by Lynn on February 6, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace. Written by Nina Lee Aquino. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams. Designed by Anna Treusch. Lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Sound and music by Romeo Candido. Projections designed by Cameron Davis.

Plays until February 24 at the Factory Theatre, Mainspace.

The Factory Theatre has had a rocky time of late, what with the sudden firing of Ken Gass, the founding Artistic Director; a theatre community up in arms demanding a boycott of the theatre until Gass was reinstated, and the Factory Board of Directors under siege for its sloppy handling of the whole affair.

All seems to be calm with the interim artistic team of Nina Lee Aquino and Nigel Shawn Williams in place. Aquino and Williams created a truncated season composed of some of the plays that Gass originally chose (three were pulled by their playwrights in protest) and the team was quick and smart to program other plays. For example, Iceland, by Nicolas Billon was the hit of this past Summerworks and programming it is a coup.

The new season opened recently with Nina Lee Aquino’s memory play, Every Letter Counts. In her program note Nina Lee Aquino gives credit to Gass for his encouragement with the play.

As I said, it’s a memory play by Aquino in which she recalls four days she spent with her charismatic uncle, Ninoy, when she was six years old in her native Philippines. Ninoy taught Nina Aquino how to play Scrabble; the importance of every word—hence the title; the importance of patience, loyalty and family.

Aquino was witness to the tumultuous times of her homeland. At that early age and during that short a time, she learned that her uncle was not just her Scrabble teacher. He was Benigno Aquino, the youngest elected senator in Philippine history. And yes, Cory was Benigno Aquino’s wife and Nina Lee Aquino’s aunt. Benigno was also a thorn in the side of President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos had Benigno imprisoned. When he was released he lived in exile but finally went home to serve his people and further oppose Marcos. Benigno was assassinated shortly after that.

In her program note Aquino describes what writing the play meant to her, she wonders if at that tender age of six she could have prevented Benigno from returning home and perhaps save his life as a result. And if so would that have altered the path of her family?

These are big questions but I found the play too small to address them. The premise is the problem—an adult remembers 4 days when she was 6 years old. Memory is a tricky, fragile thing to begin with, but to remember something that happened over four days when you were six is stretching credibility. I have no doubt Aquino’s memory was vivid, but it’s not a strong foundation for a play.

And while Aquino tries valiantly to put things into historic perspective, the facts seem too scattershot, too fragmented. Her father Cecilio is Benigno’s older brother; he is not as accomplished; resentful because he’s passed over, or forgotten next to his more accomplished younger brother. Marcos wafts into and out of the action, a constant presence.

In fact the director Nigel Shawn Williams keeps the action going smoothly if swiftly, suggesting the constantly changing situation in the Philippines. Projections of people and events are projected on the back wall as well. It tends to be overwhelming at times.

Nina Lee Aquino plays her younger (six year old) self—here named Bunny. I was surprised at how angry and impatient the character was. Bunny was also stubborn and feisty—two attitudes that would keep her in good stead.

As Ninoy, Jon de Leon is full of confident conviction. He treats his young niece as an adult who is eager to learn the ways of scrabble and politics. As Cecilio, Anthony Malarky conveys all the anger, frustration, and inadequacy that Cecilio must have felt in the shadow of his accomplished brother.

And as Marcos, Earl Pastko, while quietly commanding, doesn’t have that sinister streak I connect with Marcos.

I applaud those concerned for their loyalty to programming the piece. I just think it needs another pass by the playwright to firm up the work and say better what she wants to say.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.