Monday, November 02, 2009

To Kill a Myna Bird

To Kill a Myna Bird
Musings and Realizations Triggered by a Lackluster Staging of Spring Awakening
by Francis Joseph Cruz

My not so spring awakening happened when the screeches of a bird pushed me out of a dream I can no longer remember today. My mother was very proud of her new purchase: a black and awkward-looking fowl looking deeply miserable inside its cheap cage. Later, I would learn that the bird is the mythical myna bird; the bird that my mother used to tell me about, the bird with the ability to talk, even better than the common parrot. It never talked despite the several hours my mother spent persistently teaching it, carefully pronouncing each syllable of “magandang umaga” while the clueless bird stared at her blankly before proceeding to chirp its horrendously ugly chirp. After a few weeks, the bird mysteriously died, probably strangled by my mother out of frustration for denying her the pleasure of proving the mythical qualities of the myna bird.

Ever so persistent in proving her point, my mother brought us to a zoo that housed these myna birds. I admit, my interest for the bird, while dwindling because of the disappointment our erstwhile pet inflicted on me, was rekindled. There was a crowd outside the bird’s cage and several children were happily laughing as a strange screechy voice shouted insult after insult. I joined the mob, elated at first by the proficiency of this bird to mimic human speech. After a few minutes, my elation transformed into utter boredom, realizing that all the bird can say is “pangit ka,” and no matter how hard I try to hurl an insult back, no matter how emotionally charged my playful insults were or how teary-eyed I was while shouting the insults to the black bird, it can never ever throw me back a witty retort. In that little space in the zoo, I knew that I am still the master of human speech and no bird, not even that myna bird with its legendary speech skills, can take that place away from me.

I was ten then. Lea Salonga has just won the coveted Tony Award for her turn as Kim in Miss Saigon. The national attention to Salonga’s win, reminiscent of the many successes our musical artists have been reaping in the international scene, turned me into a Broadway freak, devouring every thing that came out of Broadway that reached my cassette player, from the semi-sacrilegious rock anthems of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar to the melodramatic reworking of La Pucini, Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Thankfully, I had outgrown my craving for these musicals. Sure, I still have the melodies and lyrics of Not While I’m Around from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in my mind, but they’re safely hidden there, only awaken when it’s time to show off in the confines of a rented room in one of Makati’s KTV bars. Inevitably, I neglected everything that was created post-Rent and I turned out to be okay, with no ludicrous ambitions of making it in Broadway.

I did make it to Broadway, nearly a decade after I ended my love affair with musical theater. I was there not as a dreamer but as a tourist, and as any tourist would do, I scavenged for the cheapest tickets to any Broadway show that was performing. Aside from the restagings of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and the stagings of Disney’s popular cartoons The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, Broadway felt different, with titles I haven’t heard of. One of the titles I took a gamble on is Spring Awakening, which was proudly advertising its success at the Tony Awards. So there I was, with a New Yorker friend who was treating me to a show, entering the great unknown, revisiting the past I have completely forgotten, and admittedly, enjoying it.

Spring Awakening tackles an issue that might have been taboo in 1891, when Frank Wedekind wrote the play from which the musical would be based on, but is cliché during these modern times, when teenagers would have been sexually awakened at a very early age through the miraculous doings of modern media. The musical, like almost every other piece of literature or cinema that tackled the theme of sexual awakening against the backdrop of adult-caused repression, is unbearably angst-ridden, with its characters singing or declaiming invectives against the authorities they deem unfair. Despite the overwrought material, the musical bore an indubitable saving grace: the musical numbers that erupt out of the uneven narrative, transporting the characters from their period designations into what essentially are anachronistic subconscious musings, as characterized by a modern vocabulary and the charming ditties composed by Duncan Sheik. While I enjoyed the show tremendously while watching it, I’ve completely forgotten about it until news came out that the musical was to be staged in Manila by Atlantis Productions, the same group that brought Rent, Avenue Q, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to Manila.

Sadly, the local staging of Spring Awakening feels hugely inadequate. My utter disappointment for the local staging is grounded not on the numerous bum notes that mutated Sheik’s rousing melodies (the major culprits here were Miguel Mendoza and JC Santos, who played piano teacher-fantasizing Georg and onstage masturbating Hanschen, respectively) or the consistently inconsistent energy levels that jar the supposedly seamless transitions from scene to scene, or the generally lackluster performances (again, Mendoza, and to a certain degree, Nicco Manalo, who cannot seem to comprehend the debilitating torment his character Moritz has and therefore resorts to mere copycatting of gestures and vocal intonations of the actor who originally played the character, are the culprits here), but on the consequent wastage that these productions carry with them as they are negotiated, imported, mounted, and publicized. My proposition seems to be an unfair one, especially for the thousands of theater lovers who crave for having a piece of Broadway or West End in Metro Manila, but the proposition, under the understanding that we are a nation that is struggling with a cultural identity that is slowly but surely being dissipated by post-colonial imperialism, is sound.

However, the unfortunate local staging of Spring Awakening allowed me to realize certain matters. During my hiatus from Broadway adoration, I was able to watch several local productions that while flawed, are all products of an independent creative energy. Just recently, Dulaang U.P.’s Atang, about a movie actress who attempts to get to know the legendary Atang dela Rama for a biopic on the National Artist, bowed down to resounding praise from both its audience and theater critics. Tanghalang Ateneo, on the other hand, has staged several of William Shakespeare’s famous plays, most of which are translated to the local vernacular and the most impressive of which are completely reimagined to fit the local culture. In 2004-2005, the same university-based theater group staged JB Capino’s Lam-ang, a cleverly staged musical that transformed the Ilocano epic into a romantic tale of faith, love, and waiting. Tanghalang Pilipino’s Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, on the other hand, moved both homosexual and heterosexual theater goers to laughter and tears. There is just so much talent in the Philippines, so much material that have remained unstaged or unwritten because of lack of attention or lack of funding, that a local staging of a hugely popular Broadway play, only to be misconstrued, misunderstood, or even ignored because of the cultural gaps that remain unremedied and unadapted because of the strict codes and regulations that have to be followed by Atlantis Productions to be allowed to stage the Broadway musical in these shores, is just wrong.

It is saddening, really. Directors become mere supervisors. Actors resort to mimicry. Undoubtedly, there is talent onstage and offstage but when the material fails to reach you because of an impenetrable sheen of cultural disconnect, you can’t help but wish that these actors just break their obviously fake accents and manufactured gestures and just interpret their characters the way they have lived their own experiences with sexual repression or wish that director Chari Arespacochaga had more guts to actually direct instead of getting directions via email, phone calls, or the strict stipulations of whatever licensing agreement that was signed between Atlantis Productions and the owners of Spring Awakening. You seriously wonder if there is artistry or any independent thought in the production, and doubt whatever notion of creative sincerity in the musical since this opulent drivel can never be representative of Philippine theater. At most, it is purely entertainment whose successes in entertaining its audiences can be argued and refuted, but whose motivation for profit is indubitable. In the end, you cannot help but ask, are they artists or are they mere myna birds?

(First Published in Philippine Free Press, 31 October 2009)

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