By Walter Ang
Oct. 5, 2013
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Pardon the language, but there is no other way to describe Tanghalang Pilipino's staging of "Der Kaufmann: Ang Negosyante ng Venecia" except to say it is a complete mindf*ck.
William Shakespeare's "The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice" has a bunch of Christians turn the tables on Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, over an unpaid debt. Portia, the female protagonist, uses legal maneuverings to defeat him, predating Elle Woods of "Legally Blonde" by centuries.
The tables are turned in a different way in Rody Vera's adaptation. While portraying Shylock as a sympathetic character (versus an anti-Semitist caricature stock villain) started as early as the 19th century, Vera transposes the action squarely onto the event that informs the identification of Jews since the mid-20th century: the Holocaust.
Vera reworks a British playwright's 16th century piece that's set in Italy using a Tagalog translation by National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio, layering it with Nazi Germans forcing Jews and homosexuals to perform characters in the play while the tormentors play the "good" guys.
A short chilling prologue to establish this concept, which includes a baby carriage not to be seen again, introduces the play's first line. The titular character Antonio's (an affecting, effective Marco Viana) "Ewan ko ba kung bakit ang lungkot-lungkot ko," takes on a vastly differentiated meaning that casts a dark, sinister color on the rest of the play.
Vera's risky layer transforms the comedy into a psychological suspense horror drama. With a competent ensemble adeptly co-directed by Vera and TP artistic director Tuxqs Rutaquio, the highly charged staging is deeply disturbing and suffocatingly intense.
Audiences during the Bard's time may have found it clever and fun to watch young boys (women weren't allowed to act) portray female characters who cross-dress as men, as Portia does later on in the play. Audiences to this production are bound to note the cruelty and absurdity of having people forced to act in a comedy under duress.
Rutaquio's set design, a two-tiered enclosure with wire fences, repurposed from last season's "Walang Kukurap," is a cold, creepy setting that twists Tanghalang Batute's usually intimate vibe into a constricting concentration camp. John Battalia's lighting design and TJ Ramos' sound design adds harshness and anxiety.
Audiences are constantly reminded of the Nazi's unrelenting depravity and ruthlessness via Viana and Jovanny Cadag (Salanio)'s scared, pained expressions and startled jerks of fright; portrayed here as bearers of the inverted pink triangle.
Reduced to one of many mice being played with by cats before being devoured is the father of a Jewish family forced to play Shylock. Jonathan Tadioan elevates the much maligned moneylender into a real harrowed individual, imbuing Shylock with vulnerability, turmoil and indignation.
Raquel Pareño plays the man's wife and is coerced to parody Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. She acquiesces with a sharp performance.
When Shylock discovers the loss of his daughter and his money, in an inspired bit of stragecraft by the directors and actors, the production's staging multiplies and magnifies the loss poignantly.
Leading the incessant torture are Tracy Quila, whose crazed eyes fire up a dangerous and menacing Gratiano, who does nothing remotely related to the meaning of his name (grace); and Regina de Vera, whose chilling glare captures a calculating, bossy Portia.
The sense of mercy that Portia appeals to in Shylock at the merchant's trial is exactly what she withholds from him (regardless of a comedic or sympathetic interpretation of the moneylender's character). What would have been lighthearted cheers at Portia's every turn of winning argumentation now becomes line upon line of unrelenting humiliation and degradation of Shylock.
The occasional laughs (locked with a sense of unease) come by way of Doray Dayao's funny Nerissa, Aldo Vensilao's Lancelot burlesquing the Führer, Lou Veloso's (as always) spot-on comic timing as Gobbo. But here lies the genius (or insanity) of the staging: Is it okay to laugh at the funny bits?
Do we laugh because we know this is supposed to be a comedy and our brains fight to reconcile it as so, despite the new hair-raising context? Do we laugh because we know the context, though based on real events, isn't real and therefore easier to become desensitized to?
After a particularly harrowing scene, the nonchalance at which the Nazi actors portray the succeeding idyllic scene creates a sense of discomfort for the audience. These ambiguous reactions are elicited by the production's staging, which highlights what has actually been embedded by Shakespeare into the lines: Portia concludes, "… nababatid kong hindi pa ganap ang inyong pagkakaunawa sa nangyaring lahat."
Though addressed to the other characters, it functions for the audience, too. Yes, how does one even begin to understand the horrors our fellow men inflict on each other? And what of the unpaid debts and injustices outside the theater?
Of fundamentalist Islam groups perpetuating the stereotype that all Muslims are war freaks. That the Philippines is the only country left in the world that doesn't allow divorce while countries left and right have started to allow gay marriages. Of the farce that has politicians implicated of mishandling public funds using verbal acrobatics to defend themselves. The terrors threatening love, dignity and freedom abound. They are all very real and the joke may very well be on us.
"Der Kaufmann: Ang Negosyante ng Venecia" runs until Oct. 13, 2013 at Tanghalang Huseng Batute, Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Discounts available for students, senior citizens, government and military employees and persons with disabilities. Contact 09177500107, 09189593949, 8321125 loc. 1620/1621. Tickets also available through Ticketworld at 8919999 or www.ticketworld.com.ph.
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