Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh in Manila

Reviewed by Stephen A. Black


THE ICEMAN COMETH in Manila, directed by Tony Mabesa, at the Dulaang Theater, the University of the Philippines, Manila, February 15 – March 7, 2004.

I had no particular expectations on March 5th, when I attended a performance of The Iceman Cometh except those arising from a story I read in a newspaper which mentioned that Tony Mabesa was celebrating his 50th anniversary as a director by doing the play, and which also mentioned that some of the leading actors in Manila were to play in it. Clearly this would be no ordinary student production. I assumed that if this was the way a man chose to celebrate fifty years of directing plays, he must love the play, and I took that for a good sign. Later I would learn from Tony that he had loved the play since the time of his post-graduate studies at UCLA, decades ago, and that he had had three months of rehearsal with his actors. The program notes speak in detail about the 1991 Kevin Spacey production which I assume was the source for some interpretations. The play was given in alternating performances in English and in Filipino, the two official languages of the Philippines.

The performance was scheduled for three hours, beginning at 6 pm, including two five minute intermissions between Acts 1 and 2, and a brief blackout between Acts 3 and 4. Everything worked exactly on schedule. The play was over almost exactly at 9, just in time for a late supper.

The playing area was not large, the set was simple and it followed O’Neill’s directions except that there was no division between the back room and the bar: At stage left was the bar with two or three stools visible leading off-stage. At stage right were five tables. One was isolated from the others near a rear exit and a stairway and occupied only by Willy. At front-right next to a suitably dingy window, were Larry and Hugo; next, and slightly behind, a table with Joe, Piet, Jimmy and Cecil. A little left of center stage and a little farther forward was Harry Hope’s table, Harry facing the audience, with Mosher and McGloin at either side. A fair amount of the text had been cut, but not many of the cuts were particularly noticeable. The show worked extremely well, and one was not physically exhausted when it was over. The house was full, with mostly students in the audience. There was a little inattention in the first two acts, perhaps the discomfort of the middle-class young put amongst a bunch of human derelicts. But everyone in the audience seemed focussed in the last two acts and appropriately moved at the end when there was long applause.

I was immediately struck in this performance by the sense that I was seeing the characters anew. There was a variety of accents – such as, the Filipino-accented English of Don Karigal who played Rocky (an accent that I did not notice in his speech after the play). It worked very well to suggest that what we were about to see might as well have happened in some rough part of Manila, as in lower Manhattan. The various backgrounds of Harry Hope’s barflies fits as well in the Philippines as in New York. Like Manhattan, Manila has been home to people from almost anyplace in the world for many genrations.

Rocky and Larry have the first lines of the play. Larry is usually played as some sort of Americanized Irishman and O’Neill describes him as a big, strong looking man of sixty. Ebong Joson, who is smaller, spoke Larry’s lines with the consonants and fluted vowels of someone educated by the British and after a moment of being a little startled, it made as good sense to me as any other way of playing the part I have seen. He played Larry as a somewhat different character than I have seen before, quicker and more clever, rather than strong and straightforward, seeming more fragile; Mr. Joson made one pay attention to Larry and keep an open mind as to how Larry would react to various things. Harry Hope was played very effectively by Edwin Decenteceo who has a wonderful voice, and was effective throughout. Hope, Larry and Rocky are the stable foundation on which the society of bum rests so that in Hope’s saloon a few of the more fragile members of the No Hope Society can play out their pipe dreams.

The other denizens of Hope’s bar were mostly excellent. Richard de Guzman as Chuck made a good partner to Rocky and Cora (well played by Chol del Coro). André Tiangco (Willie) has a splendid voice and made full use of it for Willie’s flamboyant ups and downs. Jacques Borlaza was excellent as Joe. Fonz Deza and Manuel Aquino seemed perfectly cast as Piet and Cecil, their Boer and British accents perfect to my ear. Allan Palileo was fragile and pathetic as poor Jimmy Tomorrow, Alexander Cortez and Gamaliel R. Viray were effective as Mosher and McGloin, Hope’s hangers-on. Stella Cañete and Imma Matudio did very well as Pearl and Margie. I did not understand most of Spanky Manikan’s lines as Hugo.

My only serious complaint about the production was that Don Parritt’s part as gadfly to Larry and twin to Hickey didn’t seem to develop. I thought Lex Marcos as Parritt seemed too mature in his manner to have gotten into Parritt’s situation or to empathize with it; he didn’t seem to me a whiny adolescent at all, someone who would leap at a chance to get even without the least thought of the consequences until he was overwhelmed by guilt. The bond between him and Larry didn’t seem to develop, nor the one with Hickey, so that Hickey’s line in Act 4, “I wish you’d get rid of this bastard, Larry. I can’t have him pretending there something in common between him and me,” caught me by surprise. Either because of cuts, or for some other reason, neither bond had been made clear. I had the sense that Parritt’s part had been more deeply cut that those of the other main characters and it may be that Mr. Marcos was left too little to work with.

The Hickey of Richard Cunanan was simply wonderful. Mr. Cunanan grew up in the upper Middle-West – his mother is American – and he had the Hoosier accent and manner down perfect. Several actors have shown us Hickey’s madness and desperation, and probably no one has gone more deeply into the part than Jason Robards (as I have written elsewhere). But it seemed to me that Mr. Cunanan showed us more of what is loveable as well as mad in Hickey than I have seen before. In this performance I got a better idea of what makes the bums so look forward to his annual visit. Imagining that Evelyn would keep on forgiving this man his transgressions does not seem so difficult, nor require us to think her as dull or trapped or desperately accepting because she had no choice. As Hickey told his dreadful tale in Act 4, one felt pity for him as well as for Evelyn, in a way that reminded me of the pity that one feels for some of Sophocles’ difficult characters, his Creon or Aiax or Elektra or Philoctetes. At the end of the play, when Parritt falls, I felt as deep a sadness as I did at a great performance of King Lear I once saw in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Mr. Cunanan, a husky young man, appears to be about thirty. He has played in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Moliere. It seems to me he should be able to make a fine career on any English-speaking stage in the world if he cares to do so. As for Tony Mabesa, how could anyone find a better way to celebrate 50 years in the theatre? Congratulations to him and to his entire cast and production company for a truly fine Iceman.

© Copyright 2004 Stephen A. Black.  Stephen Black is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia and author of Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy.


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