The disarray is what you first see of “Tribes,” like a portent of what’s to come – a threat if you are so unprepared for words coming at you, voices overlapping, deliberately and otherwise. You struggle to keep up until you realize that might not be the point.
Lost in language
Because much of what is said here—conversations about personal projects, ribbing and teasing among family, allusions to past relationships—and how these are said with one person talking over the other, all with equally loud voices, always seemingly at the brink of hysteria, it’s almost an exaggeration of dysfunctional familial communication. Unless of course that is the kind of family you have, and in which case this all looks and sounds normal, and maybe you won’t even try to keep up at all.
The preoccupation with language of course is the point here. The father’s a highly argumentative academic who does not mince words yet remains lovable with his old man impatience (thanks mostly to Teroy de Guzman), the daughter’s an opera singer wannabe (Thea Yrastorza), the mother’s a writer of fiction (with great comedic timing in Dolly de Leon), the elder brother struggles with returning to an old self, one that is part of family and its expectations (Cris Pasturan). The exchanges are intelligent and funny, but only if you can handle irreverence and acerbic humor.
At some point too, you get into the rhythm of these conversations and find that while you might not keep up, the more important parts are when they all take a breath and are forced to listen, or are silenced, whichever comes first.
The adversarial silence
The youngest of the siblings, Billy (the arresting Khalil Almonte), is deaf. He misses much of the conversations, even with a hearing aid and lip reading skills, which is no surprise: if the hearing can barely keep up, what more the deaf?
There is also a tendency for the family to dismiss the fact that Billy seeks clarifications, refusing to repeat long conversations for him. And so even when he could speak and hear, and even when he wanted to understand better, the tendency of the family was to fall silent themselves, busy as everyone was, always moving from one point to the next.
Save for Billy, and Dan who was dealing with voices in his head, as opposed to the silences that filled Billy’s. The conversations between the brothers are kind but difficult, and this is where one hopes the material had spent more time establishing what this relationship was like, especially since it becomes a critical part of the story’s unraveling.
As it is extraneous to it of course: the easiest layer here is that of Billy falling in love with Sylvia (Angela Padilla) who is besieged by the losses that the slow process of losing her hearing begets. But it is Billy’s struggle that take center stage: he wanted to be freed of this state of semi-understanding his family’s world, because there is a world, there are people, who speak his language—the one he learns through Sylvia.
By the time Billy decides that he will cease to speak, one realizes that he had never really spoken.
The normal, the easy
Where we might imagine, as this family does, that what is normal is to hear, and therefore it is the deaf son who has to go through the process of adjusting to his hearing family, you also realize that given this family’s dysfunction, what is being put into question here is the notion of normalcy itself.
And if the relationship between Billy and Sylvia is any indication, we are also being told that if there is anything that might be most normal, it is that cliché that reminds us all to learn how to listen, which does not have much to do with language or words, as it does with understanding.
One wishes Tribes had lived up to these complex assertions, but there were too many instances here when it seemed to have decided to focus on one character over another, one story over the more difficult one to discuss. Sylvia (which character Padilla imbued with grace and stability), for example, could’ve been a better developed character, whose crises is given as much importance as Billy’s, instead of being pegged to being his love interest. When she goes that extra mile to bring Billy back together with his family, the motivations behind it are not even clear.
Unless of course we will settle for the easiest explanation that is love and kinship, which would be sad. After all the material also presents all these layers and offers it up for discussion. Sadly, it doesn’t see many of these layers through.
In hindsight, one realizes that this staging in fact helped this material along, with sound design that seemed to be at a constant crescendo, lighting that layered the narrative with the darkness of obliviousness while shedding light on inadvertent silencing, all in all creating a deliciously volatile and highly enjoyable portrayal of familial and individual dysfunctions, none of which have to do with the deaf boy at the center of the story.
That might be the best point it makes, too.
An aside: a point
There is a question I’ve always asked of local theater groups (at least in my head), about the decision to stage foreign material. And while I continue to ask that question of many-an-English language theater group and have stopped spending money on those productions—Red Turnip Theater has kept me interested enough to get a season pass, because at least they think about texts they will stage, and there is a sense that they are raising the bar for this particular audience that goes out to watch theater.
If anything, we are being forced to think a little deeper, with a little more complexity, about the lives we live as part of humanity, grounded in nation sure, but also anchored on notions of universality that we might otherwise not even believe anymore.
And at a time when so few are thinking, and fewer are (self-)critical, there is nothing like other people’s voices to remind us of our smallness, which behooves us to listen as we should—chaos, dysfunction, and all.
“Tribes” is by Nina Raine, directed by Topper Fabregas, with lights design by John Batalla, and sound design by Teresa Barrozo. It runs the next two weekends until September 4.