EmptyKirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City
Through Feb. 11
Jessica Hagedorn's play, based on her best-selling novel, is a brilliant theatrical tour de force, running more than 2 1/2 hours and requiring 20 actors playing 40 roles. Using a high-powered snapshot technique and a dash of "Saturday Night Live," she captures the Philippines in 1982 through the increasingly opened eyes of Rio Gonzaga (Elizabeth Pan), a young Filipina returning home from the U.S. (Hagedorn was born in the Philippines in 1949 and moved to America in her early teens.)
Although Hagedorn's deeply personal take on the society Rio finds herself plunged into is too emotionally cold to provide much beyond superficial glimpses of the characters themselves, the Jon Lawrence Rivera-directed production (which makes it to the finish line with just enough gas to spare) provides a riot of action, color and music, not to mention a terrifying history lesson.
That the play succeeds as well as it does is a tremendous accomplishment, because the story it tells is so complex and so generously populated. Here are dictator Ferdinand Marcos' larger-than-life wife Imelda (Natsuko Ohama); an assassinated rival (presumably Benigno Aquino, here called Domingo Avila); the denizens of Manila's overripe night life, the writhing Filipino society with its impossibly diverse culture struggling to emerge with its own identity while assimilating Spanish, American and Asian influences; and the oppressive physical nature of the longitude and latitude in which the country is situated.
The stage is ringed by bleachers in which a few members of the audience sit and through which the actors enter and exit. Like the climate and the politics, it creates a fluid and involving environment in which the action, plots and counterplots take place.
Besides Rio's mostly uninvolved presence, the main stories (neatly dovetailed at the end) include the attempts of a male prostitute (Ramon de Ocampo) to attain celebrity; the harrowing transformation of Avila's beauty queen daughter (Esperanza Catubig) into a revolutionary leader; the faux travails of Imelda trying to comprehend the unrest while working furiously to spend the money her husband and his cronies have looted; and the hypocrisy of famed German director Rainer Fassbinder's travels through Manila's furiously erotic and dangerous gay underworld. Through it all, a pair of irresistibly charming but relentlessly smarmy television hosts (Orlando Pabotoy, Liza Del Mundo) interview, report and comment in the best "SNL" manner.
Although much of the acting is superb -- Ivan Davila's drag queen is a brilliant creation, elegantly partnered by Giovanni Ortega, and Pan hints poignantly at the vulnerability beneath her protectively innocent exterior -- it is the whole that is entrusted with sweeping the audience off its feet.
But ultimately there is little joy in Hagedorn's Manila, for though she scores her points with devastating precision and impact, the effect of all the commotion, exhilarating though it might be, is to invoke a terrible suffocation that still threatens the country today. Meanwhile, a small voice asks whether the Center Theatre Group would be willing to mount a play that takes a similar hard look at America, circa 2007.
A Playwrights' Arena and TDRZ Prods Inc. production
presented by the Center Theatre Group in association with Search to Involve Pilipino Americans
Playwright/based on the novel by: Jessica Hagedorn
Director: Jon Lawrence Rivera
Set designer: John H. Binkley
Original costume designer: Marya Krakowiak
Costume designer: Dianne K. Graebner
Lighting design: Steven Young
Original sound designer: Bob Blackburn
Choreographer: Kay Cole
Fight consultant: Steve Rankin
Sen. Domingo Avila/"Uncle": Albert Isaac
Nestor Noralez: Orlando Pabotoy
Barbara Villanueva: Liza Del Mundo
Joey Sands: Ramon de Ocampo
Daisy Avil: Esperanza Catubig
Lolita Luna: Minerva Vier
Andres "Perlita" Alacran: Ivan Davila
Rainer Fassbinder: Nick Salamone
Imelda Marcos: Natsuko Ohama
Gen. Nicasio Ledesma: Dom Magwili
Rio Gonzaga: Elizabeth Pan
Freddie Gonzaga: Robert Almodovar
Chiquiting Moreno: Giovanni Ortega