As in the best folk tales, the enchantment is often in the telling. Lonnie Carter’s adaptation of Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan’s short story and Loy Arcenas’ imaginative staging weave their own theatrical spell as they tell the tale of a little Filipino migrant worker and his big dreams. But what should by rights be a pathetic story of oppression and heartbreak is instead a wondrous fable of resilience, hope and happiness in this Obie Award-winning production of “The Romance of Magno Rubio,” playing as part of Long Wharf’s New American Voices series.
Magno Rubio (Jojo Gonzales) is a 4-foot-6-inch, strange-looking laborer in California during the Depression. Much is made of his physical stature and looks with the refrain: “Dark as a coconut ball/with a head small/and limbs like a turtle.” But the misfortunes of life, work and love never seem to get this simple soul down.
From his dismal bunkhouse, he begins a correspondence with a 6-foot-tall, 195-pound Arkansas blonde whom he met through a lonely hearts magazine and who brightens his naturally sunny outlook.
Such a disproportionate quest is the stuff of legend. The tale is told in verse in a story-theater style that Arcenas expands and enlivens with a seemingly nonstop, swirling staging that employs musical instruments, song, dance, chants, raps, martial arts, percussion and even a shadow play. Composer-sound designer Fabian Obispo finds the pulse and melody to lighten every aspect of this dismal immigrant life.
As the narrative continues, it is clear to all but Rubio that the woman is taking advantage of the poor foreigner’s sweet nature as she squeezes, from long distance, every dime from his meager earnings. This only inspires him to work harder, especially when the prospect of marriage is on the horizon.
Despite the inevitable conclusion, there’s a sweet spirit that pervades, not just in Magno’s quest but in the camaraderie of the workers. Though they may have little in common with each other but their poor plight, there’s still a bond that unites them in a brotherhood of refugees, even as they taunt, fight and betray each other. This strength of character is most obvious in Magno, who, despite his clownishness, humiliations and beatings, still has a joyous dignity and determination that manages to earn respect and deny defeat.
Gonzales, who plays Magno with toughness and charm, is taller than the diminutive character he portrays, but that’s what theatrical imagination is all about. In a bit of clever casting, Orville Mendoza plays not only Rubio’s stocky rival but, in exquisite silhouette, the towering Clarabelle as well; Narciso Lobo — who also plays a fellow worker — gives sensual and entrancing voice to Magno’s goddess.
Arthur Acuna plays the poet-narrator Nick, an educated man who finds himself in a menial position, penning the illiterate Rubio’s love letters. Ron Domingo as a homesick cook completes the tight ensemble, many of which originated the roles at the Off Broadway Ma-Yi Theater Company.
The cast honestly conveys the difficulties of the characters’ plight without pathos; in the end they, too, persevere, led by a smiling, waving little giant of a man.