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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Culture Project (off-Bway)

By David Lefkowitz

There are probably more depressing topics for plays than migrant Filipino farm workers oppressed by their bosses, condemned to wage slavery and blowing what little money they have on drink and prostitutes because they have no hope of starting families or ever again seeing families they left behind. Add to that the tale of one laborer duped out of his savings by a lonely-hearts pen-pal, and you have the makings of one grim evening.

Which is precisely what The Romance of Magno Rubio is not.

Sure, clusters of Grapes of Wrath glumness and outbursts of Odetsian politics crop up -- just enough, in fact, to make us exceedingly grateful that most of Magno Rubio is light-hearted. No need to show the workers relentlessly beaten and abused; one scene of Atoy (Ramon De Ocampo) mouthing off and then being struck across the face (by the unseen foreman) tells us all. Mostly, the five men depicted in Lonnie Carter's award-winning play tease each other (often in ribald fashion), or grab guitars and bamboo sticks to sing wryly about their situation. They even encourage Magno in his epistolary correspondence, though they know deep down his ladylove will prove as false as the American dream they all chase.

In adapting a short story by Carlos Bulosan, playwright Carter (full disclosure: he was my writing professor at NYU) realizes that hope in the face of despair tends to be more potent than just showing despair. So Nick (Arthur T. Acuna) buries his nose in books hoping that intellect and wisdom will better his days (if not his lot), the bullying Claro (Paolo Montalban) chooses to leave the camp to go prospecting in Alaska; and Magno (JoJo Gonzalez), despite losing everything to heartbreak, takes only a moment to grieve and then shrugs, "I guess we'll start picking the tomatoes next week."

Loy Arcenas directs the suitably barebones staging with simplicity, adding elements of stylized movement, dance and ritual fighting. Carter's text, mostly in rhymed verse as an homage to Filipino poetic tradition, has its share of infelicitous couplets but doesn't overload the story with frills and declamations. That said, Rubio's tale is just a bit thin for the play's hundred-minute running time. Other characters tend to be types - e.g., the bookworm, the bully - without subplots, so there sequences when we wait impatiently for the story to run its course or for Magno's bunkmates to help him wise up. Much as the scenes with De Ocampo playing Magno's beloved Clarabelle are amusingly done, we pretty much get that she's a gold-digger early on and don't need so many reappearances to remind us.

Still, for a play set in a barracks with a doomed dramatis personae and an unhappy ending, The Romance of Magno Rubio has such good cheer, we're almost tempted to share the optimism of its protagonist. Or at least wish, against all evidence to the contrary, that his luck, and the luck of his companions, will one day change.


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