14 February 2018

Staging the skies

Lauren Gunderson is a rather demanding playwright. To put it another way, her imagination demands an equally creative team of artists to translate her decades-spanning, locations-shifting story — that centers on astronomer, Henrietta Leavitt — from the page onto the stage.

Silent sky moves between 1900 to 1920, and back and forth the Harvard Observatory, Wisconsin, Cambridge, an ocean liner on the Atlantic, and a star field. Bridging the gaps in time and space are Gunderson's cinematic directions: "Margaret fades away;" "Peter and the Harvard Observatory are swept away from her as the Leavitt home takes its place;" "The room falls away as they run off;" "Time is passing as the sky fills up in swatches." A curious heroine and compelling script aside, how the set will transition from scene to scene is something to look forward to in any staging of this drama.

Joy Virata takes on the mantle of re-building Silent sky's dream-like world as she directs Repertory Philippines' production of the play. The show, which runs from March 2 to 25 at Onstage, Greenbelt, features Cathy Azanza-Dy as Henrietta Leavitt, with Caisa Borromeo, Naths Everett, Shiela Francisco, and Topper Fabregas completing the small cast.

Joy Virata (middle) directs Repertory Philippines' Silent sky by Lauren Gunderson. In photo with her are (from left) Naths Everett, Cathy Azanza, Shiela Francisco, and Caisa Borromeo.

"It's about a woman doing [what she's passionate about] despite the fact that no one's giving her a chance. When I read it, [I liked the] cleverness of the lines. And my mind could already see the way it could be staged to make it interesting," shares Virata. "I though it was artistically beautiful."

Like Leavitt, Virata has to stretch herself to bring the vision to fruition. "You're working 'without a set,'" she explains. "It is a challenge to figure out how to do it so that the audience understands what's going on."

Set designer Joey Mendoza further pushes the artistic limits, according to her: "I had the script early last year. I sent it to Joey and asked him if he would be interested in doing it. He loved it so much that he did the design [for Silent sky] even before he did Hair's (Rep's 2017 year-ender). He doesn't want anything moved out or in." As such, the stage is almost bare, while transitions will rely heavily on lighting and sound.

"Of course the lights will be very important. We have a very good light designer — John Batalla. I asked him about the possibilities and he was also excited. And Jethro Joaquin is doing the music, and it will signify the change of time," she continues. "When it comes to casting, you can tell that I really need good actors — experienced actors for this play. And as you can tell, I have them."

At the open rehearsals of Rep's Silent sky. Topper Fabregas plays the lone male character in the female-dominated drama.

Leavitt is credited for discovering a means to measure the distance between the stars, and consequently to measure the universe. Without her, we would know of no other galaxies than our own. It's going to be quite a journey — a slice of Leavitt's life, filtered through Gunderson's Silent sky, interpreted by Virata and Rep, and received by hopefully an equally thoughtful audience.

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