REVIEW: Atlantis Productions' 'Dogeaters' presents a multi-layered Philippines

A Multi-Layered Philippines 
By Walter Ang
November 20, 2007 (

Dogeaters, now playing at the Carlos Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza though the staging of Atlantis Productions, begins with the ensemble cast announcing snippets of news reports, as if an invisible hand was tuning through all the stations of a radio, cleverly bringing the audience into the milieu of the this multi-layered play based on Jessica Hagedorn's novel of the same title.

The sentences are clipped and the sound weaves in and out, leaving the audience with only enough bits and pieces to make out that the setting is the beginning of the end of the Marcos regime.

A plethora of characters and their stories are introduced in the first act and the audience must stay attentive to grasp everything that is going on amidst the textured set designed by Kalila Aguilos. Smack in the middle of the galvanized iron sheets and barbed wire is a massive portrait of the former First Lady Imelda Marcos, whose off-stage ministrations, such as the construction of a film center and organizing a film festival, are a constant onstage presence that inexorably help bring the plot threads together.

Mirroring how many of the characters seem to be on the periphery of bigger events around them, however close to falling in to or quietly orchestrating the fray they are, the audience is made to feel like expectant voyeurs with all of the scenes being annotated by two broadcaster-announcer personalities Nestor Norales (a dapper Leo Rialp) and Barbara Villanueva (played with gusto by Ana Abad-Santos).

Much like the long running radio soap opera hosted by these announcers, the play unfolds in snatches of scenes where tawdry gossip and dangerous secrets are revealed.

The cast is populated by a wonderful mix of actors popular in TV and movies such as Michael de Mesa, Gina Alejar and Joel Torre as well as theater stalwarts like Rialp, Abad-Santos and Richard Cunanan with up-and-coming Philippine High School for the Arts alumnus Nicco Manalo in a convincing turn as a drugged-out Amerasian hustler.

Directed by Bobby Garcia, all sixteen actors take on double or triple roles.

Not to be missed is the fun and fabulous Diana Ross impersonation by Jon Santos, the scene-stealing thunder of Rez Cortez and the subtle but sure changes that Abad-Santos imbues her character as the play progresses.

The multitude of subplots soon builds up to the assassination of Benigno Aquino-inspired Senator Domingo Avila (Joel Torre), revealing two characters, his beauty pageant winner-turned-rebel daughter Daisy (Jenny Jamora) and witness-to-the-assassination Joey Sands (Nicco Manalo), to stand out and drive home the near epic story in a poignant, though somewhat curtailed, encounter.

For those of in the audience who lived through or grew up in the 70s and 80s, the stories in Dogeaters are at once familiar yet blurred, distinct yet fractured. Watching the play becomes an exercise in gaining perspective on the events that inspired the veiled retellings onstage as filtered by time and through the playwright's distance from where they actually happened.

Though it seems some scenes would have worked better if the dialogue were in Tagalog instead of English, it only goes to build on the fact that Dogeaters is decidedly a vision of the Philippines in Hagedorn's voice.

As a counterpoint to the play's insane, colorful array of drugs, guns, power, sex, politics, religion and everything in between, Hagedorn's alter-ego Rio Gonzaga (Teresa Herrera) provides the concluding commentary. The balikbayan, who returns after more than a decade of being away and is lost in the middle of it all, points out that "everything is different but nothing has changed."