By Nina Tesoro-Poblador
By Sarah Ruhl
Presented by Tanghalang Pilipino
March 3, 8 p.m.; March 4, 3 and 8 p.m.;
and March 5, 3 p.m.
Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino,
Cultural Center of the Philippines,
Roxas Blvd., Pasay City
CELEBRATED American playwright Sarah Ruhl dedicated Eurydice to her father. According to Amber Jackson*, her version of the ancient myth is expressed as postmodern tragedy. Unlike past adaptations of the Orpheus tale, which typically presented the compelling musician’s commitment to his wife beyond death as the central element, Ruhl not only made Eurydice the main character, but also included her father as another focal protagonist in the three-act play.
While other renditions examine romance, marriage, jealousy and trust, Ruhl’s character is not only a young newlywed who struggles with the sudden separation from her beloved, but is also a daughter so deeply loved by her father. Roland Ruhl was the best father to Sarah. When he passed away after losing his battle with cancer, she took time off from her sophomore year in Brown University, and upon her return, she expressed her grief through this theater masterpiece which has been staged across the US, including Yale University where Ruhl is currently a professor.
My own father, Jose Claro “Tito” Tesoro, gave life to Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) as company manager, with Nonon Padilla as artistic director, in 1987. In 1985, Dad played Louie Beltran in Bulwagang Gantimpala’s staging of Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.’s Bongbong at Kris. I was 11 years old when he introduced me to his friends in the cast and production staff. Like Eurydice who was transported into another realm, I was in awe. For as long as the hit production ran, I would sneak into Tanghalang Batute and watch the political satire over and over again, always elated to see my Dad in costume and in character onstage, in his element. I had fallen in love with his alternate universe, and his friends would become my family, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, my home.
I believe this review of TP’s current staging of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is also a message from my beloved father, who suddenly died from complications from diabetes, in April of last year. We cremated his body on my 41st birthday. The first half of his message came from Krix San Gabriel, former production and stage manager of TP, who presently serves as their marketing consultant. It came in the form of an invitation to have coffee after a Sunday matinee performance, to which I gladly obliged. It would be nice to come visit, I thought to myself, as I haven’t been to the CCP since Dad passed away.
LOY ARCENAS’ ALTERNATE UNIVERSE
Upon entering Bulwagang Aurelio Tolentino, also known as CCP’s Little Theater, you are immediately transported to another plane. As soon as we arrived, we were ushered through the backstage entrance. My companion was confused, wondering where we were headed, to which I excitedly exclaimed, “We are sharing the stage with the actors!” Bleachers arranged onstage surrounded a square platform, much like the black box theater. A predominantly dark set was given the right amount of bright red accents such as the wire art vines hanging from above, speckled with steel rings which mimicked droplets of water. The minimalist design provided a maximum effect, as it gave room for one’s imagination to complete interpretation of Hades’ Underworld. We were lucky to have been placed upstage facing the apron, as we had a full view of the rest of the house. Beyond the backdrop of translucent net hanging from the proscenium arch, I could almost see my Dad seated at the back of the dimly lit theater, smiling at me from afar, pleased that I was home.
Apart from his ingenious set design, Loy Arcenas further enhanced our experience of the Kingdom of the Dead, with his expert direction. A stalwart of the world-renowned Asian American company, Ma-Yi Theatre in New York, the respect he had for Ruhl’s work was obvious in his thoughtful use of blocking and choreography.
In one scene, after Eurydice initially encounters her father in the afterlife, she requests for a room from him, which he resolutely finds a way to produce. By attaching thin ropes from the hanging rings to the platform, the “room of string” serves as her safe haven in the strange and scary realm. This reminded me of how my Dad, come hell or high water, would tirelessly protect and save me from harm, throughout his life, and even beyond.
Arcenas first staged Eurydice in Filipino with Tanghalang Ateneo in 2013, translated by another second generation TP baby, Guelan Luarca, son of thespian Ward Luarca. Guelan mentioned in an earlier interview that it was a challenge for him to render Eurydice as Ruhl’s “dramaturgy is so poetic,” but at the same time, the “Filipino language adds to Ruhl rather than distorts her.” Incidentally, Guerlan first saw his father perform in TP’s production of the Greek classic, Lysistrata.
TP’S ACTOR’S COMPANY
Lhorvie Nuevo’s innocent portrayal of Eurydice was such a joy to behold. Her tendency to act with her feet was what initially caught my eye. Her emotions seemed to be so overwhelming that her limbs could not contain them. I am sure Ruhl would be pleased to know that her tragic heroine was given life with such sincerity. Marco Viana’s Orfeo was also a good match, as he played the heartbroken lad with the right amount of believable intensity.
Comic relief was provided by The Three Stones or Mga Bato, who were perfect in their timing as they created the confusion and aggravation consistent with the underworld. Alfritz Blanche, JV Ibesate, and Blanche Buhia wore wooden slippers or bakya, which served as percussion-like instruments on the stage floor, which not only produced a deafening noise when needed, but was also used as transitional sound cues. Jonathan Tadioan’s Interesanteng Tao, Ruhl’s antagonist, skillfully juxtaposed the childlike imp in the underworld with the menacing incubus on earth, who causes Eurydice’s eventual demise.
We caught Julienne Mendoza as Tatay, and his portrayal of a dotting parent to distraught Eurydice repeatedly struck a chord. Other memorable scenes include him pretending to be at her wedding; teaching her how to read again in the room of string; and immersing himself in the river of forgetfulness after she leaves to be reunited her husband. I am sure Audie Gemora and TP Artistic Director Nanding Josef, who share the role with Mendoza, also bring a distinct treatment to the character closest to Ruhl’s heart.
LOVE NEVER DIES
Above and beyond the Aristotelian conventions of staging ancient mythology, what makes Ruhl’s Eurydice so relevant, is that she puts forth the psychological journey and emotional torment of those left behind. Allowing the irrational behavior of her characters to take precedence over fulfilling the required catharsis, is what makes it a postmodern tragedy. The scenes in each of the movements/acts were consummate bite-sized moments, easily digested by the modern day audience.
When my brother took his life eight years ago, my biggest fear was that he would forget me. When my father died of a broken heart recently, I was again gripped by insecurity, not only because I lost my angel on earth, but also because my pillar of strength was no longer physically present. But you see, Sarah Ruhl presents a refreshing but gritty perspective of life and death. She continuously ponders on the possibility of love, whether romantic or filial, as the eternal communion between the living and the dead.
And just like the feather-like notes that would float from above throughout the performance, the other half of Dad’s message came in the form of an invitation to write a review on Eurydice, which serendipitously came the day after I had just seen it. My brother, like Ruhl’s Eurydice, also fell to his death. His body was found in Hong Kong and I asked my father if he could be the one to identify the remains, even if I knew it would be devastating for him. Like Orpheus, I believe Dad bargained with Death as he could no longer bear to be away from his beloved son, and like Eurydice, he made a choice.
I am at peace with the knowledge that the kindred spirits of my loved ones are finally reunited. Messages from my brother still come in dreams or whispers. And recently, my darling Daddy sent me a note from the afterlife in the form of this enchanting play, which simply read: Love never dies.
* Amber Jackson, Baylor University MFA thesis, “Balancing the Mythic and Mundane: A Director’s Approach to Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice” (2009).