The bare outline of its story makes “It’s April, What Are We Doing Here?” seem like nothing special. A philanderer is caught red-handed by his wife when she visits the apartment of his young lover, and hijinks ensue. Yet everything else makes it much more than the humdrum comedy of an extramarital affair it appears to be.
There’s its provenance. Written by the late National Artist Rolando Tinio, who we sometimes forget produced a substantial body of literary work in English before training his energies on work in Filipino for which he is best remembered, the play crackles with a wit and verve we expect of more ambitious material. It’s as if a renowned chef served you an amazingly good omelette.
Old but not musty
The text feels old, harkening to a time and place that no longer exist (it was written in the early 1960s), yet not musty. I imagined that the story could have been updated, but because of practical problems, director Ricky Abad left things be.
For instance, the telephone, which interrupts conversations at crucial moments with its rude jangling, would have been tossed, cutting out its necessary role as tunnel into and from the outside world into the hermetic lives of the story’s three characters.
And quaintly these characters, Nicholas and Teresina (the spouses call each other by all the syllables of their first names) and Lisa, live by a certain code, careful of observing the rules of a genteel game with a resolute grace we no longer witness.
And we just don’t pay as much attention to the society pages, because we don’t care about high society. This world disappeared as surely as Teresina’s sewing circle did. Perhaps nothing symbolizes its quaintness better than the issue of Playboy Nicholas picks up from Lisa’s coffee table, the magazine’s tastefully airbrushed nudes now sweetly charming in the age of online porn.
There is also its surprisingly plastic form. After plenty of standard but snappy dialogue, the play gives way to monologues in which the characters walk over to the audience and address its members directly.
Then another surprise: songs, sung mostly by the mistress, Lisa, a nightclub singer with aspirations to movie stardom and who entertains a train of male admirers to whom she extends the privilege of her company for money.
In one of the play’s funniest turns, Nicholas pretends that his wife Teresina is a writer from a magazine interested in doing an article about her, and Teresina goes along for a while before the charade becomes too difficult to sustain.
Then there is its small cast of fine, seasoned performers. The script calls for a verbal dexterity in English many of our actors no longer have, and they have it in spades.
At the story’s heart is Teroy Guzman’s Nicholas, a man brazen enough to visit his mistress while wearing the tacky sweater his wife dutifully knitted. (That he wears it with checkered pants and struts as if he’s hot stuff is priceless.)
Diagnosed by his psychologist wife with a “divinity complex,” he wears the ingratiating smile of someone who needs to be desired and knows he will be. After having long outfoxed his wife, he refuses to apologize when she uncovers his womanizing, smoothly brokering a peace with her as they sip whisky in the mistress’ apartment.
He rages when his finely managed arrangement threatens to unravel, but he gets what he wants in the end. Alone with Lisa at last in the play’s coda, he offers her a royal sum (a thousand pesos a month) to say no to her other callers, an arrangement we know won’t last.
Judy Ick, as the wronged wife Teresina, speaks with the command of an experienced professor, and in her monologue she takes out a small stack of index cards and lectures on her husband’s condition. (The joke is that Ick really does have a PhD, being the country’s foremost scholar on Shakespeare, and at a conference on the Bard in UP Diliman two years ago, she gave what I thought was the most impressive presentation.)
She puts on a steely front as her husband explains his exploits, and he compliments her for putting such a brave face on, calling her “the Elgin Marbles,” a compliment that pleases her. But the front melts quickly, and she whips out a pair of sunglasses to hide the despair in her eyes and takes out her knitting needles. She recovers, then after confronting Lisa alone, telling her that after all the fun and games, Nicholas will go home to her, she leaves as confidently as she entered.
You won’t find Missy Maramara headlining any musicals, but as Lisa, she’s perfect. At her best in roles that mix a heady sensuality with an irrepressible innocence, Maramara takes to the music with the sensible panache of a lounge entertainer, selling the stories of love and heartbreak more with feeling than technique.
She grabs a pair of maracas and belts the first tune, never mind that her hair is in rollers and wrapped in a towel. Unlike her elders, Lisa has yet to embrace the limits that circumscribe her life, a day that will surely come.
But to the young or middle-aged (Lisa is in her 20s, the couple their 40s) there is no end to one’s desiring. One merely finds the arrangement that best accommodates it, without giving too much offense to those around. As Woody Allen once said, excusing a terrible indiscretion, the heart wants what it wants. It does, even among those too sophisticated to admit otherwise.
This longish one-act play (its unusual length being part of its charm; it runs 75 minutes without a break) also owes its success to the sure-handed direction of Ricky Abad, former and longtime artistic director of Tanghalang Ateneo.
Abad modulates the comedy just right, keeping the melancholy surrounding the characters just off the stage, in the shadows where they ultimately return.
The play ran three weekends in October in a tiny performance space that calls itself Dito: Bahay ng Sining in the heart of Marikina. We were about 30 in the audience the afternoon I watched, and we sat snug in the narrow theater.
Dito reminds me of the late and lamented MagNet:Katipunan, a bar, restaurant, bohemian hangout and multipurpose art space (for indie films, small concerts and poetry readings). The lineup of events on the blackboard outside hinted as much. Perhaps it has a future as an incubator of untried plays, preparing them for a grander run elsewhere.
And another run seems easily in the cards. After all, “It’s April, What Are We Doing Here?” is the kind of production—a small cast, an unchanging set—easily transported to other venues. It’s hard to think of a production more deserving of being returned to the stage for a larger audience than this small, bright gem.