MANILA -- This is the third time Repertory Philippines is staging “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Joseph Kesserling’s play that brings together two seemingly harmless old ladies, Teddy Roosevelt, elderberry wine, and a plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein into a classic dark farce.
“I love this play," confessed first-time director Jamie Esteva Wilson. "I grew up working on this play. I used to sell programs and tear ticket stubs during the first run in Insular Life when I was eight years old and I snuck in to watch it.”
Wilson has paid his dues onstage and backstage due to his involvement with many local theater groups. He credits his directors like the late Bibot Amador, Michael Williams, Bart Guingona, Bobby Garcia, and even his sister, Monique Wilson, for preparing him for this production where he had the formidable task of directing such a gifted cast, five of them, accomplished directors themselves.
The tale is about two seemingly harmless old ladies Abby and Martha Brewster, played with such charm by Philippine theater stalwarts Joy Virata and Jay Glorioso, whose advocacy is offering lonely old guests a glass of their elderberry wine to ensure a long peaceful sleep.
We are then introduced to Nelsito Gomez’s increasingly manic Mortimer who stumbles upon his aunts’ unique form of hospitality. Mentally handicapped nephew Teddy, played with such aplomb by Jeremy Domingo, is an unwitting accomplice to aid his aunts’ activities.
The plot takes a chilling turn when estranged nephew Jonathan, played with such menacing glee by Apollo Abraham, and Dr. Einstein (Robbie Guevara, who makes his welcome return to the Repertory stage), break into the Brewster home and try to rope in the aunts into their nefarious scheme.
These cooky cast of characters is supported by Steven Conde’s Officer O’ Hara, a policeman/aspiring playwright who becomes a foil for both Mortimer and Jonathan; and Barbara Jance’s Elaine, playing Mortimer’s girlfriend. SPiT founder Gabe Mercado breaks typecast with his no-nonsense Lt. Rooney who, with his Keystone Cops played by Dingdong Rosales and Luis Marcelo, usher the play to its conclusion.
"Arsenic and Old Lace" is a classic black comedy. Thus, it was a surprise to find a seemingly normal set. Wilson said that it would have been easy to decorate the set as expected, dark and Gothic. But instead he brings some off-kilter sensibilities to dress the set.
“I lit the stage like a musical. When you enter the theater, you’ll see the set and it’s okay. But there’s something… off. For instance, you think that the couch is in the center but it’s not. It’s just like the two aunts, the first time you see them, they’re nice ladies. But there’s something off.”
Younger audiences may find “Arsenic and Old Lace” to be somewhat dated, though it does not detract from the fun and laughs that can be found in the play.
“Usually all musicals and plays are written in a direct language; this was written in a period where English was eloquent. This is not Shakespeare English. It is still modern English but more eloquent,” observed Wilson.
Overall, Wilson's directorial debut brings humor and the macabre together into this production. Backed by a talented cast and Repertory Philippines’ trademark technical prowess, it makes for an entertaining two hours in the theater.
“To some degree, it’s also very Filipino, because we’re about family first. Sometimes, we can’t help but be in a dysfunctional family and still have to deal with them.” remarks Wilson.
If dark humored family horror comedies are your cup of tea, then a dose of “Arsenic and Old Lace” is your recommended poison.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs until April 29 at Onstage Theater in Greenbelt 1, Makati City.