Sunday ∗ 06 Apr 2014

rising to the occasion: on “Cock” and the text as king

My refusal to compare foreign texts with local ones is based on the notion of independence. That is, I’d rather grant a local work with as much individuality as possible, and save it from what — to me — would be a false because unfair comparison with foreign work that I (on most counts) would not have seen anyway.

I imagine I can be criticized for having such tunnel vision, or allowing local theater such leeway when critiquing its adaptations. And yet this is really more about my limitation as a writer: I will not pretend to know what the foreign stagings look like when all I’ve seen are clips of these on YouTube. I’d also like to think that much might be gained from acknowledging these limitations and working with nothing but the play in front of me and my intertextuality.

Cock poster via Red Turnip Theater.

The years  (limited as it is) have provided me with a sense of these limitations. With nary the budget for the grandness of musicales, and sometimes the lack of imagination for sets that actually work, what we do always have and consistently is the talent.

And then of course, there is Cock.

Red Turnip Theater’s debut was one that left much to be desired. Closer had to live up to, if not exist against, a movie adaptation that we were all more familiar with. It also suffered the inclusion of actors who were doing theater for the first time, alongside two veterans who will have any audience in the palm of their hands.

The sophomore offering as such had little shoes to fill, and RTT could’ve given me any contemporary straight play (i.e., not one Repertory Philippines would stage, haha!) and I would’ve been happy. Instead it decided to do the difficult and deliver Cock.

It is not that it is unexpected that floored me about this production; it was that it took a whole lot of balls to do it at all. Because it was obvious from the get-go, the rarity of the material. A full 90 minutes of well-written talk, of actors not leaving “the stage,” which was for this production a reconfiguration of our notion of “a stage.”

More than the conclusion that “zomg, it looks like a cock pit, i.e., a sabungan!” it was really theater-in-the-round done successfully. That is, this was not just a “different” stage to local audiences, this was a reconfiguration as well of spectatorship, where we were encouraged to bring a drink, told to pee beforehand. Where the set-up of seats and bleachers in itself ascertained that every movement from the audience, every tiny cough, a sneeze, ripples through what is mostly a soundless set: actors walk off and onto the center without a sound, nothing opens or closes, there is no background music save for the drum that signals the beginning of a new conversation.

Cock image via Red Turnip Theater.

The audience is privy to everything that happens here, including actors waiting to walk in, actors sitting and staring at what unfolds without — but necessarily with — him. There is no reprieve here for the actor, even when her back might be turned to the audience, even when he is waiting in the wings. That was daring in itself to decide — given the venue, given the set, given the set-up with the audience — to give spectatorship such power and to trust that third world Philippines can handle it.

On press night of course we once again prove with such vapid questions that we are at a point when we do not even know when we are faced with brilliance, too easily pleased as we are by everything, giddy over just the fact of “watching theater!” If questions like “could you relate to your characters?” and “what did that ending mean?” are any indication, then we (goodness gracious, the theater press!) are far far from being an audience that deserves this kind of material — if not this kind of theater company altogether.

Because the power that is handed to the spectator by this production is a challenge. There is no spoon-feeding to be had here, and one is made to sit and listen. It will not have the pomp and pageantry, the music and the costumes, the exaggeration and flourish that contemporary Pinoy theater lives off, musical or not, PETA and Tanghalang Pilipino included. But that is precisely why you are being trusted with the material: it is yours too, even when you do not know it.

Cock image via Red Turnip Theater.

Cock‘s magic after all is in the manner in which it is told, where the narrative of John (Topper Fabregas) and M (Niccolo Manahan) is one that is familiar, the inclusion of W (Jenny Jamora) not foil as it is mirror, and of F (Audie Gemora) as that dependable patriarchal voice one expects in (even when absent from)  a narrative about love.

Because love is what Cock is about. At its center is the love between two gay men and its unraveling, during which John finds comfort and shelter in W. The confusion that ensues is stuff for some really bad comedy. Here, it is stuff for some really fantastic painful conversations, for real and honest turmoil, the kind that only love can bring.

A less sophisticated production would’ve / could’ve banked on the comedy — for how it would resonate too — and how easy it would be to make a hit of it — in this country! But instead it dealt with the words here, the conversations and the characters these create, with a careful and distant hand. It was respect for the material, as it could only be a belief in the ability of actors and audience to allow for this material to have a life of its own. One that I imagine would have been different for each audience; I was sadly at press night.

Which of course makes me realize that these actors inevitably carry more than just the weight of this material on their shoulders; they are burdened as well with the possibility of an audience not getting any of it, faced as they are only with this cast of four and that red dot on the floor. And with nothing else to hold on to or fall back on literally, it could easily go awry, for audience and actors both.

