Tuesday, February 15, 2011


If the West thinks it knows anything at all about the Philippines it’s, firstly, that Filipinos make great house helps, hospital staff, and care givers generally, and secondly that they are among the happiest people on the planet. These two traits are not generally seen as either logical, or connected, nor as reflecting deeper values; they’re simply the way things are – just as Germans and Scots make good engineers, the English are administrators, and Jews run the banks, the newspapers, Hollywood, and Congress.

And so it is that I find myself – after 30 years on and off (ok, mostly off) the stage in Manila – in my first Philippine musical, and also my first acting endeavor with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), and I am once again, rather forcefully, being brought into close contact with these two traits, both in the title of our musical - Care Divas - and its subject: Filipino care givers in Israel, who moonlight as nightclub entertainers, i.e. stubbornly engage even while overseas in their two national pastimes: looking after people and being relentlessly happy.

“It has been suggested that the Philippines be understood less as a single nation than as a collection of South Sea islands.”

“ Gore Vidal once remarked that South Sea islanders exhibit just two emotional states; happy, or puzzled.”

Putting these two statements together I feel a thrill of recognition.

Thirty-six performances are scheduled, which is a long run by Philippine theater standards, and in fact the longest stage run I’ve ever participated in, and as the production unfolds I have plenty of opportunity to ponder anew these two traits in particular, and the Filipino character in general.

Let me begin, then, by declaring that the Filipino aptitude for care giving is part and parcel with their considerable diplomatic skills and indeed skill in human relations generally, such as their phenomenal ability to recall names (something which puts Westerners such as me at a distinct social disadvantage). All this, in turn, comes from a tendency to put people before things (as opposed to the not uncommon Western tendency to do the opposite). To be sure, many Filipinos are venal to a high degree, but whatever materialism they display is not philosophical. The world of objects is not as important, or real, to them as the world of feelings. Worldly wealth, like life itself, is here today, gone tomorrow, so why not enjoy it? To hoard money – in fact, to hoard anything - fatally hinders the flow of life. Spend it! This is nothing if not a sharing culture.

Ricci has just given me a makeup kit, something which every self-respecting gay possesses, and no self-respecting hetero does. I gratefully accept it, along with a pair of white shoes from Ku. Vince is going to burn me the tracks from his musical score of our movie of a few years back, La Visa Loca. A despedida is being held for a group of PETA balikbayans, and I find myself invited. A few days later there’s a birthday party. Ah, the social whirl! “We’re not always like this, you know,” warns Maribel Legarda, the director who never sleeps. But they are.

I find displayed in Care Divas not just a different language (it’s 90% Tagalog), but a different ethos - what you might call the ‘center of gravity’ of the culture. This is predominantly romantic, as opposed to classical; skipping effortlessly over the surface of life, rather than sinking teeth into it to determine its underlying structure (as we tend to in the West). Filipinos do not dwell. There is a distinct refusal to remain serious for more than a few seconds, or to ponder current affairs if they pose a hindrance to present happiness.

I attempt on several occasions to engage a backstage audience with my views on 9/11. Boni moves away. CB declares that she tries not to think about such things. The others listen politely. No-one attempts to advance the conversation.

Romanticism does not analyze. Its preoccupation with surface appeal manifests in the arts - beauty, dance, music, singing, painting (sculpture also, but not where it analyzes underlying form). Its caricature would be wide-eyed innocence, or perpetual credulity. It is, perhaps above all else, uncritical, and hence unselfconscious.

The costume parade, in which John’s extravagant costumes are gleefully tried on by the cast and photographed for the program, takes seven hours! They all revel in it, oblivious to the spectacle they are making of themselves. No! Delighted by it! I watch the chunky Jason, calves broad as shovel heads below his sequined gown, clump heavily up the spiral staircase to the dressing room in 4-inch heels. Dudz, in contrast, is tall and slender – too slender, as it happens, but a bit of padding at the hips fixes that little defect almost alarmingly well. He alone looks, frankly, ravishing. Then there’s Phil, the authentic female executive power dresser - with the rich, baritone voice. Ricci, his abundant flesh bulging through every opening offered by his too-tight dress, is resplendent in ostrich feathers. His lips are encrusted with blue glitter, his eyelashes as big and bright as a butterfly’s wings. He looks like a pregnant peacock. “This is shameless vanity!” I chide. “I know!” he agrees happily.

Talented or not, no Filipino can resist a karaoke microphone. They’re not showing off. How could they be? They mostly sound terrible! No, they’re unselfconsciously expressing themselves, as every creature has a right to do. Hens cackle and frogs croak, and no-one laughs at them or jeers them off the stage.

