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Theater Review: Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles

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Dogeaters, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 11, is Jessica Hagedorn’s sprawling sampler of life in the pre-Aquino Philippines.  Adapted from her 1990 novel of the same name, it emerged on the regional theater scene about a decade ago: developed at Sundance, read at South Coast, and birthed at the La Jolla Playhouse. 

Here, Jon Lawrence Rivera, with an invested cast and energized staging, looks like he may have the grasp to focus this kaleidoscope of a story.  Ultimately, the tumble of colorful characters and story shards so fill the viewfinder that little comes through besides a vague sense of darkness.

After an inventive, if clumsy, opening device to provide audio snapshots of the Philippines in 1982, Rivera shows a sure hand in choreographing this multi-faceted piece.  A veritable mob of cast members covers a re-configured Douglas stage with seating on four sides. 

There are stairs through and walkways behind the several ringside rows, and the director makes good use of it all to separate the plot threads of assassination, a substance-abusing hustler (Ramon de Ocampo), a beauty queen turned rebel (Esperanza Catubig), the self-obsessed first lady Imelda Marcos (Natsuko Ohama), the power-hungry general (Dom Magwili) strong-arming the malleable locals and gullible foreigners, and more.

Hagedorn connects many of these floating dots with pop culture reference points.  Often it is done with two announcer-personalities (wonderfully played by Lisa Del Mundo and Orlando Pabotoy) who are recurring comic guides.  They weave in and out as speakers, as soap opera stars broadcast over the radio, or as news bulletins.  The play is also unified by the tone Hagedorn and Rivera create, of an outpost filled with bullies and their sad-beautiful victims. 

Whether oppressed by working conditions, drug and alcohol dependence, macho brutality, or a preference for night’s dark quarter, every character is part of what Hagedorn, in one of her redeeming poetic flourishes, calls the “vaudeville of doomed love.”

Clearly Hagedorn has created in Dogeaters a densely populated love-hate poem to her homeland at its time of tectonic shift.  Her Philippines, still wearing its colonial era in its Spanish religion and Hollywood obsessions, should have been the backdrop for a powerful, impacting drama.  We meet a number of interesting characters, but never feel like we're getting past the introductions. 

The presence of Rainer Fassbinder (Nick Salamone), the self-destructive filmmaker who carries the personification of Europe in moral decay, feels as squandered here as was his real life.  Out of the crowd of characters’ lurching progress, one POV touchstone does emerge, but it comes at the end, too late to help organize the relative weight of all these dramatic pieces.

The character, a woman (well articulated by Minerva Vier), is returning from the United States after 20 years.  She provides summarizing perspective by tying together — or snipping off — loose ends with a weary appraisal about things not having changed much.  The woman, a writer, represents Hagedorn herself. 

Publishers Weekly called the novel “in many respects a thinly disguised roman a clef."  On stage, Hagedorn has been more successful in disguising her stand-in.  In doing so she has stunted the natural tent pole that might have given the story needed shape and greater gravity.  

CREDITS: by Jessica Hagedorn, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, John H. Binkley, set; Marya Krakowiak/Dianne K. Graebner, costumes; Steven Young, lights; Bob Blackburn, sound; Kay Cole, choreography; Andrea Iovino/Scott Harrison, stage management

WITH Robert Almodovar, Gino Aquino, Christine Avila, Esperanza Catubig, Ivan Davila, Fran de Leon, Liza Del Mundo, Ramón de Ocampo, Antoine Reynaldo Diel, Golda Inquito, Alberto Isaac, Kennedy Kabasares, Dom Magwili, Natsuko Ohama, Giovanni Ortega, Orlando Pabotoy, Elizabeth Pan, Ed Ramolete, Nick Salamone, Minerva Vier 

PRODUCERS Playwrights’ Arena, TDRZ Productions, Inc., Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA) 

Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, California • through February 11, 2007 

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