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Theatre in Review: Sesar (Ma-Yi Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Orlando Pabotoy. Photo: Hunter Canning.

The creators of solo performance pieces -- especially those based on the artists' lives -- often strain to stand out from the crowd, something Sesar does effortlessly: It's the story of a young man and his father coming to terms while reading passages from Julius Caesar. In the family bathroom. While in political exile in Fiji.

Orlando Pabotoy, the author and star, draws on his family's complicated history: His mother was an American Peace Corps volunteer of Lebanese and Irish descent; his father was "the mayor of the small fishing and farming village De la Paz [Cortes], on the island of Bohol in the Philippines." In the mid-1980s, when Pabotoy was still quite young, the family fled the country, his father having run afoul of corrupt officials even as the Marcos government was beginning to fold. Fiji, their chosen place of exile, was no less convulsed, undergoing two military coups in a single year. One of Pabotoy's indelible memories is the sound of his parents screaming "Stay inside!" at him and his brothers. Indeed, at least once in the family's history, the boys were menaced by interlopers with guns.

In Sesar, Pabotoy's moment of awakening comes from watching The Cosby Show. ("I know," he says, reacting to the laugh caused by this admission.) An episode featuring Christopher Plummer doing a speech from Julius Caesar inspires the boy, who checks the play out of the library, and, running the water in the bathroom sink so nobody can hear him, begins rehearsing the speech by Cassius that begins "Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus..." Since he spends hours at a time in there -- and he is fourteen -- his father imagines that the boy is passing the time in a rather different way -- and is, frankly, gobsmacked to discover that Shakespeare is the cause.

He sticks around, however, and listens to Cassius' speech, and soon he, too, is hooked: "It took ten minutes in this bathroom and he was with me. Ten minutes and the language took him over." Soon, they are engaging in a back-and-forth about the text, the older man directing the younger, offering instructions that make clear how meaningful the words are to him as a political exile: "You have to find the stakes. The stakes of existing in a country that is in a transition of power. Anything can happen in that transition; laws become loose." Most of the action consists of their textual analysis, culminating in the son asking his father, "Brutus left his wife for his work. Do you regret leaving your work for us?" It's a question that will continue to reverberate as the family moves to the District of Columbia area, where the father works jobs at Macy's and Dulles Airport. He notes, "If you travelled through Dulles International or BWI between 1990 and 1995, chances are those meals were delivered to you by the Mayor of De la Paz, Bohol."

It's rich material -- a family buffeted by political winds struggling to adapt to new environments; two generations rooted in the East coming together over the words of the West's greatest playwright; a son driven to excel, partly for the father who sacrificed everything for his wife and children -- and it may be too much for a trim, sixty-five-minute piece that sticks closely to Shakespeare's text. I lost track of the times I wished I knew more about the characters and their circumstances: What exactly went wrong in the Philippines? What was the situation in Fiji and how did it affect them? Where was Pabotoy's mother in all of this? (She makes the briefest of appearances.) Also, Pabotoy's handling of Shakespeare's verse is a pleasure, but he could do more to distinguish between father and son; it is often difficult to tell who is speaking.

This is the rare piece that could stand to be longer, allowing Pabotoy to tease out the details of his extraordinary, tumultuous childhood and the influence -- both stabilizing and motivating -- that dramatic literature played in it. (A couple of bits, including a detour -- using lighting, sound, and video effects -- into the film Psycho, could profitably be trimmed.) Still, it is a heartfelt piece, a gallant tribute to a remarkably loving parent, and it clearly left many in the audience deeply moved.

If the director, Richard Feldman, could do more to help Pabotoy individuate the characters, he has provided a visually inventive production in collaboration with a team of talented designers. Junghyun Georgia Lee's set, depicting the bathroom, acts as a fine surface for Dan Scully's video imagery of tropical storms, maps of Southeast Asia, and political demonstrations, among others; in one especially clever moment, Scully projects news of a political uprising on a blank newspaper held up by Pabotoy. Scenery and video work together seamlessly to create the final tableau, depicting a tropical garden. Oliver Wason's lighting effectively deploys warm and cold white-light looks, making good use of deck- and sidelight units to sculpt flashback moments. (He also provides a suitably bloody red wash for the Psycho sequence.) Fabian Obispo's sound design includes a remarkably effective storm sequence, a running water faucet, a bit of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score, and his own original music.

As Pabotoy concludes, his Shakespearean encounter with his father would reverberate down through the years: "I would recite that speech of Cassius in front of my history class. I would recite it at an audition for the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. I would recite it at the Juilliard School. I would recite it in a bathroom in a theatre on the island of New York City. Ten minutes; ten minutes and they may be hooked." Sesar also stands out for its gallantry in a genre populated by pieces designed to expose the eccentricities, or even misdeeds, of artists' family members. At the moment, it is a sweet offering; with a little more thought and detail, it could be much more. -- David Barbour

(25 October 2018)

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