Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The murder and resurrection of 'Moose Murders'

A Repertory Philippines error has found its way to the New York Times.

In January 2007, Rep staged a comedy called Moose Murders. In its playbill, posters and flyers, it identified the playwright as Frank Rich. One assumed (as I did) that that could only refer to the much-feared former NYTimes drama critic. Critics occasionally dabbling in the fields they cover is not an impossibility. Kenneth Tynan wrote that counterculture theater artifact Oh, Calcutta!, while Roger Ebert tried his hand at screenwriting with the Russ Meyer B-movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

But, in fact, it wasn't Frank Rich, theater critic or otherwise, who wrote Moose Murders. It was a guy named Arthur Bicknell.

Moose Murders was a legendary flop on Broadway, opening, and closing, on the same night--Feb. 22, 1983. “Even now, 25 years later, it is considered the standard of awfulness against which all Broadway flops are judged,” wrote Campbell Robertson in yesterday's NYTimes.

The play, improbably enough, has been rediscovered by community-theater groups in the US, and is now enjoying a second lease on life, hence the write-up. Mr. Bicknell himself has accepted the play's dubious fame. “If you can’t redeem, exploit,” he told the NYTimes. “You have to embrace it.”

How could Rep have made the mistake? Mr. Robertson also supplied the answer: “Mr. Rich’s writings about Moose Murders have become such a part of its lore that a recent production of the play in Manila credited Mr. Rich with having written the play.”

The play received some of the worst reviews ever. “Critics described Moose Murders as 'titanically bad' and 'indescribably bad,' a play that 'would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas' (Brendan Gill, The New Yorker), that looked as if it were staged by 'a blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin' (John Simon, New York magazine).”

Mr. Rich himself, then reigning as the “Butcher of Broadway,” called it “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage.” That wasn't half as interesting as his review, which began with this immortal paragraph:

“From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in the world: those who have seen Moose Murders, and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers. As for those theatergoers who miss Moose Murders--well, they just don't rate. A visit to Moose Murders is what will separate the connoisseurs of Broadway disaster from mere dilettantes for many moons to come.”

Was it really that bad?

From the version I saw at Onstage Greenbelt 1 last year, yes. It was easily one of the two worst plays I've seen Rep do, and I've been watching since 1991. (The other is a Julius Caesar I saw at the William J. Shaw Theater in Shangri-La Plaza, with a mincing, lisping Caucasian actor as Caesar. Noel Rayos, I think, was Mark Anthony.)

Apparently, Rep's Moose Murders was of a piece with its Broadway parent. It wasn't bad as in horrifically bad. It was train wreck-bad, the kind that made you cringe, stare and crumple in your seat all at the same time. The afternoon I watched, for the entire length of the play, none of its jokes or gags worked. Not a single soul in the audience so much as tittered or coughed. I staggered out of the theater afterwards with one question pinballing around in my head: “What were they thinking?”

Because, as usual, Rep had managed to assemble top-flight talent for the play. Michael Williams was the director. The actors included Jamie Wilson, Ana Bitong, Juno Henares, Robbie Zialcita, Cathy Azanza, Miguel Faustmann. There were two rookie performers: Irra Cenina, a Pinoy Pop Superstar alumnus who had alternated as Rolf in Rep's The Sound of Music the previous December, and a very young-looking actor doing his first straight play. His name was Red Concepcion.

I hope he doesn't take offense at this, but Red was awful as Stinky, the incestuous son of Jay Glorioso's Hedda Holloway. He wasn't alone, though. The entire cast was running around like panicked turkeys, perhaps conscious of the fact that they were, in fact, part of a big fat turkey.

Jamie Wilson, one of the country's finest actors, was for the most part swathed in mummy wrappings, robbed of dialogue (if I remember correctly). Poor Irra Cenina, also in his first straight play like Red, was virtually a ghost until curtain call (he and Jamie were playing switched bodies in this botched farce of mistaken identities). Only Juno Henares, playing a black-gowned Valkyrie nurse with a Louise Brooks hairdo, emerged rather intact from the disaster. And, oh, all right, Miguel Faustmann's log-cabin set looked handsome.

