REVIEW: American Hwangap -- charming, funny and fuzzy

American Hwangap -- charming, funny and fuzzy
By Walter Ang
October 14, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Distance is a recurring theme in Korean American Lloyd Suh's "American Hwangap," recently staged by Tanghalang Pilipino.

Min Suk left his family in Texas for Korea fifteen years ago and has returned for his 60th birthday. David, his eldest son, is in New York City, closer to Texas than Korea, but refuses to join the reunion. Esther, his daughter, is in the same house as he is but can't wait to leave. Ralph, the youngest son, lives in the basement but now Min Suk wants him out. Mary, the mother, is in a new place in her life, even if she's still physically in the same location.

Suh's play is charming and funny enough: the characters are endearingly quirky, the punchlines are good for laughs. But it plods along at a slow pace and fizzles at the end due to both scripting and staging.

Hwangap commemorates the completion of one full astrological cycle and is a symbolic "rebirth" upon turning 60. Min Suk takes this as a carte blanche free pass to suddenly start fixing his children's lives as if he'd never left.

The premise of the prodigal father sounds ripe for confrontations, but Suh has crafted a family that's not into explosions, instead, they suppress bitterness, feign self-control, and intersperse their points with circuitous recollections of the past. Not the best way to sustain tension on stage.

Suh's lines for the characters tell us where they've been, but don't seem to tell us where they're coming from. And before we get to know the children enough to empathize with the angst they feel for their father, Suh has already cut them off with closing statements. One underexplained motivation is how Mary, without a trace of resentment, is so welcoming of Min Suk's return.

This results in the distances, emotional or otherwise, either feeling like they aren't leading anywhere or terminating too cleanly. After you leave the theater, you realize that the characters actually articulated where they want to go, but because of the roundabout sequencing of these declarations and director Chris Millado's drawn out pacing, it was easy to miss.

It does not help that set designer Mio Infante parlays the distances being navigated by the characters with a cavernous house that spans the entire length of the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino stage.

Yes, it can be construed as a metaphor for how the characters rattle around an external world as far reaching as their internal problems, but the scale dissipates the intimate material (of mostly scenes between two characters at a time) and eats up the otherwise competent turns of the cast.

Sound designer Jethro Joaquin's melancholy music bridge for the black-outs between scenes, which are awkwardly long because audiences have to wait for the actors have to cross back and forth the huge set, and Katsch Catoy's dim lighting design further add to the sluggish pacing.

There are questions about the adaptation choices as well. The birthdays of celebrities is used as a conversation point, but why does the production use names that are familiar to Filipinos only in the Tagalog translation? If it weren't for being the voice behind Mermaid Man in Spongebob Squarepants, would anyone younger than 35 even know who Ernest Borgnine is? (He shares Esther's birthday). The blank look of the college students watching tells us the name doesn't ring any bells.

Language gap
Nonetheless, Jeremy Domingo (David), Leisel Batucan (Esther) and Nico Manalo (Ralph) are each given scenes where they are able to show off their acting chops. Domingo and Batucan express variations of frustration and hurt. Manalo, although too young looking for his 30 year old character, has great comic timing.

The English staging works with Bembol Roco (Min Suk) since Suh assigns the character lines with broken grammar and Roco speaks without an American twang.

As Mary, Celeste Legaspi's ease with twang fits her character's context of having rebuilt herself into a more "American" version of herself (therefore, being able to speak "better" English?though a Texan drawl might have been more fun and funnier).

The Tagalog translation runs into several problems. Joi Barrios-Lebanc's translation is clumsy and hard on the ears. Her choices for Tagalog vocabulary lean towards the poetic, which doesn't match the conversational tone of the original English. She has the characters slip in and out of English (a lot of this) and Tagalog (doesn't seem enough, considering it's a translation) but not in the usual Taglish syntax that we use.

In the Tagalog version, Mario O' Hara (Min Suk) speaks with equal ease in Tagalog and English while Gina Pareno (Mary), is comfortable in Tagalog but her English wavers. Twang colors Batucan's and Domingo's Tagalog.

If, in this world that Leblanc has created, Taglish replaces American English as the parents' second language (assuming Korean is there first language), then shouldn't O'Hara be speaking broken Taglish for that matter, instead of slipping into entire sentences of broken English? Never mind the disparate accents.

Language barriers aside, both Roco and O'Hara were able to balance out Min Suk with equal parts arrogance, humor and sensitivity. Legaspi is an assured and sassy Mary, at ease with her co-actors. Pareno, while occasionally falling prey to split second gaps as she anticipates her cues, holds her own against the veteran cast and is hilarious with her effortless turns at physical comedy in her stage debut.

External to internal
It's as if Suh wants to say Asian American theater craft is done with asking questions about identity hinged on culture or ethnicity, instead, it's now hinged on other things like, oh say, family dynamics.

It's as if Millado's casting choices and Leblanc's translation choices want to point out that accents and grammar (and, okay, let's put facial features and skin color in the mix, too) don't matter in this production that is, at this point, a mix of Korean, American and Filipino filters.

But in this world seemingly stripped of cultural identifiers?the set design is a generic "American" suburban interior devoid of Korean decor; Korean phrases seem inserted as an afterthought, etc.?the risk of stereotyping notwithstanding, it becomes difficult to situate this attempt at an everyfamily.

Perhaps the production's whole point is that, save for the concept of hwangap, this family is not at all encumbered by their Korean cultural baggage, and are, in fact, depending on how you look at it, all American? Or is that Filipino? Who exactly are they again?

Tanghalang Pilipino will stage the children's musical "Ang Hukuman Ni Sinukuan" by National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario from Nov. 19 to Dec. 12, 2010. Call 832-3661.

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