Culture Works

(with apologies to my colleagues at ISACC)

An edited version of this review was posted here.

Culture works! – a review of Romeo and Bernadette

I have found that there are two very interesting contemporary ways of rendering Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s much-clichéd classic tragedy of “star-cross’d lovers.” The first dates back from 1996, and it was by Australian director Baz Luhrmann. (By way of interlude, let me say that unlike those who walked out on it in Cannes, I found Moulin Rouge entertaining.) Luhrmann kept the play (shortened of course) but updated the setting to a Miami-like city with crime wars.

Yet another way of doing this, I discovered, is Mark Saltzman’s Romeo and Bernadette, Repertory Philippines’s second production for the year. Saltzman’s musical collaborator was Bruce Cole, and this production was directed by Joy Virata. It is interesting because it makes a persuasive argument (though implicit) for cosmopolitanism in culture. I will say more about that in a while.

To be honest, I have not seen a Repertory play in a very long time. In the interim, a number of companies have emerged to challenge Rep’s dominance of the English-speaking theater scene, and some ad hoc groups have come up with decent productions as of late. This growth is beneficial and necessary for Philippine theater, because it ensures that, oddly enough, Repertory can get away with staging lesser-known but equally fruitful productions.

Indeed, Mark Saltzman may not be well known to most readers, but he honed his craft in the best school of musical parody I know: the Children’s Television Workshop (now known, after its most famous product, as the Sesame Workshop). One of the keys to good parody, in my opinion, is that, apart from making it ring familiar with the audience, it must be respectful of its source material. My first comment, then, is that this play is indeed a very good example of parody. It is a parody of several genres, ranging from gangster movies to Italian folk and opera, and it does so by subverting many clichés. It is set first in Verona, in 1960, where Romeo awakens after a five-century sleep, finds whom he thought was Juliet, but actually ends up in the midst of a farcical New York gang war, complete with strong Brooklyn accents.

On that note, I would say that the acting here was uniformly very good. I found the leads, Cris Villonco and PJ Valerio, wonderful singers and actors, and the mother, portrayed by Juno Henares was a comic delight. What amused me most of all was that they pulled off the stereotypical Brooklyn accent pretty well, though in Villonco’s case, it periodically vanished as a song began. The music and songs helped add to the comic atmosphere, with jazzy, upbeat numbers joined with ballads, arias, and choruses that reminded one of the “old country.”

But don’t take my word for it. I admit that stage musicals are not my strong suit, and to help me, I had the benefit of assistance from an anonymous friend I will name Giovanni Sanedrini. Giovanni is a musical theater buff, and I asked him to come along with me to watch the press preview of this play on 4 February. (The actual opening night, same as Rent, was on the fifth, and the show runs until 28 February.) After the play, my colleague and I talked about it.

“I think the biggest strength of this play is that it was able to effectively transpose the story of Romeo and Juliet down to and including the details,” Giovanni said. “I would say that those who watch this play must have a great degree of cultural literacy to appreciate it.”

“Indeed,” I answered, “each character here has an exact parallel in the original, except that Saltzman’s script did something extremely clever to keep it from being a clichéd rehash. They made fun of a lot of stereotypes and had a lot of ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ references.” I would say that there was a weak parallel, the role of Friar Laurence in the original, but there it was: a Mercutio who was bawdy, a Paris who was needlessly aggressive…and of course, three or four passing nods to that venerable Broadway Romeo remake, West Side Story. “Who would ever conceive of a henchman who could tell his opera composers apart?” Giovanni told me over coffee, “And a Tuscan Mafia boss? Not all gangsters came from the same part of Italy, you know.”

There was something at a deeper level that became clear after the post-theater coffee. “Did you notice, Ren, that the villain of the piece is an illiterate person who just wants to be the head of the family?” The villain was played by Kenneth Keng, and he pulled off the stereotypical violent gangster pretty well. “And a number of the good guys all happen to be cultured, literate people?” It dawned on me, late that night on the way back, that the play was really about being cultured.

On one level, the play can be enjoyed for those who are aware of the vague outlines of the Shakespeare tragedy. On another level, it is a play that requires being aware of several things: Italian opera, gangster film clichés, a working awareness of popular culture abroad, and an appreciation of how similar people actually are no matter how distant they may seem. I have been torn for many years as to whether to prize cosmopolitanism or to be a “cultural exclusivist” in the name of building a national identity. I have increasingly come down on the side of a kind of universal cultural literacy that requires a working knowledge of both our culture and others’ as well. The key reason is, precisely, Philippine culture is supposed to be cosmopolitan at heart; as Fernando Zialcita and others have said, our culture makes it possible to absorb those of many others and make them our own.

Repertory’s efforts, as well as those of many theater companies, at reviving (or keeping alive) a conscious sense of cosmopolitanism are to be lauded if only for those who keep harping against the forces of “cultural imperialism.” Those who do so forget that the theoretical lenses through which such critiques are performed are just as foreign as those they criticize. I would celebrate cultural literacy, even though it is “useless” and “inefficient” by the standards of the world, because it allows us to see the bigger picture and to give us a sense of history.

On another note, I think that the press preview did show up some of the noticeable headaches local theater still has to bear with. Ever since the most recent West Side Story production, with its opening night microphone feedback problems, I have been paying careful attention to this aspect of the production. There were some very slight microphone problems during the preview, but not disastrous ones. I am sure that can be fixed, and the problems are not insuperable.

One final point: behind the renewed growth of Metro Manila theater is the rising influence of a certain university-based theater company whose “alumni association” can be found in a number of recent productions, including this one. As I found out much to my amusement, a large number of them are producing the latest Rent, and two of them are involved in this production. As Giovanni Sanedrini was pleased to say, this company is “the new face of Philippine theater.” I do hope that they can help us make every place, as one song in this play suggests, like Verona, where we can all fall in love.

