a version of this was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday, June 8 2009, Arts and Books Section.
It begins simply enough, with four chairs, four small tables, and two clothes racks onstage. The moment the actors begin the first monologue “I Am Man” though, it becomes clear that this is going to be more complex than that stage and its four actors.
Because there is more to making a powerful and revolutionary play than just being inspired by the Vagina Monologues, and reconfiguring it to highlight man’s “humanity”. There more to the project of New Voice Company’s The Male Voice than just telling the individual stories of countless men to pinpoint their existence as affected members of family and society. There must be more to this than that cliché of an ending: men will choose to be part of the solution, instead of the problem.
The narrative voice
There were fantastic monologues of course, such as “The Lord’s Servants Speak Up” of three priests across generations talking about God as not man but also woman and of Catholicism as a contributory factor to the continued oppression of women, and “LRT/MRT” on the dynamics of equality in the everyday act of getting on the train.
The actors representing four generations of men were also absolutely fantastic – Tommy Abuel and Michael Williams as expected, Joel Trinidad who was sadly underutilized, and Joaquin Valdes despite the stutter and the difficulty with Filipino.
Obviously, the problem here was with the material: a majority of the monologueswere bogged down by the need to tell a story. A repetitive one at that.
And so The Male Voice brings us through lives that have to do with an abusive father, grandfather and husband, painful words, brotherhood, HIV-AIDS, homosexuality, fratmen, the military, the macho dancer, the OFW, the ex-convict, the cheating husband. They are shown as victims too, bound as they are in the premise of violence (as perpetrator and victim) and apology (for whatever hurt or pain they have caused).
But at a certain point, the stories become difficult to tell apart, and the narrative mode becomes redundant. After all, how many stories can you hear about the dysfunctions abusive family relationships create, how many stories of regret and change can you work with from there? This barely allows for the community that a production such as this must aspire for.
Where are the stereotypes?
The Vagina Monologues work because we have a sense of how the individual monologues speak to the rest of the world of women, even when they are racially and religiously distinct from each other. Given this model, it’s downright unacceptable that The Male Voice failed to deal with the concepts that surround, the stereotypes propagated about, the expectations of the Filipino man. They can’t say this was impossible, or that it couldn’t be done.
Because in fact the shorter monologues grouped into Montages worked quite well at hitting the bigger concepts of brotherhood (Idol Ko Si Kuya), of societal pressure (First-Born), of media images (Katulad ni Erap), of tradition (My Father, His Father and Me, The Belt), of crazy mothers (Dessert, Anyone?). In this sense, one can’t help but wonder why this couldn’t be done for the longer monologues.
It can’t be that it’s too hard, right? Because in truth, we are at a time when it’s impossible that the Filipino male is not oppressed, in this day and age when the capitalist enterprise oppresses all of us, gender notwithstanding. Particularly for the Filipino male, more than at any other time, the oppression is propagated by everything from the images that media creates of the “ideal man”, to the strange dynamic of gender equality versus traditional chivalrous expectations.
The Male Voice could’ve dealt with all of this head-on, instead of giving us a hodge-podge of stories that seemed to only be bound by two things: a man was the narrator, and there was always some form of violence in his life. Surprisingly enough, there were no monologues on love and sex, on dealing with women outside of marriage, on struggling with a non-stereotypical trait or hobby, on being expected to be padre de pamilya and breadwinner, on being chivalrous at a time when it is taken against you, or taking on the challenge of equality and paying dearly for it.
Probably the only thing more surprising than the lack of sex and libog in this play was its daring to deal with homosexuality – as if this voice is the male’s as well. What, no gay monologues? That’s a disservice to the whole enterprise of homosexual empowerment, as it is an injustice to the male voice.
Better safe than sorry?
What was this really, but a cop-out? Throughout the monologues, there seemed to be an effort at being politically correct, at not speaking of women – or gays for that matter – as objects of men’s affection and hate. There was an effort at not being offensive or aggressive, particularly for issues that mattered. Instead, there was an effort at focusing on only the male experience almost withhimself. It was everything and a disappointment.
Because there must be a creative way of having men speak about themselves in relation to the world, without have to be apologetic or spend too much time giving us a context: I did this, because this is what happened to me, I am sorry. What about I do this, because this is me, deal with it, or don’t. I am man, hear me roar! What about: I am this, because of you. Now where do we go from here?
In the end, there was nothing new or extraordinary about The Male Voice, nothing I haven’t read in books or watched on television, nothing I could take with me as I stepped out of the theater. Nothing here but a lot men talking, which we have in our everyday lives anyway.
Are we truly ready to hear the Filipino man’s voice? If The Male Voice is any indication, then apparently not.