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‘Ang Pag-uusig’’s witch hunt is a compelling look into our own mob mentality

‘Ang Pag-uusig’’s witch hunt is a compelling look into our own mob mentality

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  • Tanghalang Pilipino’s award-winning Filipino translation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” takes the stage once again

Last Valentine’s Day, a smear campaign was launched targeting the Baguio arm of women’s rights group Gabriela. This is not new in the string of red-tagging incidents that have continued to proliferate even under a new administration.

These days, we call it red-tagging, the peddling of fake news and false accusations, done by trolls and powered by the political elite. In the 1690s, they called it a witch hunt.

Not much has changed if we look at the core of these public accusations. Even centuries apart, the havoc and terror these accusations wreck in society remain as rampant—just now in different forms.

Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Ang Pag-uusig,” a Filipino translation of Arthur Miller’s classic “The Crucible,” though still set within the original’s premise of the Salem witch trials, brings to light parallels in the present day. And while the original work designates John Proctor as the story’s protagonist, the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company presents such strong ensemble work, making us look at this 2023 run of “Ang Pag-uusig” not just through the lens of one character or their individual circumstance, but through the various points of view of each resident of the town.

Earning multiple citations from the Philstage Gawad Buhay Awards in its last staging, “Ang Pag-uusig,” especially in this current run, spotlights how the powerful manipulate and control the system. But here, the powerful take on many forms—from the traditional political elite, the professionals, and the wealthy, down to one whose power lies in her cunning and personality. The play also highlights the faults of a system that is so intent—even hell-bent—to condemn, that they are willing to contort, distort, and compromise the truth at the expense of integrity and due process.

The seeds of dissent

The play is a microcosmic view into the ways fear-mongering, scapegoating, and groupthink can erode and ravage a community.

We see this when Abigail Williams (so sharply portrayed by Antonette Go) paints herself tormented, fanning the flames of the fear of witchcraft spreading throughout the town. Knowing what triggers would rouse the terrified neighborhood, she uses it to her advantage, conniving with her young friends to pass their version of events as truth.

It’s not uncommon now for us to see viral discussions on social media be marked as virtual witch hunts—because that’s exactly what it is. One story gets conflated and blown to massive proportions, shared and spread like wildfire, with each new share fueling the story with new opinions. The overwhelming numbers make it easy to disregard further and deeper scrutiny, with most opting to only know the surface story, subscribing instead to the loud consensus of the virtual pitchforked mob. 

And when the mob is led by the powerful, going against them, even armed with the truth, can be a herculean task, if not totally impossible. Unfortunately, this is also why some opt to subscribe to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” ideology—much like the other girls siding with the crafty and cunning Abigail, especially Mary Warren (played by Aggy Mago), the gullible if not playful maid of the Proctor family. Realizing the error (and terror) of Abigail’s plot, she comes forward with the truth (albeit by force) but retracts when she is cornered. 

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Stern and uncompromising Deputy Governor Danforth, portrayed by Jonathan Tadioan. Photo by Paw Castillo for Tanghalang Pilipino

In both the play and in real life, we meet personalities like this, whose stances change as quickly as the tides, going with whichever can benefit them for the moment. Some may call it self-preservation, doing whatever it will take to stay alive.

The trials in “Ang Pag-uusig” show just how much of a messy affair it can be. Should you just let go of your reputation and tell lies that will appease the public to save your head, but live with the shame? Or would you rather die with your integrity intact?

Riveting performance

There is no shred of doubt when it comes to the skills of the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company. Here, in the company’s third run of “Ang Pag-uusig,” the ensemble work remains strong and compelling, especially as the intense scenes keep you at the edge of your seat.

The girls, led by Go’s Williams, deliver such hair-raising performances that will draw you in, it’ll be easy to see why the townsfolk believe them. Go in particular bears that subtle innocence at first, and the more you watch her, the more you see the depth of her devious and calculating character seep through the cracks. She is so satisfyingly terrifying.

In contrast, the Proctors, who are central to the play’s denouement, deliver a cathartic exorcism to the tormented tale. Lhorvie Nuevo’s Elizabeth Proctor is resolute and composed, carrying such a quiet strength around her every time she is in a scene. Alongside her is Marco Viaña’s commanding take on John Proctor, who even with his powerful portrayal, exercises enough care to not overshadow the rest of the ensemble. 

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A pivotal scene between the Proctors and Abigail, in the presence of Judge Danforth. Photo by Paw Castillo for Tanghalang Pilipino

The playing off of energies among the cast is a testament to how the company has developed an understanding not only of their own characters but each other’s. Together, they were able to bring to life the complex town of Salem, filled with the various forms and shadows of human nature. 

Meanwhile, the stage and sound, designed by Ohm David and TJ Ramos respectively, are minimal but only to perfectly serve their purpose. There is no room for frivolity and embellishment, especially in a story like “Ang Pag-uusig”’s. The design allows audiences to focus on the scenes unfolding. 

Tanghalang Pilipino’s third iteration of “Ang Pag-uusig” proves to be essential viewing, not only for its masterful take on the literary classic but also for its underlying commentary on our current social state. A satisfying, but at the same time disturbing, mirror to the social dynamics of the present.

Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Ang Pag-uusig” runs until March 12. Translated into Filipino by Jerry Respeto and directed by Dennis Marasigan. Featuring Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company members Marco Viaña as John Proctor, Lhorvie Nuevo as Elizabeth Proctor, Jonathan Tadioan as Deputy Governor Danforth, Antonette Go as Abigail Williams, Mark Lorenz as Reverend John Hale, Earle Figuracion as Reverend Samuel Parris, Arjhay Babon as Giles Corey, Edrick Alcontado as Ezekiel Cheever, Vince Macapobre as Thomas Putnam, Heart Puyong as Ann Putnam, Judie Dimayuga as Tituba, Aggy Mago as Mary Warren, Mitzi Comia as Mercy Lewis, Sarah Monay as Betty Parris, Monique Nellas-Bagadiong as Rebecca Nurse, Daniel Gregorio as Judge Hathorne, and Francesca Dela Cruz as Susana Walcott.

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