Suzue Toshiro¬'s FIREFLIES Plays Final Week at Ateneo de Manila University, 2/22-25
Manila, Philippines, February 20, 2012 – Tanghalang Ateneo and Ateneo Fine Arts Production, together with the Japan Foundation and the Department of English of Ateneo de Manila University, present Japanese playwright Suzue Toshiro's contemporary play Fireflies whose story follows three interlinked Japanese couples that are caught up in an emotional alienation. Directed by Ricardo Abad and BJ Crisostomo, and translated in English by David Goodman, Fireflies plays its last week at Rizal Mini Theatre, Ateneo de Manila University from Wednesday, February 22 to Saturday, February 25 at 7 p.m., plus a Saturday matinee performance at 2 p.m. Toshiro will also give a lecture on contemporary Japanese theater on Friday, February 24 at Fine Arts Studio, Loyola Schools at 4:30 p.m.
As an exclusively treat for BroadwayWorld.com (BWW) readers in the Philippines and with permission from Manila theater critic Carlo Rivera, BWW is publishing Mr. Rivera's review of Fireflies in its entirety:
"'Are you happy?'
These arc words echo and thunder through Tanghalang Ateneo's latest offering. Fireflies, written by Suzue Toshiro and ably directed by Ricardo Abad and BJ Crisostomo, is shot through with repetitions of this question. It bounces from one character to another, bringing an undesired self-awareness to conversations, invariably sabotaging the very happiness whose existence it queries.
I must admit, I was not happy when I first read the script.
I still recall my dumbfounded exclamation when I finished it weeks ago: 'This is either the stupidest thing I've ever read, or it's absolutely brilliant and I'm missing something.' I had not had a reaction like this since the first time I encountered T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. [I had the] same reaction: shock, hostility, alienation. But Eliot grew on me once I found the missing ingredients: his combination of allusion and fragmentation, and the careful cherry-picking of cultural influences combined to form a twisted sublimity that seems to be the cornerstone of modernist writing. Fireflies is very much a modernist play, so what was I not seeing?
What I was missing, it turns out, was live actors. This play is very much driven by its dialogue, and Tanghalang Ateneo's talented performers have made a most commendable effort to do it justice. The stage design, as befitting a production set in Japan, is spartan, uncluttered, and elegant. The music is by turns comic and tragic. The expected piano solos are there for scenes of loneliness, but it is the absurd, silly, and energetic pieces, ranging from a hilariously out of place Glen Miller to deliberately ridiculous Japanese tunes that highlight the uncomfortable results when awkwardness, loneliness, and manic energy combine.
April, Eliot writes, is the cruelest month. It is a surreal but oddly compelling beginning for The Waste Land, and Fireflies' opening scene evokes the same magnetic absurdity. Brian Sy's Nakagawa is a seething mass of desperation, insecurity, and near-madness – traits I could not see when Nakagawa was just a character on a page. The written Nakagawa acts like a horse and seems nonsensical. The living Nakagawa played by Sy acts like a horse and is heartbreaking.
I hope to be the first reviewer to mention both Seinfeld and T.S. Eliot in the same review. It's a surreal ambition, but an appropriate one. Seinfeld, the famous sitcom of the '90s, was unique in its day because its writers had a policy of 'no hugging and no learning.' The characters spent much of their time doing things and having conversations that were essentially elevated small talk; it was, famously, 'the show about nothing.' The Waste Land is similar. Fireflies is similar. There is no stereotypical character development or conscious attempt at profundity on the part of the characters. These works exist to highlight fragmentation, and Fireflies, like Seinfeld, does so through carefully tuned surrealist dialogue and the occasional heaping serving of black comedy. This is a boon to the reviewer, who does not have to worry about spoiling anything – the plot is merely something on which to hang the interactions of the couples in the story.
These interactions are by turns tragic and heartwarming, but are always touched by absurdity. For this reason, the play needs a straight man against which to contrast the often ludicrous antics of the cast, and it has an able one in Cindy Lopez, who plays Tomoyo with a subtlety that shows how much she has grown as an actress since last year's What You Will. Lopez was visibly exhausted after the play as she thanked the departing audience for watching, a testament to the effort required to play a character who uses social convention to protect her peace of mind, yet is surrounded by people who endlessly flout social convention.
The absurdity, however, is not a Brechtian absurdity – this is not a play which opens its innards to us. The artifice and structure of the theater is in full effect, and the benefit of this is that the audience can see, thinly veiled beneath the absurdity, a certain desperation. The first hint of it is the dismal yellow bulb that illuminates Tomoyo's apartment, a stark contrast to the gentle blue background glow that it abruptly replaces when switched on. The characters give off the impression of being trapped and frightened by something unseen. It is visible in Xander Soriano's reading of the Husband, whose hidden depths are hidden beneath childlike frivolity. It is visible in Tomoyo's manner, which is deliberately stilted and unnatural whenever it deviates from the patterns of everyday conversation, then takes on an aura of vulnerability as her attempts to assuage her loneliness collapse one by one. It is most visible in Murai, who, by choosing to make himself vulnerable, breaks through to the heart of the problem at the cost of his dignity. AJ Constantino plays this character with a manic energy that is simultaneously insane, creepy, and adorable.
One of my students met me during the intermission and remarked that she had trouble understanding the play. I replied that as a modernist work, it's not meant to be understood fully, or at first glance. But one hint I will give. The cast is well-matched to their characters. This is the key to the play.
With that, I leave with a hearty but cautionary recommendation. If you are looking for heroic, escapist characters, an intricate plot, adventure, romance, and pithy aphorisms about life, the universe, and everything, seek them elsewhere. But if you are after austere subtlety, beautifully crafted dialogue, genuinely entertaining comedy, and intense insights into the nature of loneliness, relationships, and what Einstein called 'the infinite distance between human hearts,' then Fireflies will leave you happy."
Tanghalang Ateneo and Ateneo Fine Arts Production's staging of Fireflies has set design is by Ohm David; costume design by Lenvil Paneda; lights design by Jonjon Villareal; music design by Michiyo Yoneno-Reyes; and graphic design by JV Castro.
For tickets, contact Ada Albaña at mobile numbers (63)922-8952070, (63)920-5847421 or at email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Tanghalang Ateneo