Robert Arevalo and Madeleine Nicolas in "Mga Ama Mga Anak." Photo by Edgardo Manuel
MANILA – When Nick Joaquin’s “Mga Ama Mga Anak” was first staged back in 1977, Joel Lamangan had a walk-on part at the play’s end. Thirty-seven years later, Lamangan has established himself as one of the country’s top movie directors and returns to take on this classic piece for theater group Tanghalang Pilipino.
Given his long history and familiarity with the material, a Tagalog translation by Pete Lacaba and National Artist Virgilio Almario of Joaquin’s original English play “Fathers and Sons,” which in turn is based on Joaquin’s short story “Three Generations,” Lamangan directs the play with such efficiency that it moves almost like clockwork.
In his director’s notes, Lamangan pointed out that he considers “Mga Ama Mga Anak” as “the most important work” of Joaquin, also a National Artist, and this reverence shows in the way he handled the material and in the star-studded cast led by veterans Robert Arevalo (alternating with Spanky Manikan), Celeste Legaspi (alternating with Jackie Lou Blanco), Cris Villongco and TP’s own artistic director Fernando “Nanding” Josef.
The play is without doubt an intriguing psychodrama about a once-powerful patriarch, Zacarias Monzon (Arevalo), the town’s proud “Caretela King,” now a wheelchair-bound bitter old man, and his conflicted relationship with his two dutiful children, notably his meek son Marcelo (Josef), who bore the brunt of his father’s cruelty.
But the brilliance of “Mga Ama Mga Anak” is that while it offers a compelling family saga, there are obvious undertones that comment on the changes in Filipino society, given that this play was written during the Martial Law period. And while it would be tempting to bring these out into the open, especially given Lamangan’s own history of social activism, the director limited himself within the confines of the old Filipino mansion, which serves as the setting of the play, and leave it the audience – especially the young ones – to ponder on the deeper layers of Joaquin’s work.
The play also provides an opportunity for today’s theater audiences to become acquainted with the talented cast, many of whom are rarely seen onstage these days.
Arevalo’s stature as a movie veteran definitely helped in establishing a commanding presence that reeks of old-fashioned machismo. Arevalo captured Monzon’s unapologetic power-tripping manifested in his womanizing ways and physically abusive behavior without turning him into a total monster, such that it was still possible to empathize with his fall from power.
Celeste Legaspi and Nanding Josef in a scene from"Mga Ama Mga Anak." Photo by Edgardo Manuel
Similarly, Josef conveyed Marcelo’s repressed anger bubbling beneath a veneer of self-righteousness. When Marcelo, in a reversal of fortune, imposes his will on his father at the end of Act One, it’s necessarily uneasy to watch.
Lamangan and his actors hinted on several subtexts that raises various questions among the audience such that the post-play discussions will prove to be as enjoyable and enlightening as the play itself.
“Mga Ama Mga Anak” may not offer the kind of stage magic that usually entertains audiences but, at the end of the day, it is enough that this production is a terrific introduction to Joaquin and hopefully encourage the audience to learn more about his other writings.
“Mga Ama Mga Anak” runs at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Little Theater until March 9 with performances on Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.