But this cast is talented! Ricci’s voice is incredible. During the lapel mike check he playfully reaches for a high C at a decibel level that would blow the speakers if the technician wasn’t ready. And Vince’s music! It fluently captures, all of it, the mood of each scene for which it was set. “And he works so fast!” CB tells me. Melvin, the lead, cries night after night exactly on cue, singing the poignant final song through his tears in a miracle of breath control. None of this talent is flaunted to the slightest degree off stage. They’re just regular guys, or rather, gays.

Another aspect of romanticism - this love affair with surfaces - is a preoccupation with celebrity, in marked contrast to the cynicism prevalent in the West (cynicism is all but unknown in the Philippines outside the ruling class, and maybe not even there).

After each show we line up in the foyer to thank our audience, and they return the favor, mobbing us with their digital and cell phone cameras, girls tripping across with little, mock-shy steps, to be photographed with these celebs by their friends, for Facebook. My fellow actors of course take it all in their professional stride, but I with one of the humbler roles feel like a star!

The romantic outlook also expresses itself in the use of language. In contrast to Western classicism, where the play script is sacrosanct, there’s a huge amount of ad libbing in Philippine theater. Initially approaching this phenomenon from a Western perspective I manage to convey my apprehension to Maribel that the musical is going to get out of hand and degenerate into twittering, meaningless repartee, with ad libs building on ad libs until the original meaning and thrust of the play are lost. She politely notes my concern.

Two weeks into the production the ad libs have indeed proliferated. But so have the laughs. A Filipino friend buys 11 tickets. Afterwards he tells me the show was absolutely terrific, wants more tickets, and asks to see the script. I confide that most of what they’ve laughed at isn’t in the script. “Ah! That explains it!” he declares. “It came across as so wonderfully spontaneous and alive.”

Later I admit to Mikou, one of our backstage crew, that I still don’t understand many of the Filipino jokes in the show, and we agree that the humor of another culture is usually the last barrier to fall in the understanding of a foreign language.

“In the Philippines,” she explains, “the humor often lies in the telling of the joke – in the way it’s told; the pauses; the emphasis. While in the West –”

“A joke can often be read as effectively as listened to,” I finish for her. Structure again; the pale cast of thought. Cerebration vs spontaneity. Of course the distinction is only valid up to a point, but…

Catholicism, as we all know, dominates the country. On opening night I listen to an undercurrent of criticism of the tendency of the born-agains over at Trumpets to interpret every twist of fate as God’s intervention, which leads me to wonder if PETA, long regarded as a hotbed of socialism, also coddles a cadre of avant guard atheists. But no, the tradition at every acting company with whom I have performed that there be a short prayer before each show is followed here as religiously as everywhere else. Accordingly, as the chimes sound to call the audience to their seats, our merry band stands in a circle, holding hands, and one of the group is called upon to voice a suitable impromptu prayer. The format invariably involves a request for the success of the show, and an enumeration of those areas of the production that the one praying feels need the Almighty’s particular help and guidance, with requests that He assist in their successful execution.

Can they really believe they’re talking to someone “up there”? My concrete world view cannot admit to this. What it really is, I finally tell myself, is an exercise in unselfconscious mindfulness – reflecting on the needs of the show, rather than on selfish concerns. Yes, that makes sense. That at least I can live with. But with each passing show I sense my own turn approaching! This is not a role in which I shall be comfortable, yet it’s one which my fellow actors all assume with ease. What shall I say when my turn comes? Oh dear! I cannot in honesty say that I have “a relationship” with God, and my Western upbringing has made me profoundly uncomfortable with publicly talking to a God I cannot see or hear. How am I to address the group in a way that will both remain true to such convictions as I have and satisfy the participatory instincts of my fellow actors?

They are going with the flow and I am not, I remind myself. They are at one with the group, rather than separate egos vying for attention. Thus, they have no difficulty tapping into the group psyche and speaking frankly from the heart. I, on the other hand, will have to screw myself up and think and think about what to say well ahead of time, so as not to be caught flat-footed and tongue-tied when the dreaded moment comes. The result is going to be rehearsed and false – the very opposite of what the prayer and the whole spirit of the occasion is all about. Arrgh!

But I am mercifully distracted from my self-concern by two sights –

Good grief! There’s Jerald, possibly the most convincing in his gay role, being collected by - his girlfriend? And all this while I thought… I mean, the high heels, the mincing steps, the…? The guy’s an absolute genius!

Oh, and for heaven’s sake will you look at Ricci! He’s painted large nipples on his rubber falsies. Priceless!

Someone's throat is cleared.

“Paul, would you care to lead the prayer today?”