The hot, muggy breezes of Philippine jungles send trees crashing against the corrugated shacks along the stage wall while thumping loud beats of 1980s club music in Manila vibrate all around us. The uneasiness and threat of a storm is eased somewhat by the promise of a nightclub party. For the next two and a half hours, opulence and glitter will intertwine with desperation and oppression. Unbridled control of despots will bump and grind in clubs and in the streets with a growing army of guerilla resisters. Religious devotion and sexual depravity will vie for hearts and souls of those in control and those being tracked down. And all the while, media gods and goddesses will watch over all providing social commentary as a country struggles to overcome a legacy of imperialist corruption seeded in centuries past by Spain and fertilized of late by the United States.
Placing before us seemingly disparate pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle in the form of several dozen scenes with over forty-plus characters played by fifteen actors, Jessica Hagedorn leaves it to us to make sense of the picture that eventually emerges. Presenting the Bay Area premiere of her 2001 play adapted and with the same name as her award-winning 1991 novel, Dogeaters, Magic Theatre and Director Loretta Greco make a brave attempt in fitting the pieces of her puzzle together, even when at times the edges do not seem to meld together very easily. The result is both a confusing mishmash of who is who and what is what and a brilliant collage of a society high and low, good and bad, famous and infamous, pursuers and pursued that consumed the Philippines during the Marcus era – and still exists in some form today.
Esperanza Catubig and Melvign Badiola are lavishly dressed and oh-so full of chitter-chatter and gossip as the play’s narrators, TV commentators, and stars of the country’s greatest obsession, the radio soap opera “Love Letters.” With all kinds of bloody debauchery and bloodline deception occurring around them, the two hang out on the side lines watching with some amusement, treating the current events like an extension of the melodramatic soap opera script they periodically fall into. As Nestor so aptly describes both their show and their country,
“So many stories! A vaudeville of doomed love, shameless desire, dreams and longing. Someone always laughs; someone always cries; someone always dies.”
Also serving as a commentator and observer of the scene around her is Rio Gonzaga, newly arrived from the U.S. after a fourteen-year absence from her homeland. Her stay defines in time the slice of life drama she and we witness in her beloved homeland; and Rinabeth Apostol as Rio is convincingly excited, enthralled, shocked, and horrified as she reunites with friends and relatives and witnesses the events playing out around her. She and her cousin, Pucha (Julie Kuwabara), are like schoolgirls together when talking about Hollywood or escaping to the movies; but when she joins Pucha and their uncle Freddie (Chuck Lacson) at a nightclub where couples of all sorts are having sex of all sorts (in a lurid scene that turns the play for a few minutes into a X-rate affair), Rio is repulsed what has happened to the Manila she once knew.
Rio also eventually goes to see former friends of her Mom, Perlita and Chiquiting, both of whom we have already met several times in the many short vignettes flashing past us on the stage. Chiquiting is the over-the-top fem hairdresser of the First Lady and Rio’s Mom (played by Mr. Badiola when he is not Nestor, the commentator). Jomar Tagatac is fabulous as Perlita, the gay owner of a hot, dance club populated mostly by drag queens, gays, and men on the down low. The normal attire he wears while gliding around as if not touching the ground is a brightly colored, silk housecoat. When he transforms to his drag persona, he lights up the stage with a performance that makes it difficult not to get up and dance along. (In contrast casting, Mr. Tagatac is also the deceiving and Marcos-loyalist, General Ledesma.) Perlita is joined in his club by his popular DJ, Joey, a strung-out-on-drugs, sexy hustler who falls for and then robs a visiting German filmmaker (Lawrence Reducer as Rainer Fassbinder), witnesses a political assassination, and becomes a hunted animal by military dogs. Joey is just the right mix of pizzazz, perversion, and panic as played by Rafael Jordan.
But like many characters that parade before us, barely six degrees of separation exist between Perlita and many of them – be they military thug, communist rebel, prostitute, pimp, foreign film director, or Imelda Marcos – leading to many surprise relationships and meetings.
What makes Dogeaters both epic in nature and confusing in viewing are the multiple characters played by most of the cast (up to five roles for several of them) and the many scenes, some of which in the first act especially are difficult to follow as to which of an actor’s characters we are now seeing and exactly where the scene is occurring (and even why we are seeing it). But, to a person, the cast members deliver glimpses that, in the end, begin to leave an overall impression of the combined titillation, mixed loyalties, and extreme dangers that permeated the world around them at that time.
Among the other characters we meet is Daisy Avila, the new and stunning Miss Philippines. Christine Jamlig impressively spans the range’s extremes in her emotional and physical expressions -- from reigning queen before flashing lights to repentant and frightened petitioner in a confession box to captured prisoner tortured and raped and finally to armed rebel leader in the jungle. Her life-changing and unexpected journey is spawned by the assassination of her father, Senator Domingo Avila, a rousing speech giver and hero of the masses played by Ogie Zulueta (who also doubles as the sleazy and betraying uncle and pimp of Joey).
As actors switch from good to evil and from famous to unknown, the dozens of faces that flash in front of us (some to be remembered, many to be forgotten) also include an uncanny depiction of Imelda Marcos by Beverly Sotelo, who brings Imelda’s famed singing voice, love of shoes, and belief that the common people actually love her. Among other roles they both play, Carina Lastimosa Salazar is Trini, a sweet waitress bold enough to convince a waiter and aspiring actor she meets at the movies to date her; and Jed Parsaio is her actor beau, appropriately named Romeo. He a shy boy who is doomed to be gunned down in front of her as the supposed assassin of Senator Avila. Mike Sagun is the steely faced, evil-voiced Lieutenant Pepe Carreon who loves having a woman on the floor between his legs and has no outward regret but instead evil delight in killing the innocent (like Romeo( or the mighty (like Senator Avila).
The projections of Hana Kim play a big part in setting tropical and urban moods, in transporting us to movie houses and to a film festival, and in putting us back in actual historical events of 1982. Ms. Kim’s video creations project on the walls of grooved metal covered in graffiti and colorful signs that open to become a gay bar with twinkling lights or the beaded entrance to a den of iniquity. Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting and Sara Huddleston’s sound play immense roles in establishing glamorous runways for stars, pumping dance venues for the rich and not-rich as well as street cafes, radio stations, interrogation chambers, and steamy jungle hide-aways.
In the end, the strength of Magic Theatre’s production of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters is the lasting impressions made in the gestalt more than in the particular. Sorting out and remembering clearly many of the specifics is difficult and frustrating at times during the performance itself; but the lingering picture of Philippine history, culture, and challenges left by this jigsaw puzzle with so many pieces is powerful, memorable, and lasting.
Rating: 4 E
Dogeaters continues through February 28, 2016 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.