[Note: The Big Boss asked me to write about the electoral pageant from a theater perspective. Here's what I came up with. It's on page 1 of today's Inquirer.)
THERE’S A GOOD REASON ELECTIONS are typically equated with the business of putting on a show. (“It’s carnival time again!” barked the Inquirer headline on Feb. 10, at the start of the 2010 presidential campaign.)
Like theater, elections are all about presenting well-defined characters, creating and pushing a narrative (the poor boy who made good; the smartest kid in the room; the guardian of the family legacy; the trounced champion on a comeback; the, uh, “transformer”), sticking to a script but improvising if necessary, shaping the dramatic arc to hook the audience from gripping start to triumphant finale.
While a subjective exercise, looking at electoral politics through the prism of theater offers a wry, interesting view. Today’s presidential candidates, for instance, based at least on their campaign commercials and public appearances, correspond roughly to archetypal figures in the theatrical setup.
The Eager Beaver
Take Manny Villar, the most obvious example simply for his ubiquity.
Villar’s commercials are the height of variety and sophistication, and the persona showcased in them is never less than appealing. Not only have they cost enormous sums, but the candidate himself has also been game to do everything to appeal to the broadest possible market.
Onstage, he’d be The Eager Beaver.
So far, Villar has done bodabil (dancing with kids); Method (immersing himself in grime to prove his humble origins); inspirational (poor kids—again!—swaying to the season’s catchiest melody); ironic (the early rap-style “Akala mo trapo” jingle); literate (the palindromic ad with lines reacquiring currency when read backwards); stylish (his pitch for the Nacionalista Party’s women candidates).
Anything that would stick, Villar has tried, short of breaking the taboo on using family tragedies to summon sympathy votes... But wait, he’s done that, too.
Yet, for all its variety, “it’s been a very focused campaign with very consistent imaging and a solid, simple message,” notes playwright-director Floy Quintos. “What he was at the beginning of the campaign is still what he is now. He’s a very meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, and that also appeals to people.”
But where to draw the line between a sleek politician and a slick one?
“For me, the best actor is the one who’s most suspect,” says playwright-activist Rody Vera.
A candidate who gets better in his campaign “acting,” who knows even his best angles, becomes more and more a politician, Vera says. “You know he wants the job by hook or by crook.”
There is a paradox in this—as much for theater as for politics. Theater asks us to believe that all that willful artifice, its essential make-believe nature, will lead us to a moment of truth or insight about the human condition.
An allied, if coarser, conundrum exists at the heart of political campaigns: It insists that the deliberate spin, the relentless myth-making of the candidates are all somehow indicative of their very sincerity—of their fidelity to the truth and the integrity of their character.
As George Burns once wisecracked, “sincerity is everything—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
To be fair, perhaps the kind of politics we have demands this level of showbiz pizzazz from political aspirants.
Whether they relish it or not, perform the candidates must if they are to remain viable on the circuit. They have to master their lines, project well, know their proper entrances and exits, focus, ad-lib when the moment calls for it, be larger than themselves.
In the face of setbacks or the latest exposé, the show must go on, and damn the surveys that suggest a number of the productions are, in fact, flops by now and playing to audiences snoring in their seats.
Noynoy Aquino’s ratings indicate he has perhaps the strongest show, though he himself lacks Villar’s thespic consistency.
Aquino’s first commercial, a glossy, high-toned effort with a phalanx of dreamy-eyed photogenic stars converging on him with torches in their hands, ended with the camera fixed a second or two longer on him. But his painful deer-in-the-headlights look betrayed the man’s natural diffidence and discomfort at being the center of attention.
Call him The Ingenue—well-meaning and earnest but, in terms of public presentation, still finding his groove. Certainly it’s not being hip or edgy. His second TV spot had him doing rap, in a voice that sounded as odd and flat as the commercial itself.
Aquino’s newer ads have showcased marked improvement—once a listless speaker, now he’s more relaxed, the talking points well-delivered.
His “Kurapsyon ang problema” spiels have acquired a tug of truth to them partly because he’s learned how to say them in an engaging way—what tone to use, which word to stress, where to pause for effect—accompanied by furrowed brows, no less.
“If he were an actor, I’d tell him, Good job, but you need more workshops,” says Joel Macaventa, a former theater actor and advertising guy.
Vera agrees: “His body language! He still doesn’t know what to do with his hands!”—incidentally a common problem among tyro actors who have yet to find an organic anchor to their movements onstage.
