Even at my age now, I have to admit that I do not really know the story of Shakespeare's "King Lear." I know the bare bones that it was about a king with three daughters, but that was about it. No idea about how the plot goes. When I heard that PETA will be staging this classic tragedy with an all-male cast and in Tagalog (by no less than National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera), I knew I should not let this rare opportunity pass.
It was a busy day at work that Saturday, so I reached PETA Theater about 15 minutes late, without lunch (!). When I settled into my seat in the balcony, it was already at the point when old King Lear had already divided his kingdom into two for his two elder daughters Goneril and Regan, and was already beginning to feel the folly of his mistake.
As I was trying hard to get into the story, the stage and set design struck me. The set pieces and the costumes were all in monochromatic grayscale from black to white and the shades in between. It was all as stark as the tragic story it will convey. The only red I see were in the facial makeup of the characters whom I identified as evil. ALL the characters were shaved BALD, except for the King. (Astig talaga!) There were so many things going on in this complex story so I have to divide my review by characters.
One of the most memorable scenes was Lear's breakdown in the rain after he was cast away into the wilderness by his evil daughters. I had never seen anything like it on a theater stage before. How the rain effect was achieved was ingenious and powerful. You really feel the characters' helplessness against the elements. Teroy Guzman (NOT the comedian Teroy de Guzman) was at his best in these long challenging scenes and soliloquies in deep Tagalog, even as I worry about his health, being actually soaking wet for maybe the last 30 minutes of Act 1! All in all, Guzman's flawless dramatic performance as King Lear will surely be remembered come awards time later in the year.
Nor Domingo played the eldest daughter Goneril. Gary Lim played the second daughter Regan. Abner Delina played the youngest Cordelia (the only character dressed in white). Domingo and Lim were both excellent, playing their evil characters with sinisterness and glee. At first it was difficult to get used to bald guys playing women characters, but the director makes them wear lighted floral collars and do certain mannerisms (Goneril with her mirror, Regan with her lipstick) which remind us they are women. Delina with the goody-goody role of Cordelia was less memorable. They did not really have to resort to floridly effeminate actuations, although Delina looked gay in his portrayal, as Domingo and Lim were scarily strong.
As for their husbands, Jeff Hernandez was pretty convincingly evil as Regan's husband, Duke ng Cornualles. He had that strong John Regala-esque contravida vibe. In contrast though, Renante Bustamante lacked charisma and stage presence as the Goneril's husband, Duke ng Albanya. He unfortunately consistently got all swallowed up by the other actors in the same scene with him, all the way to the ending. Because I was late, I did not get to see Cordelia's husband, Hari ng Francia.
Special mention goes to George de Jesus who stole his scenes playing Oswaldo, Goneril's trusted servant. He got to deliver a lot of original Shakespearean lines in English which endeared him to the audience despite his despicable character. He got a lot of applause during the final curtain call.
A parallel family story was happening in the household of the Earl of Gloucester. His bastard son Edmundo is jealous of the legitimate son Edgardo, and plots endlessly to gain the family power with his devious schemes. As the father, Jack Yabut plays the good and gullible Earl of Gloucester impressively. The scene where Cornwall and Regan gouge out the Earl's eyes (!) was really very well-staged. Amazing theater right there!
Two strapping young actors play his sons. Jay Gonzaga had powerful stage-presence as the evil Edmundo. The part where Goneril and Regan were both lusting after him was darkly funny. Myke Salomon as Edgardo has improved so much since I first saw him in "Care Divas" and "Aida." I was really impressed with their delivery of kilometric Tagalog lines.
In general, the play as staged by director Nonon Padilla and written by Bienvenido Lumbera was strong and faithful to the original Shakespeare as far as I can tell. I do have some reservations with some weird scenes. The closing scene of the first act was a hilarious burlesque -like number with a guy in a cape and a studded swim trunks. Was that really in Lumbera's script, or Shakespeare's for that matter? Who is he supposed to be? The closing scene of the second act is similarly awkward and distracted from the seriously heavy drama that just happened on stage. What was the sense of singing the nursery rhyme "London Bridge" at that point? The song they sing after that (I will just let you find that out yourself) is similarly from out of the thin air. The audience did not know how to react. I felt it robbed the ending of its power, instead of adding to it (but that is just me).
Again, congratulations to PETA for bravely staging this unique play. Yes, it is Shakespeare. Yes, it is in Filipino. Yes, it is an all male cast. Yet it all works! Do try to catch it and be prepared for a singular stage experience.
"Haring Lear" runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until March 4, 2012 at the PETA Theater Center. For tickets, contact 7256244 or 09175765400.