Apr 10, 2014

[Theater] Cock (Red Turnip Theater)

It is rather fascinating how many different theater companies are now operating in Metro Manila. And while it's a little funny how we see different actors make the rounds of participating in different shows by different companies, it still contributes to the overall benefit of the level of culture in the city. And for theater fans like myself, we're made all the better for it as well.

Cock represents our first encounter with one of the newer theater groups, Red Turnip Theater. I had missed out on their staging of Closer last year given a bunch of other stuff going on, but things managed to align to allow us to catch this show. And this is not to say that the first quarter of the year isn't busy for theater - in fact I feel it's one of the busiest periods of the year for local theater given so many regular seasons overlap around this time.

But things aligned and we managed to make time to catch this particular show, and I have to admit that this was a pretty good decision. And while I'm not 100% happy about the ticket prices just yet, at least it was a pretty fulfilling theater experience that certainly had me debating opinions for a while.


Synopsis: Cock is a comedy-drama play written by Mike Bartlett. The original production won the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theater. The local staging by Red Turnip Productions was directed by Rem Zamora and was staged at Whitespace in Makati from March 7 - April 6, 2014.

The play begins with John (Topper Fabregas) wanting out of his long-term relationship with his boyfriend M (Niccolo Manahan). They eventually call it quits and some time later John comes back to M asking to get back together. M eventually figures out that something's up and in the end it is revealed that John had slept with someone while they were apart - and this someone was a woman. And while he describes her as being "mannish" in appearance, all this doesn't immediately assure M that things are going to go back to normal.

On the flip side, we eventually get to see how John eventually meet W (Jenny Jamora), the "other woman". But she isn't anything like how John described her to M and we get to experience precisely why the two connected despite John being gay. And as we, the audience, reconcile the different version of events, things inevitably come to a head when M insists that W join them for dinner so they can all finally work things out.

All throughout the production, the line "Public displays of affection make people uncomfortable" from Captain America: The Winter Soldier ironically kept running through my head. And given the rather intimate theater space used for the show and the fact that it was done in a very minimalist manner and in the round, the show really tried to use this greater sense of intimacy to get the audience feeling a little uncomfortable in order to become more a part of the experience than just an idle spectator.

The story at the heart of this production is a complex one. It's the sort of story that preys on the type of thinking that is happy to consider people as strictly "guys who like guys" and thus challenges the reality of bisexuals and people who embrace greater sexual fluidity. And this is best represented by M's father (Audie Gemora), who seems pretty progressive give how he has embraced M's relationship with John, but his near obsession with getting John to "pick a side" as it were was pretty painful. Turnabout is fair play of course and it's entertaining to have a father figure trying to convince a gay guy that his straight fling was just some sort of a phase.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The play is largely carried by Topper Fabregas, as stressed by the fact that he is the only character with a true name. But Topper Fabregas is Topper Fabregas and tends to only act like Topper Fabregas, as we've seen in play after play after play. Most of his recent characters with Repertory Philippines involved the sort of neurotic ramble of a character mouthing off faster than his brain can control and it was sort of interesting that I found that he actually toned things down here a bit. Should he have pushed more? It's a little hard to call.

I have only seen Niccolo Manahan once before in Repertory Philippines' Next Fall, where he was one of the supporting characters. He wasn't particularly memorable there and he was, well, decent here at least. Given the British origins of this production and the way the character of M was written, I was sort of expecting for somewhat cattier delivery of some of the lines. As with most of the play, it often felt like the characters were racing through the production in order to meet a particular deadline and a lot of scenes - particularly lines delivered by M - could have benefited with longer pauses to allow the dialog to sink in. This is a character that is often described as "needy" in the international synopsis of the show and I didn't get that vibe here. We have no idea why John and M got together as a couple other than the fact that the show begins with them being together.

Jenny Jamora as W was rather brilliant. She was very expressive in terms of her face and manged to convey a lot with a look or twist of her lips. Her line delivery was great for the most part, although there were a few moments here and there where the lines came out a little awkward or with pacing that didn't seem fully appropriate. There are a lot of reasons to root for her character given how well she and John truly get along, but at the same time she was written to appear almost manipulative at times as she seriously "fought" to keep John in her life.

The minimalist nature of the production as heightened by the intimacy of the venue certainly drove seemingly odd behaviors among the actors. Conversations would happen extremely close to one another and then they'd constantly move around their implied cock fight ring with each placement a sort of message in itself added to the overall narrative. It was a clever narrative device in itself and one that made good use of the arrangement of the production and for the most part I appreciated.

I have bigger concerns with the pacing of the show, especially with each scene ending with the sound of a gong with only time for a few breaths before the characters jump back into the action. I know this was all meant to stress the parallels with the multiple fight rounds in a cock fight but I think the whole element of speed crept into how the different actors were playing out their scenes.

The play is rather tricky since it has what I call a "theater ending" - when the playwright decides to end the whole thing somewhat ambiguously. From a strictly narrative perspective, it can be misconstrued as being a little lazy - you end without really ending things. But at the same time it's sort of a classic theater device - a way to force the audience to think for themselves and try to puzzle through things. I think my greater concern stems from the nature of Philippine audiences and their relative lack of understand of modern gender identity thinking. There are so many nuances to the concept of gender that it's easy to mistake the point of this play being about John's gender and not necessarily his right to pursue his happiness. And that's where things get rather muddy indeed.

Cock is an interesting play that could have used tighter direction, but thankfully the strength of the source material still carried through. It was an interesting theater experience that I don't regret having gone to and it should be interesting to see what Red Turnip Theater will attempt to stage next.

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