Tanghalang Pilipino's Adaptation of Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men" Sheds Light on Filipino Farmers' Plight
For Tanghalang Pilipino's (TP) powerhouse drama Katsuri, esteemed film and theatre director Carlos Siguion-Reyna partners with his wife Bibeth Orteza, writer of award-winning films and top-rated television programs, to bring onto contemporary Philippine setting John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Now on its second production for its 33rd season, TP opened Katsuri at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute (Studio Theatre) last 4 October at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) and would continue until the 27th.
Katsuri tackles the harrowing fight for survival of the sacadas (sugar cane workers) in Negros, and how it tends to destroy lives and the people's spirits, including families and friendships. Negros' farmers recently made the news last April, after the death of 14 farmers and arrest of 12 on the last Saturday of March during police operations allegedly for an anti-criminality campaign. Furthermore, the operations resurfaced last July, recording 21 more fatalities. However, Siguion-Reyna and Orteza expressed that although the recent atrocities inspired them to mount the production, the original material has been in TP Actors Company's readings for seven years or even further back. "It [the killings] brought me to it... to Negros. It wasn't my intention but it was bound to happen," Orteza says, as she explains her creative writing process in adapting the Steinbeck classic.
"Katsuri discusses the hardened, threatened lives of the sacadas, and how they try to survive and overcome their daily ordeals," says Siguion-Reyna. "This production reminds everyone of the importance of brotherhood, friendship, and hope during these hard times."
In Orteza's adaptation, the uneducated-yet-streetsmart George (Marco Viaña) and the mentally-challenged Toto (Jonathan Tadioan) are the best of friends since as far as they can remember. They get into trouble in Hacienda Luisita, so they quickly hie back home to Negros Occidental to harvest sugar cane in Boss's hacienda, and live in a barn with the other sacadas. The two proved to be valuable additions to the hacienda that they made friends, as well as enemies. George and Toto's dream of someday owning a piece of land to build a small house drive them to do better and be loyal to their masters. With luck, George would someday plant vegetables and fruit-bearing trees of his own, and Toto would have a small piggery, a small poultry, and a pen for the rabbits he fancies.
Meanwhile, the play is inserted with dimly lit vignettes of sacadas being interrogated, threatened, and killed by the private military. Its ominous presence and the repetitive reference of Toto's crime in Hacienda Luisita brings a foreboding clue as to how the play would end. However, the progression of the play driven by each character's unraveling delivers a careful cadence that makes the play's resolution swift and unpredictable—like a snake behind the tall grass, a shooter hiding in the shadows.
"Katsuri," the Hiligaynon word for shrew, is not quite rodent, not quite mouse. Orteza related the characteristics of a sacada to katsuri—almost rodent and hardly human. Indeed the ensemble effectively portrayed their characters, some hailed from Steinbeck's novella and some were originally created for the adaptation. Each has his dream of a better life that motivates him to be resilient amid the atrocities. But there are some characters who have already given up and accepted their fate. Like mice, they huddle in the barn and revel in life's small blessings. And when the domineering Boss (Michael Williams) comes or his cocky son Kulot (Fitz Bitana), they scour away and hesitate to look their masters in the eye.
The play, like its original material, also delves in discrimination and segregation. The soon-to-retire sacada with a chopped off hand Tatang (played by TP's artistic director Nanding Josef), the black-skinned Nognog (Ybes Bagadiong) who was made to live away from all the rest and on his own, and the misjudged Inday (Antonette Go) who is often the subject of gossips, speak of discrimination from different angles of society through their on-point deliveries and silent nuances.
Besides the acting ensemble's evident commitment to their characters, what has made Steinbeck's classic spotlessly Filipino are Ohm David's rustic cuadra adorned with dried Tiger grass and capped with yero (galvanised iron), Dennis Marasigan's on-cue warm lighting that gives a rural atmosphere, Daniel Gregorio's rugged and worn-out costumes that echo the hardships of the farmers, TJ Ramos's soundbites of Hiligaynon language and of provincial life, and most especially Bayang Barrios' eerie rendition of the traditional lullaby "Ili-ili".
In his astonishing performance, Viaña exhibited careful calculation of acting choices and levels of emotion. Nevertheless, it was powerful and riveting, and became more interesting when intrinsic conflicts got the best of him. However, the true star of the play was Tadioan. His portrayal of what could have been a two-dimensional character was stellar and hypnotising, that you wouldn't expect the complexities within until it explodes.
TP's Katsuri triggers emotions and begins conversations regarding the plight of the farmers and sacadas alike. It sheds light on discrimination and depression in a contemporary setting and Filipino context. But at the end of the breathtaking chase of mice and men, the play halts—and leaves us hanging—on the perennial question: "Where is humanity?"
- Photography Franz Sorilla IV