The gentle Behn I met backstage
By the time I met Behn Cervantes for the first time in 1990, he liked to say he had mellowed. To be sure, I still heard him scream—but he never screamed at me. It’s like he couldn’t, and wouldn’t—even when I had, quite unforgivably, missed my cue, for the first (and last, I swear) time in my theater life.
That’s why, amidst the flood of memories and accolades coming in the wake of his death last Aug. 15 at age 74, I’d like to add my own—those of a theater greenhorn who was warmly welcomed into the fold by a titan of Philippine film and theater.
That welcome was in “M. Butterfly,” the play by David Henry Hwang first staged in the Philippines by Dulaang UP in 1990, about the tragic story, based on real events, of a French diplomat, Rene Gallimard, who fell in love with an enchanting Beijing opera singer—who turned out to be a man, and a spy to boot.
Director Tony Mabesa, acting on his gut, invited me to play the role of Helga, Gallimard’s wife, knowing I had only done college theater. Naturally, I was thrilled.
He failed to tell me who was going to be my leading man. When Behn Cervantes walked—or was it stomped?—into the UP Faculty Center studio that first day of rehearsal, I thought, “Oh sh-t.”
So I was going to stumble through my first professional acting job with this famously mercurial actor/director and political activist. I was pretty sure I was going to get screamed at, one time or another.
I never expected that Behn and I would get along, really. As Tony often said, “Behn likes you,” theorizing that I resembled an old friend of Behn’s from school who had a big crush on him. Whatever the reason, Behn was exceedingly gentle and warm with me, even as I watched him drag incompetents through the wringer.
Once, when an audience member in the front row rudely put his foot on stage, Behn stopped in the middle of his lines and kicked the youngster’s foot to express his irritation.
While the kids backstage tiptoed around him, I ended up fixing his jacket and wiping the lipstick off his face after his love scene with Song Liling (played by R.S. Francisco). He would teach me what to do with my squeaky, nasal stage voice, teaching me to find my diaphragm.
On bad days, he stomped off to his makeup chair; on good ones, he would suddenly break into a Judy Garland song or reminisce with Tony on the many characters they had known throughout their formidable careers.
When we did a few shows at UP Los Baños, one night after dinner, the cast and crew decided to go for a walk—and (now it can be told) ended up breaking into the campus pool and taking a dip in our undies! Behn thought it was an excellent idea, and was the first to unabashedly strip down to his briefs.
I also got to see up close how an actor takes absolute control of a role, so much that an audience is hushed into reverent silence. Yes, even when he had to compete with such scene-stealers as a buck-naked R.S. (whose character strips to convince Gallimard he’s really a man) and, in his heart-wrenching final scene, when he dresses up like a geisha before committing ritual seppuku (suicide).
He would paint his face, deliver his angst-ridden lines, and fall to his death to thunderous applause. (Historical trivia: the anonymous stagehand who held a mirror to the doomed Gallimard’s face as he spoke was actress Eugene Domingo, in her very first stage appearance in UP.)
Proof positive of his fondness for me was the fateful day I missed my cue, yakking away backstage at the Meralco Theater. As I ran to the stage in sheer panic, I met Behn in the wings, who said calmly, “It’s our scene.” Of course, I stumbled through it.
As I apologized profusely after, he asked simply, “What happened?” and simply nodded through my explanation—before he turned and chewed off our stage manager’s head!
Later, he told me, laughing, “I can’t get mad at you! I love our scenes together. They’re…” he paused, became introspective, as he sometimes did when saying something important or contemplating something good. “They’re real.”
He followed that up with one of the biggest compliments of my theater life. During the scene when Gallimard tells a heartbroken Helga that he is leaving her, I pleaded with him in desperation—and was moved to see real tears falling from his eyes. Yes, we did manage to make it real.
After the play, Behn and I stayed in touch, and I don’t remember how many times I had lunch in his house in Quezon City, filled with knick-knacks from his travels. We watched shows, and even visited a sick friend.
He would later move to Hawaii on a teaching stint, and when my sister-in-law Jane and a friend found themselves in Hawaii and looked him up, Behn went out of his way to entertain them.
In 1996, when Behn was living in New Jersey, I paid him a visit. He cooked adobo for me, then we went back to Manhattan for a walking tour—which he annotated, of course—of some of the oldest and most historic buildings in New York. He gifted me with something he unabashedly picked up at a yard sale, a beige crocheted granny shawl that I have to this day.
I would eventually take a long hiatus from the theater, and we lost touch, as with all friends who somehow fail to maintain a friendship. In a final irony, I belatedly saw a message he left me on Facebook asking for my contact details, as he had lost his phone numbers. By then, I had learned he was ill, and I was likewise caught up in my own health issues.
With his final wish for privacy at his death, I suppose Behn was still keeping it real, and making it easier for delinquent friends who would feel obliged to show up at a grand funeral.
All I can say is, I am so sad you’re gone, Behn, and I will always be grateful for the open arms. For real.