Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Ang Pag-uusig” is set in the small, sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts, in the closing decade of the 17th century. But it might as well be taking place today. Replace repressive Puritanism with a barrio steeped in ignorance, and a fear of demons with irrational paranoia, and one is left with a community suddenly unhinged by mutual suspicion, resentments and an undercurrent of greed.
The material is Jerry Respeto’s translation of Arthur Miller’s classic “The Crucible,” which itself was written to counter the ghosts of the playwright’s era, namely McCarthyism in the 1950s. Based on the infamous so-called witch trials that saw dozens of innocent people sent to their deaths, the play shows how one false whisper, said in malice or in jest, can spark a forest fire of hatred that can tear seemingly lifelong friendships apart, and ultimately subvert life and freedom.
Teenage girls play a forbidden, pagan game in the woods one night, each with her own agenda. Their fear at being found out by the community elders later compels them to tell one lie upon another, which would end up slandering other members of the community as coconspirators in a supposed evil plot to bring Salem to damnation. The panic also becomes a cover for more unscrupulous townsfolk to advance their own personal interests.
Thomas Putnam (Yves Bagadiong) wants his neighbors convicted of witchcraft because he wants to grab the lands their houses are standing on. The insecure town parson Reverend Parris (Marco Viana) wants to scare the town people back into attending his fire-and-brimstone sermons to steady his standing in the community.
But the catalyst that starts it all and ruthlessly drives it forward is Parris’ niece, Abigail (Antonette Go), who wants the virtuous Elizabeth Proctor (Doray Dayao) out of the way so she can continue her affair with Elizabeth’s husband John (JV Ibesate).
At the moral center of the story are the Proctors, whose upright but distant relations with the community make them easy prey for gossip and rumor. In the end, hanging the Proctors—and others like them such as the virtuous Rebecca Nurse—threatens to ignite a revolt among those who finally realize the madness of the situation.
Directed by Dennis Marasigan with a firm, uncompromising hand, “Ang Pag-uusig” doesn’t let go from the first scene to the last. The cramped stage of Tanghalang Huseng Batute helps to highlight the intensity of the actors’ performances, drawing the audience right into the claustrophobic drama. The sparsely colored costumes and the bleak lighting that does not distinguish night from day create a world that is barren, cold and unforgiving.
This is simply the best ensemble performance of the current generation of TP’s Actors’ Company to date. Every characterization is spot-on, the actors’ individual turns making real, palpable people out of their characters.
Joshua Tayco’s Reverend John Hale starts out as an earnest man on a mission to quell the forces of darkness, only to realize too late his part in unleashing them. Jonathan Tadiaon takes a break from his usual comic roles to play the formidable governor-judge bent on exterminating witches in his realm with an unyielding sense of righteousness.
Tadiaon and Ibesate match each other equally when they are both onstage, like two boxing champions unwilling to give an inch. Go’s Abigail, meanwhile, delivers a stunning performance as the wily girl-woman tasting power and danger for the first time.
Dayao subtly underscores her proud Elizabeth with her own moral ambiguity, making one question whether the Proctors’ love for each other is more out of duty than passion—and whether it was that rigidity that made John vulnerable to Abigail’s advances.
And Lhorvie Nuevo shines as Mary Warren, the Proctors’ household help who, in her ordinariness and everyday common sense, represents the town of Salem at its best and worst.
“Ang Pag-uusig” is unpretentious drama at its finest. It holds up a mirror to issues that are extremely relevant to Philippine society today. The complex portrayal of its characters asks the audience to confront themselves and reflect on what they would have done in a similar situation.
It is the power of this play that theatergoers will certainly be looking around and asking themselves some hard questions afterwards. —CONTRIBUTED
Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Ang Pag-uusig” has remaining performances today and tomorrow at CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute. Visit ticketworld.com.ph.