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.

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