Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Pinoy Midsummer, at Bindlestiff

(Joe Cascasan and Melanie Espinueva in the Bindlestiff and SF State coproduction. Photos by Paciano Triunfo.)

Bindlestiff's A Pinoy Midsummer features shadow puppetry, live puppetry, live music, and dance. Some characters wear sandals and togas, others barongs, others t-shirts and overalls, and still others little more than a top hat made of hundreds of tiny sticks. 

(Dennis Rodis as Puck.)

It's a kaleidoscopic approach to one of Shakespeare's silliest comedies, and one that perfectly suits a production in which 17 Filipino-Americans play English and Tagalog-speaking Greeks who enter into a forested fairyland -- all seen through the eyes of director Lorna Velasco (this production is her SF State master's thesis project) and a certain dead white English guy.

A Pinoy Midsummer is the first Shakespeare production for Bindlestiff, "an epicenter of Filipino American performing arts in San Francisco." It's also the first Shakespeare production for most members of the cast. In her promotional video, Velasco says that part of the impetus for the project was to give her artistic community a chance to perform roles they'd never get to perform elsewhere. "Being an artist of color, an actor of color, we don't get to do this," she says. "We don't get to do classical roles. We don't get cast." 

Along those lines, one of the great joys of this production was the curtain call. Seeing not just the 17 actors but also all the musicians, designers and crew members flood -- or try to squeeze onto -- the stage  was very moving; it was as if to say, here we are together, having taken on a play that once intimidated us but that we have since, in Velasco's words, "made our own." One of my former professors described Velasco's project as part community activism; it's funny that an act as simple as putting if not an entire community than a big ol' chunk of it onstage can feel like community activism, but that moment gave me chills.

There is much to appreciate in Velasco's production before it's over, too. The shadow puppetry (designed by Melissa Diaz Infante) defies easy understanding by the untrained eye. You can't tell what shapes the cut-outs or figures are or how the puppeteer is holding them because the angle from which the light hits them keeps changing. Delightful mysteries aside, one particular shadow puppet even solves a notorious Shakespeare problem: the super-long monologue in which someone describes a memory, tells a story, recounts a dream. It takes a phenomenal actor to make something that's not present feel present, and many directors deal with the issue by having other actors mime what the speaker is describing. That's what Velasco does, only with puppets instead of people. Shadow puppets evoke the world of memory perhaps better than any performance art I've ever seen; they transport you into the consciousness of the rememberer. Precisely because they're shadowy, you can only "see" a part, a shell of what you'd like to see: you have to imagine, to project onto the puppet, but the whole time you're trying to do that, a puppeteer's step forward or back in the light can shrink or balloon the puppet to nightmarish proportions -- just as a memory can so easily escape or mutate.

(The Rude Mechanicals.)

Velasco also drew lively performances out of her cast, some seasoned performers, others neophytes. Julie Kuwabara-Lacson used her chirpy voice to great comedic effect as Helena, the spurned but unsinkable lover, and Michael Dorado as Oberon, the fairy king, brought such focus and gravitas to his part that I really believed in the magical flower and its potent "love juice." But the Rude Mechanicals (Melgign Badiola, Roczane Enriquez, Chuck Lacson, Ed Mabasa, and Patrick Silvestre), led by Joe Cascasan as Bottom, were definitely the highlight. They spoke almost entirely in Tagalog (adapted by Velasco). I can't remember the last time I saw a performance in a language I don't speak, but this animated ensemble made me remember that words are only one (sometimes small) part of a performance. Their energy was so contagious, each member's relationship to everyone else so clearly delineated, that I felt I got some of the humor. (And it never hurts to speak the universal language of pelvic thrusts.)

The kaleidoscope approach -- using so many different forms of art -- was central to Velasco's work. Without it, she wouldn't have been able to bring in such a huge group with so many different talents; the community aspect might have been lost. In the future, I'd be curious to see her build a production around one central artistic concept. For instance, in case you couldn't tell, this production has made me into a shadow puppetry nut, so I wonder what it would be like to focus a production of Shakespeare (or anyone else!) on shadow puppetry, as opposed to incorporating it into just a few scenes. 

I mentioned that this production was a first for a lot of people: the first Shakespeare for Bindlestiff as a whole, as well as for many of the individual artists involved. But it was also a first for me: It was the first time I saw a production with Tagalog, and my first time visiting Bindlestiff. I'm so glad I got to check out the company's hip, ultra-modern space (after they emerged from one of the darkest chapters in Bay Area theater history), and I'm sure this won't be my last time there.

Kudos to Lorna. Not only is she now done with her master's program; she's also achieved every theater's dream: selling out her entire run.

A Pinoy Midsummer continues through Sept. 15; info here.

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