Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Debutante's Ball" at the History Theatre in Partnership with Mu Performing Arts

The History Theatre excels at taking stories from Minnesota's past and putting them on stage in a way that's full of life and relevant. The latest example of this is The Debutante's Ball by local playwright Eric "Pogi" Sumangil. The play was part of last year's new works festival "Raw Stages" and is now receiving a full production on the History Theatre stage. This story of a milestone in the life of local Filipino-American youths was charming and poignant as a reading, and it's even more so now with the benefit of sets, costumes, and choreography. It feels very real - the playwright based many of the characters and situations on his own experience, and memorabilia from recent Balls are displayed in the lobby. The specific and detailed look at one culture's tradition speaks to the larger theme of how we find and hold on to our culture, family, traditions, and identity in the ever changing modern world.

At the heart of this story is the teenager Ana (an appealing Stephanie Bertumen), who moves out of her parents' home because they want her to be an assimilated American and can't understand why she longs to learn more about her Filipino heritage. She finds the Valentine's Day Ball and the weekly classes to prepare for it, taught by the strict and traditional Tita Belinda (Sherwin Resurreccion, showing us the heart behind the tough exterior). There she meets other Filipino youth who are participating for different reasons, and are the typical range of high school characters - the awkward nerd, the cocky jock, the spoiled popular girl (played with youthful charm by Kylee Brinkman, Joelle Fernandez, Alex Galick, Maxwell Thao, and actual high schooler Jeric Basilio). The language is natural; these kids talk like real teenagers talk, with a few Tagalog words thrown in. Ana struggles to balance work, friendship, money, and her relationship with her parents, but with the help of her new friends is able to accomplish her goal of participating in the Debutante's Ball. Through this experience she learns something she hasn't been able to learn from her endless research - what it's like to really be part of a community and be proud and confident in who you are.

Part of Ana's research into her heritage is to watch videos, which we see played out by the cast onstage as Ana watches from the aisles. A cheesy soap opera that mirrors her parents' experience, a comedy routine, a children's story, a rap that explains the origins of the Ball. It's a clever device that allows the audience to learn about Filipino culture along with Ana. Another tradition we see onstage is a boy serenading a girl he likes outside of her house, a sweet and tender moment of young and innocent love.

the debutantes at the ball (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The play is called The Debutante's Ball - so there better be dancing and pretty dresses! Rest assured, there is. After spending two hours getting to know these characters I almost felt like their parents must, a sense of pride at what they've accomplished and how grown-up and mature they are. The girls look lovely in their matching white flowy dresses (costumes by Kathy Kohl), the boys handsome in their tuxes. The story culminates in a dance (choreographed by Pogi) that's quite beautiful on the surface, but goes much deeper knowing the tradition, stories, and people behind it.

The Debutante's Ball is a universal story of a young person coming of age and trying to figure out who they are, where they came from, and where they fit in the world. Continuing at the History Theatre through April 12 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

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