Tanghalang Ateneo’s production of Peter Zaragosa Mayshle’s ‘Dolorosa,’ directed by Jenny Jamora, is over three hours long and feels like it’s straining from the weight of its extremely dense text that aims to cover so much ground within its three acts. ‘Dolorosa’ is a play that spans three generations of women and their connection to a renowned, award-winning sculpture of the Dolorosa, an image of the sorrowful Blessed Virgin Mary, by the master carver Mariano Baldemor Madrinian of Paete, Laguna back in 1883.
Each act is set in three points in history and tells the story of the oppression of women in those times, how their suffering is connected to faith, religion, and the patriarchy. It serves to chronicle how women have come to struggle and fight against it and how the feminine experience is synonymous to resistance.
As a concept, it’s strong and it allows director Jenny Jamora to really flex her creative impulses as she has to envision three realities that trap women in man-made social norms while infusing these realities with metaphysical and supernatural elements because the play goes further than just unfolding a story.
The play also delves into the spiritual and the supernatural as several characters exhibit extra-sensory abilities; one character has the ability to astral project and in this other world sees things as they are without restriction to time and space. She communes with characters in the past and the future and even speaks with the Virgin Mary in her many incarnations.
Jamora manages to create vibrant staging of these astral projections, In Act 2, one of the characters, Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo), is in bed and projects her astral self for the first time and Jamora envisions this by having another actress with the same height and build as de Ocampo flung across the other half of the stage and connected by swirls of cloth to approximate the idea that the astral self is always connected to the body. It’s wonderful stage work and the production is filled with magical moments like this.
Unfortunately, no amount of creative staging can salvage the heavy-handed material. The dialogue is prosaic, oftentimes leaning heavily into the literal, where characters are often talking about the plays themes so pointedly that it robs Jamora’s artistic staging of its magic. In the play, women are abused, raped, belittled, and disempowered and in the next scene, they openly state it and reinforce it.
And there’s no real clear-cut narrative thread. Each Act, being from a different timeline, has a different set of characters and their stories never really arc so we never get a full cathartic moment for any of them. One character, Pilar, appears in Act 2 and Act 3. The younger version, played by de Ocampo, grows up and is played by Bibeth Orteza but they are separated in our minds as two different characters because the play uses the astral projection as a device for the two to meet and talk in The Neither (what Pilar has come to call this negative space that is “neither here nor there).
And this is the most problematic part for me because, first, astral projection in itself feels more like a device than an integral part of the story. It never feels like its symbolic for anything and instead becomes a plot point for how Pilar manages to piece together the Dolorosa after its lost -- both narrative aspects happen in-between scenes and acts and never really shown -- and is just a narrative tool to allow older Pilar and younger Pilar to talk about feminist issues and the astral projection ability as well. Secondly, since The Neither allows the unveiling of reality, older Pilar tells younger Pilar that she’s just a character in the play and even brings out the show’s program to prove it. This utter removal of the fourth wall shatters the whole play’s reality and reminds us that this is all crafted fiction. It undermines any story value that is created and turns the play into a pulpit.
The act with the strongest narrative potential is the third act, the story of Pilar’s children who each carry a separate piece of The Dolorosa and must reunite every year to put the Dolorosa back together for the Holy Week procession. This act is a family drama (rather than the first two acts, which veer towards historical drama) about the resentments over their mother leaving them and how their lives have gone off-kilter since.
Unfortunately, we arrive in act 3 with the all the major action done and it becomes a long conversation about the effects and everything is somehow tidied up by the arrival of older Pilar and another long scene of prophetic visions that magically ties up all loose ends into a neat bow.
‘Dolorosa’ is bogged down by its text that needs to find its narrative thread among its myriad musings on the oppression of women and deliver a singular focused message that we can really chew on. There’s so much potential here but the play needs to find an emotional core other than depicting violence and oppression on women and then talking about it. As a play, it needs to be more lyrical than that.