How Bibeth Orteza handles negative reviews

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Oct 24 2019 04:32 PM

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Bibeth Orteza. Handout

MANILA -- “Katsuri is the Hiligaynon word for shrew, not quite rodent, not quite mouse. The sakada is almost rodent, almost mouse, hardly human.”

So explains writer Bibeth Orteza, the translator from English to Filipino of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, “Of Mice and Men,” entitled “Katsuri.” Presented by Tanghalang Pilipino (TP), with her husband Carlitos Siguion-Reyna at the helm, “Katsuri” tells the harrowing fight for survival of sugar cane workers in Negros and how it tends to destroy lives and the people’s spirits, including families and friendships.

While Orteza was working on the translation at the time of the elections last May, she pointed out what was going on in Negros just couldn’t be ignored, especially after the assassination of Bernardo “Toto” Patigas, activist and Bayan Muna candidate for councilor, in Escalante City.

Months earlier in March, there had been 50 killings in Negros, including the massacre of nine sugar cane workers in Sagay, Negros Occidental. 

“Circumstances existed during the writing of the original material at the time of the Depression and the same circumstances exist now,” Orteza explained. “There were farmers dreaming and hoping – then and also now. Walang kaibahan.”

“Katsuri” is actually dedicated to Patigas.

“We were supposed to bring the cast to Escalante,” Orteza said. “However, since Toto Patigas was killed shortly before the elections, we didn’t push through with the trip. Instead, the cast had their immersion in a sugar farm and community in Luzon. I’m familiar with what’s happening in Negros. Later, the cast also went to Mindanao for another immersion.”


Orteza didn’t find it really hard to translate “Of Mice and Men” to “Katsuri,” since she was readily drawn to the heart of the material long before. She knew she could easily connect the story with the audience.

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Bibeth Orteza at the press conference for 'Katsuri.' Photo from the Facebook page of Tanghalang Pilipino

 ‘I’m familiar with the material ever since,” Orteza said. “I was in fourth year high school when I read the novel. Then, I read the play when I was in college. I also watched the two versions of the film, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. [1939), then with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich [1992].”

It took Orteza about a month to translate the material. “I started to write the script around the period of the May elections,” Orteza said. No wonder, there are references of the elections in the script. 

The hard part was building the role of Inday, played by young actress Antoinette Go. In the original material, the girl had no name. In Orteza’s version, the girl was given a familiar Ilonggo name, Inday, normally a nickname for “spoiled senorita of the house.”

She noted the misogynist prejudice of the original material when it comes to the attitude towards dealing with women. “Carlitos and I talked about it,” Orteza said. “We wanted Inday to be more nuanced. You can see where her pain is coming from. Usually, here in the Philippines, culturally, the easiest idea of so many young women to having a better life is to enter showbiz.”

No wonder, Inday's lines included this : “Kung natanggap ako sa ‘Pinoy Big Brother,’ sigurado, ako ang bida sa ‘General’s Daughter.’”

Expectedly, the partner of Inday in Ilonggo is “Toto,” normal nicknames given to children. In “Katsuri,” Toto, the mentally challenged character, is played by Jonathan Tadioan, while his friend George is essayed by Marco Viana. 

Theater stalwarts Michael Williams and TP artistic director Nanding Josef are also part of the production.

Completing the cast are members of TP’s Actor’s Company – JV Ibesate, Doray Dayao, Lhorvie Nuevo, Ybes Bagadiong, Eunice Pacia and Manok Nellas, with guest actor Fitz Bitana. 


Orteza included other present-day references with the cellphone, texting and e-mail mentioned in the dialogue of the characters.

“Toto said, ‘Mabait naman si Boss.’ But George countered, ‘Mabait kung mabait, pero Boss muna siya bago Dabarkads.’ Those are the things that will draw you to a classical material. It will work no matter what,” she said.

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Bibeth Orteza joins the rest of the cast and creative staff of 'Katsuri' for a group photo after their successful preview. Photo from the Facebook page of Tanghalang Pilipino

Orteza is thankful that her director imposed no restrictions or limitations on her when they worked together in “Katsuri.” That they worked together so many times in the past and live in the same house is a great advantage to their tandem.

“We can talk about the play while having breakfast,” Orteza shared. “When we remember something, we instantly talk about things in passing.”

Even if TP doesn’t censor its material, Orteza said it the writer’s responsibility when adapting a material like “Of Mice and Men.”

“You know there are certain boundaries that you cannot cross,” she explained. “You will not curse the president when you write a script. If you also notice, there are no names. Why did we say Hacienda Luisita when we did not name the hacienda in Negros?

“It’s a well-known fact the Hacienda Luisita is in Luzon [Tarlac], that’s central, and recently, it was in the news because there were massacres that happened there. I didn’t invent that fact. It was factual and even in the news

“Before, in Negros, the sakada came from Antique. While the population increased, there were other people who came from other places. Even the farmers from Negros arrived there. We try to underscore the fact that the problem of the farmers exists nationwide.”


There are those who apparently didn’t agree with Orteza’s translation and even strongly criticized the play. Yet, she refused to get affected by negative reviews. “I’ve been moved and overwhelmed by the reaction of the people in the audience,” she said. “They were crying after the play.

“If you will get insecure about one review that said, ‘It doesn’t work,’ then you have one farmer who hugged you after the play and crying, where will you get more affected? I go more for the reaction of the audience. You can have great reviews, but live reaction is not that strong. It’s more than a fair mix.”

When Orteza encounters that situation, “I talk to the people I trust. I ask and tell them what the reviewer said and not necessarily to the reviewer. On the whole, mas may weight sa akin the many reviews. And text plus social media posts.”

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Bibeth Orteza, Carlitos Siguion-Reyna and the cast of 'Katsuri' pose for a group photo with Nora Aunor and Monique Wilson after a performance. Handout

Neither does she get disappointed with negative reviews. “In my years in this industry, I know, even in life, that you cannot please everybody,” Orteza added. “When one person hugs me and tells me in Ilonggo, that’s how realistic the situation affects him, mas may tama sa akin ‘yon.”

“Crying and thanking me after the play, more than anything else, is more personal than factual for me. It’s as good as saying, I don’t agree with the adaptation because hindi terno ang sapatos niya. [Laughs].”


At 65, Orteza remains artistically active and busy. “Takot ako sa dementia,” she admitted. [Takot akong] Mababakante ang utak ko, then I forget the names of the people around me. If you don’t want this to happen, for as long as you still can, you have to continue the brain processes.”

She is doing several plays and working on screenplays. Still is still heavily involved with ICanServe Foundation, her advocacy for breast cancer awareness. She previously went to Pampanga, Davao, Cebu and will even go to Benguet. 

When she was younger, Orteza was repeatedly offered to direct. “I don’t have the patience of a director. When I’m writing a script, even inside the grocery, I talk to myself to verbalize the lines of the characters. As a wife, I’m more patient with a lot of things. I always remind Carlitos not get angry or not to do certain things. But Carlitos has more patience to create,” she said.

The mother of two – Aya, who just turned 30 and Rafa, 29 – merely 11 months apart, Orteza is undeniably proud of her children. “Aya got my musical skills which is nothing and [the] people’s skills of her father,” Orteza smiled. 

“Rafa got his musical ability and people skills from Carlitos’ side of the family. He came out prematurely, only 29 months. He’s my karma. Before, I was the one throwing the punchline. Now, it is Rafa doing that to me.”

Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Katsuri” goes on its last weekend this week, with performances on October 25 at 8 p.m., October 26 at 3 and 8 p.m., and October 27 at 3 p.m.