The most glaring implication of the conceit at the core of Changing Partners is on gender but it manages to do more. In this brisk one-act musical, four actors play two roles — May-December partners Cris and Alex — in rigodon-style melees across four scenes (melees because every scene enacts the tender, raw confrontation that marks the demise of a relationship).
Hence, Sandino Martin’s “Cris” in the opening, paired with Agot Isidro’s “Alex,” disappears off stage at the end of the scene and returns with Anna Luna taking over the role. In the next scene, it is Isidro who exits and Alex returns with Jojit Lorenzo. And so forth.
Despite some unevenness, the effect is dazzling as a whole, and defamiliarizes as intended, otherwise familiar renderings of love in the throes of dissolution. Because there is a point being made on recurrence and interchangeability, the burden on the writing is even heavier, and playwright Vincent De Jesus delivers. The banter is often fresh and recognizable, alert to contemporary idioms, and, as with such exchanges, rightly pendulums between humor and tenderness, on one hand, and antagonism and pain, on the other.
The songs are another matter. De Jesus, who plays the accompanying music on a piano just off stage, has an obvious ear for affective scoring, but the belabored, trite sentimentality in some of the numbers are irredeemable – not by the laudable singing from all four actors and not by the play’s self-fashioning as a “torch musical.” The dated, earnest melodrama in some of the lyrics becomes even more pronounced vis-à-vis the tongue-in-cheek writing elsewhere in the musical.
The May-December dimension (15 years separate the partners) also casts an interesting light on the play’s examination of relationships, layering it with issues of economics, institutions, and ultimately, power. It is an apt vehicle to salvage the play from the “tyranny of sameness” that, while rightly celebrating humanistic universality, can also undermine LGBT identity by unjustly conflating it with the heterosexual mainstream.
The risk in Changing Partners is there. The relationships — whether they are heterosexual or homosexual — broadly resemble each other in terms of trajectory, power relations, and crises, and bits of dialogue even recur throughout the four iterations. Thankfully, there are queer- and hetero-specific departures that prevent a wayward conflation.
To cite, while all iterations of the couple wrestle with an absent character named Angel, in the lesbian version (Isidro and Luna), Angel is a male childhood friend of Cris’s. In the gay version (Lorenzo and Martin), Angel is a man closer to Cris’s age. These allude to specific realities in lesbian and gay relationships, namely the supposed fluidity of female desire and the capital attached to youth and, by extension, beauty among gay men.
The specter of marriage, meanwhile, looms only in the version of Cris and Alex played by Lorenzo and Luna, and, refreshingly, it is the woman who resists this heterosexual baggage.
To drive home its point on universality, the play’s coda sees all four actors taking the stage. They shift across roles and throw lines at each other at a blistering pace, all while moving across the small set.
Images come to mind: a carousel, a conveyor belt. Machines both, for what else signifies repetition better? The blurring of desire and tenderness, will and surrender, male and female, queer and straight, is a feat of stage direction.
Minus another belabored song in the finale, it is a satisfying climax to a brief but all-around gratifying affair.
Changing Partners is written by Vince de Jesus and directed by Rem Zamora. It is a MunkeyMusic and Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) production and will run on the weekend of October 21 to 23 at the PETA Theater Center.
Glenn Diaz is Head of Marketing and Sales at the Ateneo de Manila University Press and teaches part-time with the school’s English Department.