by Cathy Hammer
A solo performance can be mesmerizing: a swirl of character and story painted with varying brushstrokes by a single talented hand. As an actor, Orlando Pabotoy has the range to provide this experience, possessing an aptitude for vivid storytelling with flashes of humor and an ability to mime a walk through the rain that surpasses the great Marcel Marceau. His script for Sesar remains gauzy; not quite pulling together the threads of his tale into a solid piece. But even at this stage of development, it is an entertaining and enlightening piece told from a unique vantage point stemming from his Lebanese, Irish and Filipino heritage.
The setting for the bulk of the 75 minute one-act is the sole bathroom in a home in Fiji. It is there that 14 year old Sesar has locked himself away to study William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. (How he came to be fascinated by the classic is too charming and funny a moment to be spoiled.) That we are drawn into the world of Shakespeare via a dramatic thunderstorm is only fitting. At first, the boy is alone with his library book, taming his tongue to sound out the words and digging deep to make sense of each line. Soon he is joined by his father, a former Filipino mayor driven from his country after the events of 1986. Increasingly, their studies take a personal turn. Interesting parallels are drawn between the murder of the Roman ruler and the assassination of Benigno Aquino. At the base of their exploration is the very nature of a culture in transition. Disappointingly, the play stops abruptly rather than ends. The last scene — more like a coda — takes place in the future after the family has relocated yet again to the USA. While it contains some poignant detail about the life changes immigrants often face, it doesn’t connect strongly enough with the rest of the work.
Pabotoy does a fine job with the half dozen or so Shakespearean roles portrayed by both father and son. He has a flair for bringing out the music in the iambic pentameter while also using the footnotes from Sesar’s library book to discuss the characters’ motivations for killing their friend and leader. Moving between the two generations, his spacial relations remain clear, but the vocal distinction gets increasingly blurry. If this is by design to illustrate a coming together of viewpoints, it would be helpful if that was called out by the script. So too should the background of the events of 1986 for the benefit of audience members who are either too young to have lived through those headlines or too old to remember exactly what happened. The father sees a strong connection between the deeds of Ferdinand Marcos and Aquino’s horrific murder and the shocking actions and disloyalty of Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators. This essential history is only referenced through fleeting images of newspaper stories. A more solid reference is critical for understanding his experience. This could be equally well accomplished with program notes if playwright Pabotoy made the decision that including a brief history lesson would detract from his family-oriented tale. (A two page spread is provided for the second play being presented by this company.)
Richard Feldman’s direction is unnecessarily frenetic, detracting from Pabotoy’s natural ability to use his body to react and interact with his other selves. The movements as well as the passage of time and Sesar’s growing understanding are emphasized by Oliver Wason’s lighting and a rich soundscape designed by Fabian Obispo. The all white set by Junghyun Georgia Lee, with its circular shower and tile work, functions as a big screen for evocative projections by Dan Scully. In this way the characters can briefly change location to revisit incidents in the Philippines and provide a little historical context shared through displays of newspaper headlines. Additionally, this technique adds variation to the dialogue and emphasizes glimpses into the tumultuous world outside the small bathroom. Lee also provides Pabotoy’s flowing costume which gives faint echoes of traditional clothing and allows the actor the necessary range of motion to command the entire stage.
Commissioned by the Ma Yi Theater Company and presented in repertory with The Chinese Lady, Sesar’s audience on press night seemed swept away by Pabotoy’s arresting interpretative skills. Young Sesar says that people have 10 minutes to make an impression. In that he is successful, introducing us to a man and a boy culturally unmoored with lessons about loyalty and love to share.
Photo credit: Hunter Canning
Sesar— Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street).. Runtime is 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $30-$42.25 and can be purchased by calling 212-239-6200; or online at: www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Chinese-Lady/. Ends Thursday, November 1, 2018.