Love, labor, lost

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar

▶︎ It is this facility for highlighting and chastising human frailty that Molière PMS—an Egg Theater Company production written and directed by George de Jesus III — endeavors to channel. A fusion of three Molière plays adapted and staged by De Jesus in previous years — "Le Praning du Sining" (2012, from "Le Malade Imaginaire"); "Maniacal" (2015, from "Les Femmes Savantes"); and "Schism" (2016, from "Le Misanthrope") — "Molière PMS," like its antecedents, focuses on the realm of local theater.

Much of it unfolds within the mind of Alex (Tuxqs Rutaquio), a prizewinning playwright who looks up to Molière. As he and Helen (Angeli Bayani) wait for an adaptation of "Le Misanthrope" to begin, he rails against the hypocrisy of theater scene, saying that he wants to quit it entirely. He deplores, for example, the refusal of thespians to talk about the work of their peers frankly, instead resorting to platitudes in person and to passive-aggressive comments elsewhere, including online. Helen demurs, citing the need for politeness. She also reminds him that Molière had remained in theater to his very last day.

As the two argue, and some friends of theirs arrive, figments of Alex’s fancy arrange themselves into Alex’s unstaged adaptation of Femmes. It revolves around a theater troupe lorded over by the diva Philippa (Bayani), who wants Tristan (Migs Almendras), her pretentious showbiz nephew, to be the lead in their forthcoming play, directed by Chris (Joel Saracho), even if Andre (Sky Abundo), has already prepared for the role. Unknown to Chris, Andre and his friend Rita (Martha Comia) are waiting for their callbacks for a lavish musical, which could hamper their participation in Chris’s production.

Don (Randy Villarama), who helms the play that Alex, Helen, and their friends have come to see, asks Alex for feedback on his work. Alex refuses, letting his companions shower generic praise on Don as he envisions an adaptation of Misanthrope, with Don as Armanne, the head of an ailing theater company. To revive the company’s fortunes, Armanne casts the insipid celebrity Tom Toledo (Almendras)—known best for his readiness to shed his clothes—as the lead in a new play, over the objections of its author, Angelique (Comia).

Pressuring Armanne is Direk Ugo (Via Antonio), who thinks Toledo would acquire gravitas in theater.

At Don’s insistence, Alex finally speaks out. As he deals with the consequences, his mind swings back and forth between the Femmes and Misanthrope adaptations — each pursuing its own course before eventually tangling up with the other — reflecting the struggle within himself to find a reason to carry on in theater.

Inspired, as Molière’s works were, by the conventions of commedia dell’arte, an Italian theatrical form, Molière PMS uses no stage or sets; the action in every narrative is concentrated in a specific section of the venue, enabling each to be distinguished from the rest. The closest that the play comes to costumes are in the Misanthrope scenes, where there are tarpaulins, mounted on either wheeled or portable frames, into which the actors can stick their heads over images of bodies clothed in 17th century costumes and labeled with the characters’ names. The repartee that flies between the characters, across all three stories, is by turns sarcastic and poignant, and in some cases, punctuated to hilarious effect by the antics of the actors, some of whom would, at times, writhe about on the floor in extravagant displays of feeling.

The notion of folding three comedies into one is interesting in principle, but the resultant structure of Molière PMS can be confusing. Nor does it seem necessary, considering that the Femmes and Misanthrope storylines tend to mirror each other. Nevertheless, the play manages to be clear about its concerns, ventilating them with sharp humor: the lures of big-budget, foreign-originating productions over local ones; the games of power between theater artists; the fraught relationship between theater and film; and the lack of honest, rigorous criticism.

It is this last that Molière PMS endeavors to address, in particular, although its reliance on exaggeration and its deployment of stereotypes detracts from its ability to provide nuance or to reach for higher-hanging fruit. Glib jokes are cracked at the expense of bloggers (fatuous), Ateneo Blue Repertory (puerile), and Atlantis Productions (colonial-minded). Musicals are denounced as vacuous, and thespians who seek out sidelines accused of having no commitment to their craft. The portrayal of film as having a fundamentally predatory relationship to theater makes for the play’s strongest jab. One recalls, for instance, the remarks of filmmaker Rafael Santos in 2011: in a purported attempt to praise theater actors, he said that he liked working with them because they would work hard, without complaint, even if they were only fed SkyFlakes and paid in cat food—a point of view that remains unexceptional.

Whatever its strengths and charms, however, Molière PMS is ultimately an exasperating experience: Alex decides not to turn his back on theater, because he is in it—creating, performing, and producing—for love. As sentiments go, this might appear noble enough. But is not in the name of love that theater artists, and indeed all workers, are maneuvered into very conditions of exploitation that Molière PMS professes to abhor? Is it not in the name of love that they are urged to render service, at high levels of intellectual and emotional intensity, for non-material, and often indefinite, rewards? Is it not in the name of love that they are expected to blame only the inadequacy of their passion and determination for their being unable to profit from their labor? Is it not in the name of love that they are supposed to toil, heedless of the costs to their health, to their relationships, and to their lives?

How, then, is Alex’s belief in the power of love not a pernicious manifestation of the blind faith that Molière would doubtless have skewered? ***

Jaime Salazar is working towards his master’s degree in art studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman, and is a member of the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle. This review was previously published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 2016.