Saturday, March 24, 2018

Silent Sky (Repertory Philippines)

Growing up at a farm in Wisconsin, Henrietta Leavitt (Cathy Azanza Dy) makes a bold decision when she accepts a job offer to work at Harvard. Considering herself as an astronomer and having finished her studies at Radcliffe, she gets the surprise of her life when instead of a teaching position, she is relegated by teaching assistant Peter Shaw (Topper Fabregas) to Professor Pickering’s “harem”, the duo of suffragette Annie Cannon (Sheila Francisco) and former housekeeper Williamina Fleming (Naths Everett). Also referred to as “computers”, the trio keeps themselves busy mapping out the stars on their desk based on photographic plates handed out to them by the men, who have exclusive access to the university’s telescope. Left at home, Henry’s sister Margie (Caisa Borromeo) takes care of their ailing father while raising a family of her own, forever asking her sister when she is coming back. As she navigates her way through the male-dominated academe, Leavitt’s inquisitive and curious nature will lead her to a groundbreaking discovery no other man has stumbled upon before.

The play starts with a wide-eyed Leavitt gazing at the stars. As she suffers from verbal diarrhea which consists of astronomical mumbo-jumbo that is not at all interesting to a clueless public, you end up thinking that this narrative will be quite profound and consequently boring. Profound is good, but take it a notch higher and you risk losing your audience. If we wanted hardcore science we can always tune in to the Discovery Channel, you know. Luckily, for some reason, this does not happen in Silent Sky. Perhaps we have the cast to thank for that?

Presence. This is what Azanza Dy doesn’t lack, but it is also her rapport with the other girls that makes their scenes together so fun to watch. Such nerdgasm over blinking lights in the evening sky can easily be dismissed as exaggerated and geeky, but her portrayal somehow manages to makes everything come across as unadulterated passion. In lieu of getting annoyed, you actually want her to succeed and watch her blaze a trail. Borromeo’s Margie is, no doubt, the best complement. Being the sister who chooses to prioritize family over dreams, the character is the perfect counterbalance, the personification of the “other choice”, the unshakable “what-if” scenario.

Despite Azanza Dy’s strong command of the stage, Everett’s Williamina and her Scottish brogue steal scenes from time to time and she also serves as a breath of fresh air every time the material tends to go on nerdy overdrive. If Henrietta takes us all the way to the stars, it is Williamina that brings us back to Earth and grounds us with her ever relatable one-liners. As for Fabregas, he gives justice to the role of socially-awkward Shaw. The only problem here is that he does not seem to have that much chemistry with Azanza Dy. Just the same, his comic timing is impeccable and he is always an enjoyable act to watch onstage.

Or maybe it is not the cast, but rather the themes tackled that make such specific subject matter tolerable? Astronomy can be substituted with any other field one is passionate about. The never ending contest between the fulfilment of dreams and settling down is something universal that will always be a persistent debate in one’s lifetime. Of course, all of this is tied to that big question that we all ask every day: Purpose. Why are we here and are we as significant as we’d like to think that we are?

In the end, it is that parallelism between the universe and life itself that hits you. For most of mankind’s history we have been a species that has always been fascinated with the idea of a vast universe. What is out there? Are we alone? Do we actually have a purpose or are we just some sort of cosmic anomaly? Such questions are hard to fathom and some people will tell you that, perhaps, it is just not meant to be understood. This is funny to some extent, because when you think about it, life itself is just as mysterious and inexplicable. Silent Sky effectively marries those two concepts and leads you to wonder: Maybe the universe is life. Maybe life is the universe. So obvious, yet so profound.

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