Sunday, 26 June 2016

An opera without music?

From time to time, I am asked for advice as a professional writer and curator.  When asked for a tip by a junior writer, someone struggling to get published or their parent, this is what most frequently comes to my mind, "focus on content over style" or another version " be clear rather than being clever".  Functionality is key to my writing and career.  So, you can imagine how pleased I was when I was stopped in the post office this week and someone told me that a review I had published in the daily newspaper had helped them understand a local theatre production.  Here's the review:

A Poetic Script Produces Powerful Performance

When Graham Hunt, producer of Beats Around the Bush, characterized the play script as "like Shakespeare with a fresh twist of Hollyood", I thought now there's a lofty goal.  Consequently, I was surprised to discover several soul stirring moments when an extended soliloquy nearly achieves that goal. The play is written by Riley Palanca, who is originally from Manila, and he clearly has a flair for contemporary spoken word.  It was wonderful to be swept up in the melody of the language and sentiment.

The play's subtitle is "The Word Opera."  When I asked Palanca why he chose the term "opera" he explained that when the characters are at their most passionate, when emotions were running high, it was like music to him.  Don't be mislead, it is not a musical.  Opera refers more to the larger-than-life quality of the play and its characters.  And there are plenty of epic meltdowns, lover's quarrels and reunions between the millennial characters.  If this is opera, it is the unconventional opera of the Beat Generation like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who found creative riches in the shadowy underside of society.

Riley Palanca is active in the spoken word community of St. John's.

 For his St. John's debut as playwright Palanca has created a fictional setting called Malate based on the treacherous streets of Manila's gay community.  The Factory's interior with its brick walls and rowdy, street art seamlessly take on the urban character.  Stage lights bathe the actors in bright washes of hot oranges or moody blues helping the audience to focus on the alternating speaking roles of monologue or soliloquy. 

The central characters are four gay couples and the play deals with their complexities and issues. One man has a pregnant wife at home ("who glares at him like an anorexic looks at a buffet table"); another a violent partner; the list goes on.  Diversions abound. They are beating around the bush, avoiding answers and words like homophobia. But in dwelling on the specific the universal is uncovered.  Their stage world is Asian Malate but it might as well be the tragic site of the Orlando shootings.


All eight of the cast held nothing back with their performances but it will be the poetic script that I will remember most.  Streetwise but unschooled, Chance solicits Miguel to teach him how to write a poem. In response, we are treated to a parody of "it is a summer's day" as if it was written in turn by Shakespeare, ee cummings, Pablo Neruda, E.A. Poe, Ezra Pound, Kahil Gibran, Sylvia Plath and those are just the ones I can recall.  Or achingly simple lines like "I find my mother in crosswords, in cross stitch, in too much salt in my pasta, in the front row of my shows…"

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