Tonyo Cruz

Tonyo Cruz

One of my most memorable reads in high school, beaten perhaps only by the classic “Catcher in the Rye,” was “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. The common threads of friendship, aspiration and self-determination tie them together and make them much-loved by young people of all ages.

Tanghalang Pilipino, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ resident theater company, is set to end this weekend its run of a Filipino adaptation of “Of Mice and Men” titled “Katsuri.” It is a triumphant translation and adaptation by Bibeth Orteza, and directed by Carlitos Siguion Reyna.

Triumphant because Orteza, Siguion-Reyna, and Tanghalang Pilipino managed to pull off a convincing adaptation that transplants George, Toto (the Filipinized Lennie; more on this later) and the rest of the characters to present-day Philippines, specifically to the haciendas of Negros.  “Katsuri” is Hiligaynon for the shrew-like rat, and substitutes for the rabbit from Steinbeck’s work.

Instead of the Great Depression, the characters lived and dreamed amid Sugarlandia, which currently soaks in the blood of sugarworkers just to perpetuate landlordism, feudalism, and tyranny.

High school students today everywhere in the Philippines would love “Of Mice and Men” even more if they see “Katsuri.”

Thanks to Orteza’s adaptation, George, Toto and the other key characters have become more familiar, not only because they speak our languages but also because they live and dream in the current milieu in Negros island that is really isn’t less painful and constricting as the Great Depression.

Orteza renamed Lennie to Toto, a nickname popular among Negrenses. It is also a tribute to Toto Patigas, the beloved Negrense human rights advocate and reelectionist Escalante City councilor who Tanghalang Pilipino asked to coordinate an exposure and immersion program for the cast as an essential preparation for “Katsuri.” The death squads that infest Negros gunned down the beloved Toto before he could show the cast around Sugarlandia and introduce them to the good, hardworking sugarworkers of Negros.

Throughout the play, a hooded and armed character in military uniform routinely roams the set, sometimes threatening members of the cast, and at other times running after the nameless and the faceless. It is a simple yet powerful device to show the reality of death squads infesting the portrayed setting that is Negros island.

Jonathan Tadioan shines onstage as Toto. His acting endears Toto to an audience growing to be fond of the different (bigness and strength) and of the mentally challenged, especially now that we are slowly acquainting ourselves about mental health. Marco Viana’s George projects the image of every person’s most faithful best friend. Thanks to their stellar theater experience, Tadioan and Viana deliver a Toto and George who may be too different from each other, but whose differences ultimately matter less compared to their common dreams that are worth all the effort in achieving. In many instances, George often sacrifices his full freedom for his friend Toto.

Fitz Bitana also delivers as “Kulot,” the son of the Boss played by stage veteran Michael Williams. His diminutive size cannot contain Kulot’s energy. Together with Antonette Go’s delectable Inday, Bitana’s “Kulot” grabs the audience’s attention. Inday is familiar nowadays as our people discover what women could do and be, regardless of our preconceived (read: systematically indoctrinated and at time misogynist) notions.

Nanding Josef reminds us as “Tatang” why he is a venerable stage icon. There’s a sense of confidence and excitement, both among the audience and the cast, whenever he’s out on onstage.

I’m obliged by their performances to say kudos to TP Actors Company members JV Ibesate, Lhorvie Nuevo, Doray Dayao, Eunice Pacia, Monique Nellas, and Ybes Bagadiong. Special mention to Ibesate (“Payat”), Bagadiong (“Nognog”), and Dayao (“Atorni”) whose acting and stage presence always commanded my attention. Bagadiong’s “Nognog” confronts the audience’s and the system’s racism.

For a moment at the start of the play, Dayao’s “Atorni” confuses the non-Hiligaynon-speaking audience, only to shock them when she falls as she argues before an invisible judge on behalf of her pauper clients. Yet another tribute from “Katsuri,” this time for people’s lawyer Ben Ramos who was also gunned down in Negros.

The CCP theater where “Katsuri” is mounted is tiny, but the artistic and design team of Ohm David (set), Dennis N. Marasigan (lighting), TJ Ramos (sound), and Daniel Gregorio (costume) pull off  the difficult task of bringing the cast and also the audience to Negros. Or bringing the sights and sounds of Negros to the CCP.

“Katsuri” resonates mainly because of Orteza’s tender adaptation. The universal themes of friendship and solidarity among friends, as well as the drive towards self-determination, still have the power to unite people in the face of personal and social adversities. Orteza’s effort magnifies and amplifies these themes in “Katsuri,” and in doing so opens our eyes to what could perhaps be a most subversive idea nowadays: that we have more in common than what some would like us to believe and contrary to the cynical, hyperpartisan, and self-glorifying worldview perpetuated nowadays.

Steinbeck wrote in 1938: “In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other, you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

Like Steinbeck, Orteza celebrates the dignity of the person — be they someone like Toto, a woman perceived as a harlot, a black man, an old man in his twilight years — and their common situation and common dreams of a better life in our own country. “Katsuri” ultimately asks us to understand each other.

Here’s to hoping our high schools would mount “Katsuri.”

“Katsuri” runs until this weekend of October 26-27 at the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute. Visit the TP Page http://facebook.com/tanghalangpilipino for more information.