A woman with her back against the wall curses the heavens as she slowly falls to her knees. A man punches the wall and flips over the dining table.
These are two examples of how local media portrays ordinary grieving Filipinos. But Topper Fabregas believes there are other ways of capturing the act of grieving.
Take his family, for instance. During the wake of his grandmother in January, his mother’s brood of eight gathered around the dinner table and spent the night laughing, recalling fond memories of the deceased.
“Of course they were sad, but it was their way of coping—telling jokes and stories about her,” Fabregas says. “There are a lot of Filipinos who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves as much.”
Two months after his grandmother’s passing, Fabregas landed his first directorial job, “Rabbit Hole,” for the company he cofounded, Red Turnip Theater.
“Rabbit Hole,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire centers on how couple Becca (Agot Isidro) and Howie (Michael Williams) deal with the loss of their 4-year-old son Danny to a car accident, and how it affects the people closest to them.
Despite Fabregas’ dream of becoming a director, he initially had no intentions of directing the hit Broadway play.
“I was supposed to direct a different play in Red Turnip’s third season. ‘Rabbit Hole’ is one of my favorite plays and I just wanted us to produce it,” he says. “But when we started reading it, I felt that I didn’t want anyone to touch it. I loved it and I told (Red Turnip cofounder) Jenny Jamora that I would like to direct it. She told everyone and they agreed.”
Fabregas, whose theater experience started at age 15, also got the approval of two other Red Turnip cofounders, Ana Abad Santos and Rem Zamora, since they directed two plays for the company’s first season—Abad Santos for “Closer” and Zamora for “Cock,” which starred Fabregas along with Niccolo Manahan, Audie Gemora and Jamora.
Williams, who has directed Fabregas in a number of plays such as “God’s Favorite” and “Leading Ladies,” believes it’s a natural progression for an actor to become a director.
“I’m excited for him. He’s very collaborative. For example, he’ll do a blocking and ask us if we’re OK with it,” Williams says. “In that way it allows us to have our input. Add to that, he’s very clear about what he wants [to achieve] and how to get it. It’s very comforting to work with someone who’s like that.”
Is Fabregas intimidated now that the tables are turned? “Yes,” he admits. “But that’s all me. Michael and the cast are so open and supportive.”
Whenever Fabregas gets rattled, he gets back to his list of what he has to do. It helps him redirect his focus. His directorial style: Simplify everything. “Clean, direct and economical as possible,” he says.
“Rabbit Hole’s” premise of a couple losing a child to an accident may be typical teleserye material. But what sets its story apart is that despite the attendant drama, the play has humor.
“I understand why people think it’s so heavy because of the subject matter,” Fabregas says. “But it’s actually very funny. It doesn’t wallow in grief…”
However, the play’s 2010 film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart had a different treatment.
“The film was so heavy I wanted to die after,” Fabregas says. “I reread the play and rewatched the movie and found it funnier the second time. I guess you just have to find the lighter side of it.”
The play’s five characters—Becca and Howie plus Sheila Francisco as Becca’s mother Nat; Che Ramos-Cosio as Becca’s sister Izzy; Ross Pesigan as Jason, the teenage boy behind the wheel that hits Danny—offer different portraits of coping.
“They grieve in different ways. So, if the material wasn’t written as brutally honest as it is, there’s no way you’ll connect with it,” Fabregas says. “You connect to what you are watching when there is truth in it.”
Fabregas—who took up a two-year acting course at Circle in the Square in New York—formed Red Turnip with Zamora, Abad Santos, Jamora and Cris Villonco with the aim of producing edgier plays for the Filipino theater audience in nontheatrical venues.
Its first season was defined by its minimal use of sets and props—or none at all, as in the case of “Cock.” “Rabbit Hole” will be the first Red Turnip play that will use a traditional set.
But since the play’s venue, Whitespace in Makati City, is an intimate space, “how do we create a house where the audience will feel they are part of? That’s very challenging,” says Fabregas.
Now that he’s set to fulfill one of his ultimate goals, what’s next?
“Get an acting nomination,” he says in jest. “On a serious note, I would love to be a part of a Tagalog production. It’s embarrassing that I haven’t been part of one.”
He hopes people would watch “Rabbit Hole” and be able to see their own family—how they deal with grief and loss.
With Red Turnip now having had two successful productions, Fabregas says “my greatest fear is that I’ll be the one who drops the ball.”
Red Turnip Theater’s “Rabbit Hole” runs Aug. 1-31 at Whitespace, 2314 Chino Roces Ave. Ext., Makati City. Tickets are available through TicketWorld (8919999 or www.ticketworld.com.ph) or Red Turnip Theater (firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/RedTurnipTheater).