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‘Cock’ tales in the round

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - March 16, 2014 - 12:00am

The set is shaped like a sabungan. That should give you some idea about the secret meaning of this play. The actors circle round and round, and the feathers fly.

Red Turnip’s sophomore production, Cock, is a 90-minute whirlwind of language and deft theatrics, a human battle royale in which you know someone will be left in shreds on the floor.

Based around four characters, Mike Bartlett’s 2009 one-act play plays off the title’s double meaning, but that turns out to be a red herring tossed out by Red Turnip. Theater posters playfully emphasize the gay theme of the play — which involves a breakup between M (Niccolo Manahan) and John (Topper Fabregas), and the latter’s rebound relationship with W (Jennifer Jamora) — but it’s really about human relationships, how they tend to drift and change and evolve.

Opening with a flurried exchange between John and M, the Whitespace staging in the round keeps the audience riveted to the action. It’s a more intimate experience than last year’s Closer, possibly because we’re physically closer to the actors. (Literally: the floor seats and the set practically overlap.)

As John discovers the “mystery” of female intimacy with W, the play enters another dimension, boldly going where few gay men have gone before. He finds not just previously unknown sexual territory, but a level of openness and honesty he’s not used to with M.

The play’s audience crosses sexual boundaries as well. Gay audience members (obviously tongue firmly in cheek) get a chance to hiss “It’s against nature!” when John first embraces W in a tender kiss. Women may see in the play proof that earnest female attention can “change” a gay man’s orientation. And audience members with no agenda whatsoever will admit it’s a smart, deftly paced play that reaches its ambiguous ending before you even realize it’s over.

Rem Zamora, in his directorial debut, keeps the production taut, ever-circling the sabong pit. Having his players face off, moving around the center in ever-tightening arcs, keeps us focused on the body language and the words.

Zamora eschews physical props. When characters say they’re taking their clothes off, or sitting at a dinner table, it’s all left to your imagination. The only “props” I saw were a couple of water bottles at the outskirts of the sabong, occasionally picked up by the thirsty actors.

Instead, there’s the smart design of the central sabong ring, and the periodic dinging of a bell: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3…

Significantly, John is the only character with a name instead of a letter. M’s dad, F (Audie Gemora), offers moral support to his son after the breakup, and he is that rare onstage creation: a parent who is 100-percent supportive of his son’s gay lifestyle choice. This, of course, provides one of the main twists in what is already a twisty modern play on sexual values. Gemora does a fine job as the bulldozing dad, trying to keep the young lady’s paws off his son’s lover.

Fabregas plays John as a sexual naïf, one caught in a tug of war between the (alternate) sexes. He’s practically infantilized by M, a somewhat older lover who prefers to keep John as childlike as possible. John’s confusion is evident on his face when he meets W, a woman whose forward attentions are regarded with suspicion and ridicule by M. Jamora shows another side of her acting skills as a woman who’s had enough experience to know lust when she sees it, but also its flipside: adult love.

She and Fabregas have a great moment together, during a sexual scene that is played out in words rather than gestures, as they slowly circle one another at the center ring, drawing closer and closer. (It somehow brings to mind the phone sex scene between Joaquin Phoenix and his OS, Scarlett Johansson, in Her.)

As M, Manahan is strong and assertive. There are tender, flirtatious moments between him and Fabregas that seem very natural, the characters almost grooming one another; but underneath it is a kind of tamping down, a need to keep the anger inside the bottle.

But when the words fly, that’s when this play takes off.

It wouldn’t work so well if the actors weren’t seasoned enough to tear into this language on the stage. And as many reviewers have pointed out, this is a play that has some of the best bitch fights in town. M keeps John doubting his very existence, with razor-sharp lines like: “What are you? Most people seem to come together pretty well, their atoms hold, and you can look at them and go, ‘Oh, that’s my mate Steve,’ ‘That’s the Queen.’ But you, you don’t seem to have grown coherently. You are a collection of things that don’t amount. You are a sprawl. A mob. You don’t add up.”

In a way, he’s right. John, the only character with a full name, is ironically the least fully formed. He doesn’t add up. Fabregas plays this type of fumbling, eyebrow-knit character to the hilt. But ultimately, the coherence we seek in his character probably comes offstage, after the lights have gone down and the play is over.

If Red Turnip keeps on making smart picks like this, it will have fulfilled its mission to offer Filipino patrons intense, dramatic productions that don’t rely on musical theater or revival gigs to keep the coffers full. With Cock, they’ve picked a winner.

* * *

Cock runs at Whitespace, 2314 Chino Roces Ave. Extension, Makati, on March 21, 28 and April 4 (Fridays, 9 p.m.); March 29 and April 5 (Saturdays, 8 p.m.); and March 16, 23 and April 6 (Sundays, 4 p.m.).  There’s also a 4 p.m. show on Saturday April 5, and a special closing gala on Sunday April 6, 8 p.m.

Tickets are available through TicketWorld (891-9999 or www.ticketworld.com.ph) or email Red Turnip Theater via redturniptheater@gmail.com.

 

 

AS JOHN AS M AUDIE GEMORA CHINO ROCES AVE COM FABREGAS JOHN PLAY RED TURNIP
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