Celebrated Fil-Am play to be restaged in New York

Celebrated Fil-Am play to be restaged in New York
By Walter Ang
January 17, 2011
Philippine Daily Inquirer

"Flipzoids," a play written by Ralph Peña, is returning to the stage in New York City fifteen years after its world premiere. With a few changes.

"I'm rewriting chunks of the play to incorporate some of the lessons I've learned as a writer," Peña says. "A revisit is not granted many writers, so why not take the opportunity to make it better?"

"Flipzoids" features three Filipinos from three generations, living in the US and struggling with varying degrees and kinds of isolation as they fight to establish and/or search for identity?
personal, cultural and otherwise.

"The Filipino community embraced the play immediately, laughing riotously at seeing their own experience on stage," Peña says of the maiden staging of "Flipzoids" in 1996 that ran for 21 performances at the Theater for a New City.

In 1998, the play was staged in Manila with five performances for the Centennial Arts Festival. Eventually, it had more than sixty performances in various locations in the US.

Peña had been part of activist theater company Godabil?a group in Manila that performed in rallies during the 70s. After he'd been called in for questioning by the army, he left for the US.

There, he helped found Ma-Yi Theater Company in 1989 and has served as its artistic director since 1994. Ma-Yi produced "Flipzoids," and "it caught the New York theater community by surprise," he says. "Before `Flipzoids,' we struggled to get mainstream press coverage of our works. It was our first production to receive major attention."

It helped that the production was directed by Loy Arcenas since he already had a reputation in Broadway for his work as a set designer ("Night Of The Iguana," "Love! Valour! Compassion!," "Prelude To A Kiss").

But also, that Peña's work obviously resonated with audiences. "I wanted to say something about the Filipino American experience ? of how we transact the personal and political acts of locating ourselves in the American landscape," he says.

Three archetypes
"I wrote what I knew then, based on observations and my own experiences, and the play triangulated itself between three distinct character tracks: Aying, the new immigrant longing for home; Vangie, the partially assimilated new American reinventing herself; and Redford, a second-generation Filipino American raised with little knowledge of his heritage.

"These three characters tugged at my own understanding of the immigrant experience," he says. "It took me over two years to distill the text into what was eventually produced. The play started with sixteen characters!"

The original cast included Ching Valdes-Aran (Aying), Mia Katigbak (Vangie) and Ken Leung (Redford). Valdes-Aran won an Obie Award for her performance as Aying and will reprise the role. Tina Chilip, who was in the Manila run of David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child" for Tanghalang Pilipino in 2008 (for which she received a Philstage Gawad Buhay citation for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role), will play Vangie. Carlo Alban, a former cast member of "Sesame Street" and "Prison Break," will play Redford. Loy Arenas directs.

While originally founded to develop, produce and present works exploring the Filipino and Filipino-American experience, Ma-Yi eventually expanded its scope to a Pan-Asian repertory.

Ma-Yi has become widely recognized as the leading professional Asian American theater company in the US and has gained a reputation "as the country's premier incubator of new, forward-thinking plays that challenge popular prescriptions for what culturally-specific theater should be."

Sometimes the company is mistaken as an "Off-Off Broadway" group due to its low ticket prices. "We are actually an `Off-Broadway group" because we pay at the Actor Union's scale, which is what determines if you have one or two `off's," he says. "Our pricing is deliberate. We've been charging $25 when most Off-Broadway plays charge upwards of $50. We've made a conscious effort to keep our prices affordable for most New Yorkers, but especially students and seniors."

In 2010, Ma-Yi Theater received a Special Drama Desk Award for Excellence.

"We haven't done a Filipino play since `The Romance of Magno Rubio' in 2003," he says. "We've noticed a drop in attendance from Filipino audiences and this restaging is our courtship song to get them back. Heck, there's a new generation of Filipino Americans who haven't seen the play and we're hopeful they will find it meaningful."

"The original version had a lot of direct address ? where actors break the Fourth Wall and talk directly to the audience. I was a younger writer then and direct address was the easier option. Today, I don't think that approach is as effective. I like to think I've grown up enough as a writer to employ a more oblique approach to a scene, and use dialogue as the principal narrative device in telling a story.

"The old version also explained too much, in my opinion. I was less sure of myself and I felt compelled to elaborate on what I mean. I don't find that to be as true today. Simple, honest words and clear action are much more interesting to me now.

"Finally, the national discourse on identity has deepened since `Flipzoids' was last staged. Don't get me wrong, racial bigotry is very much alive and well in America, and our colonial baggage continues to weigh down Filipinos in this country, but I think the play itself needs to make a tonal shift to reflect how today's immigrants see themselves.

"Simply declaring `I want or don't want to belong' seems overly simplistic to me now. There are so many more intermediary shadings between these polar positions that I find much more interesting.

"We've had many requests to bring back the play. As they say, a play is never really finished. I've obviously changed in the intervening years and I want to reflect that in the new version -- without messing up the heart of Flipzoids."

"Flipzoids" previews until Jan 18 and runs Jan 19 to Feb 6, 2011 at Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Playwright's Horizons Center, New York City. Call +1-212-971-4862 or email info@ma-yitheatre.org. 

"Flipzoids" is included in "Savage Stage," an anthology of plays developed and produced by Ma-Yi Theater, available in the USA through ma-yitheatre.org/shop and in the Philippines at National Bookstore.

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