TRIBES is a show about many things. It is about a Jewish British family and their dysfunction. It is a deaf boy meeting a soon to be deaf girl from an already deaf family. The sum of all these parts is a show of contrast.
Since TRIBES’ London debut six years ago, the show has been staged Off-Broadway and various cities across the United States. In 2012, the show, written by playwright Nina Paine, won the Drama Desk Award for Best Play. Now, Red Turnip Theater continues its tradition of staging plays that make you ask questions, and TRIBES certainly does just that.
TRIBES centers around a Jewish British family, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the accents, as the folks at Red Turnip decide to drop the British accent, as they did with their last show Constellations. The only reminder that you’re watching a play set in the UK is evidenced by vaguely British terms and the word cunt thrown around casually by one of the characters. Upon entering the venue (Power Mac Centre Spotlight), you notice Ed Lacson Jr.’s homey, cluttered set spread across the expanse. Living room, dining room, and kitchen meld into one fluid space, littered with tables, chairs, and innumerable paraphernalia.
It’s all very cozy; and very chaotic. An elevated area is situated near the seats, on the other side of the space. The lights dim and you hear the faint sounds of ‘tribal’ music, which begin to grow louder and louder, only to stop completely as the lights come back on. This is where the chaos truly begins.
TRIBES throws the audience right into it, showing us just what kind of a family this is, and what sort of ride we’re in for. The family of five is comprised of Christopher (Teroy Guzman), Beth (Dolly de Leon), Daniel (Cris Pasturan), Ruth (Thea Yrastorza), and Billy (Kalil Almonte). As soon as the show begins, we see them at the dinner table, and they’re already at each other’s throats; except for the youngest child Billy, who has just come home from University. Christopher is a critical academic who is too critical for his own good, especially when it comes to his children’s partners. Beth serves as a buffer between Christopher and the children, parrying his insults as best she can, all while working on her ‘marriage breakdown detective novel’. Daniel, whose dialogue drips with acerbic wit, is working on a thesis, while Ruth makes a living by singing opera at pubs and church halls. All four of them are egotists, and being under one roof, constantly clash in fits of clamorous arguing. In the eye of the hurricane is Billy: timid, observative, and deaf. One of the things associated with deafness is sign language, and Billy is in a peculiar situation for a deaf person. His parents believed in raising him the same way they raised their other children, so in an attempt to normalize Billy’s life, Christopher and Beth refused to treat his deafness as a disability, and therefore never taught him sign language. Instead, Billy gets by through lip-reading, which is something he is very good at.
In the next scene, we find Billy standing alone on the elevated ‘stage’, away from the main set. At an event, he encounters Sylvia (Angela A. Padilla) and the two immediately strike up a conversation. She only finds out he is deaf later on, due to the fact that Billy can lip-read so well. She begins to sign to him, but he tells her that he does not know how. She knows how to sign because her parents are deaf, and has just begun to lose her hearing too. As the conversation comes to an end, Billy kisses Sylvia, the two parts ways. Billy returns home and reveals that he has met a girl, and Sylvia eventually comes over for dinner.
Like the first scene, the meeting between Sylvia and the family is a tumultuous one, and brimming with controversy. It is made even more jarring when Sylvia reveals that Billy has begun to mingle with other members of the deaf community and that he has started taking up sign language. Staying true to his character, Christopher begins interrogating Sylvia. The conversation is truly intriguing, bringing up topics such as the limitations of sign language, whether English or sign is better (because one has to be, at least according to Christopher), and the hierarchy within the deaf community, among others. This scene and conversation raise the most questions, and open the most eyes. It also gives insight as to why the show is called TRIBES. A tribe is a group of people that passes on practices, customs and beliefs down from generation to generation. Families work the same way, with parents wanting nothing more than to see the values and attributes they’ve attained throughout their lives manifested in their kin.
Admittedly, the first scene isn’t one of the show’s stronger moments, unless total mayhem is what they wanted to convey. The sound wasn’t very good, in this scene especially, and every time the actors spoke, their voices were met with an echo from the speakers. The problem was exacerbated by Cris Pasturan’s delivery, whose character has a good number of lines which are delivered at high-speed. Unfortunately, Pasturan sounded like he was eating his words for a lot of the show. His character Daniel provides much of the show’s comic relief early on, but the delivery falls flat for most of it. Pasturan improves as the show rolls along, and really shines when his character takes things down a few notches, particularly when he and Almonte’s characters have time alone. The scene places the two brothers in the dining room, with Daniel turning the radio on in order to drown out the voices that plague his mind. This stresses the trouble in their relationship further, as the radio messes with Billy’s hearing aid; just another thing driving a wedge between the two.
Kalil Almonte and Angela A. Padilla on the other hand, are incredible from start to finish. The two have an undeniable chemistry all throughout the show, regardless of whether they’re flirting or fighting. They do the heavy lifting in the show; both masterfully executing the sign language, with the addition of carrying a lisp throughout the show for Almonte. The pair shines most in one particular scene, when Billy decides to stop speaking to his family, and start signing instead. Of course, they don’t understand what he is trying to say, so Padilla’s Sylvia has to translate everything for him. The passion that the two convey is electric, and the scene is the show’s most gripping. Billy is saying more now than ever before, and his family only truly listens now that he has stopped speaking.
Director Topper Fabregas’ decision to leave out the surtitles in favour of Sylvia’s narration is apt, as we learn what Billy is trying to say at the same time as the other members of the family. Padilla plays a woman on the cusp between two worlds, doing it with such tenderness and gravity. Dolly de Leon and Teroy Guzman are at the top of their game in TRIBES, and while the two are playing supporting roles, their weight on the show is immense. Thea Yrastorza gets the job done, though her performance could have benefited from a little more range in emotion.
John Batalla’s lighting works just fine in TRIBES, though nothing is really standout about it. Fabregas’ direction is quite good, and best displayed when Billy defiantly rips his hearing aids out in order to block out the screams of his family members. As soon as he does this, the lights turn a harsh shade of purple, the actors go silent, and all you hear is deafening ringing. It’s not only a powerful moment, but it also shows us a glimpse of the world Billy lives in. The only issue concerning Fabregas’ direction is the blocking of the actors as well as the placement of the surtitles, which would come into play whenever a character used sign language. Only two walls were utilized for the projection of the surtitles, which would require certain audiences members to crane their necks and divert their attention in completely different directions from where the action was occurring onstage. As for the blocking, the actors faced one direction for most of the show, and as a result, had their backs turned to half the audience.
For the most part, TRIBES is a frenetic showcase of Paine’s snappy dialogue, as well as a vehicle for the actors to exhibit their ability in the show’s somber moments. Uneven acting and blocking dampen the show’s full potential, but the two leads, as well as Paine’s brilliantly written script make TRIBES a show that must not be missed.
The show will run until September 4 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight of Circuit Makati.