Aug 31, 2016

[Theater] Tribes (Red Turnip Theater)

Red Turnip seems to like choosing plays that are a little disruptive - or at least the sort of hard-hitting content that makes you feel more than a little uncomfortable or it tackles some niche sub-culture such as those suffering from certain medical conditions. And we're not talking HIV here, that's the boring stuff.

Tribes is their latest production of Red Turnip Theater and it's one with a rich collection of problems at its core. It's a story about a character who is deaf. It's a story about another character who hears voices that aren't there. It's also a story o one o the scariest things on a planet - a family with no choice but to live together under one roof.

And that can be plenty scary.

I liked the concept behind this play and there were some notably good moments all throughout the production which is a great thing. There were also problems with the way the story was structured and it suffered from "third act" problems as is the case for many other plays out there.

Synopsis: Tribes is a 2010 play written by Nina Raine that won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The Red Turnip production was directed by Topper Fabregas and staged at the Power Mac Center Spotlight at Circuit Makati from August 5 - Septeember 4, 2016.

The play centers around our mostly-deaf protagonist Billy (Kalil Almonte) and his rather argumentative family. His father Christopher (Teddy Guzman) seems focused on learning to speak Chinese. His mother Beth (Dolly De Leon) is doing her best to keep things together. His older brother Daniel (Cris Pasturan) sometimes hears voices and he has a tendency to smoke illegal substances. His sister Ruth (Thea Yrastorza) hasn't quite accomplished much with her life just yet although for now she is some sort of a singer. And while all of them argue and whine and ramble, Billy meets Slyvia (Angela A. Padilla), a woman who is going deaf, at an event. And of course everything changes after there.

What I Liked: Kalil Almonte was pretty good in this production, which genuinely surprised me since I barely noticed him in this year's Virgin Labfest. In that play his performance felt wooden and flat. Here he was very present and projected quite well. And he totally got the whole "I learned how to speak despite being deaf" without feeling overly fake or something.

Angela Padilla was solid but a little understated. Dolly De Leon had some good moments but sometimes she didn't quite get across. Teddy Guzman is always a solid performer. And I rather liked the gimmick of some of the sign language being translated with subtitles projected onto the walls.

What Could Have Been Better: Set design was eclectic but weird. Like most Red Turnip productions, it was staged in the round with the audience in three sections around the stage. Combine a cluttered set, awkward seating and direction that favored the largest audience section as the "front" of the stage and you have other parts of the theater that make you feel like you're watching from behind the players. We were sitting there and it sucked. In other Red Turnip shows there was an effort made to have the action rotate periodically to give everyone a sense of equal opportunity. In this case we often found ourselves staring at the backs of people, which is bad when people are supposed to be signing to one another or reading lips.

The end of the play felt messy, more because of how it was written than how everyone acted. We just had all these different issues come to a head for a weird sense of non-resolution.

Side note: I did not feel the time-place set that it was set in Britain. I would not have cared about it had everyone's location or where folks originally came from came in the dialog. Maybe we should had edited it out for the sake of this staging.

Last note: for a play that focuses a lot on language, the power of words and how one communicates, I found Cris Pasturan's intonation a little off - like a single string out of tune in an orchestra. It was a bit more noticeable in the first act. Not quite as much as a distraction in the second half.

TL;DR: Tribes is a strong piece about a lot of different issues, mostly about being deaf or going deaf. But it's also about a highly dysfunctional family and it's apparently about a brother with auditory hallucinations and he needs his brother a lot more than everyone realizes. And being deaf doesn't make you a saint. Still, it was an interesting way to spend my birthday and the show gets 3.5 animated sign language arguments out of a possible 5.

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