REVIEW: Timeliness and timelessness in Artist Playground’s “M Episode”

As the witches say, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” or what is pretty may become ugly, and vice versa. With M Episode, Artist Playground (AP) shows audiences the fair and the foul of Macbeth.

Act 1 of M Episode is James Chalmer’s Prelude to Macbeth, which shows Lorna Stewart’s desire for a new life, and introduces Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, and Duncan as King of Scotland. The paths of these three characters first cross, reveling in much hope and ambition – even borderline desperation. Act 2 is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which tells the story of Macbeth’s rise to power, spurred by Lorna Stewart, now Lady Macbeth. Hope and ambition quickly turn to corruption by politics and power, driving our characters to insanity and death. Truly, a timeless tale – but did its timeliness, especially with today’s socio-political crises, translate?

M Episode actors breathe new life into Macbeth

Prelude to Macbeth is an easy to comprehend, contemporary piece written in blank verse, or unrhymed poetry. It’s an attention-getter, and Mariella Munji Laurel as Lorna Stewart is a delight to watch. Her interaction with Callum is an attempt to allure, but she is more innocent and gullible compared to past Lornas from AP’s original staging of Prelude to Macbeth who worm their way through hardships. They are intense seductresses, as if ready to eat Callum alive. Though Laurel’s Lorna didn’t seem as destitute, she shows naiveté, allowing growth for the transition to Lady Macbeth.

Paul Jake Paule as Macbeth is not exactly cutting-edge. But, everything that the character needs, from intense emotions and mental regression, to physical stance and movement, is endowed by Paule. Meanwhile, Jose Jeffrey Camañag as Duncan shows off little nuances in movement and expression that give layers to his scenes. Small pauses in his conversations, and his smirk upon seeing Lorna and Macbeth, are telling.

Of the ensemble, the witches are seen by audiences most. Tasha Guerrero is a strong actress who stands out. Jeremy Cabansag, who, at just 17 years old, is an impressive asset. Alvin Espiritu joins them as one of the witches, and is notable but also conspicuous for being the only male. Despite this, he smoothly commits to a primarily female role. The witches are always on-stage, setting the mood with their sinister energies, and never breaking character whether they are the focus of the scene or not.

In Act 2, Macbeth’s personality darkens, and is fittingly portrayed by Paule. Visually, his make-up literally darkens too, suddenly looking like he’s covered in soot. Camañag takes on a second role, the doctor, and the shift in character is so crisp that audiences almost forget that he plays Duncan as well. Lady Macbeth is played by Cathrine Go, whose performance is memorable because she is all-too-real, especially in heavy scenes. Meanwhile, Al Gatmaitan as MacDuff was emotionally intense. His rage is very evident in his voice and movement, and there are only very little hints of sorrow. In scenes against Macbeth, Gatmaitan’s MacDuff is a worthy competitor. As a co-actor, he is a good scene partner.

Connecting Shakespeare to a modern audience

A set of apple boxes, and a backdrop of stone bricks and vines greet audiences. Costumes are monochromatic and mostly black. Everything looks dark. Actresses don dark make-up, and actors have either minimal or soot-like make-up. M Episode is set in the Dark Ages; perhaps the set, costumes, and make-up are manifestations of that? But, black-on-black in the long run wears out the eye. Nevertheless, crucial scenes and apt lights and sounds liven up the production.

Shakespeare’s material is challenging to stage because it’s highly technical. M Episode, especially Act 2, is no exception to this challenge, and the artistic team strives to uplift the show from this. Myra Beltran’s choreography is striking especially in the battle scene, where tension of dialogue is woven with aggressive dancing (sometimes so aggressive, to the point of drowning out dialogue).The cast’s English is not perfect (Banaue Miclat-Janssen, speech and voice consultant), but they makes it through. Roeder Camañag as director ensures that characterizations are kept intact, that relationships on-stage are stable, and that audiences’ minds are ingrained with the intense and haunting final scene, bearing witness to Macbeth’s tragedy.

M Episode tackles timely issues, like politics and corruption, that reflect the state of Philippine society. As a classic, it’s timeless, but the chance to make it timely is unfortunately missed. Indeed, the good and the bad of M Episode draw the line between what is timely and what is timeless.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” as the witches say.

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