We have seen these things…

Today, my review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006) was published on the Philippine Online Chronicles. However, it was edited for understandable reasons. There are some more arcane references that did not make it, so I’m posting the full pre-edited version below:

I find that a problem with a good number of books in academic theology, and in many specialized fields for that matter, is their tendency to resist all but the most perfunctory and uninterested (not disinterested) reading. In other words, they can be boring. It is something that even a writer like David Cunningham, who wrote on the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity in These Three Are One, had to admit at the outset. He said that his book may at times come off as too technical or too obtuse, but then again, he said, he had to read through those kinds of books too! It comes as no surprise, then, that I find myself reading books like Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a voluminous work of astonishing scope, with an aim to avoid getting bored with it too quickly. Its volume is both a blessing and a curse, but more of a blessing for those who bear patiently with its argument.

Richard Bauckham is a professor of theology at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, and for this book, he won the 2009 Michael Ramsey Prize for best theological work. His thesis can be found at the very end of the book: “[In summary,] if the interests of Christian faith and theology in the Jesus who really lived are to recognize the disclosure of God in the history of Jesus, then testimony is the theologically appropriate, indeed the theologically necessary way of access to the history of Jesus… It is in the Jesus of testimony that history and theology meet.” (p. 508)

To understand this idea, we must go back a bit to what Bauckham is addressing. There is a long-standing controversy in the field of biblical studies over whether the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that relate Jesus’ life and work, represent a record of eyewitness testimony. Ever since the 1800s, there has been a consensus that they do not, having come down to us in a form that was compiled by the early Christian communities mainly from their common oral heritage, not from some eyewitness testimony. (This is a result of what biblical scholars trained in the historical-critical method call “form” and “source” criticism.) I do recall learning about this in college theology classes, and it would have made a satisfactory interpretation…except that the text of one Gospel itself in particular doesn’t seem to say so, and attempts to explain it away are somewhat unconvincing:

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” (Jn. 21:24)

Richard Bauckham is aiming to address the meaning of this statement. In 508 dense pages, he starts from a letter written by a church leader from Ephesus named Papias, and takes the reader through everything from lists of common names in Palestine and studies on the anonymous characters (and why they are so) in the Gospel of Mark. He also discusses models of how oral tradition is developed, and draws on fields like anthropology and sociology in the process. His work is painstaking, sometimes even difficult upon first reading, but there are rewards to be gained, especially a fresh perspective on texts Catholics and other Christians hear in church week after week.

The passage I quoted from above is really at the culmination of this work, because of all the four Gospels, John’s account is the only one which makes a claim that this was based on recorded eyewitness testimony. Bauckham’s study works through how the early Church understood who wrote this Gospel, and examines the structure of the Gospel itself (a strategy he employs in this book extensively) to see how the author’s claim was made and strengthened. He reverts to the extra-biblical literature towards the end, making a detour through what I feel is one of the more important chapters of this book. Here, he concludes with the hypothesis that it is more likely a disciple of Jesus named John the Elder, who may have also written the three epistles that bear John’s name. (To this day, some Christians maintain the belief that it was John, the son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve Apostles, who wrote this Gospel, and Bauckham would disagree with that view.)

If there is a particular chapter I appreciated for being the one that could, in a sense, stand on its own while being useful in the context of this book, it is the one on eyewitness memory and how it works. I find that it offers new insights for those of us who are concerned not only with the preservation of our tangible history, like the buildings of Intramuros, but also with our intangible, oral ones. It discusses how eyewitness testimony is generally reliable and detailed, and goes through the workings of eyewitness memory and how it is remembered and recalled. (It also includes an appendix on the question of “eyewitness testimony” in court, useful as a summary for those interested in legal aspects.) Noteworthy here is that this is one of the first books I have encountered where Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is referenced since its English translation was published in 2004, and this text by a French thinker cannot be ignored when talking about memory in the humanistic fields.

What Jesus and the Evangelists offers over-all, though, is a well-argued, carefully nuanced way of looking at the Gospels. Its conclusions are sharp and surprising, and in many ways, it poses a challenge to those who continue to unthinkingly assert the orthodoxies of modern biblical scholarship. However, it also serves a more important purpose than revisiting a complex question on the origins of the Gospels. I am brought to mind of an incident I witnessed at a theological school I visited before (not here in the Philippines), where during a lecture in which a professor was holding forth on the doubtful authorship of certain passages in Paul’s letters, one older woman asked a remarkable question: “You know, I wonder if such views will be of any comfort to those back in the church where I come from.” I think Bauckham starts from the position of faith, and that is perhaps what makes this more valuable: it is at heart truly theological and constructive. It challenges but as a result strengthens.

As someone who believes that deepening one’s faith does involve a lot of intellectual growth, I found much value in exploring this book. It forced me to return to familiar texts and ask, for example, why the woman who anointed Jesus was anonymous in one Gospel and named (Mary) in another. It made me wonder how valuable the stories of my forebears, and indeed those of our ancestors, were in shaping our histories. Most of all, it allowed me to ask why indeed the Jesus story, as told by the eyewitnesses, became so powerful that it still wields a huge influence on us today. It may have been of the courage of the martyrs who lived and died for the faith. But it may have been because, in the end, these things were true.

Thought for the day – 1 February

Even with whatever protection God guarantees it, when the Church of Christ in any time and place is criticized, that criticism is sometimes deserved. Hence, the Church, even reformed, must reform itself.

Or, as I said some years ago, the Church must die to itself so that it may gain new life.

I hope we can be bold enough to take that risk.