Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Isla Tuliro
Pangea World Theater / Teatro del Pueblo
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Wolves


Lydia Hernandez, Lita Malicsi, and Mar Alojado
Photo by Bruce Silcox
Isla Tuliro literally translates as "Isle of Confusion," an apt title for this original co-production mounted by Pangea World Theater and Teatro del Pueblo. The play chronicles the Philippine Islands, depicting a sweetness of life and a culture steeped in myth before the arrival of the first Europeans, and the subjugation of its people by Spanish explorers and traders starting in 1521, followed by callous imposition of American capitalism after the U.S victory in the Spanish American War in 1898. The show has been lavished with passion, creativity and ambition by its creative team. What comes across in Isla Tuliro, however, is a simplistic spin on the passing of those centuries, and—for audience members—confusion, as the title suggests.

Isla Tuliro was written by Marlina Gonzalez, a multidisciplinary artist whose work draws on elements of Theater of the Oppressed and Theater of the Absurd. Those foundations are visible in Isla Tuliro. The play is enacted with the help of a narrator (Lita Malicsi), dressed in colorful traditional attire, and her two translators (Mar Alojado and Lyra Hernandez), as much of the narration is in traditional Tagalog. At the onset, this trio warn us that they will good-naturedly disagree among themselves as they interpret the show's meaning, and they do, which tends to distract from the core narrative, but gives a nod to the inevitable loss of truth when values and events pass through the lens of one culture to another.

Three unnamed indigenous young women and an elder woman enter, playfully portraying what appears to be an idyllic existence, with the narrator repeating—many times—the value of the stories that have spawned these people's customs and beliefs. For all the talk of the importance of story, there is no sense of what the stories comprised, or what might differentiate these stories from those of other indigenous cultures. This section includes a beautifully performed Banga dance, whereupon the dancer gracefully balances a tower of black bowls placed upon her head. So lovely, but with little sense of added meaning to the piece. This idyll is broken when a storm brings a fearsome creature called Manuel (Marcos Romeo Lopez) to their shore. Manuel is not a true character, but a symbol of Spanish rule, whose domination imposes Christianity and foreign trade on the islanders. He appears fearsome, a ribbon-festooned monster with a horse-like mask reminiscent of those worn by the steeds in Equus. A parade is led by buffalo head snakes through the populace, and a tinikling dance performed, the lively dance that involves hopping in and out of the space between long bamboo poles percussively shifted back and forth just above the ground, though their relevance to Manuel is not clear.

After intermission new arrivals appear on the island, Encanta (Tinne Rosenmeier) and Encantado (Zachary Kulzer). They are festooned in garish red, white and blue outfits, with hideous make-up, of the sort that makes young children afraid of clowns. They successfully challenge Manuel for control of the islands, and then impose arrogant cultural imperialism on the native population, including determination that they speak English, instructing the locals in precise enunciation even as they speak with exaggerated southern drawls. The names Encanta and Encantado come from Filipino mythology, creatures described as being blond, good-looking and taller than ordinary humans. What prescient mythology, to anticipate the arrival of these usurpers centuries in advance!

The historic fact of America's grasp on the Philippines from 1898 to 1945 (after liberation from Japanese occupation during World War II) and the suppression of native language, culture and beliefs are important in regard to Filipinos and the parallel impact of Western (not only American) imperialism around the globe, which continues to impact world affairs. However, Isla Tuliro presents that theme over and over, without establishing points of human connection. Its cardboard characters are symbols, not flesh and blood people, and scenes that depict outsized, preposterous instances of the very real offenses of colonial powers beat the audience on its head, so that what starts out as entertainment becomes tedious.

The show is enchanting to look at, thanks to Jeff Stoltz' bright costumes and Mike Wangen's evocative lighting design. The dance sequences, which also include a magalitik dance, with coconut shells attached to the knees, chest, back and hands of dancers providing lively percussive movement, are highly enjoyable. Several shadow puppet scenes are pleasing to see, but provide no clear advancement to the story, and the use of the narrator and translators slows the slender story down with additional weight, especially as the two translators' efforts to speak in unison are frequently out of sync.

The work is co-directed by the author and Meena Natarajan, and they have assembled an impressive array of components presenting the heritage and struggles of the indigenous people of the Philippines, but have not found a clear path to connecting these in a gripping through-story. The burlesque bluster of Encanta and Encantado seems intended as satire, but they are so grotesque as to be more grating than funny, and those episodes fail to provoke much in the way of feelings. The actors, for the most part, remain hidden behind their symbolic roles, so it is hard to single out performances. Lita Malicsi as Tulusan, the narrator who wears a large feathered headdress with dignity, does project a sense of pride in her people and privilege in her status as the narrator, able to put her spin on the proceedings.

Isla Tuliro covers important ground, and is clearly a labor of love for all involved in its creation. A dramatization of the subjugation of the people of the Philippines, and the ongoing cost to the well-being of that nation, is a completely worthwhile endeavor, all the more so as it is a narrative repeated over and over throughout the nations of the world—including our own indigenous people. But to really get to the heart and heat of those issues, genuine characters with identifiable feelings would seem to have more impact. What Isla Tuliro offers is a bright and often entertaining glimpse at the culture and arts of those people, in the context of a fleshless depiction of the oppression imposed on them.

Isla Tuliro, a co-production of Pangea World Theater & Teatro del Pueblo, plays through April 22, 2018, at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $18.00 in advance, $22.00 at the door; students and seniors: $12.00. For tickets and information, visit pangeaworldtheater.org or teatrodelpueblo.org, or call 612-822-0015.

Writer: Marlina Gonzalez; Directors: Marlina Gonzalez and Meena Natarajan; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Jeff Stolz; Sound Design: Eric M.C. Gonzalez; Light Design: Mike Wangen; Puppet Master; Masanari Kawahara; Movement Coach: Sandy Agustin; Dramaturgs: Meena Natarajan and Harry Waters Jr.; Marlina Gonzalez: Multimedia, Translation; Stage Manager: Suzanne Cross; Assistant Stage Manager: Keila Anali Saucedo. Community Producer: Cultural Society of Filipino Americans.

Cast: Mary Alojado (Mamiya), Maia Hernandez (Young Liwayway #2), Lyra Hernandez (Mamiya), Zachary Kulzer (Encantado), Marcos Romeo Lopez (Manuel), Lita Malicsi (Tulusan), Mary Ann Prado (Diwa), Atquetzali Quiroz (Young Liwayway #1), Maryanne Quiroz (Liwayway), Tinne Rosenmeier (Encanta), Kaysone Syonesa (Kayumanggi/Voice of Buwan).


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