Rep would bounce back with a fetching Glorious as its next offering, with Joy Virata as the tone-deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins and Rem Zamora as her pianist. The sterling quality of Glorious only highlighted the head-scratching blunder that was Moose Murders. Until now, WTF remains the question in my head.

Happily, Rep's Moose Murders didn't deep-six the careers of most everyone in the cast. Michael Williams, who in 2006 had directed a vaulting Master Class for the Philippine Opera Company (starring Jay Glorioso), aced the part of the Baker in New Voice Company's Into The Woods some 11 months later. Jamie Wilson was in that musical, too, as one of the Princes, and so was Cathy Azanza, who was a warm, simpatica Cinderella. Ana Bitong played a host of characters in Bobby Garcia's Manila staging of Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters--a flawed production, too, but nowhere near the mess of Moose Murders. Miguel Faustmann was Tevye in Rep's Fiddler On the Roof just last December. Irra Cenina, however, I haven't glimpsed in any play after his unfortunate mummy part.

I had to stress Red's sorry appearance in this play only to underline one thing: his commendable, determined rise as an actor afterwards. In Into the Woods , he played a very minor part--the Prince's butler or something--but he made the character officiously funny. Then, this January, a full year after Moose Murders, he was Aldervisin in Dexter Santos' stunning Orosman at Zafira for Dulaang UP. He didn't get to flex his vocal chops much--the best songs went to the female leads--but he showed off his triple-threat talents. He acted, he sang, he danced--and how!

All that, I suppose, was in preparation for his breakthrough turn as Mark in Altar Boyz, which I can't praise enough at this point. From the awful Stinky to the thrilling Mark is a big leap, but Red has made it with bravura colors. In his case, as with other actors who occasionally stumble with injudicious roles (Bituin Escalante as Paulina Escobar in 2006's Death and the Maiden, for instance), talent will eventually out, correcting itself and--with hard work--outliving bad roles and bad choices.

There's a lesson there, I think, for theater as well as for life: You're bad today, and good tomorrow. You belly-flop today, you get up, dust yourself off, and do better the next day. The world doesn't end with a bad part, a bad review or a bad patch in life--even if you do feel like you've been kicked in the groin today, or are playing only for an audience of amoebas.

Just ask Frank Rich--oops, Arthur Bicknell--and his Moose Murders.


TheBachelorGirl said...

Thank goodness! An official acknowledgement at last! And no less than New York Times! When I wrote Repertory Philippines’ Theatre Season in 2007, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that my research on the net has another playwright for Moose Murders, while Frank Rich wrote an infamous critique of the one night play. So I didn’t mention who wrote it, but linked to the Frank Rich critique instead.

Anonymous said...

the play and prod must be really really BAD. si gibbs na yan ha. eh very supportive yan sa philippine theater. na kahit hindi maganda iyong play, may benefit of the doubt pa iyang binibigay.

Karla said...

It's a testament to how an actor has grown or matured, I guess, to be able to look back at reviews of his work and have an institution (ikaw yun, Gibbs!) dissect his performance and evaluate how he's improved. I hope you do more of that in the future--parang report card, kumbaga.

I only started watching theater again last year after being away for five years (am not sure if you know Riz Reyes of the defunct Today, but he was my theater companion in many Rep shows--even to that Miss Saigon show na hindi natuloy!), so I don't know how these actors have "grown" in their craft--or stayed dismal over the years despite constant practice. You're a historian na rin. Galing ;)

gibbs cadiz said...

hey LORNA, you should have outscooped the NYTimes! :)

ANONYMOUS, true. :)

KARLA dear, institution ka diyan, hehe. hala ka, dami magre-react niyan, plus parang ancient na ang dating ko, haha! tuloy-tuloy na yang playgoing mo ha, basta sama ka lang. :)

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