Sunday, August 14, 2016

As Straw Before the Wind (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The program of Felix Racelis' As Straw Before the Wind contains a fact sheet about World War II in regards the Phillipines and about the survivors of that conflict, who make up a startlingly large percentage of the nursing profession in California.  I did not know this or most of the historical facts given. Which seems to be part of the point--to open up about the Filipino and (especially) Filipina experience.  Admirable.

Does it succeed?  Well, somewhat.  There's something here in the show, in the tracing of one family and how it the Japanese Occupation's abuses continue to shape events and relationships today.  Our focus is on Nene (Tita Pambid), who runs a convalescent home in San Gabriel Valley in 1993.  Impressively, although many of her acts seem despicable, I never hated her.  The play does a good job of hinting trauma lies behind many if not most of her life's choices.  Specifically, some flashbacks to what happened during the War begin building on that early on.

Here however lies a major problem with the production.  Whenever these flashbacks happen, the whole play stops.  The lights go down, people enter to remove the scenery in silence, then the lights come up for the brief flashback.  And then the process reverses itself.  Worse, this happens throughout the entire play!  Opening night began a few minutes after 8pm and ended roughly at 9:40pm.  At least twenty minutes of the play consisted of scenery shifts, totally ending all momentum or interest while the audience sat in darkness, bored.  Had the production played appropriate sound during these shifts, it would have made a big difference.  Maybe radio broadcasts from the era of the Occupation?  Music or songs that touched upon the themes of the play?  Instead we got darkness and silence, with every single scene then starting from zero.

This is a major technical problem and severely interfered with the play.  Frankly, given the relatively subtle nature of the dynamics involved, it comes near to derailing everything.  Nene and her daughter Pilita (Sarnica Lim) run the Home, and the two ambulatory clients we meet are Mr. Enrile (Muni Zano) and Mrs. Novak (Anita Borcia), both frail human beings falling apart at the seams.  These two pretty much steal every scene, but then in hands of good character actors these are the roles designed to do so!  Nene is not the most gentle of health providers, but at heart she seems to mean well.  She does not however listen much better than Mr. Enrile or Mrs. Novak.  When her daughter tries to tell her she's going to marry her boyfriend, Nene simply cannot accept it.  Is sure she doesn't mean it.

Later, during a meeting at a bank Nene gets lost in a memory, that of her family seized by Japanese soldiers and her uncle (Zano in a double role) managing to salvage her doll from the burned home.  Typically, she seems unable to follow the bank officer's process.  These are all very good building blocks to tell a compelling story--although frankly the structure does resemble a movie rather than a stage play.  Or so it seemed, because the production is designed that way.  Honestly, why not have the flashback in the bank officer's office?  Would be far more interesting and you don't lose momentum.

In the style of modern drama or tragedy, As Straw Before the Wind proceeds as Nene's life essentially falls apart around her.  We understand why Maria (Rochelle Lozano), Mr. Enrile's daughter, comes to resent her as she finds her father in restraints then is present as the old man has a stroke.  Just as how can we not sympathize with Pilita as she seeks her own life from this smothering presence  But the constant total ceasing of all action to overload the set with furniture bleeds away our attention--nor does it help given the cast has picked up on that funereal pace.

Finally, catastrophe happens.  A fire, almost certainly begun by the senile Mrs. Novak with her cigarettes amidst a very charming dreams of her late husband, burns down the home.  All the patients save Mrs. Novak survive, and we learn Nene has plenty of insurance.  But this house, it was one her uncle build for her.  Nene collapses emotionally, as we flash back to her rape by a Japanese soldier all those  years ago.  We understand how that avid need for control, for physical things and for people to protect twisted this woman into what she is now.

Yet the pacing and scene shifts made me work much harder than I should have to keep my interest.  Later, headed home, I kept thinking of all sorts of ways to stage this play in a more dramatic and interesting way.  Frankly I hope somebody someday does exactly that.

As Straw Before Wind plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and on Sundays at 3pm through September 4, 2016 at the Ruby Theatre in the Complex on 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.

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