Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blast from the past: 'Mass'

Note: My very first review of a Tanghalang Pilipino play, published February 28, 2005 in PDI. Two years ago! 'Tempus fugit,' indeed.

Yul Servo as Pepe Samson and Mads Nicolas as his mother Emy

PDI, February 28, 2005

Tanghalang Pilipino's “Mass,” Rody Vera's stage adaptation of National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose's last installment to his five-novel Rosales saga, is at once powerful and frustrating, mythic and opaque.

In this inventive but not particularly illuminating production directed by Chris Millado, Jose's darkly panoramic vision of Philippine society in the grips of never-ending violence and betrayal is pared down to a rather straightforward exposition of the adventures and political awakening of the novel's hero, Pepe Samson.

Samson (played by Yul Servo) comes to Manila in search of answers to his bastard origins. He is the son of Antonio Samson, the hero in the preceding novel, “The Pretenders.” A reluctant ilustrado, Tony Samson would write a galvanizing screed against the excesses of his social class before committing suicide by throwing himself in the path of an oncoming train.

In Samson's son Pepe, now struggling to survive in the stinky underbelly of the city, Jose continues his caustic dissection of the corruptibility of the Filipino soul.

The younger Samson becomes, successively, a “toro” performer, a drug pusher and a murderer before finding the light. Along the way, he also becomes a writer, a playboy, a student activist--while under constant torment over his unacknowledged ties with his father.

This Freudian vein assumes an all-important part in the play, as Millado uses it to anchor Pepe's stark descent into prodigality and rot. The young man from the sleepy town of Cabugawan has found an excuse to go wild--he has issues with dad, who, while already dead, still casts a shadow over him.

The psychologizing is expected, and perhaps appropriate given the play's early-'70s milieu. But it must be said that such self-destructive angst now seems more quaint than shocking in our permissive, tell-all times, when bastard starlets regularly pop out on TV to wax boo-hoo in public and claim their 15 minutes of fame.

What this amounts to is much ado about nothing, and the play's emotional core isn't as compelling as it should be.

With Kokoy Palma as the ilustrado Juan Puneta

The start of “Mass” sees Pepe on a revolving spot on stage, turning round and round and howling out his various incarnations--“pusher,” “mamamatay-tao,” “torero" and, of course, “bastardo.”

But once it gets on its way, the play turns out to be an episodic, point-by-point exposition of these chapters in Pepe's life. Each new layer is assumed and discarded--sloughed off is the right word--like a ratty piece of clothing, with Pepe looking none the worse for wear.

Perhaps it has to do with the novel's sprawling structure--a tough case to adapt to theater, admittedly. In any case, Millado ingeniously employs various techniques to collapse time and compress the storyline--a montage of interacting dialogues, for instance, or a change of lighting and speech pattern to visualize a character's thoughts.

These dramatic shorthands are impressively staged and are obviously the product of much thoughtful design. But as plodding links in a chain leading to Pepe's moment of truth, they fail to “lift” the play. The material, as staged, refuses to rise and engage us in the gut, despite the volatile social and emotional traffic in the characters' lives.

Servo as Pepe is a hardworking actor, and he imbues the role with disarming charm. His rough-hewn vocal inflections make up for an intrinsically filmic, minimalist style of acting. But the intelligence that animates his skills is more native and intuitive, which deprives his character of the cunning and calculation it requires.

He is supposed to be editor in chief of his organization's paper, but he betrays no sense of academic or writerly introspection ever. His harrowing experience as a drug dealer and sex worker doesn't seem to deepen him, either. Right up to the end, he remains a perky, if opportunistic, interloper.

So when he takes up arms, raises the red flag and presumably heads to the hills in the end, we are left to wonder: Given his chameleon-like past, how deep will he go into this, the latest chapter in his overstuffed life? Will the revolution he now embraces be just another pit stop on an eternal quest for identity and self-actualization? How long, really, before he goes off on yet another adventure?

With Ronnie Lazaro as the drunkard Roger and Lou Veloso as Ka Lucio

The rootless search for meaning and identity may be true in real life, but it is a pretty dispiriting conclusion to a play that makes Pepe Samson's almost-superhuman character the mythic embodiment of the common Filipino's hunger for justice and uplift.

Or perhaps that is precisely Jose's point? That someone like Pepe, alive now with so much power and sense of righteousness, could also end up like his father someday, purchased and castrated by the aristocracy he so despised?

If there is anything that gives “Mass” its potency despite its prosaic execution, it is Jose's unswerving, unalterable voice at the heart of the play.

It's a conscience that bravely cries “J'Accuse” at the country's mendacious, grasping elite, the ilustrado class that has betrayed the nation time and again by collaborating with invaders and oppressing their countrymen at every turn.

“Ang kasaysayan natin ay kasaysayan ng mga bigong rebolusyon (Our history is a history of failed revolutions),” Pepe tells Toto, his friend and fellow activist.

Later on, he calls the Philippines “bayan ng mga traydor (a land of traitors),” citing the inglorious deaths of Antonio Luna, Gregorio del Pilar and Andres Bonifacio, among others, at the hands of their countrymen. Jose lays the blame for this moral filth squarely on the controlling oligarchy.

“Moral clarity” is a loaded phrase these days, with America's right-wing leadership having appropriated it in its global war on terror. But in “Mass," moral clarity is what Jose exhibits in his ringing denunciation of the depredations of the country's ruling class.

That could explain why he is a polarizing figure in Philippine literature. In a nation with perpetual soft-focus memory and vision, Jose's temerity to call a spade a damn spade is deemed dangerous, even incendiary. Yet works like “Mass” shows that speaking truth to power has never been as necessary.

“Mass” offers a great supporting cast in Lou Veloso, Mads Nicolas and Ronnie Lazaro. But see it for its truth--for what it says, not so much for how it says it.


waltzang said...

hahaha. congrats gibbs. ur so senti talaga as in. anyhoo, the only thing i remember about mass is the set design. oh well.

beektur said...

Now THIS is a review. It describes, enlightens, provides alternatives and explains why. All in a very calm, objective and entertaining manner. In some areas I think it even surpasses the materials (the original novel and the play) that it reviews in terms of insights. Great stuff!

gibbs cadiz said...

WALTZ, haha, that revolving thingy? :)

BEEKTUR: "In some areas I think it even surpasses the materials (the original novel and the play) that it reviews in terms of insights." Di naman, anubah. pero salamat na din. national artist na yang inaaway mo a. :)

beektur said...

Inaaway ko and isang national artist?! Not at all. I do not personally know him from Adam to do that and even if I do, I am a nobody compared to his stature and reputation. :) Let us not blur the line between reacting to a work and attacking a person.

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