It is heartening to see Repertory Philippines open their 2009 Season with a Filipino playwright, namely Nick Joaquin's "Portrait of the Artist as Filipino." Loyal audiences and fans of Rep already know of the groupâs track record in staging productions that have originated from Broadway, so to see them explore homegrown material is an exciting event.
Joaquinâs play has been translated into different Filipino versions, including a musical, though Rep stages it in the original English. And Rep does not disappoint. Director Mari Avellanaâs mother, National Artist for Theater Daisy Avellana, originated the role of Candida in 1955. His intimacy with the material has produced a show that is tight, evocative, heartrending, and funny.
The cast delivers with panache this tale of two spinster sisters living with their father in pre-World War II Manila. A quaint living room with withered, whitewashed walls greets the audience. Lighting designer Martin Esteva magically recreates shafts of sunlight pouring into the room through two windows. It is, in one glance, both a stately home and a crumbling establishment. The production design sets the tone of this play where the characters are trapped in a time and place that has become disconnected with who they are and who they wish to be.
Candia and Paula are stuck in their family home, caring for their father Don Lorenzo Marasigan, who has retreated from the world by practically becoming a hermit hiding in his bedroom. Both sisters are dependent on the occasional allowance sent to them by an older sister and brother and are pressured by different camps to sell off a painting bequeathed to them by their father.
The paintingâs title is that of the play, and it hangs invisibly on the fourth wall separating the stage and the audienceâa metaphor for the invisible forces and themes of social obligation and personal freewill that permeate the play.
An ensemble cast provides foils for the sisters to deal with and strikes a perfect balance. It does an excellent job, with each actor or actress giving a little more than what is expected of their character but never grandstanding or stealing the scene. Even Dido Dela Paz, who plays Don Perico, keeps his notorious penchant for endless ad-libbing in check.
In the performance that we caught, Ana Abad-Santos played Candida (Irma Adlawan-Marasigan alternates) with Leisl Batucan as Paula. They display acting bravado as their characters attempt to bravely keep their roiling emotions veiled, as dictated by social norms, under a semblance of comportment and normalcy.
Audiences may not even notice subtle acting changes employed by both actresses to great effect. Watch out how they use slightly bent over and inhibited body language that slowly transform into erect and confident stances as their characters find their footing. Both actresses often have to switch from elation to desperation in a matter of beats and are amazing to watch as they do so, right on cue.
When the sisters stand up and strike out as modern women of the early 1940s, such as looking for work and taking in a boarder for extra income, they provide fodder for the cityâs latest scandal. These are two women definitely on the verge. And when they do break down, with the superb tragicomic performances of Santos and Batucan, the audience feels their shame and pain.
But once youâre down, the only way left is up, and the second act allows the audience to witness the sistersâ triumphs as they come into their own. The third act provides a poignant reunion of the Marasigan clan and is a hilarious romp with half a dozen senior actors onstage obviously having a lot of fun with their scenes and hamming it up gleefully for the audience. As a bonus, long time Rep fans are rewarded with an inside joke played at the expense of actor Joel Trinidad who plays Bitoy Camacho.
'Portrait Of An Artist As Filipino' runs until February 8, 2009 at Onstage Greenbelt One Theatre, Makati. Call Repertory Philippines at 887-0710 or Ticketworld at 891-9999. Log on to www.repertory-philippines.com.