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THEATER REVIEW

A writer revisits the Philippines of 1982

January 23, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

In adapting her 1990 novel "Dogeaters," about life in the Philippines, for the stage, Jessica Hagedorn may have reduced a sprawling and fragmented narrative to fit the time constraints of the theater, but her play of the same name resembles a rambling political travelogue more than a well-constructed drama.

"Dogeaters," originally produced by the La Jolla Playhouse in 1998 and staged in New York's Public Theater in 2000 and in Los Angeles in 2004, opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The Douglas production offers a nimble and attractive cast of 20, many of them Filipino, re-creating the colorful degradation of Manila near the end of dictator Ferdinand Marcos' U.S. government-backed tyranny. But the performances seem more like a collection of entertaining cameos than an ensemble molded by tension and conflict. The arena staging, under the direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera, with some athletic choreography by Kay Cole, makes efficient use of the space and keeps things interesting up to a point, but ultimately they and the actors can only provide so much atmosphere when what the audience needs is a story.

What Hagedorn provides is the outline of a story, framed by the return to her homeland of a young, Americanized Filipina writer (Elizabeth Pan), who, after 18 years away, is aghast to find scary guys with guns at the airport and "mega-malls and superhighways" just like those in Los Angeles. There is even a film festival coming to town.

The political message, hard to miss, is that Filipino culture has been adulterated and paved over by lingering colonialism.

The year is 1982, and corruption, oppression, rebellion and decadence all swirl together in the tropical heat, surrounding a beautiful senator's daughter (Esperanza Catubig) in love with a rebel soldier (Gino Aquino), the fatally honest senator (Alberto Isaac), a bisexual gigolo and DJ (Ramon de Ocampo) and charismatic female impersonator (Ivan Davila). And those are just some of the main characters. (Most of the actors play multiple roles.)

If there is tension in "Dogeaters" (the term used by U.S. soldiers to describe Filipinos during the Philippine-American war at the turn of the century), it is not the tension created by events in this exotic parade of names and faces, but the jarring contrast between the cheap thrills of soap opera, beauty pageants, B-movies and disco life on view and the specter of Marcos' murderous political reality lurking just out of sight. Thoughts of Christopher Isherwood's prewar Berlin stories that became "Cabaret" are not far off during scenes at the Manila nightclub when the muscular Davila preens in red chiffon and sequins backed by a dance team dressed as policemen wielding nightsticks as suggestive props.

The gay subculture is one of the play's avenues of exploration and Davila is its flamboyant and unmistakable emblem. Hagedorn has even inserted the gay German director Rainer Fassbinder (Nick Salamone) as a character lusting after the hustler played by De Ocampo and put Donna Summer in heavy rotation on the club's sound system, along with Blondie and Kim Carnes. Indeed, the late disco era songs serve to locate the play's events in time.

There is a kind of surround-sound sex scene in which a variety of sexual encounters are going on simultaneously at different corners of the stage, suggesting a city throbbing with the carnal needs befitting a place where, we are told, the flowers "are the color of blood and the size of fists."

The darkly comic figure of Imelda Marcos, who among her Marie Antoinette-like distinctions, owned a thousand pairs of shoes, is brought to life with deadpan humor by Natsuko Ohama as she is interviewed by an American reporter (Salamone again). She is seen on another occasion in a memorably stark tableaux, perched on a platform above the stage, eyes hidden by sunglasses as she gazes out upon her kingdom.

As the would-be story of the senator's daughter and her rebel boyfriend plays out, along with that of the Filipina writer's coming to terms with a homeland that no longer claims her, along with a few other subplots involving whores and generals, a connecting thread is sewn by two falsely festive radio actors and emcees (Liza Del Mundo and Orlando Pabotoy) who regale us with intentionally dreadful snatches of soap opera. These are intended as comic relief but are pretty obvious, just as obvious as the gunshots and frantic chaos onstage that cover some of the frequent scene changes.

Manila is a dangerous and distracted place. We get that. What we don't get is much in the way of surprise or revelation, suspense or sufficient character development to hold our attention for the play's 2 1/2 hours.

*

`Dogeaters'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 11

Price: $20 to $40

Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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