Why a musical from Blue Rep made me happy about Ateneo theater, again
(Author’s note: A friend of mine, who’s related to a Blue Rep alumnus, urged me to be a little more charitable about some things. I will rather be indirect than charitable. Also, using a spoiler for the title is not problematic if one realizes that one can read the plot on Wikipedia and some other places.)
I do not intend this to be a comparison of the three student productions I witnessed this academic year. To compare Shakespeare with an off-Broadway play is like comparing the scrumptious Japanese buffet at the Dusit Hotel with the scrumptious Japanese buffet at Saisaki. (And Fluid is like the breakfast buffet at Something Fishy.) They are two totally different things. But then, the variables are almost the same. Student theater company (check) does an edgy staging (check) of a play with dark material (check). The play had dancing and singing (yes to the former, maybe to the latter, as there was just one song in Measure).
And yet, this is Blue Rep doing that play. Yes, Blue Repertory, derided in the past for being um, too Western and too elitist, and so enamored with Broadway that they are out of touch. (I have heard it being uttered somewhere, but I do not know by whom and when.) I have not watched them in action since 2003, in their production of Bye Bye Birdie, hardly the kind of production that would use the “edgy” and “dark” adjectives to describe it. But I think that they scored a huge coup. In a season where the edgy productions came pouring out like the blood from a cow, Bat Boy came unexpectedly to our consciousness. In fact, the program notes (not as copious as the last one, because no silly translation decisions had to be made) indicate that this would have not been the last thing they did this year. (Originally, says the director’s chronology, it was All Shook Up.)
That alone would have made me applaud them for the risk they took. This is not a play with a happy ending. It has incest, violence, and simulated sex. (Of course, since the time of When the Purple Settles and The Vagina Monologues, no one would dare complain anymore about such things without being shouted down.) The play had a “Mature audiences” advisory. And yet, they got away with it. They really did.
The ensemble was consistently good. I really liked for instance how Marvin Ong did the title role with such passion that he managed to get my sympathy. (The British “received pronunciation” accent was also something amusing.) I also found the roles of Dr. and Mrs. Parker (played respectively by Harold Cruz and Laura Cabochan) to be quite interesting—the underlying dynamic of a failed marriage was something they managed to show pretty well. The chorus sang with such force and intensity that on some occasions the sound engineers had to ensure that the leads got heard.
Not to mention the set design and staging itself. Apparently, much like the other production I reviewed, what worked to get the people involved was to ensure that the staging was done in such a way as to make sure that the cast could move amidst the audience. This was done to great effect, especially at the very beginning and in the second act. (Of course, this helped make sure that the chorus was really heard too!)
The stage, which involved three different sets with one doubling as four different locations, was a very clever bit of making do. The only problem for me was that the lines of sight became a difficulty at times. I was sitting in the sixth or seventh row on the very right. A number of people near me had to crane their necks to see what was happening. (So much for indirect.) But this did not pose a serious problem with my enjoyment of the play. Maybe that was the point—if you wanted to get people to witness something, you might as well make them turn their heads!
Of course I could go on about the other things, but my final comment really dwells on the kind of material they chose. As I said at the start, this was a risk. All the other theater companies in Ateneo can do the dark and serious stuff, and sometimes they do this pretty well. Last year, I said that Fluid, which was not as dark but as serious than Bat Boy, worked because this play meant a lot to the players. This year, it is perhaps because Blue Repertory, like its adult counterparts, wants to skirt the edge and they really believe they are ready for it. And I think that what they did tonight with Bat Boy shows that this company, now at sweet sixteen, is growing up.
And we can all shut up now about those past jibes, I dare say. The truth, the play tells us, is something one cannot cover up for long.
A final note: The problem with this production is that, for the moment, it ended too soon. This was quite a smash for them (Blue Rep doing something different? Let’s watch!) and it was sold out on the two previous nights. Next week is activity moratorium week, so the next possible time for an “extended run” would be after Easter Week, much like all the transferred feast days. I would love to recommend watching it but then one could not anymore. Unless Blue Rep takes my suggestion, of course. (Also, to our friends at the Philippine Intercollegiate Debating Championships, you could invite them to do a “command performance.” After all, Mahar Mangahas, the costume designer, is also a valued member of the debate community.)