Friday ∗ 26 Apr 2013

Cheers to “The Graduate”!*

If there’s one play that had everything going against it, it just might be this one. After all, much ado about Cherie Gil playing Mrs. Robinson happened at the launch of Repertory Philippines’ current theater season. And that is to say: Cherie Gil.

She would’ve been perfect. That she isn’t playing Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” is like a ghost haunting this production. It goes without saying that I know many people who will decide not to see this play anymore, as a matter of it having lost its original actress.

This is not to say Pinky Marquez doesn’t have it. It’s to say, well, that she had big shoes to fill – even before Gil got into them. This is also to say that there are other reasons to see this production, over and above who was playing Mrs. Robinson.

A setting for sex
Central to this play’s telling is the sex, and as such much of it happens within the confines of one room or other, be it Benjamin’s (Reb Atadero) or a random one at a hotel, be it some girly bar or a room in the middle of Berkeley where Elaine Robinson (Cara Barredo) studies.

Benjamin is a fresh graduate, with the world at his feet, owing to his accomplishments, and yet all he will have on his mind for a stretch of time on that stage is sex.

Sex with Mrs. Robinson to be exact, who seduces the young man, forgetting that he is precisely that: young. At some point Benjamin demands for conversation, and not just sex. At which point it was perfect that he would meet and fall in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine. It doesn’t matter that Mrs. Robinson, the woman he had all but slept with regularly, didn’t approve.

What is also established from the beginning is how this setting, the empty room, the quiet of being alone, is all about Benjamin’s state of mind. He has the world at his feet, but he’s living in his head. He chooses the path of disinterest and ennui.

And yet in this play Benjamin is also nothing but a young adult man, alone in his room mostly, a song in his head on repeat.

The setting for this indecision, for this plateau in Benjamin’s life, is a stage with a moving bed. It is no surprise of course, given the sex, but what works for this production is that even when that bed is cloaked in darkness, it becomes a shadow, a foreboding, of what it is that will ultimately matter – and no, it’s not just the sex that’s to be had on that piece of furniture.

Alongside the set of many doors, without fixed entrances and exits, with only light streaming in, and possibility in the act of leaving and arriving, the set becomes Benjamin himself. That is, it has no answers save for its moving parts. And in the end what becomes important is everything else that can be done on that bed. It is possibility that would change Benjamin. But too, there was romance.

Oh, the confusion!
While Benjamin is at the center of this narrative, it is Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, as it is Benjamin’s parents the Braddocks, and Elaine, who become fodder for his discontent and disillusion, and who end up navigating one end of that stage to another. Granted that Mrs. Robinson does seduce Benjamin, in the end and ultimately it is Benjamin that allows for this story’s unraveling, where his indecision evolves into the decision to go after Elaine, full throttle.

And no, he doesn’t think of repercussions, or of consequences, and here Benjamin’s actions become nothing but romantic. The irony of course is in the fact that once Benjamin is clear about what he wants, the adults around him become unsettled, and this allows for the confusion on that stage.

So while this staging knew to swiftly go about the unraveling of this story, there were instances when it was clear that the cast just couldn’t quite keep up with the speed.

So there was frenzy that was staged, but also there seemed to be cast members who got lost in the confusion. Say, Marquez flubbing a line or two, if not messing up that critical moment when she wanted to confront her husband but instead called Benjamin’s name. The off-putting scene where Benjamin and his parents sit down with a psychiatrist is worth nothing other than having Joel Trinidad (who plays the psychiatrist) steal the show.

Beyond the comedy meanwhile, was the crucial error in casting: there is no sense for this Elaine to be insecure of this Mrs. Robinson. And that is a failure in casting, not just because one might have someone like Cherie Gil in one’s head for the role of the seductress, but because Marquez is just too. . .her age, to be Mrs. Robinson.

She lacked the swagger, the sexy, not so much to be the seductress, but to be the reason for her daughter’s insecurity. As such that scene where mother and daughter drink to the tragedy of their lives falls flat on its face, with only Barredo’s consistent voice and characterization shining through.

Beyond Mrs. Robinson
The one reason to see this staging of “The Graduate” is Reb Atadero’s Benjamin. And yes, you might compare it all you want to other stagings, if not the other Benjamins you’ve seen – including Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film. That of course would be unfair to both of these versions of the same young man.

Because in truth there is nothing here that would remind you of Hoffman’s Benjamin, and right here is the grace with which this production demanded that it be judged independently of any other version of the text.

Atadero’s Benjamin is believable to us, here, in this context. He is your every fresh graduate who can pick what he wants to do, and decides not to do anything. He is a young man who can do anything, and decides to wait it out. Benjamin lives in his head, and Atadero does this justice because his actions are precise, his tone consistent, his body language succinct.

You know it the moment he appears on that stage, sitting on that moving bed, the expression on his face perfect in its dismay and disinterest, as “Sounds of Silence” plays in his head, in the background.

This production is Atadero’s playground, and his is a Benjamin who becomes your every graduate who’s got the luxury of waiting for something he doesn’t know. Here, the laughter that Benjamin elicits is borne only of Atadero’s comedic timing, one that works wonderfully with the character’s evolution from being a flustered inexperienced young man who is all about his body and libido, to becoming one man finding direction and reason for being, because there is love and romance and a future.

The latter is also what Atadero brings to this Benjamin, where he is believably romantic, and in the end absolutely honest. This is the heart of this production. This is also the only reason you need to see “The Graduate.”

“The Graduate” is a Repertory Philippines production directed by Jaime del Mundo. This staging is based on Terry Johnson’s adaptation for the stage and the movie screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. “The Graduate” runs until this weekend, April 26-28 at Onstage in Greenbelt.

*This was previously published in GMA News Online, April 26 2013.

Posted in: arts and culture, entablado, kultura, review, teatro

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