17 November 2018

Notes on 'A Doll's House Part 2' and 'Ang Pag-Uusig'

My October was book-ended by two dramas. The first an update on a classic, the second a translation of another classic.

A Doll's House Part 2
Red Turnip Theater

A Doll's House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Red Turnip Theater; director: Cris Villonco. (Maybank Performing Arts Theatre, 7 Oct 2018)

In his introduction to Henrik Ibsen: Four Major Plays (Airmont Books, 1966), John Grube notes that "the role of Nora (Helmer) has been a challenge to great actresses" since the first performance of A Doll's House. Not an actor myself, I can only guess why.

After years of being the good wife and loving mother, Nora decides to leave her husband and children. Regardless of her reasons, the act is unimaginable in her milieu. Perhaps even until now, that a misstep in direction or performance might leave an audience perplexed.

What on the surface appears like the biggest display of destructive impulse can — in the hands of Ibsen (and capable actors, for that matter) — be an awakening shared by both character and viewer. The power of A Doll's House swims in this vortex of epiphany. We are on every step of Nora's journey. When she shuts the door to the Helmer household, we are with her: a human being ready to discover herself on the other side.

This deft guide to Nora's mind is absent from Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House Part 2. If in the original Nora is trapped inside her home, in the update she dances in the wider prison of the word 'woman'. And just like before, she has to dodge a huge scandal.

Part 2 also aims to duplicate an epiphany in a fashion similar to its predecessor, through a verbal battle between Nora and husband Trovald, resulting in a shocking change of heart. Here's where it gets tricky. Whether it's a shortcoming of the material or the production, I'm not so sure. Nora is about to get what she wants and for a while we think she may reconcile with Trovald. Then she snaps. Breaks into a tirade, leading to a somewhat physical fight between her and her husband.

What has just happened? From where I'm sitting, I see a cold, irrational woman.

Where the play works is in its contemplation of female independence. Ibsen's Nora realizes that she's not being but playing at being the perfect woman. Hnath's Nora questions tradition, oblivious of the new box she's building: the modern woman. There's also a nice thread about the self in flux, how it may thrive within the walls of matrimony. The kaleidoscopic views on marriage, family, devotion, and the like are a pleasure to listen to, and run seamlessly with our current conversations.


Ang Pag-Uusig
Tanghalang Pilipino

Ang Pag-Uusig, based on Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Tanghalang Pilipino; translator: Jerry Respeto; director: Dennis Marasigan. (CCP, 27 Oct 2018)

The beauty of a symbol is that it's built to last. It can speak to anyone willing to listen, at any given time. Ang Pag-Uusig is a symbolic play that works so well on a literal level that you're given solid grounds in order to jump into more complex, nebulous ideas like truth and justice.

Elsewhere I've said this and it bears repeating. The show made me angry — something I haven't felt before in theater. And rarely do straight plays affect me viscerally. My suspicion is that something is lost in non-translation. There is a disconnect between Filipino actors and English-language materials. Somehow my brain filters what is fed to me and meaning gets stuck on an intellectual plane.

Tanghalang Pilipino's translation lifts this filter, renders a sensibility unique to where I've lived all my life. Often I ignore translated texts, given my capacity to understand the source language, the original version. I've been missing out. Filipino reaches the brain and dives straight into the bones.

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