09 October 2019

(Dreaming is) As good as it gets: Notes on 'Katsuri'

It takes a single exchange of words between George (Marco Viaña) and Toto (Jonathan Tadioan) for us to care deeply about the two laborers, who, after a hitch in their last job in Tarlac, have come back home to Negros Occidental to re-try their luck. Right off the bat, they create chemistry and a warmth among everyone in the freezing studio theater. In the same scene, we know that things won't end well for them.

We know because we've read the John Steinbeck novella, or because we're diligent readers of the playbill. Either way, it doesn't matter. Either way, we pay attention.

Even those with little knowledge of the story (like me) will see the darkness coming from afar. Katsuri (loosely "shrew") behaves like an expert guide, providing the necessary signposts to prepare its audience for danger. No action by any character is befuddling.

This by no means imply that the local adaptation of Of Mice and Men is a spoon-feeding drama. Rather, it is a story told with clarity and a sense of symmetry, that spectators can appreciate references within and outside the play.

One of the most poignant examples is Tatang (Nanding Josef) and his beloved dog, which is, with his permission, killed due to the inconveniences it brings to the barn. A similar fate meets George and Toto, where the former's kindest gesture towards the latter is also the most violent.

In the beginning we find Toto flat on his belly, happily drinking water by the river, animated by a thirst for a better life with his best friend. In the end we find him once again lying face down — dead, yet still happy in his final breath, glimpsing a bit of heaven.

The mirroring events form part of a greater loop. From a cynical perspective (mine), it's as if there is no getting out of this hellhole. What happens in the past happens in the present happens in this country and that country and so on.

As abject as that may sound, such a feeling is exactly what I hope for in theater. Because when you're made numb, art should punch you in the gut.

Marco Viaña and Jonathan Tadioan are George and Toto, respectively in Katsuri, a Bibeth Orteza adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The show, directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna runs until 27th October at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute in CCP, Pasay City.

While operating under a farm workers clinging onto their dreams narrative, Katsuri touches on various themes sans the heavy hand. Loneliness and isolation stand out. I'd go as far as saying that each of the characters is an outcast in their own way. No one seems to bother to understand the person next to them. There is also the bittersweet thought that though we may not live our dreams, at least the dreaming sustains our spirit.

That's the play's big achievement: it is complex without being complicated.

Katsuri wants you to actively engage in reality and be entertained. What I love most about the play is its respect for storytelling, for plot and character. Like any good story, we crave hearing it over and over. It shows that art is not so much about having a point as it is about having a clear point-of-view from where the audience may experience their truth anew.

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