Saturday, August 20, 2016

As Straw Before the Wind by Felix Racelis

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By Joe Straw

My daughter named her teddy bear “Purple-Bear” because she was purple.  It was a bold inspirational choice for a two year old to make. 

Purple-Bear went everywhere she went, never left behind for too long, never forgotten on sleepovers and always on her bed when she visited dreamland.

And, at her side, Purple Bear was there through the raging fevers and a myriad of troubled dreams. She had a tender smile, a calming disposition, for those troubling times. But most of all she was there for all the quiet moments.  

And she was never forgotten, because we made special trips to go back and get her.

My daughter’s aunt, a costumer, dressed Purple Bear in the fanciest of clothes on the planet not wanting to see her so unkempt. But, that was long ago.  

Now Purple Bear is a shadow of her former self, her clothes are worn and tattered, her head slightly crooked and not sitting straight on her neck. 

That aside Purple Bear still holds a loving place on my daughter’s bed and a devoted place in all of our hearts. - Narrator

As Straw Before The Wind by Felix Racelis and Directed by Lesley Asistio is playing through September 4, 2016 at the Ruby Theatre, in The Complex, on theatre row in Hollywood.  

This is a play of a Filipina mother, Nene Santos (Tita Pambid) and her daughter, Pilita Santos (Sarnica Lim) who run a small convalescent home out of their home in the San Gabriel Valley. Right now there are only two patients living with them, an older man, Poncing Enrile, Ino (Muni Zano) and an older woman, Mildred Novak (Anita Borcia) in an assisted living situation.

When the play opens Nene is playing gin with the residents but is interrupted momentarily by a phone call from a potential customer.  She is not completely honest to the customer saying that she has plenty of room.  

Nene, a nurse, envisions the opportunities that awaits their business and wants to expand her home to care for more patients - providing the bank will give her a loan.

Unbeknownst to Nene, Pilita’s dreams of getting married are becoming a reality.  But, Pilita has problems getting through to her mother to tell her the simplest of wants, and her reason for being, like getting married.  Nene dismisses her daughter with the wave of her own self-importance.  

In another vein Nene has problems with the way her patients are behaving.  It seems that Poncing won’t keep his hands to himself and Mildred, who is slightly senile, is addicted to cigarettes and wants to smoke them in and around the house. 

There is something really wrong with Nene in the way she treats her clients.  It is sometimes cruel and heartless for psychological reasons which are later revealed in the play. The method she uses to restrain her clients causes her to flashback to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

As Straw Before the Wind is a world premier and really needs some constructive criticism to get it over the hump.  There’s no question that there is something here but moments and ideas need reorganization to move it into a position of a moving play that has more heart and staying power. So, with the idea that Felix Racelis’s play is all there, I will direct my comments mostly to the direction and the acting.

First of all, I’m not a fan of flashbacks in theatre – e.g. Bambi’s mom gets killed in the first few minutes and from then on we know all we need to know why Bambi does what he does – the same holds true for that Shirley Temple’s mom as she gets killed or has died in most of her films – run over by a car, falling out of a plane, you name it but we sympathize with that motherless orphan. – Let’s get the tragic stuff done in the beginning and everything will fall into place including the flashback feelings with the current day character, the banker, etc. 

Well then, do we have a play? 

Yes, and the doll must have a significant role. And the doll must be displayed throughout.

(Spoiler alert – I have to do this to get my point across.)

Desperation comes in many forms and Nene is on the verge of losing everything, her livelihood, and, most importantly, her daughter. She is haunted by the past, the trauma of losing her parents, and the one thing that connects her to them is the doll. The doll stays with her through the traumatic parts of her life.  She has it when the Japanese abuses her.  She brings it with her to the United States.  She still has it many years later.  (I might add, in mint condition.) She should run to that doll in the end, and embrace it from the smoldering ruins

The relationship between the mother and the daughter require strengthening. Each must be in a tug of war fighting for position.

A couple of things about the performance set in 1993, the mother is reaching retirement age and the daughter appears to be in her thirties. Having them closer in age could make them sisters and that might make for a better ending, given the circumstances of the ending.  The finale would be much more dramatic.  Actually, I would prefer the relationship to be one of sisters, until the ending. It makes dramatic sense and one that begs for an explosive ending.

In this kind of space Lesley Asistio, the director, should recognize the space for what it is, a black box.  So, symbolism goes a long way here.  The multiple scene changes to place the audience in a myriad of places works against the audience. So, here are a few suggestions.  One, leave the bed on stage the entire time as a symbolic reference to work, home, the bank, etc. Move the bed around the stage or move the actors around the bed.  Loan Officers often visits work places.  Patients play cards in their rooms and they smoke in their rooms as well. The bed is symbolic for all the play needs including the jungle scenes.

Secondly, the doll should play a major roll. It gives the audience a better understanding of what Nene is all about. (More on this later.)

And lastly, Asistio has the Loan Officer (Doan Nguyen) speaking upstage with his back to most of the audience.  When I see this happening on stage, my thoughts go into ideas that are better left unsaid.  

I got the impression watching Felix Racelis, the writer’s face, when leaving the theatre that things did not go well this night.  But, naytheless, this is a fascinating body of work that needs only a slight reworking of the play - to enhance the moments - to define the moments so they are met with a dramatic tone – and to clarify the structure of the play.  

“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers” – Carl Jung

There is something morally wrong with Nene’s character.  You can see it, at first in small increments, and later it is slightly defined.

If it is necessary to do flashbacks, those moments are to be accentuated, symbolically with lighting, movement, and a creative finished.  The hand gripped tightly in the air, and the arms held back in prone position. However this is painted, the message should be ingrained into our collective consciousness, so that when it happens later we will get a better understanding of Nene’s character. And, do we really need to go back in time to understand this?

Tita Pambid is a fine actress.  Her Nene character is believable.  With minor changes this character could soar. Her objective to create a greater business for her and her daughter is fraught with many conflicts, the daughter, the banker, the patients, and most importantly her memories.  All these things must be negotiated so that, even in the end,  there’s hope. Also, the doll should be with Nene, if not physically, it should be with her mentally. My preference, at least in rehearsal is to have the doll with her physically, so that she knows what drives her objective. Also, she should run to the doll in the smoldering ruins, this is the one thing that connects her to her past.


Muni Zano does a fine job as Poncing Enrile, Ino. He is a man struggling for the finer things in life, like a good pinch. That aside, there is some really good work going on here.

Looking back at Sarnica Lim, I think the role would work better if she were the sister, Pilita Santos, rather than the daughter.  Pilita is rather weak, not forceful enough to get what she needs.  She whimpers to her mother rather than questioning her motives.  She cowers under the weight of a mother daughter relationship and you really can’t have that when you know, in your heart of hearts, that what your mother is doing is morally wrong.  One more thing, Pilita should give the patient a lip lock that immediately sends him into convulsions, without that, the guilty stuff does not work at all.

Rochelle Lozano does a fine job as the daughter, Maria Enrile. Maria is forceful in her ways but seems to be confused about the way her father is treated, practically bound and gagged, but has very little to say about it. There is possibly more layers to this character. Why hasn’t she call the authorities? Why doesn’t she pull her father out of that convalescent home? Why does she takes the information they give her and think it’s alright?  There is something more in her character that will not take action.  What could that be? Maybe she doesn’t have the money to move her father out.   

Anita Borcia does fine work as Mildred Novak, a senile octogenarian with a passion for nicotine.

Doan Nguyen plays the Loan Officer and other characters in the play.  One is not sure why, as the Loan Officer, he was speaking upstage. There is more work needs to be done on the Japanese language which was mostly unrecognizable for his role as the Second Japanese Soldier.  

The same holds true for Gabriel Garcia’s Japanese.  Still, and that aside, Garcia has a strong presence on stage, and his voice is commanding as the Fireman, the Doctor, and Charlie. This actor has strong possibilities.

I wouldn't give up on this production, but there is more to be had in the writing and direction should anyone care to move forward.

I wouldn't give up.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you, Joe, for your thoughtful comments and suggestions, especially that of Pilita being Nene's sister rather than daughter. You've given me a lot to consider for the next iteration.
    Sincerely,
    Felix Racelis

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome Felix - sending all my best.

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