Arbol de Fuego, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was an enjoyable enough production to watch. But I walked out of the PETA Theater not moved by this production for reasons that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A week after, I remembered performances but not characters; I wondered if it could’ve been staged better, if not differently. It made me imagine what it was like just written on the page. It made me wonder about time and space, geography and feudalism.
Good things to think about after watching a play.
Set in a sugar plantation in Negros in the 1970s, it took a while to establish the time and space of Arbol de Fuego. In the age of vintage clothes and revivals, it can’t merely be about clothes and music. Neither could an old aparador, rocking horse, bean bag transport us to the 70s.
It would only be when Caloy arrives in high-waisted bellbottoms and a wide-collared shirt that the period would begin to be established. Yet even then one wondered: why do they sound like they’re in the present?
Language and tone should’ve been indicative of this period, which is to demand for more nuanced articulations. The problem was clear when the play opened with the maid Lingling (Divine Grace Aucina) and Nonoy Tiking (Raffy Tejada), both of whom sounded like they were in the present, with Lingling sounding like the contemporary babaeng bakla.
There was nothing specifically 1970s about this story given the lack of attention to detail. Neither did the set design evoke old wealth. There was no sense of the size of the hacienda, the magnitude of the feudal power.
The feudal monkey wrench
It seems the feudal relationship and the crisis of the sugar plantation was thought to be enough to establish time and space. But in a country like the Philippines where feudalism continues despite all efforts at land reform, that is far from being a crisis limited to the 70s.
The present in fact would’ve been a more powerful setting. The focus would then be the fall from grace of a specifically Pinoy provincial rich, the kind that is replete with its own specificities given the space that is Negros. That would’ve been enough to work with, and enough to layer this adaptation with complexity. There would be the crisis wrought by the changing of the guards, the age of development, the struggle against change, the crises of characters trapped in the feudal roles they play. There would be these powerful portrayals still.
The strength of Cherie Gil’s portrayal of Rica might be borne of having seen her doing more formidable women characters. Here she successfully works into her character the burden of nostalgia and regret, loss and denial, with wistful looks and long-drawn silences, laughter filled with pain. Tejada’s Noy Tiking as the newly rich ex-peasant was a joy to watch as counterpoint to Gil: the crassness might be familiar but it is rarely portrayed with as much charm. Tejada successfully balanced the entrapment within and liberation from the feudal relationship, and he commanded that stage every time he was on it.
Adjie (Jake Macapagal) Rica’s gay religious younger brother, Chitong (Leo Rialp) the every wealthy man also looking to pay his debts, and Manong Ikong (Bembol Roco) the house help grown old in service to the Jardelezas were believably written into this narrative of hacienda relations. Rialp’s Chitong was the positive spirit in the face of financial loss, as opposed to Rica’s melancholia. Roco’s Manong Ikong was perfectly embedded as the fixture of the house, one who has been there longer than anybody else, and is its ultimate victim.
But it is Macapagal as Adjie who stole every scene he was in, speaking to the religious icon he embraced, engaging with the dynamics of feudal relations with a flightiness and snobbery, walking swiftly like he was always busy, as opposed to his sister who was slow and lost in thought.
He was one to get incensed, but also one to have faith in better. His was a taray that made his sadness seem deeper, if not heavier.
If only for these characters and actors, Arbol de Fuego had everything going for it.
But that’s not all one needs for a successful production. There was a need for these characters to exist within a believable space and time, but also to co-exist with minor characters that carry as much weight. The minor characters here—from the younger Jardelezas to the servants of the house—didn’t have the gravitas to match those of the older cast members. It almost seemed like they were going through the motions of portraying their archetypes, and not specific characters.
It might also have much to do with direction, and the slowness of it all—almost lackadaisical—that contradicted the urgency of the situation. It might have been the stretches of time spent changing scenes, the long-drawn conversations, the strange shifts to monologue.
It might be the fact of a door at the back of the stage, unused until the end. The theater door was used as the door of the mansion throughout the show, which they did not establish as neither closed nor locked as the characters finally left the house. And so the final act of entrapment failed, using as they did the door that was mere background for most the show. It rendered the entrapment of Manong Ikong questionable instead of the most painful inevitable end to a feudal relationship.
Arbol de Fuego reminds that a wonderfully written adaptation is not all that makes a good show, about as much as it reminds that feudalism is far from over. The latter is ultimately what makes it important.
Arbol de Fuego is a PETA production directed by Loy Arcenas, and adapted from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard by Rody Vera.