Beat the Devil
First published in the Manila Chronicle 12/14/94
With the passing of Lino Brocka, Mario O'Hara is one of a shrinking handful of Philippine film directors whose films are worth getting excited about. Lino has already made his masterpieces; one disadvantage to being dead is that there are no more works forthcoming.
In films such as Condemned and Bulaklak sa City Jail Mr. O'Hara has proven that he can elicit memorable performances and excellent ensemble acting from Dan Alvaro, Nora Aunor, Maya Valdez, Zenaida Amador; even genial German Moreno gave a chilling turn as prison warden in Bulaklak. I will stick my neck out and say that he is Brocka's superior in visual style, as witness the dark gloriously film-noir look of Bagong Hari or the claustrophobic squalor in City Jail. As late as last year with Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty he was still doing fascinating work: while the first half of the film is a mess of underfunded special effects and poorly imagined art direction, the second half is one of the more enchanting fantasies made that year, local or foreign. It was more hip and sophisticated than Disney's Beauty and the Beast and fully realized the complexities of the Nick Joaquin short story it was based on.
One more thing about O'Hara's career: it is difficult it is agony to choose between his acting and his directing. He is a brilliant director but is a just as brilliant if not more so actor. Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang is one of Brocka's more ambitious films (his best some say). O'Hara has the supporting role of a leper who lives in the outskirts of the village near a cemetery; his companion is a woman driven insane by a forced abortion, played by Lolita Rodriguez. Their roles are hoary old cliches that stink to high heaven of sickly sweet sentiment--or should: O'Hara and Ms. Rodriguez perform with sublime simplicity, treading the thin line between bathos and comedy. The result is a tender portrait of small-town outcasts; the film is a starring vehicle for Christopher De Leon (who fares well) but it's O'Hara and Rodriguez who stay with you.
O'Hara has made a few appearances since (he was memorable in Brocka's Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa as a malevolent gardener out to seduce a repressed widow, again played by Lolita Rodriguez--what is it about the two that the chemistry between them is so potent?). He has gone into directing, resulting in the films already mentioned (for which I am grateful), and has done work on stage.
Which brings us to O'Hara's Mephistopheles in the PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) production of Faust. In England Shakespeare wrote among many plays Henry ll to Vll, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear; Germany has Goethe who wrote Faust. It took him sixty years and almost as long for modern audiences to sit through; PETA is doing only the first part but still--ambitious.
Faust is one of the oldest best-known dramas about souls sold to the Devil; a massive work traveling all over the world, across historical periods, over the range of human experience (broad comedy great spectacle high tragedy intense drama). But the secret of its appeal lies in the sight of Mephisto turning Faust's soul inside-out like a frog under dissection--so repulsive you cannot turn away your eyes; you want to take up the scalpel and sink it into the sticky mess.
The director Fritz Bennewitz is from Germany, which makes you wonder what would have happened if we used one of our own directors, maybe one of the young turks from UP. Would his interpretation be more daring? More disastrous? He wouldn't have Mr. Bennewitz's deep understanding of the text but sometimes understanding isn't the crucial element in creating drama. Stray thoughts aside Bennewitz brings a number of innovative concepts: the ruins of Rajah Solayman Theater stand in for the ruins of a blasted world, with drunken men and malevolent spirits lurking in the sidelines; the Devil's dog enters as a black poodle puppet dangling from Faust's hand, transforms into a jet-black Chinese dragon with glowing eyes and mouth. PETA's wretchedly small budget must have forced the director to cut back on some of the effects he wanted but what he manages to realize onstage is an achievement. Mr. Bennewitz is less successful with Walpurgis night where the villagers turn into witches coupling in orgiastic frenzy; we get the usual medley of sexual positions to indicate perversity and little else.
The director seems more interested in other things. In the scene where Faust rejects all things ("Cursed be Hope! Cursed be Faith! And cursed be Patience most of all!") the script has a chorus tiptoe onstage to chide him. Mephisto laughs at Faust who grows angrier with every profanity. Laughter follows curse follows laughter follows curse louder and louder; suddenly Mephisto stops laughing is glaring at Faust in chilled silence, the moment landing with more impact than any special effect.
