With Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” still on everyone’s mind, it was almost inevitable that director Michael Greif’s next project would pale in comparison. And so it goes with “Dogeaters,” which Greif has brought to the La Jolla Playhouse, where he is in his fourth season as artistic director. Written by Jessica Hagedorn, the play is an epic exploration of Filipino culture and society from the late 1950s through the early ’80s. Yet one can hardly blame this work’s shortcomings on high hopes alone, for Hagedorn compresses too much action into too little time, and the constant, often pointless, cross-cutting between eras is bound to confuse theatergoers. Moreover, neither Hagedorn nor the show’s capable cast (in a variety of roles) make her characters compelling enough to engender real sympathy.
The action commences promisingly enough in the home of Freddie and Dolores Gonzaga (Ricardo Chavira and Emily Kuroda, respectively), parents to the precocious Rio (Sandra Oh), a girl (later, a woman) fascinated by her country’s rich, troubled history. The Gonzagas are part of Manila’s elite, and so Rio has something of an exclusive view of her nation’s ills, which Hagedorn partly explores through various archetypes. Rio’s cousin Pucha (Natalie Griffith), for instance, a light-skinned blonde girl, is employed to highlight racial animosities. Lola Narcisa (Ching Valdes-Aran), Rio’s backward grandmother, points up generational conflicts. Lorenza the maid (Lori Yeghiayan) focuses attention on economic disparity. You get the point.
But Hagedorn paints on a larger canvas as well, revealing a nation struggling under the yoke of political op-pression at the same time it apes Western consumer culture — from soap operas (Melody Butiu and Bernard White do a terrific job as ’50s Filipino radio stars) to disco clubs (a Manila knock-off of Studio 54 plays host to much of the ’80s action).
In addition, Hagedorn examines less savory sides of Filipino society. There are subplots involving junkies who serve as rent boys, drag queens, murderous army officers, religious fanatics and even a beauty queen. But who, Hagedorn included, could tell such a wide-ranging tale in a mere two hours and 45 minutes? And it’s that sense of overload that ultimately dooms “Dogeaters.”
Yet there is much to engage audiences here as well. The scenes of elite excess recall some of the better moments in “Evita,” and the seamy club world holds its own fascination. In addition to Oh’s likable turn as Rio, Kuroda does well as Rio’s mother and as a movie-theater cashier named Trini; Alec Mapa pulls out the camp stops portraying club owner Andres Alacran; Ching Valdes-Aran swings between kindliness as Grandma Lola Narcisa and chilly control as the First Lady (aka Imelda Marcos) and Leonor Ledesma, the wife of a general; and Christopher Donahue excels as the dissolute German film director Rainer Fassbinder.
As for production values, Loy Arcenas’ set design is of the functional metal scaffolding variety. Although it has a temporary, utilitarian look, it accommodates the many scene changes this show requires. Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Mark Bennett’s sound design also help convey the shifts in mood and location, many of which are accomplished through backscreen projections. Brandin Baron’s costumes work well, too, but the play’s needs are limited in this respect.
It is to Greif’s credit that he seeks new works for his playhouse. In fact, “Dogeaters” is La Jolla’s first com-mission in seven years. But this play must be reworked if it is to succeed.
Expanding it to be fully worthy of its epic scope may be impractical, but perhaps condensing it to chronicle the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship is a reasonable goal. That, unfortunately, would eliminate some of the show’s best moments. Still, one way or another, changes must be made, for in its present state “Dogeaters” has a lot of bark but little bite.