04 December 2018

Beautifully unintentional: A response to 'Manila Notes'

Manila Notes, the Filipino adaptation of Tokyo Notes, is a celebration of form. In fact playwright and director Oriza Hirata has structured a play with such clarity of purpose that it almost teaches you how to read it.

People come, linger, go, and come back again to a museum lobby sometime in 2034. While set in the future, their conversations remain similar-sounding to ours — confused, mundane, painfully boring. The drama moves in waves of silence and cacophony. Like insatiable eavesdroppers, the audience can only pick up bits of information that feed as they incite curiosity.

Somehow the show reinforces the idea that our instinct for storytelling marks our capacity to care. Every day we pass by strangers. Yet once we stop and listen, we're involved. With a few words or slight gesture, we imagine whole lives worthy of inspection.

Manila Notes, based on Oriza Hirata's Tokyo Notes. Tanghalang Pilipino; translator: Rody Vera; director: Hirata. (The show runs until December 16 at the CCP Little Theater.)

In a way that an amateur pianist can be impatient with "playing" the rests in a musical score, the recurring, often long pauses in Manila Notes can be a challenge to go through. These gaps constitute a museum's reality, sure, though they might also serve as spaces to make sense of what's happening, or savor a rare, delicious piece of dialogue.

When the technical aspects are done to a tee, there comes the matter of affect. Did it stir something in me? If it didn't, then the entire production is as good as meaningless. With this play, the random, innocuous lines are stray bullets that hit the heart. How many times have we been surprised by what someone remembers of what we said?

As in real life, the honest, unexpected catches us off-guard. (There's a beautiful exchange between an art enthusiast and her sister who's indifferent about paintings. The latter says that, if given the chance, she would hang on her wall an artwork she'd never tire of looking at, like a curtain. She drew some laughter from me, as well as questions on how we put value to what we value.)

As opposed to hokey, theatrical acts. Manila Notes is not without a couple of these — scenes that call attention to themselves, priming the viewer for profundity. Perhaps depending on execution, they could either fail or fly. Though the drama has already done a wonderful job at understatement that the decidedly riveting moments tend to fall into mawkish territory.

If you're willing to work with it, Manila Notes is a rewarding silent spectacle to watch. For anyone seeking stories that champion the ordinary, here's your show.

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