Friday, January 17, 2014

"Debutante Ball" by History Theatre at the Minnesota History Center

The second new work presented as part of the History Theatre's Raw Stages Festival is Debutante Ball, about a group of Filipino-American youth preparing for the traditional Debutante Ball, and the strict but supportive woman who guides them through the process. Written by Eric "Pogi" Somangil and directed by Randy Reyes (newly crowned Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts), it's a charming look at young people and the usual struggle to find yourself at that age, along with the added struggle of trying to figure out what it means to be Filipino-American.

We meet six teenagers, three girls preparing for the Debutante Ball (played with youthful charm by Jöelle Fernandez, Suzie Juul, and Noelle Trovela) and the three boys who will serve as their escorts (the equally youthful and charming Patrick Faunillan, Alex Galick, and Kenneth Gonzales). Anna is participating despite her parents' objections, who have chosen to forget their Filipino heritage and raise their daughter as an assimilated American. But she longs to know more about her culture, so she moves in with a friend, gets a job, and decides to do this on her own. She spends time with her new friends (typical teenagers like the spoiled rich girl, the smart and independent girl, the cocky jock, and the nerdy awkward boy) and Tita Belinda, the community auntie who is hard on the kids as she teaches them to dance, but has a soft spot underneath for her charges (the character is based on a real person). The highlight of the show is a fully realized and completely entertaining performance by Arnold Felizardo as Tita.

The play features very natural language, with the teenagers talking like real teenagers talk. They also mix in some words from the Filipino language in an organic way. The history of the Debutante Ball, and the Philippines in general, is told in a very clever and well-done rap by the entire cast. Because it came early in the show, I was expecting there to be more music in the play than there was. A few lines were later sung as the boys serenade one of the girls, but it was quickly replaced by a recording of DaHil Sa 'Yo. I would love to see more live music incorporated into the next incarnation of the show, in this section and also the dancing scenes. One thing there is much of in this play is humor; I particularly enjoyed the argument about why hobbits are Filipino.

Another night at the Raw Stages Festival, another well-written and promising new play brought to life by a talented cast. Hooray for the History Theatre for fostering new work that is specific to this place, giving all Minnesotans a chance to tell their story. I appreciated the opportunity to learn a bit more about the Filipino-American culture that is so active right here in Minnesota (see the Fil-Minnesotan website to learn more).

there's something so exciting about a bare stage,
where anything can happen!