LOVE IN THE TIME OF JOLINA
PDI, August 15, 2005
“Silliness is an assertion of youthfulness,” wrote The New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, and nowhere is this truer than in Tanghalang Pilipino’s newest production, “R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett.”
The Cultural Center of the Philippines’ resident theater company has got itself a bona fide hit with this show, an exhilaratingly funny jologs adaptation of the Shakespeare classic on young love that manages to be both inane and irresistible at the same time. The roars and cheers of the mostly young crowds that have packed CCP’s Tanghalang Manuel Conde since the play opened last week couldn’t be any more emphatic. This savvy send-up of everything low-class in Pinoy society is hitting the right chords, and how.
“Romeo and Juliet,” of course, has gone to the tenements before, most famously in “West Side Story.” But directors Herbie Go and JV Villareal’s impudent inspiration in transposing this tale of the warring Montesco and Capuletto families to an urban slum area called Barangay Verona is to strip the play of its veneer of elitism.
Gone are the high-flown rhetoric, the precious verses, the struggle for an overfreighted romantic transcendence. Too many productions have zoomed in on the arched, delicate sugar of “Romeo and Juliet,” but Go and Villareal’s mutant work bravely goes for the grimy, the tacky, the vinegary. The result is a glorious master class on Pinoy street culture at its most pungent and picaresque.
First off, don’t expect to hear any of Shakespeare’s soaring soliloquies here. The show uses National Artist Rolando Tinio’s Filipino translation in some stretches, but for the most part the earthy, colorful, brittle exhalations of everyday masa living have taken over the Bard’s words.
So a dainty, petticoated phrase like “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet,” uttered by Juliet in the famous balcony scene, now has assumed a scruffy pose: “Ang rose, kahit ano pang itawag sa rose/Alam mong hindi mag-aamoy gross.”
Or how about Romeo’s dazzling rhapsody upon seeing Juliet on the balcony?
“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?/It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!/Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon/Who is already sick and pale with grief/That thou her maid art far more fair than she.”
“R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett’s” version of this gem is a killer.
“Woah! Ano yung naggi-glitter sa bintana nakadungaw?/Oh wow, si Juliet parang araw na nakakasilaw./Sige, tuloy mo lang ang pag-shine! Kahit pa ang moonshine, kaya mong i-outshine.”
If the rhythm of the verses sounds suspiciously like rap, well, it is. Go and his team of adapters thought hip-hop poetry expressed this vibrantly garish culture best, and they gleefully trawled the panoramic expanse of jologs phraseology to come up with a script that shoots and zaps punchlines to the audience like a cannon run amuck.
The obscenities fly fast and furious (Juliet’s stock expression is “Sh*t na malagkeet!”); gayspeak is everywhere (Benvolio—a delightfully cross-dressing Wowie De Guzman—convincing his cousin Romeo to gatecrash the Capuletto disco party: “Bayaan mo silang magtaray/Basta rarampa tayo tapos eeskaflu sabay fly”); and everyone speaks in that odd patois where English and Filipino are forced to fornicate in new-fangled ways: “Men, what a night! Parang panaginip sa sobrang all right!”
Sometimes you do miss Shakespeare, and the sublime graciousness of his words. Juliet’s poignant lament after learning of Romeo’s provenance--“My only love sprung from my only hate”--is now a thin, inelegant “Ang true love ko at mortal enemy, iisa lang.”
And, occasionally, the punning and allusions don’t make much sense to young audiences. Of his lady love, Romeo says, “Ay peks man, kamukha mo si Paraluman!” That line falls with a thud. Apparently, in the age of Claudine and Jolina (from whose name the word jologs supposedly came), few, if any, have heard of that legendary beauty.
But in the face of the show’s effervescent embrace of everything bakya and baduy, such quibbling is, of course, pointless. There is nothing to do but swoon hysterically as the lovers exchange such monuments to kitsch as “Ba-bye, ba-bye! Mapuno sana ang iyong good night’s rest/Ng excess sweetness na umaapaw sa aking breast.” Done, if anyone fails to get it, right after the lovers sing their theme song--Lara Fabian and Josh Groban’s “Broken Vow.”
Ah, yes, the music. “R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett” throbs with the soundtrack of the gutters, from the Aegis’ “Halik” and Luha” to Sampaguita’s “Nosi Ba Lasi” and every honky-tonk’s No. 1 song, “My Way.” Now sporting new lyrics that comment on the plot, these songs are belted out by cast members videoke-style, complete with a thundering score in the end.
Any exercise in camp or farce, especially one that simultaneously celebrates and skewers class distinctions, could just as easily lapse into condescension. In less-than-sincere hands, the sheer stinky gaudiness of the back-alley culture that “R’meo Luvs Dhew-lhiett” purports to portray--the cheap gangsta shorts! the violence! the vulgarity!--would be an invitation to mockery.
Fortunately, the show has a talented ensemble of actors whose faith in the material shines through with every unprintable word or sugar-coated line. There is something to be said for mouthing dialogue that springs from everyday life--the inflections have the rank immediacy of fire burning your hair. You wince at the vulgar dialogue of Tybalt and Romeo, but realize you’ve heard it somewhere before in real life.
“R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett” has a real find in Noel Escondo, who plays the title role with a knockout combination of appeal and fierce energy. Catherine Racsag as Dew-lhiett is a bit more earthbound, but her sweet yet foul-mouthed Juliet is no less engrossing.
Together, these two diminutive actors form a pair of mini-tornadoes onstage, successfully sustaining the play’s tightrope spirit of mischief and earnestness right up to the end.
If they weren’t tenacious actors themselves, Escondo and Racsag would have been buried by two effortless scene-stealers, Wenah Nagales as Juliet’s yaya and Cris Pasturan as the nervy rapper Mercutio. Pasturan, in particular, is sorely missed when he is dispatched midway through by Tybalt. (He exits with the memorable line, “Bagsak ko nito, pulutan ng mga uod.”)
Just when you thought “R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett” couldn’t get any more playful or audacious, the double suicide moment near the end coughs up two deranged twists that practically reinvent the story and leave you gasping for air.
In this mad, no-holds-barred adaptation, “the vulgarity, the noise, the glorious gossamer folderol are all a bold and fierce declaration of life,” to use John Lahr again. But put more simply, it’s a “Romeo and Juliet” you’ve never seen before, and likely won’t forget.
(Thanks, Angeli, for the pictures!)