Encapsulating an entire society at a particular place in time would seem as thankless a task as a playwright could take on. But Noel Coward managed it in “Cavalcade,” and Jessica Hagedorn takes a creditable stab at creating a multilevel portrait of the Philippines’ wild and wicked Marcos era in “Dogeaters,” adapted from her novel. Play and the production at the Kirk Douglas Theater founder for much of the first act, but by eschewing the broad generalization and focusing tightly on the characters and their desperation, both redeem themselves in the second.
In a Manila central square (designer John H. Binkley has reconfigured the Douglas to place aud on all four sides, with additional acting areas above them), a cross-section of citizens grab at one of those old-fashioned portable radios with a handle. We hear a snippet of Bee Gees music here, a bit of news about Imelda or the rebels in the hills there, but the sound keeps fading in and out. All are desperate to control the dial; all are cheated of what they seek.
This extraordinary prologue, beautifully staged by helmer Jon Lawrence Rivera, dramatizes the idea that power in the Philippines circa 1982 was remote from the people, who were numbed by a steady diet of gossip, religion, disco tunes and soap opera that left the Marcoses and their generals free to rape the land.
Trouble is that act one goes on to draw out that same notion ad nauseam. A dozen or more characters are introduced with much exposition, but all are static. They’re partying like it’s 1999, complete with sex club scene and drag act, but no one is making anything happen.
Rivera directs the cast to shout their lines and put quotation marks around the ironies. It’s like a production of “Cabaret” in which every character is Sally Bowles: feckless, vain and blind to the realities around them.
Major exception is Joey Sands (Ramon de Ocampo), a rent boy and junkie determined to pull himself out of chaos through an assignation with visiting satyr Rainer Fassbinder (Nick Salamone, unconvincingly square and lean as the famously rapacious filmmaker).
De Ocampo’s intensity is welcome, but another key scene, a golfing foursome of deadly political enemies, is muffed because it has no intensity at all; cast plays the surface without balancing menace and bonhomie.
It’s the act-ending murder of the opposition leader — a fictionalized surrogate for real-life martyr Benigno Aquino — that finally galvanizes the characters into action as it galvanized the Filipino nation, and the world becomes dog eat dog.
As the only witness to the crime, Joey goes on the run, while assassination’s architect Gen. Ledesma (Dom Magwili) grinds the victim into powder by interrogating and raping his daughter Daisy (Esperanza Catubig, running the full gamut of emotions here), a former beauty queen now pregnant by one of the rebels.
A lonely office worker (a radiant Fran de Leon) finds her suitor (Antoine Reynaldo Diel) framed for the murder and her world shattered, while Imelda herself (Natsuko Ohama, spot-on as the legendary mini-Evita) tries to keep her world together through the verbal seduction of a New York Times reporter (Salamone again, this time perfectly cast).
In short, act two raises stakes for all the characters, high-born and low, and as the noose tightens around them the spectator becomes riveted.
Helmer Rivera shows himself to be a master of the life-and-death confrontation once the scenes that sprawled across the Douglas stage are replaced by a series of intimate faceoffs as if in a cockfighting pit, and Steven Young’s lighting is remarkably expressive as the nation is thrown into metaphorical night.
No one’s fate is resolved — aud is pulled up short as play stops abruptly — but how can it be? Our narrators, the hilarious and chilling Nestor (Orlando Pabotoy) and Barbara (Liza Del Mundo), have always reminded us that life is a never-ending soap opera. “You know that old saying: the Philippines spent 400 years in a Spanish convent, and 50 years in Hollywood!” Daisy joins the rebels. An action movie star becomes president. Cut; break for commercial.