Sunday, April 8, 2018

Arsenic and Old Lace (Repertory Philippines)

Aunt Martha (Jay Valencia Glorioso) and Aunt Abby (Joy Virata) are two sweet old ladies who spend much of their time maintaining the Brooklyn family home as well as taking care of their nephew Teddy (Jeremy Domingo), who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt. Beneath the mundane façade, however, is a dark secret that the three of them share, which involves some murder and a little bit of cover-up on the side. When youngest nephew Mortimer (Nelsito Gomez) accidentally discovers what, or rather, who, is under the window seat, he begins to realize that every family has skeletons in the closet after all. It just so happens that his has 12, and they are buried in the cellar. When prodigal nephew Jonathan (Apollo Sheik Abraham) returns after a long absence with his very own excess baggage, this shakes up the family dynamics, leading to a hilarious dark comedy that can only be as enticing as Elderberry wine laced with arsenic.

This is why you never mess with seemingly harmless grandmas in the neighborhood, children. You just never know what’s running in their minds or what kind of hobbies they actually engage in to kill time. Arsenic and Old Lace is supposed to be sinister like that, but because you have two such endearing leading ladies convincingly played by Glorioso and Virata, what’s meant to be plain creepy suddenly becomes comedy gold. In fact, the pair’s aloof reaction to what they do in their “charity” is the constant source of laughter for the amused audience. In a way, the moral ambiguity gives you permission to just relax and have fun in spite of the material’s obviously dark theme.

The setting in the Brewster’s living room is effectively maximized, with a comfy sofa acting as the centerpiece and enough space around it to usher people in and out of the house, which becomes quite a common plot device in the play. The lighting is not used that much to manipulate the mood, but easily serves its purpose as a transition device in some scenes. Sound effects and music are scarce and are only utilized to mark the beginning and end of both acts.

The narrative starts off slow and you get this feeling that the material will be a boring one. It starts to pick up right after Mortimer’s window seat discovery as well as the Brewster sisters’ nonchalant reaction to the fact. At that point laughter becomes commonplace and the audience begins to loosen up. It is evident, though, that this subplot alone will not be able to carry the entire two-act-play, which is why the prodigal nephew’s arrival is perfectly timed to complicate matters, milking the circumstances of its full situational comedy potential. The support cast bring along their own respective punchlines and are funny enough to steal a scene or two, yet most of them still tend to be forgettable. Maybe it’s because the triumvirate of Aunt Martha, Aunt Abby, and Mortimer is already a strong presence on its own to begin with.

Arguments as to whether such stories have some sort of redeeming quality in terms of moral value are to be expected, but perhaps dark comedies are just meant to function this way. Reliance on absurdity and extreme scenarios is a must. Perhaps this is also the reason why many plays of this genre have the tendency to be anchored on the family. In the end, it will always be a question on how far you are willing to go for your kin, regardless how dysfunctional they might be.

But maybe one important and interesting theme oddly overlooked here is the very issue of old age and death itself, buried deep beneath all the cadavers and punchlines. Neither Martha nor Abby finds anything wrong with what they are doing. On the contrary, they are even of the opinion that they are doing those old men a favor. While the playwright seems to be hinting that this Modus Operandi is fine because the perpetrators can get away with it anyway, one can look at it from the point of view of the elderly being in control of their own lives. The twist in the ending accentuates that even more. In this day and age when senior citizens are left at the mercy of the younger generation who may or may not take care of them, Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby beg to differ. It is kind of perverse alright, yet oddly empowering for that demographic at the same time.

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