Well-meaning production rides a familiar wheel of cultural angst
|Bailiwick Chicago Theater presents|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
Very familiar fare, Mahal is Bailiwick Chicago’s world premiere of a play we’ve seen before. In this fervently written and enacted saga of the Reyes clan, we meet yet another ethnic family in Chicago confronting sexual variations, culture shock, identity crises, a “secret sibling,” the generation gap and the necessity of change as the Reyes endure a family reunion they never expected. The Reyes happen to be Filipino, but anyone familiar with the Silk Road Rising, Seanachai, About Face, or Teatro Vista theaters knows that the challenges remain the same – it’s just the tribe that varies.
That challenge is in the title. “Mahal” means “love,” as well as something costly and worth keeping. So seeks each Reyes. Generic characters fuel the plot, if only because convenient differences are so propulsive. Having buried his wife in Manila just three months ago, paterfamilias Roberto Reyes (authoritative Joseph Anthony Foronda) remains a womanizing Alpha male: His next conquest is his interior designer Kendall (Blair Robertson), who rearranges his walls as a symbol of a larger disruption.
Oddly more traditional in his reverence for “respect” is Roberto Jr. (F. Karmann Bajuyo): This taciturn elder son has brought back from the islands a supposedly respectful Filipino girl (Jillian Jocson), who turns out to be much closer to the Reyes than anyone expected. (Can anyone say Madame Butterfly?)
Pursuing a different variation of “mahal,” spoiled younger son Mikey (Kevin Matthew Reyes, sharing the same name as his character) has departed the clan in two ways: His “rice queen” lover is American and male. Patrick Byrnes is completing a doctorate on the “Westernization of Asian culture,” with a silly thesis on how their cultural confusion prevents Filipino men from fully loving. It’s a premise that Mikey, of course, loathes and, happily, destroys as Patrick revises his dangerous dissertation. Finally, there’s the peacemaking and unaffiliated sister Mari (Kate Garrassino), whose emotional arbitration unravels as she confronts family prejudices that didn’t end when they left Luzon.
Just describing the five Reyes and two Anglo-American lovers predicts the plot to a T. The contrived clashes are strictly by-the-numbers, with the chaotic first-act ending particularly coerced. Under Erica Weiss’ steady guidance, the seven Bailiwick performers barely need to stretch to fit their comfortable characters. The final reconciliation—strangely a traditional, utensil-free, sit-down dinner in an O’Hare concourse—is as predictable as the departure and arrival board.
But there’s no doubting for a stage minute the sincerity of everything on this busy stage (well, the writing at least—the acting can wax histrionic). You can reinvent the wheel over and over and inevitably capture some of the original excitement. The search for “mahal” is endless.
Mahal continues through August 2nd at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $35, and are available by phone (773-327-5252) or online through Stage773.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BailiwickChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
F. Karmann Bajuyo (Jun), Patrick Byrnes (Tim), Joseph Anthony Foronda (Roberto), Kate Garassino (Mari), Jillian Jocson (Kim), Kevin Matthew Reyes (Mikey), Blair Robertson (Kendall), Dominique Worsley (Jackson).
behind the scenes
Erica Weiss (director), Stephen H. Carmody (scenic design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Charles Cooper (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music, sound design), Beau Forbes (fight choreography), Christopher Kristant (tech director), Mallory Bass (stage manager), Ezra Bookman (asst. director, dramaturg), Melissa Young, Geoffrey Bleeker (asst. producers), Michael Brosilow (photos).