Faith and Feminism

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By Maria Jovita Zarate

Theater Review
Dolorosa
Written by Peter Mayshle
Directed by Jenny Jamora
A production of Tanghalang Ateneo
The Doreen Blackbox, Arts Wing,
Arete, Ateneo de Manila, Q.C

Aug. 17-24, 29-31, 2019

IT IS 1883, the town is Paete, the cloak of Franciscan friar rule shrouds the town’s christened folks. Father Galiano commissions Mariano, an indio, to sculpt an image of the Virgin Mary — the Dolorosa iteration — for a competition in Amsterdam.

The Dolorosa in Mayshle’s play is a locally revered icon, known as Mater Dolorosa or Ina ng Awa in towns Christianized by imperial Spain. One of the more resilient traditions colonization has embedded in local culture is the veneration of a long list of poon — wooden or ivory figures of an ensemble of characters surrounding the life and death of Jesus Christ. On top of the list is the Mater Dolorosa (yes, in local speak, it’s always with the Mater, not just Dolorosa), considered the superstar of local Christendom’s dramatis personae.

Thus Mater Dolorosa is rife with context and cultural meaning. In Mayshle’s play, this deeply resilient tradition of venerating the icon is dramatized to illustrate how the twin projects of hispanization and Christianization shaped patriarchy and society’s view of women. Mater Dolorosa in Mayshle’s Dolorosa is trope to amplify the centuries-old subjugation of women in society. And her absence, dismemberment, retrieval, and voyage to wholeness represent the journey that women have taken in society.

In Act I, the Mater Dolorosa is a disembodied figure, just empty space and light, and our imagination is coaxed to see wood being chiselled to acquire form and persona. While Mariano, the indio sculptor, succeeds in finishing the image, and eventually winning in a competition in Amsterdam, Elena has already become part of a village resistance movement against Spanish colonial rule. Mariano learns of these underground activities and throws a fit of rage.

In the next scene, Elena stands before light and space, and implores the disembodied Dolorosa to allow her to undo and untangle so she can remake, recast, revise the prevailing circumstances that shape her life. The act ends when we learn that the Dolorosa is lost, purportedly stolen. Anguished, Mariano begs Elena to stay, and stay she does.

In Act II, 50 years later, the Japanese have taken over most parts of the archipelago, including the lowland town of Paete. Elena is now remembered through Pilar, a granddaughter who had just gone through menarche, ushering her to a consciousness of how the same body can pulsate with both desire and dissent. From the same body arises an anguish over its ability to see her soul rise above it, and how consciousness can travel distances of time and space to fragments of the Mater Dolorosa lost many decades ago.

This playwright’s device — the uncanny ability of a character for astral projection — is more of a pragmatic move that would provide a channel whereby past and future can be talked about, defying the cardinal rule skilled dramatists abide by — “Show! Don’t tell.”

The past is about redeeming a Mater Dolorosa and a lost self, and the future as an imagined space of empowered women. Pilar’s gift for astral projection is like the pendulum that browbeats ideas of disempowerment and empowerment, pushing further the thesis that the image of Mater Dolorosa provides a model of forbearance and subservience.

Act III, it’s now 2003, and we encounter Pilar’s offsprings. We learn that her abusive husband died, and soon she left for foreign shores to find herself and create opportunities for her literary gifts to shine.

It is Good Friday, the town is preparing for the annual procession, and the daughters take the chance to spend time together as they each bring a body part of the Mater Dolorosa that they have kept throughout the year. This is the time they make whole the image and make her stand in a carrosa bedecked with flowers.

As the poon is being assembled in the carrosa, Pilar the mother arrives, and announces she is here to stay, to wait for the inevitable as she deals with a terminal disease. Like the Mater Dolorosa being assembled to wholeness, Pilar now speaks of how she has journeyed full circle, fulfilling the biblical prophecy of returning to a house from whence one came out. She is whole now, like the Mater Dolorosa emerging into full form for the townspeople of Paete to see.

Dolorosa is ambitious as a textual and theater project. Director Jenny Jamora valiantly pushed the borders of a dense material that favors discursive moments more than dramatic action. At some points, it was as if Jamora wanted to laser-probe the hidden psyches of women and an amalgam of lights gave center stage a redemptive, magical quality. Zoe Ocampo, the young Pilar, was vulnerable in Act II, and infused daughter Juliana in Act III with curiosity and a palpable hunger for life.

As a footnote, Dolorosa’s presentation of revolutionary activity of lowland towns does not align with the master narratives coming from solid and widely vetted scholarship in Philippine history. The year 1883 is a tad too early for a village-wide movement to emerge, with its own recruitment tactics to boot. Rizal’s Noli me Tangere came out 1887, and historians agree that it set aflame the struggle for independence.

It was quite unsettling to hear colonial subjects Elena and Mariano speaking to each other in a language that had not yet earned its place in the matrix of local, colonized culture. Lived experiences rendered onstage are not just about characters and milieu and localities. The vernacular language provides more than authenticity and local color: it also speaks of how consciousness navigates, imbibes and even constructs the life world. Why Tanghalang Ateneo opted to open its season with a play written in English is a question that needs to be asked.

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