THE comedy that was schism, an adaptation of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope ou l’Atrabilaire amoureux, (Egg Theater, written and directed by George de Jesus 3rd) reminds that some adaptations must write themselves, given how the originals resonate for the present, given the balance that more important texts strike between the universality of human experience and the specificity of time and space and context.
Certainly it was imperfect, but whatever questions one might have about the adaptation, these do not erase the importance of this text, especially in the context of Philippine theater and culture. Extending the conversation would’ve been ideal. That all it got was a short run at the recent Fringe Festival, well, that is criticism in itself of the state of Philippine culture, isn’t it? That this happens on Art’s Month, too, is a statement in itself.
A contextual conundrum
The crisis of this play is revealed from the get-go. Alex (Tuxqs Rutaquio) and Helen (Angeli Bayani) are waiting for a purportedly avant-garde adaptation of Misanthrope, one that they’ve seen before. They are watching it again for reasons that are unclear, but it is the impetus for this conversation about honesty versus politeness: they both think the play is horrible, and yet it’s gotten good reviews, and the spectatorship of the play will mean congratulatory pats on the back for its playwright and director Don (Ron Alfonso).
It is in this conversation between Alex and Helen that one gets a sense of the context of Alex’s distress: why are people so hypocritical, why is there so much fakery and falsity, in this cultural landscape that they belong to? Helen replies by talking about politeness and its importance, and why sometimes it’s easier to just agree with dominant opinion instead of taking everything so seriously.
It’s in this first part that it seemed like the conversation was not quite rooted in anything, and one wonders what it would’ve been like had Alex’s anger and frustration already been grounded in social media and its kind of bandwagon effect, especially given how it has changed our notions of what is credible and in-credible opinion, how it has made everyone an art or theater reviewer—points that Alex makes in the course of the play.
In fact, at the heart of Alex’s distress is this state of affairs, and yet it was not clearly contextualized in it. A discussion about social media would’ve allowed for a better sense of where his and Helen’s characters were coming from when they spoke, where online behavior can be both nothing but fakery, but could also ultimately be a magnified version of who we truly are. That goes as well for the communities we belong to.
Had it kicked off with say, an issue that was dominating social media, or Helen’s online behavior, it would’ve also allowed for Helen to be a more complex character, a stronger counterpoint to Alex’s belligerence. As it was, it wasn’t clear why Helen was so . . . polite, why she did not think much of compromising on truth, and why ultimately she felt that the more important task was to get through the day unscathed, honesty be damned.
The game we play
This point of course is made in the play, but only when the narrative had already proven Alex’s crisis to be real, when social media posts and kuyog become the aftermath of his honesty about Don’s play. It was downhill from there: private conversations on Facebook were revealed, tsismis was turned into fact, quotes and misquotes were sold as truth.
Alex is the fool here of course, because he is the one who believes differently about this world. It is this belief in the truth, the need for honesty, that also makes him its victim. In the age of social media, does truth really matter still? Is there truth beyond what we read on our walls and comment sections and FB messages?
While Alex is painted as foolish, almost crazed, in his insistence that people tell him to his face what they think of him and his work, this cast of characters think nothing of this crisis, if they think about it at all. After all they are complicit in the lack of truth here, as they seamlessly shift between what is said under one’s breath, and what is said out loud; what one thinks, and what one actually says—what one wants to say, and what one can’t.
These are back-and-forth movements between truth and un-truth, honesty and dishonesty, but we’ve gotten so used to it that we think nothing of the lies. Duplicity is the name of the game, and certainly it is a game that is being played, a game that we are part of too, whether we like it or not.
The crisis of opinion
What schism does is reveal this to be fact: here is a game that we are all part of, and there’s no getting out of it. It would of course be revealed via the character of wannabe actor Jim (Jojo Riguerra), the pretty boy archetype who knows to play the game and who uses machismo and pogi to get out of every confrontation that paints him as an asshole. He is the ugliest character here: unapologetic about what he says, and practically dismissive—“social media lang ‘yan!” he says.
That you will despise this character has everything to do with Riguerra. That he is forgiven—that is truly a statement on us.
As it is a statement on truth. Where it is not merely about the words that we say, but also about what we refuse to say; where it is not so much about what we praise, but also what we fail to question. Where one’s own opinion might be dismissed as nothing but opinion, as if it holds no truth.
And here is the ugliest part of this current state of affairs really, which Schism highlights: the duplicity of faces, the multiplicity of opinions, the freedom and the politeness, have made us believe that there is no truth. What this evades is in fact even more dangerous: the idea that there is no right and wrong, the notion that we are all correct. That’s not just dangerous, it also justifies injustice and prejudice, creating a rupture that is deemed necessary, if not seen as a matter of fact, and therefore can be dismissed.
Alex’s crisis here is in fact our crisis. Because when honesty and criticism are not seen as productive anymore, when the reaction to it are personal attacks, then you know this state of affairs can only be described as terrible, the discourse at an all time low.
Given this state of (theater) affairs, that Schism seeks to even have this discussion already makes it valuable. That it does so in this form, in this context, is daring like no other. ***