Saturday, March 3, 2018

Review of Rep's SILENT SKY: Simple, Scholarly and Stellar

March 4, 2018

Aside maybe for Marie Curie, a regular person would be hard-pressed to name any women pioneer of science (in any field) at all. The contributions of women in the history of any of the sciences had been very limited, because it was only during the 19th century that women were admitted into scientific courses of study and societies. Even then, they still struggled for opportunities for study and recognition for discoveries. 

For their second production for this season, Repertory Philippines chose to stage a 2013 play by American playwright Lauren Gunderson entitled "Silent Sky." This is about a woman who made an important discovery in the field of Astronomy in the year 1908, whose name most of us have never heard of before. 

Henrietta Leavitt was a summa cum laude graduate from women's college Radcliffe, in her words "Harvard with skirts." She was accepted to work in Harvard Observatory, but it turned out she would not be handling the telescope itself. With Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming in the women's department (jokingly called "Pickering's Harem"), she was tasked to count, label and describe stars from photographic plates.

However, Henrietta began to notice a pattern in the pulsations of Cepheid stars, and eventually concluded that there is a relationship between the brightness of the star and the length of time they take to blink, when she then correlated to the distance of this star. While Leavitt's discovery was published in journals, she was not allowed to do her own independent studies. However, eventually, her vital discovery was acknowledged as the basis of more well-known work by later astronomers like Edwin Hubble.

Simple stage bathed in dramatic blue light and stars

Cathy Azanza-Dy totally owned this play with her earnest and passionate portrayal of Henrietta Leavitt. She radiated Leavitt's burning desire to learn more and discover the unknown. She also made us feel the sense of frustration of a scholarly woman at that time who was treated as second-class citizen in the sciences, as it was in society. However, with her obsessive curiosity and probing intellect, we celebrated her triumphant discovery. With Azanza-Dy's performance, we totally felt Henrietta's uncommon strength of character.

Sheila Francisco and Naths Everett played Henrietta's senior colleagues Annie and Williamina, respectively. They were accomplished women of science in their own right, but unlike Henrietta, they seemed to be satisfied with the status quo. While Annie can be a strict supervisor type, Williamina balanced it by being ever-smiling and friendly. They played some sort of comic relief in order to lighten the serious nature of the play at certain points. 

Caisa Borromeo also does well as Henrietta's homebound sister Margaret, who portrayed all the typical roles expected from women at that time -- a dedicated daughter, wife and mother, deeply religious as expressed in her music. Her character changed quite a bit from her first scenes at the country home and her final scenes in the city, but her transition was not too clearly explained in the script. 

Topper Fabregas played imaginary character Peter Shaw, the fidgety apprentice of the head astronomer. As the only male character of a feministic play, he had the misfortune of portraying all of what is wrong with men (as perceived by women) -- pride, selfishness, insecurity, weak of will, lack of faith, lack of loyalty, lack of backbone -- name it. Fabregas had the nerdy, bumbling part of the character down, but he looked too young to be romantically paired with the formidable Azanza-Dy. I suspect the impression of male immaturity may have been done on purpose in this casting decision. 

The Cast at the Curtain Call
Francisco, Borromeo, Azanza-Dy, Fabregas and Everett

A quiet and serious play like this would seem like a very risky choice business-wise for any theater company to stage, especially since the play, playwright and its subject matter are all unfamiliar to the Filipino audience, hence it would not be an easy task to sell. However, Rep's belief in the play's sense of inspiration prevailed. With the talented cast, set and costumes by Joey Gonz├ílez-Mendoza, dramatic lights by John Batalla, and subtle sounds by Jethro Joaquin, director Joy Virata definitely drove home the message of female empowerment with stirring conviction, without needless fireworks. 


"Silent Sky" will run from March 2 to 25 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Ayala Center in Makati City. For show schedules (Fridays and Saturdays 8 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 3:30 pm) and tickets (P1,200 and P1,500), visit TicketWorld.

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