speech. He makes the simple act of trying to eat a bowl of egg salad heartbreaking. And by so completely embodying Morrie, Avellana makes what is otherwise prosaic speech acceptable as the epigrammatic poetry of the quotidian.

As Albom, Guingona takes longer to establish his character as someone worthy of our sympathy. It took me a while to warm to Guingona, though part of the reason is that it was so easy to feel for Avellana’s Morrie. But in the second half of the play, as Albom becomes less uncertain of himself and what his friendship to this dying man means, Guingona’s performance becomes fuller. By the time Morrie is at his deathbed the two actors call for tears, and we willingly supply them.

Another director may have tried to milk the story for all its lachrymose worth, but Baby Barredo makes restraint the production’s watchword. The set design, also by Barredo, is simple: two performing areas to the left and right of the stage, one with a kitchen set where Morrie first receives Mitch, the other an easy chair where a slowly enfeebled Morrie sits next to a cluttered desk; a bed in shadow in the distance, a piano in one wing. The lighting by Monino Duque is appropriately low-key.

Perhaps the play’s quiet moments are its best: Janine, Albom’s wife (who never appears on stage but is merely a voice) singing a love song without musical accompaniment, Morrie moved to tears by the strains of a snippet from Puccini’s La Boheme (an opera about “getting sick and dying,” he says), the Japanese maple outside his window with leaves yellow and orange and green shot through, on the last day Mitch sees Morrie alive, with streams of brilliant light. The leaves seem to burn in their resplendence. It is a vision of the next world, or perhaps a vision of this one to those who, like Morrie, have the eyes to see it in all its beauty. And, of course, the lovely ending: Albom goes to the piano, Morrie gets up from the bed, again a picture of health and joy, and dances in his inimitable way to the tune Mitch plays, as the lights fade.

Rep’s Tuesdays with Morrie is as wholesome as Tanghalang Pilipino’s Kudeta! is not. A wicked-funny political satire written by Trinidadian Mustapha Matura, a multi-awarded playwright in his adoptive England, and translated into Filipino by George de Jesus III, Kudeta! tells the story of a deposed dictator who tries desperately to hang on to power as those that have overthrown him quarrel among themselves.

The dictator is Eddie Jones, ruler of the recently independent Trinidad and Tobago.  Jones is charming, garrulous, and avuncular in turns, but also delusional and naive. In his quarter century of power his family has grown rich (his wife overdoes the plastic surgery, his son smokes pot, his daughter is an air-headed actress). He has mistresses in Trinidad and other lands and has sired children he has lost track of.

Giving this rich character a fascinating depth and complexity is Mario O’Hara, himself an esteemed film director and writer for film and the stage. The gray-haired O’Hara shares the stage with performers less than half his age and shows that he deserved every right to play the role at the black heart of this story. His dictator is someone you can believe can sway people with the power of his personality, with an easy smile and a gleam in his eye, rather than with the threat of force. Yet he is not an evil man, merely one who long ago perfected the art of deceiving himself.

He strikes up a friendship with Michael the jail guard, a relationship he uses. Calling him Mikey, Jones gets him to doubt his allegiance to his bosses, gather information about the goings-on about the new government, and even gets him to get in touch with an envoy at the American Embassy. “Hindi ako pababayaan ng Amerika,” Jones tells himself, badly overestimating his state’s importance in the eyes of the world’s only superpower (the one that gave his country KFC and libraries), and it is all the more pitiful because he believes it. At the end of the rule he thought would last much longer — he installed himself as president for life, after all — he honestly believes that he was a good leader.

Jones’s Trinidad and Tobago shows itself to be eerily similar to the Philippines. “Hindi pa tayo handa,” Jones says to Michael, appraising his young country’s capacity for democracy, a verdict he could easily have made of ours. Yet the coup that wracks Trinidad involves blood and bullets, while our would-be putchists prefer to ensconce themselves in hotels and call a press conference. Still, the deft comic touch of director Floy Quintos that keeps the darkly sinister humor in perfect balance allows us to see ourselves in this story that unfolds half a world away.

When they show up, it turns out that the coup leaders are all youthful, as if children playing with guns. In the play’s most deliciously farcical scene, the officers Chan and Le Grange nervously check each other’s loyalty with handguns drawn while they argue over what they think is Jones’s corpse.

The design of the stage echoes the theme of untested youth. Hovering above the corner of the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute that is Jones’s cell are what look like bare metal trees, like the structures at a playground, up and down which climb guards and snipers. (The production design is by Tuxqs Rutaquio, with lighting by Dennis Marasigan and sound by Janice Dee.)

The lone false note in the production is the performance of the actress playing Major Ferret, a woman with an eye patch, a camouflage skirt, and a reputation for torturing and mutilating prisoners. (She even flaunts photos of her work.) When she threatens Jones to sign a document confessing his sins against the people, the threat feels empty. By having O’Hara onstage for most of the play, many scenes inadvertently become tests for the younger performers, and only this actress clearly could not hold her own.

Much more convincing is her right-hand man who goes by the nickname Black Lightning, a torturer’s apprentice with a conscience. Chromewell Cosio plays him as a good and proud soldier who merely wants to do what is right for his country, a strong and simple desire that his superiors can’t abide. He pays the price for his goodness.

In the end so too does Mikey, played as an endearing and childlike Everyman by Bong Cabrera. The play punishes not just the dictator but too the young souls who would not part with their humanity. The play ends with Ferret and Chan pointing pistols at each other, deadlocked, as they stand over the bodies of their latest victims, suggesting a continuation of violence and bloodshed in a country — much like ours — whose rulers, and citizens as well, have some growing up to do.

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