Last March, I made a decision to watch two plays: not a particularly easy decision to make, even as I was excited about the prospect. Sure, watching a play sounds cultured. One thinks of lights and playbills and catches a whiff of Broadway, even when one is undoubtedly a part of the Manila audience. Still, the fact remains that watching plays remains a luxury here, unless a) you earn enough and can keep up with the latest in Philippine theater either by keen interest or whim, or b) you’re a student and can justify the expense by the fact that you need to watch something to pass a class.
In circumstances like mine, the sense of watching a play is now a little more nuanced. I earn my own money, so the stakes (if you can call them that) are higher, because more urgent factors come in when it comes to considering how I spend my limited resources. There’s no grade to be clamored for, so when a show is good that’s some money well-spent, and when it’s bad, it’s really bad because it’s a waste, a source of unease.
To Osage County, and where it failed
Perhaps it’s just as well that I started this review with a sense of discomfort, as that was what I felt throughout Repertory Philippines’ August: Osage County. Of course, it’s anything but fair to compare an onstage performance to that of a cinematic one, so if, like me, you’d watched the Meryl Streep, Oscar-nominated movie before the play, your singular goal should have also been to eliminate the allowances that a feature film can make and which an onstage performance cannot follow.
An Unsound Beginning
However, it is precisely because a stage has its limits that overcoming these makes for a more marvelous theater experience. It is also, sadly, in its failure to face up to these challenges that Repertory’s Osage County failed from the moment it began. The first act opened with Leo Rialp as Beverly Weston: alcoholic, award-winning poet, and patriarch in a home slowly going to the dogs. Not a bad start, in theory, and in fact I don’t think it took the audience long to identify the character as such–pained, disappointed, brilliant.
It did, however, take the audience a while to hear what Beverly was saying, as the audio was terrible. The audience had to strain to understand the dialogue, raising some questions: Is the microphone on? Can’t a sound technician do something before the next line? And, as Beverly’s conversation with Johnna Monevata (played by Angel Bayani) continued (those were a whole lot of lines sacrificed, by the way), the inevitable question of: Is this problem going to persist?
Minding the Gap
Technical difficulties aside, nothing could have prepared me for the lack of chemistry between the cast. In an ensemble, it is clear that there is no such thing as a solo act. While there may be instances that belongs to a particular character alone (a monologue, perhaps, or a pregnant pause), in such cases, the character must still draw from the energy of his or her fellow actors, thus feeding the power of the emotion. Or, if the character is drawing from something that hasn’t unfolded yet, still the revelation comes into the plot eventually, by which the audience then makes the connection between the character’s moment and the rest of the play.
But in Osage County, it seemed that every thespian was drawing emotion from oneself only, instead of drawing emotion from each other’s performances. Even when in dialogue with one another, while one over-acted, the other under-acted, and this was no means something that the script itself can be faulted with, either. As a drama-comedy, Osage County only works if some of its characters refuse to be as histrionic as the other half. That is, after all, where tension lies. But here, the tension was not between the characters but between the cast members themselves. Case in point, whenever Barbara (eldest of the Weston sisters, played by Pinky Amador) was in a scene with her daughter Jean (Thea Gloria) and estranged husband Bill (Kenneth Moraleda), the level of energy was all over the place, but nowhere in sync.
Let’s take it apart. Gloria was clearly drawing from her role as gothic, rebellious teenage girl; Moraleda was playing the pacifist academic having an affair with a much younger woman; Amador was acting on anxiety as the frustrated eldest daughter fighting to keep her mother’s psychosis at bay while watching her husband and daughter drift away from her. But for all their heated exchanges onstage, there was no subtle inner working between their characters. In fact, I could only tell who they were because that is who the Internet told me they were going to play.
Cast and character descriptions aside, the modulation of their voices, how they reacted to each other’s lines, and their body language (Amador playing frantic, Moraleda doing frustrated, and Gloria struggling with angst) left little to arouse me emotionally. Certainly when one watches a play one expects theatrics, but the beauty of watching someone act also lies in the anticipation of the unsaid, of what is concealed by gestures as much as what is revealed by a stretched arm, the arch of an eyebrow, some distance in blocking.
In other words, the execution lacked fluidity, seamlessness, subtlety. Cues, in particular, should have been invisible to everyone but the actors themselves, but instead of the emotions from the script unfolding, what I witnessed that night was the clear revelation of stage direction and choreography, instead of the genuine emotion that comes from the carefully controlled craft of acting.
Loss of Character
Character, as a matter of course, is something internalized before it is brought out as a natural element in the setting of the play. As the overbearing matriarch of the family, the character of Violet Weston should have stood out from this setting, as she is the source of the very chaos that informs the plot. Vicious at the worst of times and resentful at best, Violet embodies the terror that is in each family, making us ask of ourselves when we consider ancestry: Is that what I am doomed to become? But in Repertory’s Osage County Violet stood out not because of her ferocity, but because Baby Barredo, who played her, played a faded version of her.
