Theater review: Tanghalang Ateneo salutes females of fortitude in 'Dolorosa'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Aug 21 2019 06:33 AM

It was Holy Week 2003 and three sisters meet up in their old house in Laguna to assemble their family heirloom -- an award-winning vintage statue of Our Lady of Sorrows (whom they fondly called Dolorosa). Before their mother Pilar went abroad and left them to fend for themselves, she left the hands with the youngest Juliana, the torso with middle child Alicia and the head and accessories with the eldest Claudia.

Before Pilar arrived home in Act 3, we are taken on two trips to the past. In Act 1, we go the the year 1883 and meet the girls' great grandfather Mariano Madrillano, as well as his dutiful wife Elena. In Act 2, we go to the year 1943 and meet Pilar as a young girl who just experienced her menarche. In both of these episodes, we were introduced to these headstrong women who were unafraid to stand for what they wanted for themselves in a world so much against their favor.

Elena (Claudia Enriquez) and Mariano (Ron Capinding). Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

While Act 1 was a rather straightforward historical period piece about the creation of the Dolorosa alongside the birth of the revolution, Act 2 tackled a myriad of different issues and took a radical turn into the bizarre. From beliefs and superstitions about a girl's first menstrual period, the script turned to sexual behavior of young girls in the 1940s; from physical abuse to sexual abuse, all at the hands of men. Then it went to more eccentric, even outlandish topics from Good Friday public crucifixion rites, to simultaneous visions of multiple Virgin Marys, to astral projections to a limbo called "The Neither." The characters broke the fourth wall and critiqued the male playwright himself for daring to write about the struggle of women in a male-dominated world.

Act 3 tied all these past stories with the present situation of elderly Pilar and her three adult children. Pilar's sudden abandonment of her children to go live abroad after her husband's death created a strained relationship between her and her daughters. The tension of this sudden reunion after 15 years of separation made for a lively and brutal family bull session when all the daughters' pressing questions were finally out in the open and answered by their mother (or did she?). The tradition of headstrong women in this family was in full display here, and the fireworks were both noisy and brilliant.

Teenage Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo). Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Aside from veterans Bibeth Orteza (as elderly Pilar) and Ron Capinding (as Mariano), all the other actresses in the cast had two or more roles to play, each with distinctive personalities. Claudia Enriquez played both self-deprecating eldest daughter Claudia and her defiant great-grandmother Elena. Bowie Gutierrez played both the angry middle daughter Alicia and her subservient grandmother Victoria. Zoe de Ocampo played both butch youngest daughter Juliana and her abused mother Pilar as a teenager. All these main actors were impressive, always fully in character with perfect line deliveries. This was the first time I saw Orteza as an actress onstage, and she captured the character of elderly Pilar quite well, both her strong and strange aspects.

The girls (Dani Capinding, Francesca dela Cruz, Kat Dizon, Kim Donato) and one guy (Shaun Ervin Ocrisma, in a case of gender twist casting) who played Pilar's friends (all named after visionaries, real and reel) were also playing the various personas of Mother Mary in the Litany (Mystical Rose, Star of the Sea, Seat of Wisdom, Mirror of Justice and Tower of Ivory). Sabrina Basilio played Chedeng, (Elena's activist friend) and Mitring (Victoria's favored fish vendor). In another gender twist, female AJ Umali played three male roles, namely Mariano's patron Padre Galliano, Pilar's father Pablo, and faith healer Tasyo.

Act 3 of this play was first performed as a staged reading at the Virgin Labfest last year, and now it has expanded into this present form with three acts. This was an audacious piece of theater lasting all of three hours, one hour per act (with two 10-minute intermissions). It is in English with occasional interjections in Filipino, Spanish and Japanese. It is not easy to hold the audience's attention that long unless the material was compelling and the director was able to mount and pace the story well. I felt it succeeded in both points. Playwright Peter Mayshle came up with an epic story and script involving three generations of women and director Jenny Jamora expertly guided us through with her vision.

Teenage Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo) and Elderly Pilar (Bibeth Orteza) meet at The Neither. Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

The lighting design of D Cortezano was so important in a play like this. The Doreen Black Box theater of the Arete was really pitch black inside when all the lights were turned off. The sound design of Arvy Dimaculangan was rich and atmospheric, without being obtrusive. Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tajibe created a set design with two stages at opposite ends of the performance area, and an open space in between them. Because of this, there were limitations in what a viewer can see depending on where he was sitting.

While I liked it as a whole, I feel this play may not for everybody. Aside from grappling with its length, some viewers may either be overwhelmed with its scope, misunderstand its messages or perceive it to be feeling self-important about its feminist agenda. With all of its complexities, the experimental Act 2 is most difficult to take in and can be polarizing. It is this act which will make or break the play for the individual viewer.

I applaud the ambition and effort to craft a challenging and provocative project this complex and epic for the local stage, tackling Filipina womanhood in spheres of history, religion, politics and society. It is an apt choice to be the maiden offering of Tanghalang Ateneo's Season 41 dubbed "The Women's Season" dedicated to championing the female spirit.

The Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of Sorrows. Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

"Dolorosa" runs until August 31 at the Doreen Black Box Theater of the Arete at the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Quezon City. Showtime is at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are at P450 for Ateneo students and P500 for the general public.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."