“He’s improved tremendously,” says Quintos. “I think he’s become presidential; he has acquired a sense of purposefulness. But he’s had to grow into it.”
Gravitas is a quality you’d expect to find in an ex-president, but Quintos is dismissive of Erap Estrada’s attempt at seriousness in his few TV commercials.
The ancient pompadour; the slumped bearing; the whiff of smoke, whisky and the bordello; the rheumy eyes; the Old-School speechifying—in the theater (as in his movies), Erap would be The Ham.
“He looks old without the benefit of wisdom,” explains Quintos. “There is no image of the statesman in him, no promise of change. His visage doesn’t appeal to the youth.”
The Show-Off and The Loose Cannon
And Richard Gordon? He qualifies as The Show-Off—a mercurial performer of occasional brilliance marred by a penchant for unscripted outbursts and simplistic readings (“A Kindle for every schoolchild!”).
He’s exciting to watch for his fire and bravado, but ultimately exhausting and off-putting (“Even if you put together the accomplishments of Villar and Noynoy, they are nothing compared to what Gordon has done,” was his latest tirade).
In this he’s a kindred spirit to Jamby Madrigal, who’s an even more dangerous element onstage for her nutty unpredictability: The Loose Cannon.
Compared to them, pigeonholing Eddie Villanueva and Nicanor Perlas is a harder task, as happens with enigmatic outliers.
Strongly opinionated, with sensible ideas of their own that unfortunately resonate mainly with niche constituencies, the two candidates find traction in the public pit, however tenuous, not so much for their advocacies—who would quarrel with Perlas’ environmentalism, anyway?—as for the fact that they’re tilting at overwhelming odds.
The drama is in their quixotic candidacies. In this grand electoral palabas, Perlas and Villanueva would qualify as character actors—clearly in support roles, but parts they’ve made obstinately their own.
JC de los Reyes, as the youngest and most callow of the presidential aspirants (“No to contraceptives because they are abortifacients” is one of his head-scratchers), has the thankless task of filling up a superfluous if entertaining part of any production: The Saling Pusa.
He may yet grow into a player of stature. But this time, he’s simply out of his depth.
Finally, Gibo Teodoro—for whom stature should come easy. The administration candidate projects very well on TV, with simpatico looks and smart, pithy answers to questions.
Quintos calls him “the thinking man’s candidate,” while Macaventa specifically appreciates his “Lipad” commercial, which—while one couldn’t imagine it connecting on a gut level with most Filipinos who’ve never experienced flying—still showed off Teodoro as a robust and modern would-be leader.
Onstage, he’d be The Natural—a figure of evident intelligence and easygoing charm, comfortable in his skin and the glare of lights.
Coincidentally, Macaventa and Quintos both arrive at a similar analogy: He’d be the promising pretty boy in the troupe who lands a lead role in his debut.
“But let’s see muna what he can do, because previous to this, nobody has heard of him, really,” says Quintos.
To go by Teodoro’s abysmal ratings, of course, a caveat is in order.
“You cannot judge by surface alone,” says Vera. “The more important question is, what happens offstage?”
Teodoro’s offstage life, in this case, has to do with a truly heinous disability not even his compelling presence can cure: His ties to a most despised administration. For all his gifts, his inability to cut loose makes him look weak, subservient. That The Natural is also The Doormat is, come to think of it, almost like Greek tragedy. The waste, the waste.
Comedy, tragedy, vaudeville, absurdity, farce—they’ve become as much the hallmarks of that other form of theater called the election campaign. Along the way, there are heroes and heels, saviors and traitors, naked emotions from passion and pride to fury and frustration, clever twists and game-changing revelations.
And since political theater borrows heavily from the tropes and trappings of its counterpart on the legitimate stage—and we’re not even talking of those campaign ads featuring “real people” who are, in fact, hired theater actors—the comparison itself has become de rigueur.
Yet, to be sure, there is one fundamental difference between theater and the elections. At curtain call, who bows last in triumph is not some offstage director’s choice, but the public’s (assuming dagdag-bawas has been edited out of the script).
Yes, you make the choice. And if, to paraphrase the Bard, all the campaign were a stage and the candidates merely players, then the audience better stay alert—engaged—to see which protagonist in this spectacle finally breaks through the noise and fog of make-believe to offer a moment of truth for the country.
George Jean Nathan, the leading American drama critic of the early 20th century, proved he also knew a thing or two about politics with this reminder: “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.”
[Illustration: STEPH BRAVO. Copyright/Philippine Daily Inquirer]