Tanghalang Ateneo’s Filipino production of the Shakespeare tragedy has the year’s best performances so far, as well as the most disappointing
“A natural baritone” was how actor-director Orson Welles described Othello--a prescription that another august Shakespeare interpreter, Laurence Olivier, took to heart when he played the part in a 1964 National Theater production in London.
Believing that a lower vocal register would lend his African Othello more nobility and grandeur, Olivier took voice lessons--his first in decades of playing the Bard to great acclaim--and, within six months, had lowered his pitch by an entire octave. Italian director Franco Zefirelli called the resulting performance “an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last three centuries.”
It wasn’t just the voice, of course, which had served only as the sensory peg of Olivier’s attack. It was, more importantly, the implication behind the “dark, black, violet, velvet” sound, the character of it--the maturity of the man, the mightiness of the warrior, the vigor, authority and amplitude of a life that had survived wars, privations, prejudice, long voyages to strange lands and cultures, and that had humbled other men for the hand of the fair Desdemona.
It spoke volumes, one could imagine, about the Moor’s otherness in an overwhelmingly Christian and European Venice, where he had become a figure of great respect, if not of universal affection.
In Tanghalang Ateneo’s current Filipino production of the play (now “Otelo, Ang Moro ng Venecia”), staged with even-handed directness by Ricky Abad, one of the two alternating Othellos possesses that burnished, evocative timbre, and Welles’ thesis seems spot-on: Teroy Guzman, a baritone, triumphs over the role in a way that Nonie Buencamino, a higher-pitched actor, fails to do so.
Let us be clear: Buencamino, perhaps the best all-around actor the local performing arts has at present, delivers a fine performance any other thespian would kill for. His trademark sincerity, integrity and emotional eloquence are all on potent display as usual, offering an Othello deserving of generous empathy and pity.
Buencamino’s open, appealing Everyman birthmark, however—the very disarming accessibility that has made him the character actor to turn to in movies and TV—deny his Moor any expansive, elevated qualities.
By contrast, Guzman’s patrician Othello, more advanced in years than Buencamino’s, is marked by a persuasive sonorousness in speech, manner and bearing that his younger alternate lacks. He even speaks with a faint Castillian accent--something that further sets him apart from the other actors and hints at his character’s ramrod-straight, incurious nature.
Thus, because Guzman’s Moor reaches higher peaks, its fall is more heartrending. Buencamino, especially in Othello’s final breakdown, arouses as much pity as Guzman, but the latter tellingly inspires something more: horror—a sense of harrowing disbelief at the utter ruin of so magnificent a heroic specimen.
Buencamino isn’t helped by his partnership with Irma Adlawan, who is, quite frankly, miscast as Desdemona.
Looking roughly the same age--and hence subverting the template of Othello marrying a sheltered, much younger woman “whose hands hath felt no age nor known no sorrow”--Buencamino and Adlawan lack the crucial frisson arising from such disparities in age, experience and attendant temperament, not to mention racial make-up.
Her consummate, no-nonsense demeanor, undisguised by yards of flouncy period costume (by National Artist Salvador Bernal, who also did the spare cobweb-like set, suggesting ensnarement), only calls to mind what the London Times had written of Maggie Smith, Olivier’s Desdemona: “Obviously a mettlesome girl who would not for an instance have endured domestic tyranny.”
Opposite Guzman’s weathered gravitas, with the gulf in their age and dispositions more broadly underlined, Missy Maramara fares better in creating a Desdemona of frail dignity--though a grating contemporary strain colors her line readings once too often.
Other than a weak Othello, of course, this play of relentless intrigue would flounder with an inept Iago. Fortunately, TA’s production has found a superb villain in Rody Vera (Ron Capinding alternates on certain dates).
Shakespeare supplies reasons for Iago’s mischief--his thwarted promotion, Othello possibly messing with his wife Emilia (Rachel Quong, good)--but the way Vera mouths them, even he sounds unconvinced by such pretexts.
Instead, the watchword of his performance is malice--a pure, angst-free peevishness that takes impish delight at his evolving ability to upend lives and bend the truth to his will.
None of that homoerotic, slithery stuff. This Iago, for all his outward ease and jauntiness, is at heart a misanthrope, and Vera dispenses poison with charismatic exultation. Next to his frisky Machiavel, Guzman’s oak of an Othello proves to be a match. But Buencamino’s is, crushingly, no more than a patsy.
The rest of the cast, a mix of professional and student actors, generally acquit themselves with the Filipino translation by the late Tagalog fictionist and prose stylist Rogelio Sicat and his daughter Luna Sicat-Cleto.
The language is pitched at an agreeable plane halfway between literary and colloquial—both gritty and poetic, rough-sounding and chiseled. Iago goads Roderigo (Jan Rudolf Hermano) toward Desdemona with the idiomatic “Kung matotorotot mo siya sa kanyang asawa,” while Othello calls his horrified wife “sawsawan ng bayan” and has his fate summed up with “Dahil sa alinlangan ay inalipin ng alinlangan.”
A good many things are lost in translation, to be sure, but if the language has changed, the imagery remains as vivid, the sound just as comely. Iago’s ringing “Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light!” is now “Gabi at impiyerno/Ang magsisilang ng pakanang ito sa liwanag ng mundo!”
The accomplished rendering in Filipino, as well as Abad’s taut staging (a departure from his recent productions, which often suffered from distracting theatrical flourishes), mitigates the surprising disappointment of seeing Adlawan and Buencamino, two pillars of contemporary Philippine theater, defeated by “Othello.”
But only for now, we suspect. Give him a few more years, and Buencamino will no doubt vanquish the Moor.
Adlawan, meanwhile, in a virtuoso turn, is putting her formidable gifts to far more effective use in a play running simultaneously with this “Otelo.” On days when she isn’t playing Desdemona, she is scorching the boards as First Wife in Tanghalang Pilipino’s staging of David Henry Hwang’s “The Golden Child” over at the CCP.
But that’s for another review.
Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Otello, Ang Moro ng Venecia” runs until Sept. 6, at the Rizal Mini-Theater, Loyola Schools, Ateneo de Manila University. For ticket inquiries and reservations, call Jeselyn Jagong at 0916-5215154.
“The Golden Child” is on its last weekend this Sept. 5-7. Call 8323661, 8323704 or 8919999.