Review: Tribes (Red Turnip Theater)
Trust Red Turnip to get me writing again.
After an eight month hiatus, I’m back to writing again—no excuses, really. I just didn’t feel the urge to write. And neither did I feel the requisite peevishness to excoriate a production needlessly. However, I am happy to report that I am back writing again partially because of the artistic success that is Red Turnip Theater’s Tribes.
The Play: Tribes, by Nina Raine. Notably, Tribes is the first play produced by Red Turnip Theater to be written by a woman.
The Plot: a young man named Billy was born deaf, but was raised as a hearing person in a family that doesn’t share his deafness. The challenge to this status quo is catalyzed with Billy’s meeting Sylvia, a hearing woman who was raised in a deaf household, but is slowly losing the sense of hearing herself.
Directed by Topper Fabregas.
Cast: Kalil Almonte (Billy), Angela A. Padilla (Sylvia), Teroy Guzman (Christopher), Dolly de Leon (Beth), Cris Pasturan (Daniel), Thea Yrastorza (Ruth).
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission between two acts.
Venue: The Power Mac Center Spotlight, a black box theater at the 2nd floor of Circuit Makati. Visitors who may have watched Red Turnip’s Constellations would be familiar with the venue. Circuit Makati has ample parking, and is readily accessible for ride sharing applications such as Grab and Uber.
Caveat, as shared before: I have worked with Red Turnip Theater. Feel free to read with a grain of salt. Additionally, possible spoilers below. You have been warned.
I hadn’t been disappointed by Red Turnip before, so it was with some glee that I received a ticket to watch its season premiere. The glee had two causes, one of which I feel I should share now: a Red Turnip premiere is flush with interesting people and good drinks. Cocktails before and after the show are sure to be punctuated by rich conversation. If possible, don’t wait: watch early. Watch the first show.
The other reason was that this show was directed by Topper Fabregas, and I had enjoyed his last foray into directing quite immensely. It’s satisfying to share that he doesn’t disappoint the expectations set by previous success.
What’s different about this production (as compared to previous Turnip shows) is that it feels like an amalgamation of earlier work without feeling artistically stagnant. The set design and production & costume design of Ed Lacson, Jr. and Marta Lovina, respectively, is sharp and feels unaccountably British; a small flat that looks full of bric-a-brac and the evidence of several lives coexisting. This is artfully assembled on one stage thrust to bisect an audience in a theater-in-the-round setup. Lights designer and technical director John Batalla paints this setting with impressions of shadows and blinds, and returns to the sweet technical trick of using real lamps to make the place feel lived in with homey warmth. Finally, one is brought into a world of sound and non-sound in the audio landscape provided by Teresa Barrozo.
The directors of Red Turnip have worked with Ms Barrozo, Mr Lacson, Ms Lovina, and Mr Batalla before. It shows in a good way. In Tribes, one sees impressions of 2015’s 33 Variations and Constellations. This isn’t to say that the artistic output is any way redundant, or that they plagiarize from past success. Rather, it shows that Red Turnip is good at forming teams, and more significantly, at keeping them. Beware the business that cannot keep talent, as the saying goes.
It feels so satisfying to see Kalil Almonte and Thea Yrastorza together in a show again. Though this time they play siblings, the energy they generated from a previous jaunt (in Ateneo’s Games People Play) is still there. Mr Almonte in particular is very effective at sounding and signing as a deaf person does. Credit should go to him and the sign language instructor, Mr John Baliza, for the verisimilitude lent to the role.
That said, Mr Almonte’s best scenes are done with the support of the rest of his tribe. Angela Padilla as Sylvia provides a very touching voice (both literally and performatively) to his Billy. One particularly powerful scene (I would argue, the best in the show), is a quick-paced argument between all members of the family with Billy deploying sign language as Syvlia translates. The two actors generate so much energy and pace by signing with fervid heat at each other. It is a marvelous challenge they meet head on, as Ms Padilla must hold her ground and interpret what Mr Almonte’s frenetic gestures mean in words.
This is only made more powerful as the other players pile on. Teroy Guzman is the patriarch who I love to hate—his delivery is so cutting, I found myself cursing at the character, as he gets so under your skin with so many well-delivered ill-meaning statements. Dolly de Leon’s maternal character meanwhile tries to run interference, but she also manages to get some solid hits in. Finally, Cris Pasturan contributes to the fray by putting in what low blows his character was built for. It’s a riot of a scene, and not in the hilarious sense. It’s just pure, meaningful, chaos.
What’s been said about Mr Fabregas’ direction that hasn’t been said before? This is good work, and rivals what he achieved with This is Our Youth, for which he was nominated under the Best Director category in the Gawad Buhay awards. He will probably get nominated again, and rightfully should be.
There is so much I want to share without giving anything away. This is more than a play about what it means to be deaf or not. It is loaded with many hot-button statements, most of them coming from the character of Christopher, who is curmudgeonly and more than a bit too impressed with his own brain and theory of how language is properly used.
But at the end of the day, this is a play about communion rather than about communication. When we are in the position of being literally unable to hear, does it really mean that we are unable to listen?
Edited: An earlier version of the article specified that Ms Lovina was a possible exception to having had worked with Red Turnip Theater before. This has been corrected to reflect that. Additionally, details regarding the accommodations made for members of the deaf community have been corrected to reflect that as well. All errors and apologies from philippinetheater.org.