MANILA — He has directed himself before— to critical acclaim — in the multi-awarded “Red” and “The Normal Heart,” but for David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” Bart Guingona chose to just act and leave the directing chores to another actor-directorTopper Fabregas.
Guingona explained that with “Blackbird,” which was named best new play at the Olivier Awards in 2007, it’s not as easy to step out of character to direct, noting how he needed to have a strong drink after the emotionally draining rehearsals.
“I don't think I've ever been so scared of a role in my life. We open on Friday and I'm about to piss my pants,” he wrote in a Facebook post ahead of tonight’s opening at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of RCBC Plaza in Makati City.
That role is Ray, who, when the play opens, finds himself face to face again with an angry former lover Una, who found him 15 years later when she sees his picture, smiling for the camera, in a trade magazine. The last time they met, he left her at a guest house after they had sex. She was only 12 at the time, and he was 40.
Ray was sent to jail because of this and after his release from prison several years later, he took on a new name, Peter, hoping to move on with his life. But Una as reminds him: “I did your sentence for 15 years. I lost more than you ever did.”
Child abuse is a straightforward, no-ifs-nor-buts issue but in “Blackbird,” Harrower dares to introduce an element many refuse to acknowledge — that Ray and Una were in love, or at the very least believed that they were.
“You were lonely. Before you met me. When you met me. You were alone. You were a lonely child. Your parents left you to yourself. You never said it but when I held you in my arms I could feel it,” he tells her.
For 90 minutes (without intermission), the audience is taken on a roller-coaster ride of emotions — anger, bitterness, hatred, desire, resentment, disgust, guilt — that taunts and defies what we think is right and wrong. While “Blackbird” starts off with Uma seemingly looking to seek revenge on a man who obviously has wronged her, as the play progresses we discover that it is not that simple. Nothing is.
This deliberate uncertainty — exacerbated by a sudden twist in the end — is what makes “Blackbird” fascinating and disturbing at the same time. The action, which plays out in one continuous scene, is set in a nondescript office pantry-cum-storage room. Set designer Joey Mendoza created a sterile environment bursting with meaning, which made perfect sense in a cathartic scene near the end. He also enclosed it in opaque plexiglass panels as another reminder of the haziness of the unfolding action.
Meanwhile, lights designer John Batalla uses harsh fluorescent lights for much of the place yet dims everything save for a spot shone solely on Uma for a heartbreaking monologue. The near blackout at the end effectively conjures the horror Uma felt during that fateful night.
Fabregas, whose unforced natural style earned raves in the domestic dramas “Tribes” and “The Rabbit Hole,” is shaping up to be one of the more insightful yet chill young directors right now. In “Blackbird,” which is produced not by his group Red Turnip Theater but by Guingona’s The Necessary Theater, Fabregas once again proves to be an actors’ director. Given his stature, Guingona, as expected, delivers yet another intense and compelling performance, giving Ray a tender and sympathetic side that all the more made “Blackbird” such a controversial play.
“I was never one of them,” Ray helplessly protests — and we truly want to believe him.
But Fabregas’s biggest achievement here is to guide Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante in a performance that seals her reputation as one of the most exciting young talents in today’s theater scene. The wife of singer-actor Nyoy Volante already established herself in musical theater with winning turns in “Carrie” and most recently in “Fun Home,” as a teen coming to terms with her sexuality. In “Blackbird,” she proved that she can also hold her ground in a straight play — against Guingona, no less.
It is Uma that ultimately leads this delicate dance and Bradshaw-Volante captures all the conflicting emotions we have about this particular case. And in the end, it is her broken heart that lingers with us as we exit the theater discussing what had just transpired.
Philippine theater has officially found a new all-around sensation.
“Blackbird” runs for two weekends until September 10 at the RCBC Plaza, Makati City.