Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review of Repertory Phil.'s AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY: A Family's Nervous Breakdown

March 1, 2014

"August: Osage County" is a multi-award winning play by Terry Letts. In 2007, the year it made its Broadway debut, it also won Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, Best Director (Anna D. Shapiro) and Best Actress (Deanna Dunagan).  It also won for its playwright the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This year, it is the second play produced in the current season of Repertory Philippines.

I had already seen the Oscar-bait film version released last year starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts before I saw the play today.  Frankly, I was afraid this local stage production will find it hard to match the high acting standard set by the ensemble of actors in this film. It would be difficult to watch this play and not compare how the characters were portrayed by the various actors.  I am happy to report that the ever-reliable cast and crew of Repertory Philippines more than managed to hold their own.  

This play is set in a small Oklahoma town on one warm summer. Violet Weston reunites with her three willful daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen, when there was an unexpected death in the family. Fireworks fly when family secrets are revealed as mother and daughters clash, dragging the rest of the family along in their downward spiral.

At the matinee today, the role of Violet, the dysfunctional wife and mother made worse by her dependency on drugs given for her oral cancer, was played by Shiela Francisco. I must confess that I was disappointed I was not going to see Ms. Baby Barredo play Violet. However, as the first act got going, Ms. Francisco had us all mesmerized by the sadistic web she is spinning. She owned that pivotal second act set around the lunch table completely. Ms. Francisco is more known as a singer, but she really acted the hell out of Violet today, effectively showing vulnerability under the tough cruel exterior. I hope Mr. Francisco also gets her due recognition come awards time, as Ms. Barredo surely will.

Pinky Amador plays the eldest daughter Barbara. Her exasperation about her mother's drug habit makes her blow her top and all hell breaks loose. Ms. Amador is obviously a veteran the way she confidently throws her kilometric lines around so very effortlessly. This was despite the obvious fatigue it was causing her voice by the third act.  Ms. Amador will definitely follow-up her citations for Best Actress last year for "Piaf" with her performance here.

Barbara's family was played by relatively new actors. Kenneth Moraleda plays her estranged husband Bill Fordham, who dumped Barbara for one of his teenage students. His stage presence was a bit lacking, with hardly any chemistry with Ms. Amador. Thea Gloria plays her rebellious 14-year old daughter Jean, a film buff who already smoked cigarettes and marijuana. It took some getting used to hearing her grating singsong delivery of her lines, but she eventually grows on you.

Tami Monsod plays the middle daughter Ivy, who stayed in town to take care of her parents. Her character has secret dreams and desires that could not take off because she is trapped in her situation in life.  However well Monsod portrays that pain and frustration Ivy is going through, it cannot be denied that she looked too different from the other two actresses who were supposed to be her sisters.  She also looked older than Ms. Amador. This physical disconnect tended to be distracting.

Liesl Batucan is the natural choice to play the ever-optimistic youngest daughter, Karen. I love it when she plays these quirky and flighty characters. She is the welcome and delightful breath of fresh air on that ever-tense stage. This is another winning performance for Ms. Batucan just on the heels of her riveting lead role of Susie in "Wait Until Dark" last month. Karen's fiancé Steve was effectively played with swagger and sleaze by Hans Eckstein. You can feel him ooze perversity.

Violet's fussy and nosy sister Mattie Fay was played by Mayen Bustamante-Cadd. This feisty lady could really throw a tornado of her own with her own tirades and secrets. Aside from playing Violet, Sheila Francisco also plays Mattie Fay when Ms. Barredo plays Violet. That is really a very impressive feat for Ms. Francisco, having to know the lines of two difficult characters by heart. 

Matty Fay's kind husband Charles is played by Richard Cunanan. Mr. Cunanan, whose very Filipino surname belies his Caucasian face, is a cool actor I have admired from before when I saw him in Dulaang UP's "Duchess of Malfi". He definitely shines in his two featured moments: saying grace in a family meal, and confronting his wife about her cruelty to their son. Their son, the shy and insecure "Little" Charles, is sensitively played by Noel Rayos.  

As Johnna, the Native American household help hired by Mr. Weston, indie film darling princess Angeli Bayani makes her Rep stage debut.  Her quiet and restrained acting style contrasts so differently from the other more flamboyant styles on stage. I sometimes felt that she felt ill at ease with the other cast members, or maybe she was too much in her alienated and detached character.

Arnel Carrion plays the county sheriff and Barbara's former prom date Deon Gilbeau.  He felt a bit too self-conscious on stage, tending to have a pompous posture while delivering his lines.  He did have chemistry with Pinky Amador during their sweet scene together.

Leo Rialp plays Violet's alcoholic husband Beverly Weston with such natural cynicism and world-weariness.  His character would only be visible on stage during the fifteen-minute prologue, with practically only him rambling about poet T.S. Eliot and how life is very long. But we will remember him throughout the play.

All these darkly hilarious depressing family squabbling goes on for more than three hours. There were three acts all about an hour long, with two intermissions.  The first intermission was only five minutes long, hardly time for you to go out to do anything except stretch your legs. The second intermission was only ten minutes. I absolutely did not feel the time fly by. I was relieved though that I had decided to watch the matinee, or else I would have to be coming home after midnight.

I really enjoyed the witty wordplay in all their bitterness and spite throughout the play. This very sharp and rapid exchange of words is the best part of the play. There were several monologues of the various characters which may last ten minutes or more with complex vocabulary. It was amazing how these actors nary flubbed any of their complicated lines, all while staying consistent to their American South accents. Those word battles were so crisp and biting with profanity. This play is for mature audiences only.

The set designed by Miguel Faustmann is quite effective as the silent witness to all the family conflicts it housed. How I wished the dining table was in Center Stage instead of Stage Left during Act 2, but I guess it was not too easy to move it around. 

Congratulations to Director Chris Millado and the rest of the Repertory Philippines cast and crew for their successful and very effective staging of this incisive and acerbic modern play. The spontaneous standing ovation after the show was so well-deserved.

“August: Osage County” runs for two more weekends until March 16 at OnStage, 2/F, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Call 5716926 or 5714941; or visit or their Facebook page for further details.

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