This time, more personal memories (Those Wild Theatrical Days in Naga City Part II)
The first installment of this recollection, albeit the purpose is to render my memories in quasi-historical form for cultural work, has been received with great intimacy by close friends from way back.
A friend, in fact, hastened to ask: didn’t you perform many times on stage as well?
Maybe, I was just waiting for that question so that I myself could venture into my own recollection of those days, even if my version may be a bit less wilder.
The truth is I directed more plays than acted in them. Given a very small population of the college then, one would stand out if one would do more than one play. And if the plays were not your usual dramatic piece.
Perhaps, the question is how did I get to perform in a number of plays? Was I a natural actor? Was I the best?
The answer: I was a good reader of plays. Early on in my Freshman year, I developed a fondness for reading plays as literature. There was no other way; in the 70s, there were no serious, as in regular, paid, theatrical groups in Naga. But in my literature classes, I encountered the Play. In high school, we had Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, etc. But to a teen-ager, they were quite unwieldy. Until I stumbled upon the Theater of the Absurd.
In my second year of English, Rudy Alano was my teacher. He spoke of Existentialism and other isms and somewhere down the road, he talked of the Theater of the Absurd. Then, he was already producing and directing on stage Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. It was a very daring play with lines that go: “with God who is a homosexual and who plucked his eyebrows…” Scary lines to shout in the 70s in a Catholic college. But the lines had context and if you listened, you would know that the whole piece is about alienation and about love.”
I never knew I would be mouthing the lines when I was in my fourth year already.
Chito Irigo, a Ragragio (I am not sure now who), Noel Tablizo, and much later, James Jacob as Jerry and I as Peter, then, further down on the histories we created, I as Jerry, the character with how many pages of monologue, and Butch General, grand with his clipped accent as Peter. There would be more in other later productions: Noel Volante and some other actors.
But there were two plays that became important to me: one was a non-absurdist play, William Saroyan’s “Hello Out There” and Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs.”
“Hello Out There” is a sad play about a young man who is imprisoned because a married woman cries rape after he refuses to pay her. In the jail, an ordinary girl comes to him and talks. The man promises the girl that he will take her to San Francisco. The audience never finds out if it is love at first sight for the two. Is the man who calls himself “Photo Finish”fooling the poor girl? In the end, their dreams vanish because some thugs paid by the husband of the woman kill the man.
I still remember what was Rudy’s instruction: to feel like a caged animal inside the jail (which was made of wood!). The late Dan Eleazar was the stage manager and, during the climax, when the thugs could not open the door to the jail, Dan came out (he was not part of the acting ensemble) and helped the killers open the cell!
The other play was more difficult, more cerebral. “The Chairs” is about, well, chairs, hundreds of them. But all throughout the play, you would not see one chair. Except for a throne.
The play is about a very old couple played by Evelyn Reyes (Palma) and me. They live on a tower and on that day, they are preparing for a party. The characters, who are just called Old Man and Old Woman, are waiting for a guest, the Emperor no less. As they wait, they talk, and as they talk, the doorbell rings incessantly as guests arrive. As guests begin to arrive, the couple rush to bring in chairs until their home (the stage) is filled with chairs. But, the audience could not see any chairs. Then the doorbell rings again and, finally, a man arrives. He is the orator who will deliver the message of the Old Man to the world, “to the world, or what’s left of it.” The Emperor also arrives and the only sign that he is a royalty is the sound of trumpets heralding such a presence. By this time, the Old Man and the Old Woman have been separated by the rush of people - all unseen. Standing with a window respectively behind them, the Old Man bid the Old Woman goodbye, calling her by an ancient name, Semiramis, which meant “the Highest Heaven.” Then the two jumped out of the window.
There is nothing left but the Orator, who was played by my older brother, Pempe. As he opens his mouth, nothing comes out. The Orator is mute. He writes on the board the word “A N G E L F O O D,’ and looks to the audience. No response. He gestures more and slowly the curtain falls. As the curtain reached the floor, you could hear people talking, glasses touching other glasses.
The audience thought Evelyn and I were quite good in “The Chairs.” Rudy, we thought, was the best director for us.