Sunday, January 18, 2009

Portrait of an Artist as Filipino

Tony Javier tries his charms on his landlady and potential doña, Paula. (Credit: Repertory Philippines)
Mon and I were supposed to see Love Me Again -- that Piolo Pascual and Angel Locsin starrer -- when our reluctance to watch the movie brought us to Onstage in Greenbelt to check out what play was running. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that it was Nick Joaquin's Portrait of an Artist as Filipino, and thankfully, we had 10 more minutes before the show started.

Prior to last night, I knew nothing about this particular work of Joaquin, though I'm sure most of us have heard about it -- Repertory Philippines's show guide describes it as "the most important Filipino play in English." I'm no theater buff, and thus, cannot weigh the merits of this description, but after having read about and learned the context of "Portrait" -- written in 1955, ergo, a few years after World War II when Manila, then confined within the four walls of Intramuros, was reduced to rubble -- it was understandable to proclaim it so. "Portrait" is a play that questions identity: Old Manila versus New Manila; and the romantic (but starving) artist vs the pragmatic bourgeois.

At the Marasigan household, Don Lorenzo, a contemporary and rival of Juan Luna, paints his final masterpiece, Portrait of an Artist as Filipino, and bequeaths it to his two unmarried daughters, Candida and Paula, before setting himself up for a life of reclusion in his bedroom. A French journalist writes about the painting and Don Lorenzo's retirement, thus creating a huge buzz on the painting -- and an equally huge price on the painting.

Unbeknownst to the public, Candida and Paula are in dire financial straits. Their richer and married siblings, Manolo and Pepang, reluctantly send money for the upkeep of the Marasigan home. They want to send their father to a hospital, split Candida and Paula between their families as household help, sell the house and sell the painting. Other forces turn out to have a vested interest in the painting and convince the sisters to sell -- a hunky roomer, and a poet-turned-senator, who is an old family friend.

It is the painting that eventually acts as a barometer of morality and ethics; it is up to the viewers to weigh in and decide on the soundness of the characters' rationale behind wanting to sell or not sell. Personally, I wanted the sisters to sell -- nothing wrong with being worldly and having a scandalous amount of money if acquired through good means -- but this is a micro perspective. If one substitutes Manila for the Marasigans, would one still want to "sell" and become worldly? Joaquin doesn't seem to think so and here's where the assumption (or over enthusiasm?) becomes a problem.

Again, this play was written in 1955. Joaquin and I suppose, the romantics of his generation, had high hopes for Manila; waxing poetically about Manila and maintaining a staunch, nationalistic pride was a given. (For the record, I probably would have been too.) The war had ended -- there were no Spanish, American or Japanese forces to colonize us. Power had been handed to us Filipinos -- it was the time for us to start fresh, and this time, on our own terms.

That was Manila in 1955. The Manila of 2009 -- and you can count decades back -- is far from romantic, and this needs no explanation. We all are aware of what Manila is like now. Sure, it has its charms, it has its hidden secrets, but charming little secrets can't make up for its "mismanagement," to put it lightly.

Let me use the word again; the playscript was charming. It was charming to see the optimism and enthusiasm for the new Manila, and I understand we can all use the same hopes and enthusiasm now, sure. But in the final scene, wherein the narrator made his final, oratorical case for the city, I couldn't help but feel that history unfolded rather unkindly: until when do we stop hoping for a fresh start?

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I understand I didn't exactly review Repertory's staging itself; I got so absorbed by the material -- I do hope that speaks about how beautiful and thought-provoking this play is: GO WATCH IT! Do tell me what you think about the selling and not selling thing, and all its other meanings.

Superb acting by the cast too -- we had Ana Abad Santos as Candida (Irma Adlawan-Marasigan alternates), Liesl Batucan as Paula and Joel Trinidad as Bitoy. I had misgivings about Randy Villarama's portrayal of the hunky roomer, Tony Javier. His character was supposed to be extremely charming but it was easy to see through his insincerity, which makes for an anti-climactic ending. Joel's final oratorical piece also felt too high school, e.g., as in those declamation contests we've all grown tired hearing. I've no other complaints with the acting -- the second act played host to one of the finest performances I've ever seen, whether on- or off-stage, thanks to the Dons and Doñas who shared the spotlight with Candida and Paula.

It was sad to see that there were only a handful of patrons at last night's show. (Though on one hand, we were fine by this; the seats were awfully small -- it would have been uncomfortable if we were seated next to other peeps; we would have felt squished. Also, the performance felt more intimate.)

Ticket prices are very affordable: P550, P350 and P250. Show runs at Osntage, Greenbelt 1 on January 23, 24, 30, 31; February 6, 7 at 8:00pm; and January 18, 24, 25, 31; February 1, 7, 8 at 3:30pm.

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