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The Mouse That Roared: A Review Of 'Katsuri'

Over the next three weekends, ‘Katsuri,’ a sublime Filipino adaptation of Steinbeck’s immortal ‘Of Mice and Men’ is being staged at the CCP by Tanghalang Pilipino

Theater is there to entertain—but, when it can also educate, elucidate, and open our eyes to what is happening around us, that’s when theater comes closer to reaching its full potential, serving as a vehicle to heighten our social consciousness and/or prick our conscience. In his lifetime and through his literary works, John Steinbeck sought to make his readers aware of social injustice, of discrimination, and oppression. The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden are just some of the novels that immediately come to mind when his name crops up, and there is the novella Of Mice and Men.

One of the great, original “buddy stories” of all time, OM&M is set during the American Great Depression, and speaks of economic, gender, and racial discrimination within the milieu of downtrodden, migrant farm workers—while also touching on themes of friendship, sacrifice, and injustice. To see this work transformed into a staged drama in Pilipino by Bibeth Orteza, and transitioned to a farming community in present-day Negros Occidental to highlight the plight of the feudalistic system sakada farmers still live under to this day, is nothing short of illuminating.

Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna, the drama is a wonderful exposition of a contemporary social condition—via a touching, at times heart-warming, at times humorous, at times disturbing, storyline that yearns to entertain, while providing much food for thought, and hopefully resonate long after we’ve left the confines of the CCP’s Studio Theater. It’s a stark reminder of how so much discrimination and injustice can persist to today, and how despite the prevalence of social media, there is still a very selective process by which we perceive what is “on the radar.” It is an impassioned plea for us to wake up, and it’s obvious how close to the heart the subject matter is to both Bibeth and Carlos, and to Tanghalang Pilipino.

I mentioned how it's essentially a buddy story, and the chemistry between the two lead actors is magnificent. There’s George (Marco Viaña) as the level-headed “talker” of the pair, and then there’s the simple-minded, giant of a man, Toto (Jonathan Tadioan)—this was Lenny in the original OM&M, but rechristened Toto, in honor of Toto Patigas, a human rights activist and Bayan Muna council candidate for Escalante City in the last elections, who was gunned down in April of this year. Toto was a friend of both Bibeth and Carlos.

The drama simmers with the threat of death by execution persistently hovering of sexual tensions (the character Inday, as wonderfully played by Antonette Go), ironclad authority (the Boss played by Michael Williams), inbred racist attitudes (kudos to Ybes Bagadiong as Nognog for giving a nuanced, understated portrayal), and the oppressive atmosphere that permeates throughout this particular local farming community. And most importantly, it’s about how camaraderie and humanity can still flourish amidst the squalor and  moral darkness.

The set design and lighting heighten our sense of being close to, if not part of, the action on stage. It’s this proximity that helps make the events that occur in the story hit harder, making us more than just a fly on the wall, passively watching. I know for some members of the audience with close ties to the Negros farming community, the play loosened years and tears of frustration, and was cathartic. And it’s for them, as well as for the “unawares,” that Bibeth and Carlos felt compelled to stage this production.

When leaving the CCP that Friday night, posts came in about Tony Mabesa, founder of Dulaang UP, having passed away. Somehow, I sensed there was something poetic about this; as so many of the lives of the people involved in Katsuri (which is a Bisaya term for a particular kind of mouse) have been touched by Sir Tony—and Katsuri is as fine a tribute as any to the legacy that Sir Tony is leaving behind. If you have an intact conscience, Katsuri is a must-see. 

Katsuri is being staged at the CCP Tanghalang Huseng Batute (Studio Theater) in Pasay and will run until October 27. Tickets are available via TicketWorld.

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