Monday, January 16, 2012

Faith and love

This is my column today.

Perhaps people are saving up for Mamma Mia, or are still
recovering from the mind-numbing fare that was the 2011 Metro Manila Filmfest, or probably bracing for the grandest of all soap operas that is the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that will be unveiled today at the Senate (and which I refuse to write about today on account of the bandwagon effect).

Whatever the reason, Next Fall, Repertory Philippines’ season opener began its run last Friday at Onstage in Greenbelt 1 in Makati to a seemingly slow start; there were less than a hundred people in the audience when my friends and I caught it over the weekend.

The lack of interest in the play is surprising. Next Fall was a smash hit off and on Broadway. Moreover, plays —and movies - that tackle relationships between gay men usually have a ready audience in this country. But then again, Next Fall is not really a gay play. It’s a meditation on faith and the dynamics that make love and relationships complicated. There’s also no nudity in the play, which sadly, seems to be an important ingredient for box office success in this country. But the play just opened over the weekend and will run until February 5. Hopefully, word of mouth about the play will bring in more people in the audience. Word of mouth is important, as media’s attention will probably be elsewhere in the next few weeks.

Next Fall is particularly relevant in the local context where faith and sexual identity are overarching issues that often get in the way of the pursuit of the proverbial life, liberty and happiness among sexually marginalized people.

Written by Geoffrey Nauffts and produced on Broadway by the likes of Elton John, the play takes place in a hospital waiting room where the main characters gather while the sixth character—Luke (David Bianco)—is in coma after being hit by a runaway cab. There’s Adam (Bart Guingona), Luke’s seemingly neurotic lover of four years. There’s Brandon (Niccolo Manahan), Luke’s mysterious best friend. There’s Holly (Liesl Batucan), the fag hag woman friend. And then Luke’s divorced parents: Butch (Miguel Faustmann), the take-charge father who barrels into the scene with characteristic fire and brimstone homily-inducing intolerance and Arlene (Juno Henares), the absentee mother who prattles endlessly about the most mundane stuff.

In between the hospital waiting room scenes are flashbacks told in non-linear fashion that try to thread Adam and Luke’s life together and trace the religious conflict that serves as the main issue of contention in the play.

Luke is a fundamentalist Christian who, on surface, seems to be comfortable with his sexuality but is later revealed to be deeply conflicted (he prays after they have sex). Adam is an atheist who is a potent bundle of contradictions – neurotic, confused, emotionally needy. The differences start out like romantic situational comedy sketches that escalate into major rows that are made to appear like earth-shattering moral dilemmas.

It’s not the local production’s fault, but the play is hobbled by the material itself. Sadly, the conflict is not really threshed out in profound and satisfying ways. In fact, all the verbal skirmishes come out hallow, as both characters aren’t seen as truthful champions of the religious-secular debate. The scenes are funny, interesting, absorbing; but in the end, are not really particularly instructive. The extent of Luke’s faith is manifested in the fact that he prays before meals. Adam’s lack of faith seems pretentious in view of all that emotional hara-kiri. The discourses on religion and faith don’t really go anywhere other than provide fodder for emotional highs and lows.

Luke’s inability to come out to his parents and the consequent comedy of errors are thrown in as added wrinkle to the plot but the complication has been done many times over far more successfully in plays like The Caged Birds, or even Torch Song Trilogy.

But make no mistake about this: Next Fall is definitely worth watching. The play raises important questions about intolerance, relationships, and yes, faith. It’s funny, ingenious, and in the end, totally heartbreaking.

The local production is directed by Audie Gemora, himself a fundamentalist Christian. We watched the play on its second run when the production was presumably still a work in progress. The set design was imaginative and adequately fluid but the scene transitions seemed to take longer than necessary. There was a problem with the sound halfway through the play and the static seemed as intolerable as Faustmann’s character. But the direction was competent and overall, the production was commendable.

As usual, the acting was worth the price of admission. One wishes that there was more chemistry between Guingona and Bianco, and the two actors need to work on being more sensitive to each other (when they kiss, it looked like they were just going through the motions). Bianco is a delight to watch as he lends the character with warmth, lightheartedness, and just the right tinge of insecurity. Guingona comes across as intense and conflicted. Manahan’s character is sadly not fully threshed out but he infuses it with touches of humanity; we could relate with his character even we’re logically supposed to be repulsed by it. Henares and Batucan succeed in bringing their seemingly “token” and “stereotypical” characters to life. Faustmann, however, steals the whole play and runs away with the most memorable scene in it.

At its very core, Next Fall is a love story with a premise that is as old as time, that of two ill-crossed lovers struggling with the fallout from seemingly irreconcilable differences. The more perceptive viewer will however walk out of the theatre with a life-affirming realization: In the end, all the philosophical swashbuckling about faith, religion, intolerance, and the many things that divide us are but mere distractions to what truly matters. It’s a sad but haunting reminder that life is best lived in the present because next fall might not come to pass.

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