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As the World Burns

With the possible exception of tabloid newspapers, no signpost of pop culture has been as misunderstood and maligned as the soap opera, appearing since the early 1950s on the world’s TV screens and, before then, on radio. The very name has become a highbrow diss for anything with overblown acting, transparent melodrama or quavering organ music. Their addictiveness, we are told, is a reliable altimeter for plunging literacy levels; religion may be the opiate of the masses, but General Hospital is their crack pipe. Nevertheless, the soaps handily endure, mostly because they fulfill the same voyeuristic urge that has driven theater audiences since the Greeks — the fascination of watching good people get into bad trouble.

Two plays currently running in town adopt soap-opera formats to varying degrees, one to express the national saga of the modern Philippines, the other to explore the soul of a working-class Belfast neighborhood. Dogeaters, appearing at the new SIPA Performance Space, is author Jessica Hagedorn’s stage adaptation of her 1990 novel set in Manila late in the Marcos era. It is self-consciously soap-operatic and looks at the lives of a beauty queen, a male prostitute, a movie usherette and a young woman who’s returned home from a long visit to America. These disparate characters orbit different Manila power centers (show business, military-commercial alliances and the club-and-drug demimonde), but they all intersect at a phantom film festival whose new site has literally been built on the corpses of its construction workers.

This festival is the vulgar whim of Imelda Marcos, who drifts in and out of the story as both an authoritarian spirit and an icon of tropical extravagance. It may be tempting to think of Evita Perón when we first glimpse Imelda (Natsuko Ohama), but in fact the real Madame Marcos belonged to that far less altruistic (and less popular) First Wives Club associated with postwar dictators Mao Zedong, Josip Broz Tito, Nicolae Ceausescu and François Duvalier. (In Hagedorn’s novel, the first-lady character is not specifically identified as Marcos, though she is an obvious surrogate.)

In two and a quarter hours, a liberal senator is assassinated, rebels gather in the countryside, and a gay nightclub bustles, while a fragmented archipelago of 7,100 islands merrily sways to the rhythms of radio jingles, disco and local marijuana. Hagedorn reveals a country that is not so much a nation as an identity crisis, a country invisibly scarred by colonization and invasion, while narcotized by the soaps and the mirage of immaculate golf courses.

This sprawling production, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, isn’t merely presentational, it’s almost a historical circus of headlines, conversations and play-acted film clips, more Dos Passos than Brecht. It’s delivered with the hectic pace and overheated brio of the soap-opera world, represented by two radio stars, Barbara Villanueva (Liza Del Mundo) and Nestor Noralez (Gil Bernardi), whose banter drives the night along. In the novel there is a scene, duplicated in Hagedorn’s play, in which a radio melodrama momentarily captures the attention of a ruthless general who is about to interrogate (and rape) his own niece.

“Do you like these melodramas, hija?” he asks. “Kind of sentimental, don’t you think?”

There’s no sentimentality in Dogeaters, certainly. Whatever carefree panorama of local customs and mores we’re given in Act 1 becomes a menacing landscape of violence toward the play’s conclusion. One problem with this shift, however, is that Dogeaters may be grounded in soap opera, but so much of Act 1 plays like sitcom that Act 2’s Buñuelian brutality seems forced. A second problem is that, while a reader’s personal schedule allows a novel to be read and enjoyed vignette by vignette, a play has to be seen in one sitting, and when its scenes don’t build and arc, our attention wanders. That arc is missing. Despite Hagedorn’s attempt to use the senator’s assassination to unify her theatrical collage, the various characters and plots tend to tumble on the spare, overlit apron on which this production unfolds. A more focused lighting plot might have helped.

The 21-member ensemble is nevertheless spirited, with a strong performance turned in by Nick Salamone as debauched filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder, who arrives in town for the film festival but falls for mulatto rent boy/junkie Joey Sands (Rodney To). Dom Magwili also stands out as the icy, guilt-ridden General Ledesma, who lusts for his Miss Philippines niece, Daisy (Esperanza Catubig), while despairing over his fanatically devout wife, Leonor (Christine Avila). Dogeaters remains a show that laughs at its own jokes, though as a profile of a country that could have become America’s Algeria, it remains one of the few we have onstage.

