the thing with expectation is that it can be your undoing. for watching theater, i refuse to listen to the soundtrack of a musicale, or to read the script (when available) of a play, lest i start singing (or saying those lines) out loud while sitting as audience. sometimes though, the poster, the press release, is all one needs to build excitement.
that is true for Repertory Philippines’ Wait After Dark. sold as a suspense thriller, one could also only be excited by a cast that was thrilling in itself: Joel Trinidad, Jamie Wilson, Liesl Batucan … how could anyone go wrong? but as the curtains closed on Act 1, i wondered: where does the fear lie?
yes the con had been explained quite clearly, and the telling of it was tight enough. but there was barely any fear to be had yet, and there was no suspense really until that last scene for Act 1 when all three con men are actually in the house with easily-flustered blind Susy — except she doesn’t know it.
i asked it when the mic was thrown my way during the press preview after the show: was that deliberate? to have kept the two petty criminals Mike (Joel Trinidad) and Carlino (Robbie Guevara) from being sinister in the beginning? the answer was yes, because they were no murderers unlike Roat (Arnel Carrion), and that’s how the script was written.
my answer is this review.
i don’t take sinister to mean murderer. i imagine sinister to be about a disquieting presence, one that remains threatening even as the crime committed might be as petty as stealing. it’s could be sleazy, for example, where a man might say nice things and might even be nice, but there might be a swagger that’s off-putting, if not just suspicious. i asked that question because i thought the play could’ve used a more nuanced portrayal of Mike and Carlino, who might not have been hardened killers yes, but certainly it was a misstep to have had them do what looked like a comedy routine in the beginning?
now it is the gift of these two actors that this comedy would succeed, but it might have been the undoing of these characters from the beginning. once the comedy set in, there was just no turning back.
the comedy was so good that when Roat came in, he seemed more like some gay caricature instead of the main antagonist and real evil here.
the comedy had so set the tone for what was happening on stage, that even the moment when Mike and Carlino realize there’s a dead body in the other room didn’t quite succeed at shifting the attention from the comedy to this man who was more evil than he had let on. Mike and Carlino screamed, yes. and they were flustered — Carlino more than Mike — but it didn’t quite hit the note of fear and disgust, anger and confusion, that it should have. and so the shift from comedy to thriller became too difficult, and it didn’t quite happen for most of Act One. save for the music, there was nothing here that was a foreshadowing of things to come.
which was a shame, because Act Two was quite the display of fantastic acting from its actors, and this was also where the nervous and uncertain steps that Carlino and Mike took into the large con, and the fear that the character of Roat creates about himself, were better balanced. that is, it was believable that Mike was not just acting but was revealing much of his real self relating to and helping out Susy. his nerves would show: Susy was far more intelligent about her surroundings than they expected of a blind girl.
Carlino was also suddenly en pointe, wiping his fingerprints off everything in Susy’s house, even as he needed to sound mean and domineering as the policeman in this sham. it was a balance that was wonderful to watch because his was an extreme shift from his real nerve-wracked self to the role he needed to play for this con.
it was only at this point that both Trinidad and Guevara became their characters, without the funnies of having two bald men throwing comedic lines at each other. It was quite a show these two put on for Act 2, and thank heavens for that. because Batucan’s Susy was absolutely fantastic, not missing a beat even as she had her eyes wide open as she played a blind girl. Batucan was able to balance Susy’s smarts with her helplessness, her suspicions with her daring and limitations.
Batucan’s Susy was also perfect for the two petty thieves who would become part of this larger-than-life con, because to some extent they were all in the same boat — and in the palm of Roat’s hands. the question was really about who would be saved once that boat sank.
but also there was Roat, probably the most one-dimensional character in this play, which was not helped along by the caricature that he was in Act One. the second act would have him turning into the evil that he actually was, but he would also be the one character who would have the benefit of lighting and sound to create the fear about him.
i tend to be kind — this actor had to learn this role in a week after all — and certainly this was a valiant effort. but this character needed more swagger, a smoothness, that isn’t caricature as it is just archetypal. Roat should have been able to make my skin crawl, in the way that it did for Susy the first time he stepped too close.
there was as such a lack really, of foreshadowing, and it might have been all of Act One, as it was just this set: it all seemed too bright for a house that was beneath street level, that had been lived in before the Hendersons, that was 1960s old. the brick walls looked too clean and new, and there were strange touches: a set of four framed photos of Susy above the washing machine, which looked more like contemporary selfies than they did 1960s photography. more photos hanging too high on the brick walls.
that set as space for this con, was the most ill-fitting character for this staging of Wait Until Dark. it didn’t create the world of Susy and Sam for us, and neither did it work as space where light and dark — in all its meanings — might coincide. that i realize is the heart of this play, but with an Act One that was unstable at best, and a set that was the worst character here, the play with light and dark, truth and lies, criminal and evil, just didn’t happen.
sound and lights are not all that make a successful production after all, and for a play like this one, the actors couldn’t carry the production’s misses on their shoulders. so yes, there was fear to be had here for sure, but other than making us wait for it, Wait Until Dark also needs to work on it a little more.
Wait Until Dark was written by Frederick Knott and was first staged in 1966. It is a Repertory Philippines production directed by Miguel Faustmann, with lighting design by John Batalla and sound design by Jethro Joaquin.