It wasn’t difficult to tell from the way the other characters moved around Violet that she was a force to be reckoned with, even as she was really a traumatized child in an old woman’s clothing. But after her fiery spiel in the second act (which I’ll discuss further), one just doesn’t know what to make of her. Here, too, in her character, the fiction is revealed because the technicalities are obvious. Her microphone was faulty, and a movement in a particular direction by her caused static.
This perennial technical problem aside, her lack of a Southern accent (despite the fact that this was one factor which the rest of the cast deliberately exerted effort to keep), also dampened what would have been the illusion of her character. Moreover, considering who she was playing, this took away from what should have been the driving force behind the play’s internal conflict. Although there were moments when she was funny as well as infuriating in her hobby of tearing into shreds every member of her family, in the end I didn’t know what to make of this character, because I wasn’t sure she was a character that had solid form at all.
But the clear mismatch between the characters made itself most felt in the second act. At dinner, when all the characters have gathered, the script called for Violet to unleash her fury. It would have been both humorous and hurtful, a time for both Violet and her brother-in-law Charles Aiken to shine in their respective witticisms. Where one raised hell, the other pacified would have pacified with humor. Instead, this scene proved problematic in two ways: first, it meant trouble as all the characters were present–each being played, as aforesaid, from varying levels of performance. While players such as Sheila Francisco (who played Mattie Fae) and her onstage husband Richard Cunanan remained strong (it helped that they were lucky enough to have consistently functioning microphones), others were drowned in the mix, particularly Moraleda and Noel Rayos (who played Little Charles Aiken).
Matters of Space
Another problem was the blocking in the dinner scene. Logistically, of course, it is part of the creative struggle to make do with both a small stage and the specifications made in the original material. The dinner scene after Beverly’s funeral is important, but in the bigger picture, it only serves to anticipate how the rest of the family will react now that one source of conflict in the plot (Beverly’s disappearance) had already been resolved.
In this scene, only two characters are separated from the “adults” dining table: Johnna and Jean. The rest are seated at a long, rectangular table, set at an angle slightly diagonal from the audience, hence necessarily blocking many of the character’s faces.
The price of failing to manage this limited space creatively is, of course, paid for by the audience, who are made to feel as though they’re voyeurs craning their necks and cocking their heads this way and that just to see the facial expression of the character speaking or even to distinguish what is being said. This is all, of course, contrary to what an audience should feel.
As someone watching theater, I expect to be invisible. True, to some extent I am a voyeur to the unfolding events onstage, but the process of observing should be as smooth so as to seemnatural. Once I had to exert effort to actually understand what was going on onstage, I felt that I was removed from the experience, instead of part of it. Hence the failure to execute an important scene not only resulted in confusion, it also did the last thing a performance should do. It alienated its audience.
Some Bright Lights
There were, however, laudable performances that were a feast for the audience. Sheila Francisco, namely, and Richard Cunanan were fantastic. They drew the audience in, and in their performance, embodied the material enough to succeed in what most of the cast failed to do: to disappear completely behind their characters; to hold attention, suspend disbelief, and make the rage real, whether it was in criticizing Little Charles and coming to the defense of Violet (Francisco), or protecting and defying the same characters (Cunanan).
Liesl Batucan, who played the eccentric Weston sister Karen, also brightened up the stage. As with Francisco and Cunanan, the delivery of her lines spelled comic timing, and her scenes were some of the few in which the barrier between the audience and the unfolding scene became, as it should have been, permeable yet invisible.
In fact, I believe it was only in these three that the original material shone through, because it was in their performances that the audience caught a glimpse of the emotional puzzle that consists of a sprinkling of humor here, and some undisclosed rage there.
In Place of Pathos
I had gone in to watch this play expecting dysfunction, and I am certain that the rest of the audience also drew from some form of family dysfunction when they came to watch the play. In fact, that is exactly what I had expected would be revealed to me in Osage County: the assurance that someone else’s family, even onstage, fed and fell apart on this dysfunction, so that it could, ironically, make my own situation seem normal.
To put it simply, if there was one thing I had wished for originally, walking into that theatre, it would have been to laugh a little, maybe even cry a lot inside. I had gone in looking forward to the pathos that everyone feels when faced with the reality of relatives and drama: that hopeful kind of heartbreak for the failures of family, and that is precisely what August: Osage County failed to inspire in me.
Instead, what I received was a clear disjuncture in the execution of drama. During a live stage performance, it is always a possibility and almost a probability that something will go wrong, technical or otherwise. But a constant failure to cope with inconveniences such as defective microphones, along with the continuous misalignment between one character and another, not to mention the lack of rapport between actors, not only results to an atmosphere of discomfort, but also fails to create any sense of pathos in the audience.