August 10, 2014
For this their 36th season, Tanghalang Ateneo will be presenting three plays with the theme "Navigating Identities" about the struggle of people to discover who they really are and the purpose of their lives. The first in the series of three is this play written by Fil-Am playwright Han Ong. For this staging, TA has decided on a bilingual script, with the translations done by Ronan B.Capinding.
"Middle Finger" follows a familiar story. An adolescent boy could not handle the pressures of school and commits suicide. This was seen before in other plays like "Spring Awakening" (on which this play was loosely based) and films like "Dead Poets Society". Here the characters are Fil-Ams in the US who are having a hard time in adapting to the strict rules of the Catholic school they attend.
Jakob Rodriguez (Guelan Luarca) is the school delinquent and bully. His best friend is Benjamin Lunga (Joe-Nel Garcia) strives hard to do well in school. They have other classmates who represent a cross section of boys we meet in school. Yachin (Brian Ramos) is the nerd. Wallace (Gab Tibayan) is the eccentric guy with the big wild hair. Michael (Avie Alcantara) is the straight-laced new student.
As for the adults in school, their perversely strict teacher is played by David Bianco, while the sly inflexible school counselor is played by Richard Cunanan. We also meet parents of the two main characters. Mrs. Lunga (Dolly de Leon) is a battered wife. Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez (Joseph de la Cruz and Marj Lorica) are proud achievers who are looked up in society. The relationship of Mrs. Lunga and Benjamin would seem to be one of genuine affection. While in the Rodriguez household, it is one of intimidation and fear.
I admit the beginning of this play was hard to get into with all the wordy lines and the unfamiliar situations. I was tuning out most of Act 1 and had to force myself to concentrate. However as the story was building up towards a big eerie climax, the haunting musical score you hear and the intensity of the acting you see will draw you in and leave you breathless at the end of the first act.
By the second act, you already know the characters more so you can identify with them and follow the story better. However, there were certain scenes that felt more distracting than contributory to the story progression. The very last line got a huge positive reaction from the audience. But after some thought, doesn't it rob the thunder from the very important lines said right before it?
The star of this show was really Guelan Luarca whose Jakob was the life of the whole play. He has the most vibrant and interesting character of all and he runs with it passionately. His highlight was that long monologue he delivered while battling and eventually succumbing to temptations of the flesh. Devastating and daring performance right there! Joe-Nel Garcia does not really look like the Benjamin Lunga I hear in his words. He was also giving his all for sure, but there is some disconnect with actor and character that did not feel right for me. The other three boys fit their roles better.
Richard Cunanan is so good in another one of these sleazy characters which really fit him well, like I first knew him from "Duchess of Malfi". David Bianco effectively radiated a sinister sanctimonious vibe that was scary despite the minimal words he said. Dolly de Leon proves her versatility, tackling a role so radically different from her last outing in "Ang Naghihingalo" just last June at the Virgin Labfest, and she was quietly moving in her gentle role here.
While the story is familiar and the original script somewhat difficult at certain parts, the storytelling of Director Ed Lacson, Jr. is well done. The high points had been very well built up for maximal climactic effect. The lighting (Meliton Roxas Jr.) and the music (Teresa Barrozo) were highly effective in creating the tense atmosphere that makes this tale of harsh reality mixed with adolescent fantasy and conscience work. And for the most part, it does hit home and gets its vital rebellious message across.
"Middle Finger" runs at the Fine Arts Black Box Studio of the Ateneo de Manila University. Aug 4-9, 11-16, 18-22; 3 pm (Sat & Sun) & 7 pm. Tickets are Php 300 for outsiders and Php 250 for Ateneo students. Limited seats only. Contact Hannah Tolentino on 0917-576-0806 for more details.