Sex, lies and swordplay
By Walter Ang
December 15, 2003
Philippine Daily Inquirer
DURING the 1600s, there was no television, radio, internet, nor MMS- capable cellphones yet. So it's not surprising that comedia (which does not mean "comedy," but rather "drama" or `play") performed in public squares and marketplaces may have been all the rage. It was easy to please the audience with clear-cut portrayals of good triumphing over evil by showing plays such as Tirso De Molina's "El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra" (Playboy of Seville and the Stone Guest).
In this day and age where one is weaned on the fast-cuts of MTV and the thousand and one distractions of techno-gadgets, how does one catch and sustain the attention of an audience with a centuries-old morality play about a womanizing leach who gets his just desserts? Tangahalang Ateneo braves an attempt with "Don Juan: Ang Babaero ng Sevilla," a translation by Salvador Malig, Jr.
First, they bring in National Artist for Theater Design Salvador Bernal. He has created a false proscenium for the humongous stage of the Irwin Theater in the Ateneo campus. Covering almost a third of the stage, Bernal's facade contains the action to the center. In this facade, there are motifs of wings and an ominous all-seeing eye high above the stage, a celestial counterpoint to the devilish treachery that eventually unfolds onstage.
Then, director Ricardo Abad fills the space with lots of action. The Tanghalang Ateneo moderator and artistic director regales the audience with dancers darting in and out of scenes, singers punctuating the drama, and actors who have very large movements and walk about a lot as they scream their lines.
As Don Juan conquers one woman to the next and escapes the consequences each time, Bernal's large set pieces move about to create different locales. Three large curtained walls and two stair sets become the interiors of a house, the sidewalk of street, and a whole menagerie of other settings. These pieces do not move automatically as you would see in an expensive Broadway production. But they cleverly fall into place, as local theater practitioners put it endearingly, "mano-matically," powered by the cast hidden in the shadows.
Now with all these components that help literally move the action along, we also have a very hunky Jay Españo playing Don Juan. Don Juan is, after all, a sexual fiend, so there are plenty of scenes where Españo takes off his shirt to reveal his pecs and six-pack abs glistening in the light. To the delight and muffled shrieks of the ladies in the audience, there is even one scene with some "cheeky" body exposure.
Unraveling the sexual undertones of the script does not end there. We have fights between the men with their long, stiff swords. Not the usual clumsy swordplay one sees onstage, these actors pulled off believable scenes under the guidance of fencing master Walter Torres.
Then we have the layered costumes of the women, also designed by Bernal. Cumbersome silhouettes that Don Juan's sneaky words melt to reveal the wearer's inner but very real sexual desires.
And, of course, we also have sex scenes choreographed by Dexter Santos. Highly acrobatic, we see Don Juan dragging his ladies all over the stage and ending up in some very contorted positions.
If there is a hunky leading man for the women, the men also get treated to beautiful leading ladies. If you keep an eye open, you can catch the Reese Witherspoon look-a-like in the chorus, as well as the sterling Missy Maramara as one of Don Juan's victims, the fisherwoman Tisbea. Maramara's throaty voice commands attention as she delivers her fiesty and earthy monologues. When Tisbea realizes Don Juan's deceit, Maramara erupts like a volcano and lets loose a fire-and-brimstone speech complete with cheerleader choreography.
However, not all the scenes are large and noisy. The production provides studies in contrast with light, intimate scenes. Fun moments are courtesy of the comic timing of Ogie Alcasid sound-a-like Chrisitan Verlarde II, playing Markes dela Mota, and Joseph de la Cruz, playing Don Juan's sidekick/conscience Catalinon.
In the scenes where Don Juan preys on his women, just like his flowery and twisted lies, the set design is usually detailed and busy. In contrast, when two women left in the wake of his duplicity air their grievances, the stage is stark and empty. Just like a heart betrayed, it is filled only with blinding white anger.
When we near the end of the play, this anger builds into a collective force when the victims come to collect from Don Juan. One is then led to ask, is the anger justified? Don Juan openly breaks the rules to act on his lust. The women, however, must break rules in secret to act on theirs. If they are all breaking rules anyway, is it really just a matter of not getting caught? Is the question just a matter of personal freewill versus social obligation? Will a 17th century play lead a 21st audience to ask, to paraphrase the title of a cable TV show, "Who's morality is it anyway?"
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