Banaue Miclat-Janssen stages her directorial debut for UP Playwrights’ Theatre (UPPT) with New York-based Linda Faigao-Hall’s powerful Off-Broadway play, The Female Heart. Jem Javier skillfully translates the scenes, set in the Philippines, to Filipino.
The show also marks a number of other firsts. This is the first time that Faigao-Hall’s work has been staged in the country. This is also the first time for the company to stage a production in UP Diliman’s Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero Theater. UPPT used to stage its productions at the Teatro Hermogenes Ylagan (THY – also known as UP’s Blackbox Theater) before a tragic fire hit the premises last April. A few minutes before the show started, ushers led us into a small exhibit area which showcased some of the remains recovered from the fire. This production also marks the company’s comeback after a 3-year hiatus.
(READ: Banaue Miclat-Janssen Stages Directorial Debut with UPPT’s The Female Heart)
To keep the spirit of the Blackbox theater alive, Miclat-Janssen uses a parallel kind of staging — audiences are seated in front of the stage as well as ON the stage. I was lucky enough to be placed on the latter.
The show centers on Adelfa, an intelligent idealistic teenager who dreams of taking her family out of poverty. Set in the 90’s, she and her family reside in the infamous Smokey Mountain. In the opening scene, we find a proud Adelfa practicing her valedictory address in front of her brother Anghel. His love and admiration for his sister compels him to secretly take a job as a macho dancer to help pay for her college education. After indulging in unprotected sex for 2 years, he eventually acquires AIDS and falls ill. To help pay for treatment, Adelfa, advised by her mother, applies to be a mail-order bride. After seeing her picture in a magazine called Cherry Blossoms, an American named Roger promises her that he’ll send her family $300 a month if she decides to marry him.
The theme of the production is as powerful as it is relevant. The show tackles different economic, societal, and cultural issues that the urban poor face everyday –prostitution, domestic abuse, poverty, lack of health care, the plight of Filipino migrants, families’ over-dependence on working children — all tackled in depth through the eyes of this family.
The relevance is palpable as more and more Filipinos find the need to work overseas to try and give their families better lives. The government even encourages this, calling Filipino migrants “ang bagong bayani.”, for serving as the backbone of the country’s economic development. While there is truth to the sentiment, it is also unsustainable. Families are constantly torn apart because of our reliance on income from other countries. This is even more precarious because Filipinos like Adelfa tend to sacrifice everything for their families to a fault, even risking their own lives. Seeing this issue come alive on stage in a concrete way is a much-welcomed development.
The set design by Virgilio Balanon is wonderfully executed, as the set transforms from a dumpsite into an American bedroom in only a matter of seconds.
Chase Salazar is perfectly cast as the impoverished yet hopeful teenager-turned- devastated bride. She exudes a natural versatility, especially when it came to her more sensitive scenes. Al Gatmaitan showed pure commitment in his portrayal as Anghel, even changing his dietary lifestyle to play a very convincing macho dancer. He also exhibited his range when he transitioned from a strong, proud man to a weak, vulnerable one. Peewee O’Hara, who played nanay Rosario, naturally played up her character’s selfish nature with a calculated subtlety that only a fine actress such as herself could portray. And rather than the stereotypical villain, Mark McKeown played abusive husband Roger with a lot of depth. He was able to show two sides of his character—the sympathetic and the dark, making him all the more realistic and relatable in the process. He played the character so well that I couldn’t help but unconsciously sneer at him during the press Q&A.
This is a riveting show as well as an important one — the perfect comeback performance for the UPPT.
The show will run from July 1-10 at the Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero Theater of UP Diliman.
For more details about what’s happening in the Manila theater scene, please view our Theater Calendar.