The roiling atmosphere of what are euphemistically called “developing countries” can often resemble excessive melodrama, and excessive melodrama is what Jessica Hagedorn puts onstage in “Dogeaters,” her exuberant but unwieldy play about the Philippines in the 1980s.
The playwright acknowledges the sensational pageant that has gone before in the play’s last lines, as a key character intones, “The soap opera of the Philippines continues.” The play also contains winking snippets of lurid action pictures, radio serials and other forms of lowbrow entertainment that comment on the florid nature of the real-life events that are being staged before us.
But to acknowledge a problem is not to solve it. “Dogeaters” was adapted from Hagedorn’s well-received novel of the same name, and the surreal circus of events it depicts could probably be comfortably contained only in a few hundred pages of dense prose. Packed pell-mell into a single evening of theater, they melt into a sprawling blur of snapshots — some sweet, some funny, some shocking, but all quick glosses on more complex realities. It’s as if a newspaper’s Philippines photo file had been upended on the floor.
The expat named Rio (Kate Rigg) who makes the aforementioned observation serves as a sort of authorial (and audience) stand-in. She’s returning to Manila from the U.S. for the funeral of her grandmother. The year is 1982. Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos are still in power, and their obsessions with celebrity and consumer goods set the tone for the country’s upper classes.
“It’s weird being back,” says Rio. ” ‘Mega-malls,’ ‘super highways.’ I feel like I’m in L.A.” Increasing development and an obsession with Western culture sit beside extreme squalor; the imbalance is firmly held in place by a totalitarian government.
Rio’s perspective of cultural jet-lag is only one of many on offer here (the play might be more coherent with fewer). Part-time narration is offered by a pair of glitzy Philippine showbiz personalities named Barbara and Nestor. In an introductory sequence, Nestor gushes, “So many stories! A vaudeville of doomed love, shameless desire, dreams and longings. Someone always laughs, someone always cries, someone always dies.” For better and for worse, the play makes good on all those promises.
Briefly, characters include Imelda herself, who is delightfully impersonated by Ching Valdes-Aran in some of Hagedorn’s most tartly satirical and strongest scenes; the country’s merciless military leaders; an industrialist who owns half of Manila and has ties to the ruling regime; the movie star/kept woman who shuttles between the tycoon and the top general; the gay claque that cavorts with said movie star/kept woman and runs the local disco; Sen. Domingo Avila, a reformer with tense ties to the ruling party (the play’s equivalent of Benigno Aquino); and his daughter Daisy, a beauty queen who is carrying on with the leader of the revolutionary New People’s Army.
Did I mention Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who breezes in for Imelda’s film fest and picks up a gay hustler who DJs at the disco?
Bewildered? Actually, these colorful characters are drawn in brisk, bold and simple strokes that make it surprisingly easy to keep track of them. Really getting to know them is virtually impossible, however, and for the same reason: Depth must be sacrificed to clarity when so many characters and stories are involved.
As a result, Michael Greif’s direction consists mostly of stage management on David Gallo’s attractive and smoothly functioning set. Characterizations tend to be one- or two-dimensional. (Standouts include the aforementioned Valdes-Aran, who also plays — briefly but expertly — the general’s long-suffering wife, and Hill Harper as the drug-addicted hustler.)
The preponderance of characters is matched by a wide array of tones. The tongue-in-cheek ornamentation provided by Barbara and Nestor rubs up against blunt scenes depicting the casual corruption of the country’s leaders. There’s a flagrantly unnecessary lip-synch number at Studio 54, performed by the good-hearted drag queen Perlita (the amiable Alec Mapa). There are grim scenes of torture and suffering, handled with a heaviness that may or may not be intentional: “I know how to make her talk!” threatens a mustachioed bad guy, as Daisy cowers before him. The surreal effect produced by these abrupt switches in tone is intentional, but it’s nevertheless jarring.
Hagedorn has carefully tied together the destinies of all these characters in a way that’s rather too neat. The brief, infrequent snapshots of the sweet romance between a humble movie-house worker and her fiance seem afterthoughts until he is framed for the assassination of Avila and quickly dispatched by the military machine.
The hustler witnesses the assassination and flees to the hills where the revolutionaries lurk. Hagedorn certainly means to depict the way in which squalor and success, good and evil, the destinies of the high and the low are so closely tied together that it’s hard to find a straight moral path through the jungle of the country’s culture. But the connections can seem artificial.
Flawed as it is, the play holds the attention. Given the kaleidoscopic events on view, how could it not? As the tears fall and the bullets fly and the sequins and satin swirl, it’s impossible to look away. Soap operas may not touch us deeply, but they can be immensely appealing.
“Dogeaters” hints at making deeper comments on the infiltration of showbiz into politics and culture, and it also aims to paint an honest portrait of a repressive totalitarian regime and the noble souls fighting against it. Full marks for ambition! But in the end, it’s really only as a gripping and often gleefully funny soap opera that it succeeds.