August 20, 2016
The theater scene in Manila is really alive and relevant. Recent plays I've seen have tackled the most difficult, most uncomfortable subject matter. "The Normal Heart" was about AIDS. "Suicide Incorporated" was about Suicide. "Katips" was against historical revisionism with regards to Martial Law. Now here comes "Tribes" which tackles another sensitive topic not commonly depicted in theater -- Deafness. After staging complex plays like "Rabbit Hole" and "33 Variations," we can really count on Red Turnips to come up with the most intellectually-challenging productions.
"Tribes" is an award-winning play written by British playwright Nina Raine in 2010. This current local production is helmed by Topper Fabregas. The theater area of the Power Mac Spotlight Center was transformed into the first floor of a middle class Jewish-British household with its living room and dining room by set designer Ed Lacson, Jr. The layout of the stage and the audience areas was very different from how it looked in the last Red Turnip production, "Constellations". It would be exciting to see how flexible this area can be rearranged to fit the requirements of future productions staged here.
Billy was born deaf. He lives with his ever-quarreling family, who had raised him to read lips and talk, never to sign. His father Christopher is an acerbic academic and critic. His mother Beth is caught up in writing her very first detective novel. His two elder siblings are aimless young adults still living with their parents. Brother Daniel is a bum bothered by voices he hears in his head. Sister Ruth is a frustrated opera singer desperate for a boyfriend.
One day Billy meets and falls in love a pretty and articulate girl named Sylvia, a hearing girl born of deaf parents. Sylvia teaches Billy how to sign and gets him to learn more and get immersed into the world of the deaf that his family had painstakingly sheltered him from his whole life. Billy comes into belated realizations about his life, his handicap and his dysfunctional family. All this while though, Sylvia was having her own adjustments to go through as her own hearing fades.
The first scene of the show was not easy to watch because it was very noisy. The characters were oftentimes shouting, cursing, boisterous, vociferous, talking over each other at the same time. The effect to emphasize the isolation of the deaf member of the family definitely worked. In our efforts to get our voice heard, we can inadvertently leave a deaf person out of the loop, and this message was clearly delivered. The family of Billy were initially portrayed like the antagonists of the play. They were the family from hell, it seems, with their egotistical pursuits and philosophies. They seemed unmindful of their effect on Billy and his handicap, despite caring for him deeply.
Despite spewing invectives with every sentence, Teroy Guzman's masterful delivery of his lines as the dad Christopher was so captivating in his very naturally-accented British English. The ever-delightful Dolly de Leon plays the ditzy and sympathetic mother Beth. Sassy Thea Yrastorza played Ruth with her brand of humorous exasperation. Cris Pasturan had the misfortune of being given the unenviable role of Daniel, who for me most unsympathetic character in this play. It would a big challenge for any actor to make the audience understand him, if at all. It felt rough going in the first half for Pasturan, but we finally get him in the second half.
Kalil Almonte had to deliver Billy's lines with that certain airy resonance like how we usually hear deaf people speak, and I bet that was difficult to do for the entire hour and twenty minutes of play time. For the whole first act, he was relatively reserved and reticent, simply reacting to the people around him. He finally made his mark in the second act when he discovered how to get people to listen to him and declares a bold decision to his family -- the big dramatic moment of the whole play.
For me, the standout actor in the ensemble was Angela A. Padilla giving life to the extraordinary character of Sylvia. Every scene she was in was a highlight. She will make us fall in love with Sylvia like how Billy did on their first meeting. She will mesmerize us with her calm dignity like how Billy's family were at their first dinner together. She will break our hearts in that scene in the second act when she described how she was losing her hearing. Ms. Padilla looked great and had strong stage presence. Her line delivery was so natural and fluid. Her acting was so real and heartfelt. Her piano scene was divine.
In my line of work, I encounter a lot of patients with hearing disability. When their hearing loss is severe to profound, they are not easy to communicate with, especially if they do not have a hearing aid. Early in my career, I tried to learn Sign Language in order to be able to communicate with them. However after finishing the lessons, I slowly lost the skills due to lack of usage and practice. I deeply regret that I never picked that language up again, especially as I was watching this particular play.
The play tackled a lot of issues about the deaf we hearing people take for granted. It brought up a lot of misconceptions we have about the social interactions of deaf people. This was all very fascinating to learn about. The show I watched yesterday afternoon was specially dedicated for deaf audiences. The whole play was subtitled via a projection of the script on the wall. I am very curious what these deaf members of the audience thought of the issues taken up during the show. Too bad there had not been a Q&A session for us to learn from them, especially about the accuracy of the information presented in the Philippine setting.
TRIBES started its run last August 5, 2016 and will run weekends up to September 4, 2016. Remaining shows: Aug 26 Friday 9pm, 27 Saturday 4pm and 8pm, 28 Sunday 4pm, September 2 Friday 9pm, 3 Saturday 4pm and 8pm and 4 Sunday 4pm and 8pm. Venue will be at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, Circuit Lane, Circuit Makati. Tickets priced from P1,254 to P1,881 via Ticketworld.