Repertory Philippines’ (Rep) staging of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” was a theater landmark of sorts: It was the last stage performance, if only in invitational preview mode, before Manila—and its cultural life—was locked down as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Had its run gone as scheduled, “Anna” would have been a different, more welcome landmark: the company spreading its wings into edgier, less traditional territory.
For one, all seven cast members were appearing with Rep for the first time, and many of them were associated with Filipino-language theater.
The material, too, was, by local-theater standards, exotic. Set in a Cuban-émigré family-run cigar factory in early 1900s Florida, “Anna” evoked a rarefied atmosphere that might initially seem alien to a Filipino audience, yet also contained strains of our own experience—a turn-of-the-century Spanish flavor, the attraction and alienation of US emigration, the glue of family-centrism.
Add to that the tone: an elegy to a rooted, deeply-felt way of life destined to fade in the face of modernity, and, at the same time, an excavation of suppressed family tensions and sexual impulses. The revelation of these themes under the prod of a lector’s readings of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” that run through the play, and the parallels between the dramas of the novel’s characters and the play’s, made for powerful theater.
The texture of the social ambience was a challenge to convey, and the production directed by Joey Mendoza delivered splendidly.
Mendoza’s extensive experience in production design was an advantage here; his set, beautifully versatile in shifting scenes with just screens and props, was an exquisite feast for the eyes. Along with the costumes (Becky Bodurtha), lights (Barbie Tan-Tiongco), sound (Fabian Obispo) and projections (GA Fallarme), the play elegantly and economically brought a whole period and world to life.
The drama of the characters’ emotional turmoil was captured less convincingly. The thwarted urges and repressed conflicts seething under the protagonists’ self-controlled behavior were seldom conveyed effectively—most evidently in the smoldering exchanges between spouses Conchita (Skyzx Labastilla) and Palomo (Brian Sy).
The rest of the family—Ofelia (Madeleine Nicolas), Santiago (Gie Onida) and Marela (Gab Pangilinan)—individually carried off their roles with understated aplomb and had highlight moments, but as an ensemble, did not cohere as a tragic unit beset by dark external and inner undercurrents.
This dissonance was most interesting in the roles of Cheche (Paolo O’Hara) and the lector Juan Julian (Ricardo Magno)—the two poles that, in their contrasting social representations (reaffirmation of tradition vs the specter of modernity) and in their subversive, albeit radically different, impact on the others’ sexualities, threatened the family cohesion.
O’Hara had a raw, earthy quality conveying both realism and menace—the single most vivid character that pointed out the others’ obliviousness, and which Magno, cool and elegant in both his readings and seduction, failed to balance out with a more insidious, attractive face to danger.
Yet, in the end, the play’s overly measured tone only magnified the shock of the violence that erased both “threats” to the family’s complacency and brought the themes together. The final scene—the remaining characters reverting to their traditional lives, as to the resumption of “Anna Karenina”—was a devastatingly ironic close.
Whatever one’s misgivings about dramatic choices, this was a brave and provocative production audiences won’t get to see—hopefully just for now. —CONTRIBUTED