Gossip Boy makes trouble: Tanghalang Ateneo stages Shakespeare's 'Otelo"

Gossip Boy makes trouble 
By Walter Ang
September 1, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Buencamino and Maramara
In an age when everyone knows what everyone else is doing, it's easy to dismiss rumors since we hear so much of it all the time.

At the same time, TV shows like "Gossip Girl" shows us how easily technology like cellphones and the internet can help "substantiate" a piece of "news" with photo or video proof, image manipulation or video editing notwithstanding

In Tanghalang Ateneo's staging of Shakespeare's "Othello," audiences see how far hearsay can go when word-of-mouth and actual, tangible evidence are the only two things one has to go by.

In this Filipino translation by Rogelio Sicat and Luna Sicat-Cleto ("Otelo: Ang Moro ng Venecia"), director Ricky Abad and assistant director B.J. Crisostomo partners our tragic hero with his antagonist in a guitar-toting gossip-orchestrating Iago.

Iago despises Otelo, a foreign military general living in Venice, for bypassing him as a lieutenant and for marrying Desdemona. He plots to make Otelo believe that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio (the man Iago was bypassed for). But unlike Gossip Girl who (to be fair) only reports what is actually fed to her, Iago creates the lies that will bring on the downfall of the other characters.

Perhaps as a statement to our technology-aided gossip-obsessed world (or perhaps an acknowledgement that the premise may feel dated if set in contemporary times), Abad stages the play in its original 17th century setting.

While it is always fun and exciting to watch the Bard's works transplanted into different time periods (and even worlds), it's refreshing to see that Shakespeare can still work even if you don't wring him through a time machine.

Save for the directors' conceit of having Iago carry around a guitar, Abad and Crisostomo stick to a gimmick-free, no-nonsense and tight telling of the story, which serves the story well given its premise.

After all, watching a man end up going crazy and killing his wife just because he believes in the gossip of his so-called friend and takes a planted handkerchief as enough proof can elicit either horror and disbelief or, if not staged well, guffaws.

National Artist for Theater Design Salvador Bernal takes his cue straight out of Iago's lines such as "with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio" and "make the net that shall enmesh them all," by plying the floor and wall panels with intersecting lines to form a portentous lattice where our players will become entangled.

Interestingly, this design seems to be a hold-over (albeit a variation) from the set design of World Theater Project's 1996 staging of "Othello" that Abad co-directed with Anton Juan.

The concept of Iago's instrument-prop and the web-set are enhanced by sound designer Reamur David's crafty use of guitar sounds as ominous punctuations to the characters' lines. Audiences see just how deep Iago's machinations run when he plucks the "lines" on stage, as if they were guitar strings, as he plots against everyone else.

The set changes and different scenes are enhanced by the lighting design of Jonjon Villareal, who occasionally saturates the entire stage in a foreboding blood-red color. Bernal's costumes are gorgeous, detailed and well-constructed, fitting the actors well.

Almost all roles are played by alternating actors. In the performance we caught, Nonie Buencamino (alternating with Teroy Guzman) played Otelo and Irma Adlawan-Marasigan (alternating with Missy Maramara) played Desdemona. Both veteran actors fill the stage with their strong presence and consistency.

But the play is usually a showcase for the actor playing Iago as he is onstage almost the entire first act. In this case, Ron Capinding (alternating with Rody Vera) pulls off the role convincingly, filling the character with a constant agitation and disturbing menace.

Student actors Rachel Quong as Iago's wife Emilia and Exzell Macomb (alternating with Jaru Hermano) as Roderigo deserve praise for performing on the same level as the veteran actors. Macomb is funny as the quirky, whiny and forever-excitable Roderigo, the lovelorn milquetoast who bewails losing Desdemona to Otelo and becomes Iago's willing accomplice and unwitting victim.

The entire cast has a wonderful "sense of performance," giving an oratorical, almost melodic, delivery to the Filipino lines that does not, thankfully, deteriorate into melodramatic ham.

The final scene is a picturesque rendering as Otelo falls beside his wife, his long robes draped fully across the bed like an Aubrey Beardsley illustration, very much the defeated posturing peacock.

"Otelo: Ang Moro ng Venecia" runs until Sept. 6 at the Rizal Mini-Theater, Ateneo de Manila University. For details, call 0916-521-5154.

Also published online: