by Andrea N. Macalino
▶︎ It is easy enough to forget that any theatrical production is always both an uncovering and a recovery. In Rolin Obina’s “Ang Pag-Uulyanin ni Olivia Mendoza” (direction by Phil Noble), both these opportunities are claimed by destroying the status quo of a family that the onset of aging has brought together.
The set is both simple yet functional — most local audiences will recognize the whole of the constructed home simply by looking at what little is revealed. A sitting area roughly divided into two areas allow for stools and a wooden bench rather than a plush sofa. To the left, a rocking chair awaits, backed by a doorway into what is later implied to be the kitchen. Another doorway is adjacent to this on the right side, and as the work progresses these passages become necessary to the idea of coming and going: perhaps a material metaphor for memory. Such is fitting, as Olivia Mendoza (Edna Vida), dressed in a daster and surrounded by her beloved Andres, has started to lose her hold on her mind. To the horror of friends Cesar (Crispin Pineda) and Lika (Erlinda Villalobos), agents of much comic relief, Olivia relieves herself standing up against the wall of the living room, and then expresses horror at finding a penis between her legs where Andres and the rest know there is none.
What first appears as a domestic affair becomes a mystery to be solved. Who, for instance, is “Leopoldo Reyes, Jr.,” a name which Olivia mentions to Andres (Nonoy Foilan), and who in turn mistakes the reference to mean a former lover? More importantly, when Olivia expresses fear that one day, she will forget everyone, everything, Andres reassures her: he will of course be there to love her and remind her when she begins to forget.
The Past that Binds
Still, although Cesar and Lika lighten the probable impending doom of a mind loosening its grip on structure, it is Celeste Legaspi’s Julia who inspires the loudest laughter among the audience. Ridiculous in her flashy heels, tottering from beyond the stage and among the audience, with a face hidden by her hat, Julia bemoans her homecoming to Manila. Meanwhile, to the person she is in a rather choppy mobile conversation with, she complains why “that woman” ever chose to return to the Philippines, when that same woman once had a glorious life elsewhere. That woman, as it turns out, is none other than Olivia.
Julia’s chemistry, as character and catalyst, however, is best expressed when she demands that Lika serve her some water, as well as when she inspires girlish cackle and senseless shrieks with Olivia, who with some prompting finally remembers that Julia is a long-time friend. Unfortunately, remembrance risks the domestic simplicity that had charmed the audience: Olivia Mendoza, Julia reminds her, was once Leopoldo Reyes, Jr., just as Julia was once Julio.
A coherent, serious work that knows its ambition even as it uses humor, “Ang Pag-Uulyanin ni Olivia Mendoza,” does not shy away from unearthing / inspiring anger against the violence inflicted upon Olivia when she was still Leopoldo. In a performance that terrifies as well as magnetizes, Olivia gazes into a scene beyond the reach of audience and fellow characters both: her father drags the young Leopoldo violently, the climax of the physical pain erupting when the son falls into a canal and hits his head. But the height of emotional violence felt by Leopoldo, the older Olivia knows only too well: it is pain inflicted by a mother who, instead of providing comfort, expresses only indifference.
One might think, at this point, that Obina’s work strikes a dichotomy between Leopoldo and Olivia, when in fact the uncovering of her past only serves to fortify her identity as source of illumination and love despite her failing memory. This fortification is non-negotiable for the play, as Olivia’s identity, either as a young man who loved to join gay beauty pageants, as an immigrant in love with a man named Thomas, or even as an aging transwoman named Olivia, is particularly prone to being contested by those around her. By uncovering her past — the violent abuse at paternal hands, the operation in Thailand — the plot allows not just for Andres, Lika, and Cesar to learn the truth about Olivia, but also for Olivia to insist that although her journey includes different places, faces, names, and lovers, her identity nonetheless remains singularly hers and hers alone to claim.
A Response to Rage
The unraveling of Olivia’s past results in an enraged Andres, ready to leave the home that Olivia has offered to him, Lika, and Cesar. More to the point, it is this home, freely given by Olivia, which has become provisional refuge for the aged, when distant relatives prove no help and children, having finished their growing up, have left to pursue their own lives. When Andres attempts to leave this home upon learning that Olivia used to be a man, therefore, he also rejects the material manifestation of her love.
For some, the ending of the play might seem abrupt, especially since the process of uncovering Olivia’s past took on both terrifying and humorous turns. After Julia brings Olivia back from the latter’s attempt to run after Andres, Olivia starts to reveal that although she remembered running after a man, she could not recall exactly why. In this way, she reveals to the listening Andres not only her love and dedication to seek him and reconcile with him, but also the truth that Olivia’s past does not, at all, nullify the emotional bond that she had already formed with Andres.
At this point, the script allows for both remembrance and reversal. Olivia’s desire to find Andres, when the latter learns of it, refers back to his own earlier promise: that if Olivia were to forget all else, then he would simply refresh her memory for her. In the final scene, however, it is Olivia who reminds Andres of the things he had chosen to forget in light of discovering that Olivia is transgender.
In particular, in attempting to reconcile with him despite the fog in her memory, Olivia reminds Andres that throughout both Alzheimer’s and sexual reassignment, she is still the same person that he has promised to love and take care of — and, who, in whatever capacity she can, strives to do the same for him. In this reminder, moreover, is the lesson that Olivia’s past, as it is in the open, signals not an end to their present love, but rather its transformation.
When Olivia refuses Julia’s cries for her to come “home” abroad, she tells the latter that she is already home with her rightful family. Still, this is not what one might consider the most important decision in the play. For had Olivia insisted on staying for and with a repulsed Andres, “Ang Pag-Uulyanin ni Olivia Mendoza” would be little more than an endorsement of martyrdom, an encouragement to stay in an abusive environment. But because Andres drops his bags and embraces Olivia right before the lights dim, Olivia’s decision to stay is met with Andres’s own decision to do the same. As such, the choice is mutual as it is monumental, for it gestures towards a communal effort at building and maintaining family.
In the end, it is not simply sexual identity that is uncovered, but a sense of recovering relationships just when such appear to be lost. In such an uncovering, more importantly, the questions are as multiple as they are rich: if family goes well beyond blood relations, how else can it better cater to the needs of those who challenge binary notions of sexuality? How can a home better accommodate variations in gender and sexual desire? Too: when personal histories are revealed and thus cross over from secret to truth, in what ways can they transform human relations for the better?
As a work staged during Pride month in 2019, it is only right, perhaps, that “Ang Pag-Uulyanin ni Olivia Mendoza” offers these inquiries not to point towards the difficulty of navigating the broad spectrum of sexuality, or even to offer certainty in the face of these challenges. After all, such questions about love, identity, sexuality, age, family, and memory demand neither rigid categorizations nor recourse to dogma. Instead, they point to communal celebration at the face of the unknown: in this case, the vigilant need not just proclaim oneself an ally, but continuously shift and challenge patriarchal notions of sex and gender as needed and articulated by members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves. In this way, the celebration of Pride becomes a never-ending, ever-developing state of wonder, the kind that only unconditional love can bring to the table. ***
Andrea N. Macalino is a fictionist and teacher.