MANILA -- First staged in 2017 and again in 2018, Tanghalang Pilipino's award-winning production of Jerry Respeto’s Filipino translation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” struck a nerve with its core “thou-shalt-not-bare-false-witness” message at a time when extra judicial killings attributed to the past administration’s war on drugs was top of mind.
This year, Tanghalang Pilipino is restaging its award-winning production of “Ang Pag-uusig” as part of its 36th season, this time under a new government but with the same sense of urgency.
While the Ignacio Gimenez black box theater is a much larger venue than the Tanghalang Huseng Batute, the first view of the small, almost barebones stage that was representative of Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials was intriguing. Dennis Marasigan’s deft direction makes full use of this, which made scenes somehow feel suffocating and disconnected as the play progressed. Even when the full cast was on stage, one can easily pick out where to focus and figure out what was going on.
The cast is made up of new players and veteran actors, some of whom have joined the previous productions.
Marco Viaña’s John Proctor starts out as a smart, sometimes sarcastic, protagonist who’s just happy to thumb his nose at authority. This is a marked contrast to his increasing frustration when logic and reasoning become totally irrelevant in the face of the cunning, guile, and hysterics of Antonette Go’s Abigail Williams as he tries save his helpless wife Elizabeth Proctor, ably played by Lhorvie Nuevo.
Jonathan Tadiaoan masks Deputy Governor Danforth’s ignorance with bluster, power and infallibility that reminded the audience of certain people in today’s headlines.
It didn’t stop with Danforth, as there were more real world personalities reflected in the characters on stage.
Authorities and law enforcers that just do things devoid of common sense and compassion, happy to point at some unseen boss and say, “Sumusunod lang ako sa utos.” The bootlickers, without power of their own, who are content to ride on issues and the coattails of those in power to progress their own personal agenda. The hapless whistleblower who, in spite of facts, ends up as the one being on trial, or worse.
And then there are the marites, the trolls, the spin-doctors, and the mob.
In my opinion, the true tragedy of “Ang Pag-uusig” is how much that little stage reflected the current world at large. This play was Tanghalang Pilipino’s on-stage class on wielding the weapons of mass distraction that weaponizes the mob. It was painful to see how easily facts can be ignored in lieu of emotion, whether it’s hope or in this case, hate and fear.
After all, what is more plausible? A girl being possessed by the devil, or a girl acting insane to escape culpability?
From inane but totally entertaining showbiz scandals, to geopolitical “he said, she saids” of spy balloons and lasers, to promises of gold and dirt cheap rice, to local issues such as motor-centric transportation czars versus commuter and alternative transport advocates fighting for road space, to angry social media posts calling to boycott restaurants because of a messed-up meal, no issue is off-limits to trial by TikTok and Facebook where facts are seemingly malleable.
What’s true and what’s not? And more importantly, which side does one pick? Who is the witch, and who is not? Who is spared, and who is burned at stake?
Issues change, interests change, even the talking heads change. But the battle over public perception rages on.
Nanding Josef, Tanghalang Pilipino’s artistic director, talked to the audience before the show and told an anecdote about our parents teaching us to keep quiet and not talk. But in theater and as theater people, we are expected talk back, he said.
“Ang Pag-uusig” is a stark reminder of the need to start talking back. Or else, as with Elizabeth Proctor, the world will come crashing down around us.
Tanghalang Pilipino’s production of “Ang Pag-uusig” runs at the CCP Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez until March 16.