Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
By naming her novel Dogeaters, the pejorative for Filipino coined by Americans to make fun of the natives who often served up dogs the way one serves chickens and pigs, Jessica Hagedorn anounced her no-holds-barred intent. Her fictional appraisal of the land of her birth examined every strata of its society and put everything on the table, including bits and pieces like the dog eating days that many Fillipinos prefer to hide or forget. The result was a tangled tale of the long-lingering aftertaste of colonization that left people torn between the old and new world, connected by the hype of the media and the glamour of the movies This new, less family connected society was filled with as much color and drama as any movie.
Dogeaters, the play, like Dogeaters, the novel, demands that attention must be paid in order to follow the frequently interrupted fragments of its jaggedly disparate but intertwined stories. Not that your attention is likely to wander from Michael Greif's stunningly animated crazy quilt of Phillipine history. It is one of the most stylish productions currently to be seen on the stage, with its fifteen-member cast representing the crème-de-la-crème of Filipino-American actors, many in multiple roles.
Though the author has streamlined her book (and the initial version of the play's 1998 outing at the La Jolla Playhouse) to focus the year 1982 which marked the beginning of the end of the regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Dogeaters remains big and busy. It often feels like a musical and has a decidedly Brechtian flavor. (Brecht's large cast sagas with their often overlapping dramas were in fact frequently set to music -- like a recent production of The Good Woman of Sezuan -- see link below ).
David Gallo's two-level set and John Woo's projection designs turn the stage into a combination live play and movie theater; for example, the opening scene establishes the historic context by having an ensemble of radio reporters broadcasting snippets of news from the main set, then turning the spotlight to the walkway above and the "ever-lovely and everlasting" media personalities, Nestor Norales and Barbara Villanueva (played with great gusto by Ralph Peña and Mia Katigbak). These stars of the Phillippines' longest running radio soap opera, "Love Letters", and hosts of an American style talk show are the play's MCs through whom the various events of the play are filtered. As they blend brief scenes of their radio drama and events from the play, fact and fiction become part of a single soap opera.
In addition to Nestor and Barbara we have another narrator in Rio Gonzaga (Kate Rigg), an authorial stand-in. Rio, who plays a much larger role in the book, now serves as the outsider looking in, having returned to Manila for her grandmother's funeral. After living in California for eleven years, she is both drawn to the exotic charms of Manilla, even though she finds it hard to reconcile the Manila she remembers with the current climate of danger.
Ms. Hagedorn's wildly patterned quilt is textured by the constant contrast of the elite excess of the upper class with the seamier side of Filipino society. To illustrate the former, there's a country club scene in which we see the battle lines drawn between Senator Avila (Joel Torre) and his corrupt relative General Ledesma (a chill-inducing Jo-Jo Gonzales). Avila's fate parallels the real-life assassination of the reform-minded Benigno S. Aquino,
A distinctly different club is that owned by Perlita, the drag queen (deliciously portrayed by Alec Mapa), and frequented by the likes of hair dresser Chiquiting Moreno (a second display of Ralph Peña's versatility) and a drugged out cruising Rainer Fassbinder (Christopher Donahue). Donahue excels not only as the German film maker in town for Imelda's version of a Cannes film festival but as an interviewee on the Nestor and Barbara talk show, and as an American journalist interviewing a stonewalling Imelda Marcos. Ms. Ching Valdes-Aran ably blends Imelda's over-the-top ego with icy propriety. She is also impressive as the ultra-devout wife of the villainous General Ledesna though her brief flashback appearance as Rio's grandmother seems superfluous.
Another regular at Perlita's club is Joey Sands (Hill Harper), the product of a sexual encounter between his prostitute mother and a black American soldier. Joey works at the club as a DJ whenever he can get away from his only relative, a ruthless knife-wielding pimp who controls Joey with drugs. Joey's world seems unlikely to ever connect with that of Daisy Avila (Rona Figuera), the young beauty queen and daughter of privilege. And yet their lives, like all these "soap opera" lives, do cross after Joey becomes the sole witness to the assasination of Senator Avila and Daisy turns vengeful mountain gorilla after being traumatized by her own evil uncle Ledesma and his henchmen.
It's impossible to touch on all the plot threads that make up this complex dramatic quilt. While this complexity makes for a gripping theatrical experience, in the final analysis, it also lets you down. With so many stories to unreel, so many characters to keep track of, it's hard for any of them to make a deep enough impact to engage us on a visceral level (Perlita and Chiquiting, the cross-dressers, and Joey, the hustler, and Daisy Avila being notable exceptions). In short, Manila the city is the character we get to know more than its citizens -- style triumphs over emotional substance.
Maybe one of these days someone will film Dogeaters as a mini-series, like Nestor Naldez's and Barbara Villanueva's long-running soap opera "Love Letters" (the format that Ms. Hagedorn is on record as considering the ideal format). In the meantime, there's much to hold us in thrall in this authentically cast, panoramic picture of a country and people too little known to too many of us.
Dogeaters, the Novel (Paperback)
The House of Bernarda Alba -- a recent production of the National Asian-American Theatre Company (NAATCO) featuring another outstanding performance by the Imelda Marcos of Dogeaters.
The Good Woman of Sezuan (Brecht play mentioned above).