Theater Review: Dogeaters Distills the Time of the Conjugal Dictatorship

 Imelda (Beverly Sotelo) is interviewed by Bob Stone (Lawrence Radecker) (Photo by Jennifer Reiley).

Imelda (Beverly Sotelo) is interviewed by Bob Stone (Lawrence Radecker) (Photo by Jennifer Reiley).

For audience members too young or too distant to be familiar with Philippine society in the waning days of the Marcos regime, the new play Dogeaters at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, may seem a bit surreal.

But for those who lived through that period, the frantic, chaotic, paradoxical production presented by playwright Jessica Hagedorn, director Loretta Greco and a large, multi-talented cast, vividly captures the contradictions of life under the Conjugal Dictatorship.

It was a time of extreme poverty and economic collapse, yet the Marcoses insisted on a glitzy parade of wealth and glamour, touting their intimacy with Hollywood stars and confident of the support of their friend in the White House, Ronald Reagan.

There was no bread, but plenty of circuses – and this is the world that Rio Gonzaga (portrayed by the engaging Rinabeth Apostol) finds when she returns home from the States for the funeral of her beloved grandmother.

 Rio (Rinabeth Apostol) shares a quiet moment with her grandmother (Charisse Loriaux)(Photo by Jennifer Reiley).

Rio (Rinabeth Apostol) shares a quiet moment with her grandmother (Charisse Loriaux)(Photo by Jennifer Reiley).

The daughter of tycoon Freddie Gonzaga (Chuck Lacson), Rio is taken aback by the changes in the 14 years she has been away – including the preferred option of canned calamansi juice in the Jeepney Café in the fanciest hotel in town. (She pointedly chooses fresh.)

In contrast to the lives of the rich and powerful, director Greco also brings us headlong into the world of the lumpen proletariat: a slum in Tondo, where Joey Sands (Rafael Jordan) is desperately trying to break free from drugs and prostitution and become a DJ; a tawdry drag club run by the glamorous Perlita (Jomar Tagatac); and a rundown movie theater where a provincial girl and a wannabe action star swoon over romantic films.

These disparate pieces of the mosaic are drawn together by radio hosts Barbara Villanueva (a stand-out performance by Esperanza Catubig) and Nestor Noralez (Melvign Badiola), who read news headlines and the melodramatic radio series “Love Letters” with equal fervor. Through Rio’s eyes, we are drawn into the complex family and social relations of the Philippines – where a flamboyant patron of a gay club is Imelda’s personal hairdresser, a famous drag performer has ties to the underground revolutionary movement, and a beauty queen, betrayed by her military officer uncle, joins the NPA.


This is a sprawling play, but its fast pace, lively characters, and kaleidoscopic settings keep the audience engaged.

Imelda is hoping that her International Film Festival will be the focus of attention for the foreign press and distract the masses, but her ostentatious event is overshadowed by the public assassination of opposition Senator Domingo Avila – and the brutal military crackdown that follows.

A scene that poignantly underscores how moral values have gone topsy-turvy takes place between Rio and her father late at night in the garden of the Gonzaga estate. With feigned horror, he chastises her for smoking marijuana, and she, with deft wit and sass, responds by reminding him that he is an unabashed adulterer and a very shady businessman. When she learns that he “has received a phone call,” that Senator Avila has been assassinated, she breaks down in tears. The corruption and the violence have hit home.

Dogeaters is an ambitious performance, with 15 cast members, most playing multiple roles. Greco’s bold vision requires incredible nimbleness – both physical and artistic on the part of the actors, and adept backstage support by costume designers Brendin Baron and Karina Chavarin.

 Daisy (Christine Jamlig) wakes to her father’s (Ogie Zulueta) assasination (Photo by Jennifer Reiley).

Daisy (Christine Jamlig) wakes to her father’s (Ogie Zulueta) assasination (Photo by Jennifer Reiley).

All of the actors are believable at playing multiple roles, but a few – because they have to depict diametrically opposing characters in record time– deserve special mention. Ogie Zulueta plays both the outspoken opposition Senator Domingo Avila and Uncle, a manipulative pimp. Jomar Tagatao is General Nicasio Ledesma, a thug so brutal that he will torture his own niece, and Perlita, the self-obsessed drag queen with a heart of gold. Beverly Sotelo plays Imelda with just the right amount of elegance and disdain, and then transforms herself into a pious general’s wife who has been shut up in her room for years praying, with prayers that will surprise you.

 Perlita (Jomar Tagatac) at his club, Studio 54 (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

Perlita (Jomar Tagatac) at his club, Studio 54 (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

The tropical, tumultuous world of Manila is exquisitely portrayed by scenic designer Hana Kim. With illuminated projections, she transforms the corrugated metal shacks of Manila’s back streets with images of voluptuous verdant palm fronds, movie glamour shots, and orchid-filled gardens.

This is a sprawling play, but its fast pace, lively characters, and kaleidoscopic settings keep the audience engaged. Hagedorn ambitiously includes many aspects of the period, but one is poignantly missing. That is the sense of the omnipresent popular uprisings – on campuses, city streets and in the countryside -- which led to the overthrow of the regime just a few years later. The play portrays the brutality of the military, but it is targeted toward one woman because she has an NPA lover; there is very little sense of the massive opposition by ordinary people. Some inclusion of these actions would help audience members to better understand why there was a revolutionary movement and why people from all sectors were drawn to it. Imelda’s signature love song, “Dahil Sa Iyo,” has about three reprises in the play – at least one of them could have been replaced with the patriotic anthem, “Bayan Ko.”

When playwright Hagedorn and director Greco decided to stage this new production, they knew they were taking on a big challenge. But its energetic and talented cast and crew have turned that challenge into a believable world – flamboyant, harsh, unpredictable, and sometimes brutal – but a world worth remembering.  

Dogeaters plays Tuesdays-Sundays through February 28 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets, http://magictheatre.org/season/dogeaters


 Elaine Elinson

Elaine Elinson

Elaine Elinson was a reporter for Pacific News Service in the Philippines; she is coauthor with Walden Bello of “Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines”, which was banned by the Marcos regime. 


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