Oct 27, 2019

When I first found out that Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Katsuri” was going to be set in Negros, and that it would highlight the plight of the farmers there, I knew I just had to go see it.

I also knew it was a story worth telling.

But the moment I got out of the theater early this October from watching “Katsuri,” I realized it wasn’t going to be easy.

It has been weeks and I have not stopped telling people, ‘winasak ako ng ‘Katsuri.’”

It has been weeks, and I still feel that words are not enough to even describe the experience of seeing this play.

No one wants to be a sakada now. They’d rather do construction work, or other technical jobs. It just pays more, and your job advancement is more certain.

The driver my friends and I hired when we arrived in Bacolod some time ago briefly talked about the fields. He was driving us to our hostel in the city proper, and we had passed by several plots of sugarcane fields.

Back then, when kuya talked about the reasons behind the impending extinction of sacadas, it had only come across to me as a sad reality: that nowadays no one really wants to be a farmer. It’s not seen as a noble or even important job (even if it is!), and it is, perhaps in part, because of how farmers are unfairly and unjustly treated here. And on top of this, just months ago, there have been a string of killings and attacks against farmers and their defenders in Negros.

Jonathan Tadiaoan as Toto and Marco Viaña as George

[READ: In the killing fields of Negros, the lives of farmers and activists mean nothing]

It was a sad reality I knew but didn’t fully feel the gravity of until I sat inside CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute early this October: Under the dim lights, a loud gunshot rang out, killing a nameless farmer as “Katsuri” opened.

Tanghalang Pilipino’s (TP) second offering for their 33rd season is a years-in-the-making staging of “Of Mice and Men,” adapted into Filipino—both in language and context—by Bibeth Orteza and directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna.

If TP’s first production were to be used as a measure [READ: Art is protest, Tanghalang Pilipino proves with ‘Mabining Mandirigma’], I’d say this second production more than lives up to it. With the theme “makidigma,” TP’s 33rd year proves to be more and more urgent.

Imagine yourself a farmer with a small piece of land, a huge intergenerational debt and no college degree. Imagine having dreams you can’t fulfill. Now, imagine being told you can seek changes in your situation, no matter how small. Would you not allow yourself that chance?

Unfortunately, those who take the chance are threatened, or worse, hurt or killed by those who do not want the current situation to change.Cathy Cañares Yamsuan, “In the killing fields of Negros, the lives of farmers and activists mean nothing”

“Of Mice and Men” is translated into the Hiligaynon word “katsuri,” which refers to a type of mouse or shrew that is commonly seen in the fields of Negros. It is an allusion, too, to the situation of the farmers—as they are treated neither as human nor rat—as an in-between.

It follows George and Toto (Lennie, in Steinbeck’s original, but renamed by Orteza to pay homage to the late human rights lawyer Bernardino “Toto” Patigas, who was shot dead in Negros early this year), who flee from Hacienda Luisita after an incident to seek work as sakadas in a new hacienda regions away.

Toto and George’s first meeting with Boss (Michael Williams) and Tatang (Nanding Josef)

In their new employ, they meet several personalities, altogether forming a microcosm of society: Boss (Michael Williams); his arrogant, privileged son Kulot (Fitz Bitana); Kulot’s ambitious, if not actually flighty, wife Inday (Antonette Go); and other farmhands such as Tatang, Payat, Carling, Monang, and Nognog (Nanding Josef, JV Ibesate, Lhorvie Nuevo, Eunice Pacia, and Ybes Bagadiong, respectively).

Orteza takes a few liberties with her adaptation, going beyond the name and setting changes. She adds a new character—Atorni (Doray Dayao)—a woman lawyer who introduces the story and adds to the true-to-life picture the play paints on stage.

Both current and urgent, it isn’t just a mere tug at the heart—it doesn’t just beg you to pity the farmers (both on stage and in real life)—it spurs deeper, more complicated feelings. And while it succeeds in artistically conveying an alarming message, it neither shoves the agenda down your throat nor does it sanitize the issue.

It disturbs, because it’s not just the plight of Negros farmers that gets pushed to the spotlight in this adaptation; “Katsuri” also tackles some very real, very universal themes, like dreams, human relationships, and internal discrimination.

At the center of all this is Jonathan Tadioan’s and Marco Viaña’s Toto and George. Their portrayal of the two friends—one gifted with brute strength and the other with common sense—bound together by the same unjust social circumstances runs from heartwarming to heart-crushing as the story unfolds.

Viaña succeeds in showing George not only as a man-made weary by his personal and social burdens but also as a man deeply troubled as he faces an important decision that makes him go behind everything he has stood for and by—Toto.

Tadioan, meanwhile, disappears into his role. Having seen him in three other productions this year, (“Ang Huling El Bimbo,” “The Unreachable Star” in Virgin Labfest, and most recently in “Mabining Mandirigma”), I can clearly see how deftly he has transformed himself this time into the mentally challenged, child-like Toto. His portrayal is seamless, from voice and facial expression, down to the most minuscule of mannerisms.

Despite the darkness that seems to constantly loom over the two friends George and Toto, from the incident that has literally chased the pair from Luisita back to Negros, the period of tiempo muerto (the dead season, the period between planting and harvest), to the constant deaths around them, the two, for the most part, are kept together by their dreams and their belief in each other.

Throughout the play, Toto asks George to talk about their dream of owning their own farm, and the kind of life they’ll live there. It’s tender and moving, and the more Toto and George talk about it, the more I get attached to their dream, too.

But when the final shot is fired and Toto, midspeech about his and George’s dream, falls, I am reminded again of the sad reality that for these farmers, for these oppressed, dreams are just that. Dreams. And how terrible it is that we live in a world where the stakes are always unjustly stacked.

In the end, the play leaves you with a lot to think about. It reminds you about the importance of having even just one person who believes in you. It’s a wakeup call to how even we could perpetuate discrimination through our mindset—even within our own small circles. But one viewer, at the talkback at the end of the show, poses the most important question: We see these things happening around us, we see these in the news. We know this is real for our farmers—the people who toil to bring food to our table—can we still afford to just leave this theater and turn a blind eye to them again?

“Katsuri” ends its run Sunday, Oct. 27.


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Read more:

In the killing fields of Negros, the lives of farmers and activists mean nothing

Art is protest, Tanghalang Pilipino proves with “Mabining Mandirigma”

Theater notes: “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is an eye-opening trip


TAGS: Bibeth Orteza Carlos Siguion-Reyna CCP farmers katsuri of mice and men review social issues tanghalang pilipino theater