Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Dogeaters tells the story of a politically divided Philippines, leaving little space to develop the stories of its individual people.
400 years in a convent, 50 years in Hollywood, and two decades under dictatorship. This is the complex Philippine identity that Jessica Hagedorn strives to recreate in the two and half hour frame of her play Dogeaters. It's a tall order, but Hagedorn refuses to back down, serving up a spectacle of political corruption, sex, drugs, and disco that seduces and intrigues at the expense of developed characters.
In adapting Dogeaters to the stage, Hagedorn streamlines her similarly-titled 1990 novel to focus on 1982. It was the year that Imelda Marcos' hasty construction of a film center killed nearly two hundred workers. It was also the year that presidential opponent Benigno Aquino was assassinated. Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the play fictionally recounts these events through the voices of twenty actors in forty-one colorful roles -- including an Afro-Pinoy DJ/male prostitute, a beauty queen, a senator, a drag queen, an aspiring Filipina American writer, a French Jesuit priest, and of course, the first lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos herself.
To bridge these normally disparate individuals, Hagedorn draws on the radio as a unifier. In a powerful opening scene, snippets of news on the Marcos administration are cut to the latest disco tunes, barely rising above the noisy static of an old radio which gets passed from the hands of a hustler to a movie usherette to a general. Each person desperately shakes the rickety machine in hopes of hearing a complete song, a complete story -- anything with a conclusion. But Hagedorn refuses to give them one. She decides to tell the story of the Philippines in fragments instead.
Dogeaters' disjointed stories are connected by frame narrations from perky radio personalities Nestor Norales (Orlando Pabotoy) and Barbara Villanuevas (Liza Del Mundo), whose melodramatic radio novellas strike an eerie chord with the dramatic reality of Hagedorn's Manila, where beauty queens and communist rebels become star-crossed lovers. Sometimes, Hagedorn's reality even surpasses the drama of your average radio soap. In one scene, she juxtaposes the story of two pairs of young lovers consummating their new relationships with the tale of a hustler trying to make some spare cash by seducing a German director in town for Imelda's wannabe Cannes Film festival. While you could argue that scene is sexually gratuitous, it does capture the desperation of a place so seeped in the oppression of dictatorship and poverty that sex, in addition to a few other pleasures, seems to be a valid temporary escape.
Consequently, the over the top diversions of Philippine nightlife and entertainment play a central role in Dogeaters. Interspersed with scenes of political dissidence and abuse are scenes of revelry. One moment, Senator Avila (Benigno Aquino's fictional stand in) is being threatened by his brother, a Marcos follower and general. In another, a lanky, bald-headed "Perlita," (Ivan Davila) is delivering a show stopping performance, singing and dancing in drag to Donna Summer at Manila¡|s cheap version of Studio 54, where B-listers and seedy foreign directors congregate.
Through these juxtapositions, Hagedorn creates a tumultuous and rich portrait of Philippines: a place divided by politics and economics, but united by a numbing obsession with distractions, whether it's gossip, San Miguel (Filipino beer), or Hollywood.
However, while Hagedorn's fragmentation allows her to delve into the complexity of Philippine society as whole, it also prevents her from delving into the complexities of her individual characters. With the exception of Joey Sands (Ramon de Ocampo), the DJ/hustler who witnesses the assassination of Senator Avila, and the beauty queen turned Communist rebel Daisy Avila (Esperanza Catubig), most characters show little or no development. As a result, they read as stalk characters -- the drag queen, the General, the bomba (soft porn) star. They make up an intriguing portrait of Manila altogether, but fall flat on their own.
Of course, there are a few standout performances that captivate the audience even in their brief stage time. Natusko Ohama's presentation of the Philippine first lady is spot on. As she gracefully evades hard-hitting questions from an inquiring journalist by focusing on her Philippine-made shoes (What else?), you can't help but laugh. But then again, her eccentricity serves as yet another reminder of that country is bad hands.
Surprisingly, one of the most underdeveloped characters is Rio Gonzaga (Elizabeth Pan), the aspiring Filipino American writer from San Francisco, who stands in for the real life Jessica Hagedorn. Rio takes on the important role as the American audience's only guide to the Philippines. However, though she begins to comment on the somewhat disturbing changes around her, she seems too easy to accept her surroundings. At the end of the play, Rio gets the last word and concludes that she will always revisit her native land. Smiling, she states: "My soap opera continues; the soap opera of the Philippines continues."
After the particularly chaotic second act of assassination, rape, and exile, the final scene seems like an over-simplified way to tie up the loose ends of Hagedorn's unresolved story of the Philippines. But then again, perhaps it's the only way to end a play about a nation where fact seems all too close to the drama of fiction, and like a soap opera, it seems to be just one never-ending cycle.
Official Center Theatre Group site
Date Posted: 2/16/2007