Tanghalang Pilipino's "Ang Romansa ni Magno Rubio" (The Romance of Magno Rubio)

Ruby of a Rubio 
By Walter Ang
October 2004

In these days of instant communication, who hasn't heard of LDRs? Cutting across continents, cultures and, sometimes, common sense, Long Distance Relationships have become part and parcel of the Filipino life of immigration and overseas contractual work.

Tangahalang Pilipino's staging of "Ang Romansa ni Magno Rubio" speaks of this phenomenon (among other things) though the connecting medium is not the internet nor cellphones. Instead, the correspondence between Magno Rubio and his sweetheart Clarabelle blossoms from the pen-pal section of a movie magazine and unfolds over the course of several years.

The audience gets to see how Magno, a Filipino migrant farm worker in Depression-era California, attempts to woo the object of his affection (a girl in Arkansas he has never met, save for a lone photograph and lock of hair). It is this search for love that takes place in American playwright Lonnie Carter's adaptation of blacklisted writer and political activist Carlos Bulosan's short story.

The words
First premiered in Manila by the New York City-based Ma-Yi Theater Company last year, it has been translated by Joi Barrios to Filipino for a fresh staging. Comparing the English verse (projected onto a screen as supertitles) to the Filipino text is akin to choosing between apples and pineapples, but oh how the spoken Filipino lines soar and resonate throughout the theater! At once lyrical and earthy, at turns poignant and bawdy, it rings closer to the ear and strikes closer to the heart than any other language could.

Director Loy Arcenas and choreographer Jack Yabut deftly replicates the motion of the words by having Magno and his fellow workers do rhythmic and, at times aggressive, choreography as they chant their lines. They use the very Filipino arnis in several scenes to great effect. Here, the martial arts weapon becomes their tools of oppression and instruments of distress.

Yes, oppression. For the story of these migrant farm workers are not the success stories of OFWs today. Magno and his companions do not have the perks of free visa processing, free airfare and assured greencard status that nurses enjoy today. Instead, theirs is the story of our unfortunate countrymen who end up being forced to work inhumane hours for a pittance.

Despite Magno's small income, he sends Clarabelle gifts at her every beck and call. Everyone realizes he's being taken for a ride, but who can blame him for creating his own fantasy lovelife? Our protagonist is lonely, poor, uneducated. When you're being screwed by almost everything else in your life, what else have you got left except hope?

Made flesh
Paolo Rodriguez plays the titular role and imbues his character with the perfect blend of pathos, naiveté and ne'er-give-up demeanor. A strong ensemble cast includes Roeder Camanag as the restrained narrator, Paolo O'Hara as the resident bully, Noely Rayos as one of the group comics (doubling as the voice of Clarabelle), and Soliman Cruz as the avuncular senior of the group. All the actors breathe life and emotion into what could have become generic stereotypes in lesser hands.

Apart from guiding the actors as their director, multi-awarded Arcenas also gave birth to their acting space ? a drab and lifeless warehouse interior. Although he pushes this set towards the edge of the stage to bring it closer to the audience, he seals off the characters with horizontal wires that simulate the slats between planks of wood. These wires, together with lighting stands placed within close proximity of the walls, become the subliminal prison bars of the lives that have trapped our characters.

Barbie Tan-Tiongco's lighting design illuminates the set just so, adding to the foreboding feel of the space. The claustrophobic set actually serves a dual purpose. It has to be small enough so that it can be transported around when the production migrates away from Manila to spread the story of Filipino immigration away from the Philippines. A production tour across the country is a timely way to nudge audiences into evaluating how we view and deal with our search for identity (cultural and otherwise), for love, for a sense of belonging, for a better life.

Watching a stage incarnation of the Filipino diaspora as a third generation Chinoy struck many a chord. Brought to my mind were my (and my generation's) personal struggles to reconcile our polycultural upbringing and the continuing efforts to bridge the gap between my generation's cultural quirks with our parents' own (somewhat dated) worldview. A situation that is, I am certain, shared by families that carry labels such as Fil-Ams, Fil-Ozzies, Fil- Europeans and Fil-what-have-yous. Even, yes, Chinoy-Ams (Chinoys who have immigrated to America)!

Despite the bleak premise, the play is replete with humor and light moments. The songs and dancing are fun (and funny) to watch, while the banter and chemistry of the ensemble keep the audience rolling in the aisles. Watch out for the fantastically funny fight scene between Magno and a fellow farmhand. Social, cultural, educational, and business organizations in the country that want to experience this ruby of a production (that has won 8 Obie Awards in 2003) ought to book the show now before the production's touring itinerary is set.