Published in In Theater September 1998
It’s big. It’s brash. It’s filmic. It’s epic. And it was anybody’s guess how it would translate onto the stage. But “Dogeaters” takes a bite out of the doubters and chews up the skeptics. Poet/novelist/screenwriter/multimedia theater artist Jessica Hagedorn has remained remarkably true to her best-selling 1990 novel (a National Book Award nominee).
A complex, nonlinear, surreal and sprawling narrative, Hagedorn’s beautifully written book leapt back and forth in time, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, during the height of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. It’s a mammoth task to bring this fantastical, trans-cultural tale to life; the interlocking stories sweep across a vast personal, social, historical and cultural landscape. This is the first commission by the La Jolla Playhouse since Michael Greif took up the reins of artistic director five years ago (in fact, this is the first Playhouse commission in seven years). The piece was developed at the Sundance Institute and workshopped in New York, Los Angeles and at UCSD, which houses the Playhouse theaters. Working closely with Greif, Hagedorn has crafted a miraculous theatrical invention.
It’s a multi-level, multi-faceted and multimedia event. The set, by Loy Arcenas, is a modest, metal jungle-gym affair, beautifully lit by Kenneth Posner, backed by block-lettered, scene-setting projections (by Woo Art International) and underscored by Mark Bennett’s rhythmic, evocative sound design. There is so much detail in the characters, their actions and interactions, that striking simplicity elsewhere was a flawless choice.
At the end of a breathless three hours, we feel as if we’ve visited Hagedorn’s native land, and gotten a gritty taste of the poverty, the suffocating heat, the corruption, decadence, ingenuity, humor and pathos of the Philippines. Rio, the author’s alter-ego, whom we first meet as a 13-year old budding writer, introduces us to a cacophonous cast of characters, in a place where almost everyone is related, and no one is exactly what they seem. Like her literary stand-in, Hagedorn left the Philippines at age 14, leaving her father behind, and moving with her mother to the U.S. (first San Diego, then San Francisco, currently, Greenwich Village). Then, as now, American pop culture dominated her country; ‘Dogeaters,’ one character tells us, is another one of those awful borrowings, a slanderous epithet for Filipinos coined by Americans.
The ensemble is outstanding: 15 actors (a mix of MFA students and seasoned professionals) portraying 31 widely disparate characters, real and imagined, from the First Lady to filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder, from radio telenovela actors to hairdressers, toilet-cleaners, pimps, gossipers and lovers, the Miss Philippines pageant winner, the richest man in the Philippines, political rebels, a pacifist senator, a barbaric general and his ever-praying wife.
Most striking are Sandra Oh as the precocious Rio; Alec Mapa, as an agile bar owner/drag queen (well prepared by his early work in “M. Butterfly” — but here he gets to dance!); Ching Valdes-Aran, excellent in a triple-whammy of roles: Rio’s grandmother, the general’s wife and, best and certainly most humorous of all, Imelda Marcos, whose youthful incarnation she frighteningly resembles; and Seth Gilliam, appealing and seductive as the hustler/DJ Joey, who sets off a whole chain of torturous and murderous acts when he inadvertently becomes the sole witness to an assassination.
It’s a whirlwind of people, plans and intrigues, with sub-plots and back-stories sometimes presented simultaneously, in incredibly inventive ways. Greif’s direction is luminous. He keeps up the pace without losing clarity, despite endless ricochets between decades and characters. Ironically, the production coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Said Hagedorn recently, “Why celebrate? After the Spanish rule came roughly 50 years of American domination. The old regime is gone, but some things never change.”
The saga may be dark and brooding, angry, political and cynical, but Greif and Hagedorn have mined all its humor. Their production is glorious: a searing, risk-taking, engaging, even educational, and ultimately mesmerizing theater experience.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.