By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Theater Review
Manila Notes
By Oriza Hirata,
Translated by Rody Vera
Presented by Tanghalang Pilipino
Fridays (8 p.m.),
Saturdays (3 and 8 p.m.), and
Sundays (3 p.m.) until Dec. 16
Little Theater,
Culturual Center of the Philippines,
Roxas Blvd., Pasay City
A MUSEUM, an art gallery, or a theater performance, are not places where Pinoys typically congregate. The shopping mall remains the most popular choice which is why Sunday mass is celebrated there. For “educational excursions,” teachers and their students prefer to be part of the live audience of popular TV noontime variety or afternoon game shows. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise, to find seven van loads of senior high school students attending an evening performance of Oriza Hirata’s Manila Notes in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
Manila Notes is the Filipino iteration (translation by Rody Vera) of Hirata’s critically acclaimed Tokyo Notes (1994) which has been performed in 13 languages in other cities worldwide. The high school students that Saturday night, were from a small private school inside a Southern Metro-Manila subdivision, and chaperoned by their teachers. As part of their official “Cultural Tour,” they had spent the afternoon at Star City (the TV stations are all in Northern Metro-Manila, and one has to queue by 7 a.m. to get in) before proceeding to the CCP.
Ms. Hirata was here last August for the Manila Notes auditions and to conduct workshops with the Tanghalang Pilipino actors in his “contemporary colloquial theater theory,” or “quiet drama,” which is antithetical to conventional “loud theater.” Filipinos are not a quiet people, as evident from the non-stop soundtrack of pulsating music in our department stores and restaurants, to our exuberant salutations of “Tumataba ka/Pumapayat ka!” (You are getting fat/thin) and “Good day, Mam-Sir!” So as not to totally discombobulate the Filipino audience with the unaccustomed calm, Manila Notes has reassuring pakuwela (silly) touches, such as the shameless mugging of the elastic-faced youngest sister Myra (Kathlyn Castillo) and the comically prissy and tight-assed museum curator Jerome Henares (Gie Onida). Early on, the sisters-in-law Evelyn Tenorio (Meann Espinosa) and Tessie (Mayen Estanero) engage in light-hearted kanchawan (teasing) with a humorous riff on sneezing, since Tessie just sprayed a priceless Vermeer painting.
The year is 2034 and it seems no protective barriers exist between the viewer and the artwork in this museum of the future. The poles have shifted and the global south is on the rise. Europe is at war. Not only has Manila become a viable sanctuary city for valuable Western cultural treasures, but it even has a functioning subway. Among the museum visitors are a peasant farmer with a business card, and an air force pilot conversant in the other works of Antoine de Saint Exupery, apart that is from The Little Prince, a perennial favorite of the colegiala (exclusive-school girl) set.
The play is not a conventionally structured dramatic narrative but more of a meditative think piece on how the experience of art, whether as a theater performance or as an encounter with a painting, is delineated by what is set on the stage or within the picture frame itself. The stage set may be viewed from multiple perspectives. Actors turn their backs to the audience, or pass through them. Similarly, what we know of strangers in passing, is determined by what we overhear. Or how, in the old days before electricity and artificial lighting, the subject of a painting depended on whatever might be made visible in the available natural light, as the museum curator Jerome Henares, an expert in classical Western Art, explains.
Tokyo Notes was inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s classic film Tokyo Story. In the film, an elderly couple from a remote province, journey to Tokyo to visit their adult children. The hustle and bustle of modern post-War Tokyo follow them, even to the hot springs resort where their eldest children send them so as to be free of their filial obligation to personally spend time with their parents. In the play Manila Notes, the old folks are not physically present. There is no shuttling back and forth here, as everyone converges on the museum. The unmarried older daughter Evelyn takes a break from her daily grind of caring for her aging parents, apart from her office job in Iloilo, by hieing off to an unnamed Manila Museum where the 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer’s works are temporarily on display, and in safekeeping from the war raging throughout Europe. It is her birthday, and she will celebrate with her siblings in the Museum’s café. No karaoke and no elderly parents either.
Coincidentally, the original Tokyo Notes was published shortly before the New Yorker Magazine’s piece on “Vermeer in Bosnia,” where Lawrence Weschler wrote of how the head jurist of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal would contemplate the Vermeers in the Mauritshuis Museum as a respite from the horrors he had to deal with: “For of course, when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia… awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty…”
Filipinos are no strangers to violence, even if it is through the slowed down and diluted daily brutality of dealing with the harshness of public transportation, labor contractualization, petty criminality or bureaucratic indifference, corruption and inefficiency. To take the time to visit a museum, or even to watch a play, means to temporarily step into another dimension. One puts away all gadgets and devices, pauses to truly see and listen, not just with one’s eyes and ears, but with the heart, just like the Little Prince.
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