Faust, played by Bodjie Pascua, is found lying on a heap of books. He is tortured by a philosophical point, something Germans are fond of doing to themselves but which we Filipinos might have trouble understanding: is there anything left to learn? Anything worth striving for? Is there anything more to life than what is already there?
Mr. Pascua has a problem with Faust's problem: it isn't very interesting. I can't see that it's his fault: he sweats to give Faust's pages-long monologue intensity, and Goethe's lengthy convoluted verses (translated from the German by Rody Vera) emerge from him as if torn fresh from his soul. Call it Culture Clash, call it Generation Gap, call it the Shortening of Our Attention Spans, but Faust looks like such a small whiny figure onstage you want to yell at him to get a life.
Enter Mephisto: as the demon Mario O'Hara wears a punk leather jacket and mismatched socks--one black, the other red. His posture is macho to the point of parody; his voice crushed gravel that can fill the stage with booming laughter or leave the audience shivering with a hissed whisper. He is pallid white his eyes accented black with a touch of red; he looks as if he hadn't slept since the 1986 EDSA Revolution. But the eyes burn glittering little flames with the promise of hellfire; the Devil is alive and well and standing on a stage in Fort Santiago.
The Devil is a strange character as O'Hara plays him. He banters with God (played with amusing nonchalance by Soxy Topacio) as if with an old but respected enemy. He chokes on words such as 'priest,' and 'holiness'--the audience has a good laugh from his scorched reaction to a hefty word like 'theology.' He is not all- powerful nor all-knowing; Faust is able to trap him with a pentacle. He can be witty: in the scene where he poses as Faust and instructs a student he gives a devastatingly honest critique of the breadth and depth of human knowledge, reducing each 'ology' into its most absurd essence. When he wishes he can be charming, as when he verbally tickles the student into a hedonistic state of mind.
Mephisto's sharpest instrument is truth. At one point Faust has a brief affair with Margaret the village virgin then abandons her; when he learns that she has been imprisoned for murder and insanity he hurls accusations at Mephisto, who points out that Faust caused what happened whether he knew it or not. The truth plain and simple, like a meat hook.
And the Devil can feel pity. Faced with Faust's vaunting ambition Mephisto allows his face to slacken and sag, tired for this hopeless little creature before him. 'We are--in the end--what we are,' he tells Faust. For a brief moment he sounds as if he cared for the man.
If O'Hara is such a dominating presence onstage, you'd expect Pascua to be blown away. Far from it; Pascua's Faust needs Mephisto, not just thematically but dramatically. Under O'Hara's looming shadow Pascua's smallness looks like brave endurance; his Faust's whining takes on a note of real despair. O'Hara's sudden touch of pity clues us in on how to look at Faust: we see a man who can be shattered once all his wishes are granted. Pascua brings Faust to life before us, his pain and unholy appetites grown to monstrous dimensions. He succeeds in making of Faust a tragic figure as in the end his appetites eat him alive.
The rest of the cast is just as fine. Soxy Topacio is an amusingly droll Lord God. Wena Basco's Margaret comes off at first as an irritatingly sprightly virgin; after Faust seduces her, she becomes quieter more interesting. In one shattering scene a girlfriend describes the scandalous life of a village girl with relish; Wena listens with a growing sense of recognition and horror--she used to spread tales of fallen women herself, with the same innocent relish. As she slides down into madness and despair we too recognize in her Margaret our all-too-human fallibility.
Finally there is Khryss Adalia. Mr. Adalia plays Wagner an acquaintance; with bent back and elderly no-nonsense voice he stands in stark contrast with Faust's immense dissatisfaction. In a daring stroke of casting Khryss also plays the lead witch, an astonishingly sensuous creature with an endless pair of fishstockinged legs. He provides Faust with a rejuvenation potion and the way he creates this elixir is one of the more horrific scenes in the play. In having one actor play the two roles Bennewitz encapsulates one of Goethe's major themes: Wagner's life of compromise and contentment and the witch's depravity are flip sides of the same coin; both serve the Devil equally well. God puts more faith in Faust's striving; here at least there is hope for change and perhaps salvation.