Dogeaters is a colourful, overwritten, immensely theatrical kaleidoscopic portrait of the Philippines in the early 1980s. Under Carmen Aguirre’s sensational direction, the students of Langara’s Studio 58 bring it intensely alive and show why the Studio is one of the very best actor training programs in the country.
Adapted by Jessica Hagedorn from her novel of the same title, based on her experiences as a Filipina returning home during the Marcos era after living in the United States, Dogeaters utilizes a cast of 16 to tell a half-dozen or so intersecting stories involving about 40 characters. Although it ends by focusing on the perspective of expatriate Rio (Adrianne Dunsmore), obviously based on Hagedorn herself, most scenes are framed by a pair of radio hosts (Devin Estes and the marvelous Melissa Oei) who introduce scenarios from Filipinos’ favourite genre, the soap opera.
This allows for some broad, heavily stylized performances. But Aguirre and her actors rarely let things get silly or slip into caricature. We get adept comedy of manners and social satire mixed with graphic revelations of the political atrocities suffered by the people of that country under the Marcos military dictatorship. The result is a grotesque phantasmagoria with numerous opportunities for these kids to strut their considerable talents.
I can’t do justice to all the terrific performances but here are some others that stand out. Ryan MacDonald is doubly powerful as the play’s good guy, the reformist Senator Avila whose assassination stands at the political centre of the play, and one of its baddest, the violent, predatory “Uncle” to Joey (Hamza Adams), who is a drug addict, DJ, and fantastic dancer.
Joey is courted by perverse filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder (Jon Lachlan Stewart), in Manila for Imelda Marcos’ film festival, and works for transvestite club owner Perlita (Chris Cochrane), whose remarkable disco routine to Donna Summers’ “Bad Girls” is as wonderful a scene as any on a Vancouver stage this year. Imelda herself has only a couple of cameos but Emilie Leclerc absolutely nails her.
The political plot is carried in the second act by ruthless General Ledesma (a quietly terrifying cross-gendered Jessica Hill), who tortures and arranges the gang-rape of his own niece Daisy (Georgina Beaty), daughter of the martyred Senator Avila, triggering her transformation into a revolutionary.
The second half of the play feels top-heavy—too many characters and storylines—and director Aguirre milks a couple of scenes for a little too long. But mostly she keeps the pace ramped way up, finds all sorts of clever things for her actors to do on the bare stage in the round, and pulls no punches in illustrating the horrors the bad guys were capable of committing. She gets great help from Jonathan Ryder’s pulsating lighting and Stephen Bulat’s excellent sound design—itself a key actor in the play.
By the way, no dogs are eaten. The title refers to the American colonizers’ disparaging nickname for Filipinos.