Or it could be fantastic.

Cock image via Red Turnip Theater.

Because this might be the best I’ve seen Fabregas, which is of course to say that I’ve seen him in a slew of pretty forgettable roles (and productions). Here he allowed for John to be defined by his helplessness and confusion, where turmoil becomes him, his search for answers happening in a seeming frenzy. That the latter is at all possible within the limits of that red dot is a measure of Fabregas. In the end John finally stops moving and stands still. That it would be this character’s freedom is all because of Fabregas, too.

It is easy to imagined that M, W, and F are mere secondary characters here, where the namelessness must mean an amount of irrelevance, if not is a form of dismissal. Yet it is both W and F who are more certain here, sure of their place in the conversation. Gemora’s F is the closest to a caricature — and that ain’t a bad thing. It remains a father figure that would be familiar to us: overbearing and loud, the weight in his step a measure of his self-importance. At the same time it is clear that he is in over his head, uncertain of his place in this particular dinner among his son M, John and W. And so he is cocky and distant, which also creates for this character a palpable insecurity, his defensiveness for his son transformed into one for himself: have I been wrong in believing this (gay) relationship all this time?

Jamora’s W was charming as she was complex, where her audacity was intricately interwoven with vulnerability, and there was no way to peg her as stereotype – which would’ve been the easier way to portray W. When she does her final plea, Jamora could have easily fallen into the trap of desperation. Instead she allowed for W to be utterly yet vigorously defenseless, which was just beautiful.

Cock image via Red Turnip Theater.

Throughout this narrative though, it is the character of M that evolves and transforms, where it might have been easy to peg him as mere victim from beginning to end. He is the every man (or woman) in fact, for whom relationships matter enough to suffer through indiscretions and dishonesties. And yet M’s crisis here is not so much that he is at the receiving end of John’s turmoil; it is that he is a victim of his own struggle too, his notions of what relationships entail the reason why this story moves at all.

It is M’s turmoil relative to John’s that is the stuff for nervous breakdowns here, because much of it is contained and  controlled, evolving from anger to frustration, denial to surrender, yet all the while maintaining the idea of having been victimized. M is criticized in conversations between John and W, where M is portrayed as controlling and strict to justify the kind of freedom that John was enjoying beyond him.

It would have been easy to take the side of John in fact, except that it is Manahan who plays M. What he brings to it is a complex tension that’s a joy to watch: dominant but sensitive, powerful but weary. This character speaks the more biting and sarcastic lines yes; the magic might be that everything else other than those words was fragile. And this is all Manahan really – M’s stance, the changes in his voice, the lightness and / or swiftness in his step – all these allowed for a confident defeat, a strong fragility, a balance that’s delicate and graceful in the midst of all these words, all the noise, of this love’s unraveling.

Cock image via Red Turnip Theater.

Which does bring us back to how Cock is about love, even when the reviews of it (at least in this country) have focused on the question of sexuality instead of on the psyches of these three characters struggling between self-preservation and destruction. Here it is the idea of “the gay play,” in all its superficiality and spin that might be the culprit: it is a frame that few would want to forget. After all, it makes the material easier to capture.

Never mind that the task of critiquing culture should not be about ease at all. This is the thing really with the age of the internet and the age of everyone-can-be-a-reviewer: what has become important is to churn out the words and beat the other online reviewers to the punch. No production to my mind deserves this. Cock even less so.

Because here we are also being told about the value of words, the ones that are deliberate and controlled, the ones that we articulate and those that appear in the slump of our shoulders, the look in our eyes. Here sitting through an hour and a half of words, we are being reminded about power and control, fragility and exhaustion, the ones we have words for and those that we don’t. Yes, the story is about a gay man falling in love with a girl and the crises that ensues. But the staging itself (the sound and lights, stage design and direction), the performances here, allowed for Cock to be a far grander display of love’s undoing, a louder articulation of freedom than we’ve heard elsewhere.

That is its brilliance really, and here RTT has found its reason for being. Its task is to give the local audience material we would otherwise not see, to do it like it is no adaptation, and reveal how it can be independent of elsewhere. That’s always a great thing, rare as it is.

That red dot in the center of Cock might have spoken of how love and relationships are about hitting a bull’s eye, as it can only be moving target. Seems to speak about Red Turnip Theater, too.

“Cock” is by Mike Bartlett. The local staging of Red Turnip Theater ran from March to April 2014 at Whitespace. Direction was by Rem Zamora, sound design by Jethro Joaquin, set design by Denis Lagdameo. 

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