Mario O’Hara. Gina Pareno. Leisl Batucan– there is no doubt that Tanghalang Pilipino achieved the motherload of theater greats in American Hwangap. Big names for such a generic family drama. It’s not like they, along with Nicco Manalo and Jeremy Domingo, didn’t make for an exquisite theater experience, but the script itself is definitely not without its flaws.
Min Suk Chun is turning 60, marking his life’s complete cycle of the Zodiac. As is Korean tradition, he must celebrate this ‘hwangap’ with a party and with his family. In this case, with his ex-family since he’s been estranged for nearly fifteen years.
Naturally, no one is receptive to the idea of his return. Most adamant was his eldest son David who refused to fly from New York to Texas for the occasion. Instead, he spends the entire story communicating with everyone else through his headset. The daughter, Esther, is not any more ecstatic. Of all of them, she is the most openly antagonistic of her father. The youngest, Ralph, in contrast with everyone else, seems to look forward to the idea of spending time with his dad.
Mary, the ex-wife, was the most conflicted of all. She was the one who was left but despite that and everything implied about their relationship, she still took the effort to give her ex-husband his hwangap janche. Despite her resistance, she succumbs to a moment of weakness, making things even more complicated for herself.
The story pretty much revolves around Min Suk Chun trying to win his family back one person at a time. They deal with family and personal issues, finally confronting each other about how their lives turned in all those years they went without a father.
This particular adaptation complicates itself with the inclusion of one too many cultures. The story originally is about Koreans living in Texas. With the Filipino version, you have Koreans living in Texas speaking in Tagalog with the added baggage of trying to incorporate Filipino humor into the mix.
Although Texas as a setting was not so crucial plot-wise, incorporated Korean terms were slightly alienating. Instead of defining terms in programmes not everyone buys, maybe they could’ve used ‘ceremony’ instead of ‘janche’ and other things of this nature. It does take away from the “Korean-ness” of the play but it beats confusing the audiences.
The dialogue was more Tag-Lish than Tagalog or English. It only testifies that the material itself was not so adaptable to Filipino in the first place. The language switching mid-sentence took away from the strength of some scenes. Many lines and laughs went unnoticed because some lines were definitely more powerful had they remained in English or were delivered entirely in Tagalog.
The Mario O’Hara was, as expected, simply flawless as Min Suk Chun, the admittedly imperfect old man clamoring for his second chance. Despite the imperfectness of his character, his portrayal made the lead so lovable– like an adorable and mischievous grandfather you wish you had growing up.
Gina Pareno, in her debut theater role was, for lack of a better term, epic. The acting prowess she exudes on screen remains unquestioned, even live. Her feisty take on her character perfectly matched O’Hara. They had the audiences in stitches as they played a rather elderly version of will-they-won’t-they lovers.
Playing the children are Leisl Batucan, Jeremy Domingo and Nicco Manalo. Leisl Batucan unsurprisingly gave a strong performance as the scorned daughter with clear-as-day daddy issues. Jeremy Domingo plays David, the eldest son so determined not to end up like his father. He played his character so coldly to the point of stoicism and appropriately so. Nicco Manalo as the youngest was the livewire of the play but unbelievable for a character supposedly turning 30. He looked and acted like he was 14.
The play was without a doubt beautiful. Most beautiful was the scenography– well thought out and detailed that one can mistake it to have been a piece of an actual house, sliced and placed in the middle of CCP’s Little Theater. Lighting too was excellent. It really helped with the imagery and timeline of the play.
American Hwangap is like consuming a well-balanced meal– it does not indulge audiences with cheap laughs and shallow humor; neither does it only cater to the theatrically snobbish. With its easy language and pretty straight-cut storytelling, it leaves the audiences feeling they certainly got their money’s worth.