Review: Han Ong's 'Middle Finger' at Ateneo

By Brylle B Tabora, Coconuts Manila

Posted at Aug 05 2014 06:27 PM | Updated as of Aug 06 2014 02:27 AM

The cast of 'Middle Finger.' Photo: Handout

MANILA -- Tanghalang Ateneo, one of the country’s longest-running school-based theater groups, is kicking off its 36th season (theme: "Navigating Identities) with Han Ong’s "Middle Finger," a loose adaptation of the German play "Spring Awakening" by Frank Wedekind. This year also marks the debut of Glenn Sevilla Mas as the theater company's artistic director.

Directed by Ed Lacson Jr., with Filipino translation by Ronan Capinding, "Middle Finger" is a coming-of-age story about a group of Filipino students trying to break through the repressive authoritarianism of an all-boys Catholic school in the United States. It was written by Ong, a Filipino-American playwright, in 1997.

In the story, a motley crew of students is confronted with issues of religious fanaticism, racial tension, sexual awakening, romantic overtures, and authoritarianism imposed by the adults. Set sometime in the 1990s, "Middle Finger" is centered on best friends Jakob Rodriguez (played by Guelan Luarca) and Benjamin Lunga (Joe-Nel Garcia).

Jakob is depicted as a headstrong and mischievous boy trying to escape the shackles of authority, while Benjamin is an average student weighed down by the difficulties of his familial situation. Although both come from completely different walks of life, both are bound by the domain of a strict Catholic institution which is trying to pin them down, and which they are rebelling against.

The rest of the group includes Yachin (Brian Ramon), a bespectacled nerd who doubts the existence of God; Wallace (Gab Tibayan), the artist wannabe who has problems dealing with a bird’s nest in his big hair; and Michael (Avie Alcantara), the quintessential new kid afraid to break away from rules.

Other members of the cast include Niki Calma, Marjorie Lorico, Dolly de Leon, David Bianco, and Joseph dela Cruz. The story is quite reminiscent to Peter Weir’s "Dead Poets Society" (1989) and actually follows the same story arc with the tragic fate of one of the characters.

The play excessively uses monologues from each of the main characters to drive the narrative. There were also too much goings-on in the play that seemed to have taken the story out of its course. We are not sure, also, if some of them did in fact happen, or were just imaginings of the characters.

As such, we are given access to the psyche of the characters whose thoughts and ideologies were framed within the Catholic context. What is interesting, however, was how divorced the wanton sensibilities of each of the characters are from the Catholic ideologies that the adults were trying to figure in them. Take, for example, the students’ penchant for pornographic materials in the form of text cards and VHS tapes; their defiance towards parental control; and their mockery of religious figures.

"Middle Finger" boasts of a noteworthy ensemble of actors, but all praises go to Luarca for his honest-to-goodness performance as the bully-turned-good-guy. He was effective both in delivering comedy and drama in the play. Another standout was De Leon who portrayed Jakob’s dolorous mother.

Overall, the play successfully breaks away from religious conventions and social constructs to underscore the importance of individuality, and raises a middle finger to those who otherwise says so.

"Middle Finger" is at the Fine Arts Black Box Studio of the Ateneo de Manila University. Aug 4-9, 11-16, 18-22; 3pm (Sat & Sun) & 7pm.

This review was originally published at the Coconuts Manila website.