 

At least Dogeaters revels in its identity as soap opera. Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty’s Scenes From the Big Picture, in its Furious Theater Company production at Pasadena Playhouse’s Balcony Theater, seems to want to be considered something higher. But with half a dozen distinct storylines, 21 characters and a stage time of two and a half hours, the show still resembles one of those British tellynovelas like Coronation Street or Crossroads. Teens experiment with sex, 20-somethings toy with adultery, seniors throw their hands up in resignation, and everyone else just sits at the pub drinking.

Still, its stories of ordinary people grappling with workaday problems over a 24-hour stretch offer undeniable voyeuristic appeal. And, like a number of British plays (A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting, The Nonsense), its program comes with a handy glossary to help us plow through its dialect slang — something Dogeaters, with its Tagalog-laced dialogue, could have used. American theatergoers, I know, will be glad to learn that a “scrubber” is a promiscuous woman and that “spondulix” means money.

The play opens on two teens; Maggie Lyttle (Katie Davies) is a dreamer given to looking at shooting stars, while Bop (Nick Cernoch) not only refuses to look skyward but also spurns Maggie’s invitation to go swimming. (You don’t need a glossary to figure out what she has in mind.)

As Bop dreams of a life working at the local abattoir, his father, Bobbie (Michael Jerome West), must deal with the aggravation occasioned by the funeral of its owner; his troubles include having to fend off a drunken old scrubber and flame (Susan Carol Davis) while sorting out the owner’s bickering sons (Brad Price and Doug Newell). Meanwhile, the local drug lord, Robbie (Eric Pargac), and his zonked girlfriend, Connie (Vonessa Martin), take turns haunting the local shop, operated by two seniors (Dana Kelly Jr. and Toni Sawyer) who seem just now to be accommodating themselves to the fast pace of the 20th century.

Oddly and refreshingly enough, this is one Irish play that doesn’t refer to the Troubles, except in the oblique plot involving a couple (Jenifer Parker and Richard Hilton) whose son, missing for 15 years, may be buried in an IRA body dump. On the other hand, the complete absence of religious or political references makes it seem as if this is a Belfast that can exist only onstage.

Like all soap operas (and certainly like Dogeaters), Big Picture offers an almost geological slice of ages and dilemmas. Director Dámaso Rodriguez does a solid job with a committed ensemble of 21 actors who seem born into their parts and, more difficult, into their accents. In a nice touch, the characters call each other on cell phones, then speak directly to each other once connected. Because of the evening’s innumerable scene changes, Big Picture, like Dogeaters, makes the most of a few sticks of furniture, which get rearranged during lightning-fast blackouts.

For all this, however, Big Picture plays out like a lot of recurring vignettes that end on minor cliffhangers. Nearly all the various tales conclude happily, in the tradition of Dickensian serials in which all good children go to heaven. This wouldn’t be a problem if they were at least convincing, but nothing about the drug couple, for example, seems believable — not their relationship, not Robbie’s occasional kindness and not even the effects of cocaine on Connie. At one point I was even questioning their choice of cell-phone rings.

Furious Theater Company has shown itself to be a formidable presenter of British work (notably Saturday Night at the Palace and Noise), though this modern Nicholas Nickleby was a little too much for it to bite off. Now that the company has moved from its old space at the Pasadena Armory to the acoustically superior Balcony Theater, it should have a promising future ahead. Stay tuned.

DOGEATERS | By JESSICA HAGEDORN | Presented by TDRZ Productions and Playwrights’ Arena at the SIPA Performance Space at the TEMPLE GATEWAY YOUTH AND COMMUNITY CENTER, 3200 W. Temple St., Filipinotown | Through December 12 | (213) 382-1819, Ext. 123

SCENES FROM THE BIG PICTURE | BY OWEN McCAFFERTY Furious Theater Company at the Balcony Theater, PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through November 21 | (626) 356-7529


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