REVIEW: A tour-de-force 'Tatlong Mariya' (Chekhov's 'Three Sisters')

A tour-de-force Tatlong Mariya
By Walter Ang
March 22, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

From Facebook of Che Ramos-Cosio
Watching a play by a dead Russian that only literature and theater majors seem to love is always fraught with trepidation. With Tanghalang Pilipino's staging of Anthon Chekhov's "Three Sisters," any iota of boredom and high-brow pretension is chucked out the window, making this world-classic accessible and fun.

In this adaptation directed by Loy Arcenas and translated by Rody Vera, the title is now "Tatlong Mariya," and the siblings are transplanted from Russia to an Ilocos town in the 1970s, making it familiar and touching instead of alien and unrelatable.

Engineers (instead of Chekhov's military officers) are building a dam, purportedly one of the signs of progress under Martial Law. A year after the death of their father, a senior engineer, Maria Angelina, Ma. Josefina, and Ma. Ramona find life drab and increasingly hopeless in the province and yearn for their once happy life in Manila.

Arcenas, also the set designer, transforms the stage of Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (CCP Little Theater) into a theater-in-the-round, with bleachers on stage surrounding a rectangular acting space. The height and expanse of the space (one knows there is backstage space beyond the seating area, one can't actually see it, but one feels it) creates a kinetic energy and a pointed statement for the characters.

Arcenas makes us doubly aware of the exterior life these characters pine for...trapped in the confines of their exile, yet here is all that space (and possibilities) that the audience occupies: we're sitting right in it!

As the lights dim, two large metal frames criss-crossed with wires rumble into place, creating two walls for the living room of the sisters' home. The loudness of the frames' movement is unexpected, charging the air. It immediately sets the tone as it mirrors the tension, corrosion and constriction of the characters' lives.

Arcenas makes us voyeurs and eavesdroppers that completely surround their house, separated only by (an invisible) wall; we are in their lives and we see it all happening. He makes it real for us.

Chekhov's plays are described to have scattered expositions throughout stretches of time to underscore the boredom and dreariness that the characters experience. Fortunately, Arcenas and his actors unfold the action in a steady rhythm that drives the story forward.

The furtive meetings between lovers or the fights erupting between people who are too familiar with each other (and therefore, too conscious with) all retain an authentic pacing.

The characters and their stories are a rich source of all sorts of readings, from socioeconomic to psychological. But these fancy intellectual terms take a backseat because the ensemble's pitch perfect acting lets you get too caught up in their lives to have time to analyze them.

This straightforward storytelling defies being labeled either as a comedy or tragedy: it's both and not; it's real life. Depending on where in your life you are, there will be characters and plot lines that will hit close to home. The comedy/tragedy of it all is how much they mirror our own lives.

It is almost unfair to single out any one name since these actors from different batches of the Actor's Company (TP's pool of resident actors) work in beat with each other on equal footing.

Funny moments abound. The actors imbue their characters with tangible quirks and authentic personalities, like Mailes Kanapi's off-kilter Maria Josefina, with spot on comic timing. Watch out for the way Paolo O'Hara's Victor gazes with giddy schoolboy attraction at Ma. Ramona. Even Kat Castillo, who plays the maid and has no speaking lines, has scene stealing glares that she shoots off at the craziness of the household.

But it is the drama that is really captivating. The ensemble's emotions are raw and unbridled but never exaggerated for effect. You feel the ache of their longing, the pain of their disappointments, and the howling of their hearts.

Dolly Gutierrez's Ma. Angelina has an air of defeated acceptance and woeful resignation about her. Angeli Bayani, who has the unenviable job of being tasked to cry on cue almost ceaselessly throughout the play, is a vulnerable and sensitive Ma. Ramona. Dennis Marasigan as Isidro (husband of adultering Ma. Josefina) delivers his lines with a gravitas that cuts to the heart.

The understated acting is echoed by all the design elements. Arcneas economically places select props, only just so, to evoke the entirety of the setting. Barie Tiongco's lighting design clearly illuminates the action and never calls attention to itself. Jethro Joaquin's sound design provides the necessary layer in creating the mood. The costume designs by Kalila Aguilos do not contain loud prints or extra-wide bell-bottoms for show or distraction, still in 70s silhouettes, they're just enough to situate the characters.

All of the show's elements just work, creating a tour de force production.

TP will be holding summer workshops in acting and other related disciplines in two venues: Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay City and Bonifacio Arts Center, Taguig City. Call 832-3661, 0920-9535381 or 0928-5518645.

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