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Onstage, Offstage: Theater and the Naga Past

The colegialas must have been surprised to see a serious play – not a musical – being staged right there on the hallowed stage of their auditorium.

Growing up in this city that was a town, CSI theater tradition was about Broadway and musicals. The auditorium was the only place to hold concerts of the serious kind. Whenever visiting classical artists would come, the CSI auditorium was the place for them. Pianists, violinists, sopranos honored that place. It was the only place in Naga then where people dressed up to attend performances. It did not matter if they would not be able to distinguish a concerto from a symphony, one went to the venue to see and be seen.

All this changed when we staged Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, translated/adapted into Tagalog/Filipino by Lino Brocka and Mario O’Hara and renamed Doña Clara.

The story was about Clara, a woman who fell in love with a man in a small village, betrayed and left in shame her family. In the big city, she turned to prostitution and became the richest woman of the world. She would return to her small town and would bribe the citizens of the town, promising wealth and resources if they would follow her command – that they kill Antonio, the man she loved and the man that broke her heart and life.

When Doña Clara was staged in 1969 by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), they knew they were dealing with a bigger-than-life drama. The woman, Claire Zachanassian, was not merely a woman but a symbol of greed and the power of capital over human virtues. The producers therefore had to present a woman that stood for beauty and brains and the strength that came with the combination.

Convinced to portray the goddess of revenge was Pacita de los Reyes-Phillips, a Carnival Queen of the 1920s and a pre-war bar topnotcher. Remember that the woman in the play was attended by eunuchs and had a leopard for a pet. In the translation, the cat became a panther because translated, “pantero” sounded grander -and more sensual than “leopardo.”

We replicated this interesting problem in Naga. Who could play this unforgiving, cruel, elegant bi-ch? Then we recalled Rebecca Alcala was back in Naga. Tall, patrician and with a voice that could slice through pretensions and a laughter that had the ring of mortal sin, Becky used to do theater in Ateneo. She agreed to do the role.

Actors from Ateneo, UNC, and other schools were invited. There were also some male students from CSI, known then as Isabelinos.

The rehearsals were fun. A man who was an engineer, presented himself as lighting expert. During the first technical rehearsal, he had an unusual request: we should follow where the spot was hitting the stage! At first, we thought that was a new way of doing theater. But as the rehearsals went on, we were all getting confused as we tried to express the lines of our character even as we had to look up to the upper part of the auditorium to determine where he would be bringing the spotlight. In the end, Chito Fanglow saw the wisdom of scrapping his part and bringing back the correct dramatic tradition – the actor is supreme above the special effects.

Becky as Doña Clara had the best scenes and the best lines. The production made sure she was given a royal treatment befitting the character A divan that doubled as a palanquin, or a box that was borne on two horizontal poles, was built for her Doña Clara. Already tall, Becky, as the avenging lover, towered even more over everyone.

In the true tradition of epic theater, we broke the “fourth wall” and brought the actions closer to the audience. This allowed Becky to deliver her expletives right down where the guests could look up to her and appear to be the receiver of her poisoned words.

For some reason unknown, the Madres never attended our rehearsals. They did not come for the dress rehearsal and critics’ night. They were there, however, during the gala night.

One of the most intense scenes in the play called for Antonio, the duplicitous lover, to go to the train station hoping to escape his execution in the hands of the town officials. When he got there, all the great men of the town were all there, waiting for him. Then, in a dramatic flourish, Becky as Doña Clara shouted that all exits should be blocked. This was the signal for the crew to run to all the doors of the auditorium and bang all these doors closed. Many in the audience gasped and cried; some uttered,”esus.”

But the terror was yet to begin. Becky descended from the stage and climbed to her wooden throne before it was hoisted. Looking down on everyone now, she delivered the lines: Ginawa akong puta ng daigdig na ito! Pwes gagawin kong isang BAHAY NG PUTA! ang daigdig na ito!

There were more gasps in the audience and from the Madres rose in faint unison: Jesusmariajosef!

I do not remember if we ever performed again in the CSI auditorium after that. But, I think that night, many of those in the audience discovered a new form of theater, a different kind of entertainment.

From a reliable source, Becky became a nun herself. I am not sure though if her decision had something to do with the role of Doña Clara, which she played with such aplomb and grace.


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