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A CurtainUp Review

Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino
By David Lipfert

Known as the Philippine national play, Nick Joaquin's Portrait of the Artist as Filipino from 1952 is currently onstage at Vineyard's Dimson Theatre. The play's immense popularity in its homeland is due as much to the author's loving look at the multiple cultural components of Philippine high society as to the reassuring ending for the Marasigan family conflict, which is the main plot.

Candida and Paula, Don Leonardo's two unmarried daughters, are barely able to maintain the sprawling family house except through the contributions from their "successful" brother and sister Pepang and Manolo. By taking in male boarder Tony, they survive in the face of their father's artistic drought. The daughters resist the temptation to sell father's self-portrait, which could fetch a small fortune, and ignore their siblings' coercion to dispose of the family house. Personal liberation begins when Paula briefly elopes with Tony, destroys the painting and the two daughters apologize to their father for their ill treatment of him. Imminent war, practice blackouts and sleazy figures from Manila nightlife make a colorful context.

Just as Philippine society was an amalgam of foreign influences, Mr. Joaquin's plot unites rigid family mores and implacable siblings (Federico Garcia Lorca) with a Shakespearean nobility. Akin to the arrival of a god to whisk an unfortunate mortal out of harm's way, unexpected salvation comes in the form of the Senator's advice to stand pat against the world.

In the pre-war period, intellectuals and many artists, such as the painter Don Leonardo Marasigan, looked to the first colonial power Spain for cultural models. Typical of these circles, the Marasigan family peppers their conversation with Spanish words. They also used to host a weekly tertulia, a typically Spanish four-person discussion group where literary and other topics held sway. When the U.S. liberated Spain of its outlying colonies (Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico) about a century ago, English became the power language and new models of material success became ascendant. The journalists visiting Don Leonardo's house in the first scene can think only about how much the painting might be worth, not about the theme taken from Virgil's Aeneid. Native culture and Tagalog language were marginalized, just like the boarder Tony Javier, and the elite traveled abroad to either Europe or America to set themselves apart.

Director Jorge W. Ledesma opted for a confusing presentation of this worthy text. He divided each major role among up to three actors-possibly an interesting treatment for a well-known classic but inappropriate to make a case for the play, which many people will be seeing for the first time. His stated aim is to utilize his cast of 19 Filipino and American actors to reflect the multicultural forces shaping Filipino society, but succeeds only in obscuring Mr. Joaquin's already eloquent treatment of this very theme. Playing up Mr. Joaquin's many humorous touches would be a needed contrast for the seriousness of the sisters. Finally, better blocking would enliven Donald Eastman's simple setting.

Apart from the play, the major interest is in the cast. Kitty Chen gives just the right touch of cynicism as the photographer Cora. Millie Chow and Eileen Rivera are ideal as the dance hall girls Violet and Susan. Sharing the role of the boarder Tony Javier, Ron Domingo and Louie Leonardo make this con artist likeable. Peggy Yates is memorable as the sophisticated and well-travelled society girl Elisa Monte.

Christianne Myers designed costumes that were heavy on early 1940's nostalgia, but she burdened Candida and Paula with inconvenient trains on their white dresses. Such costuming is appropriate for the occasional vignettes behind a rear scrim but are unfortunate when moving about on stage.

The audience gave this Ma-Yi Theatre Ensemble production a warm reception. Running time is about two and a half hours with one intermission.

by Nick Joaquin
Starring: Kitty Chen, Millie Chow, Catol De Mesa, Ron Domingo, Hana Kline,
Louie Leonardo, Marie Mansouri, Eileen Rivera, Peggy Yates.
Directed by Jorge W. Ledesma
Adapted by Mr. Ledesma and Jane Ann Crum
Vineyard Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th Street, NYC (212) 353-3874
7/26- 8/16/97 (opening 7/29)
Reviewed 7/29/97

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