Nanay Isog and Her Children
Pintig Cultural Group
at the Preston Bradley Center for the Arts
By Kim Wilson
Most citizens of this country experience war via the newspaper or CNN. We watch video highlights and read educated perspectives on the cause, history, and possible outcome of the conflict. These become topics of intellectual debate, maybe a campaign platform.
But for millions of people in other parts of the world, war is an everyday fact of life. People die. Buildings burn. The sun comes up. The day goes on. If you're smart, you may even find a way to profit from the situation. Such is life for Nanay Isog in Nanay Isog and Her Children, Rodolfo Carlos Vera's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children for the Pintig Cultural Group. This version moves the story to the Philippines in the 1970s--in the midst of the Ferdinand Marcos era.
Certainly Brecht was not the first writer to portray the cold, pragmatic side of war. No one, however, has shone so harsh a light on the subject or personified it with such gritty truth. In this version, Nanay Isog pulls her cart through war-torn Mindanao, peddling bullets, uniforms, belt buckles, brandy, and other wares to soldiers, scraping together a living for herself and her three children--two boys of enlistment age and a girl who cannot speak. Nanay Isog tries doggedly to teach her offspring that the only value during war is self-preservation. But they die violently, one by one, in pursuit of higher ideals--bravery in combat, honesty, protection of innocents--while she's off closing a deal.
This scenario could surely play out against the backdrop of any country ravaged by conflict (Brecht set his play in 17th-century Europe during the Thirty Years' War). But setting the story in the Philippines just a quarter century ago gives the play an accessible modern context and provides a rich cultural texture. The Brechtian convention of announcing the outcome of each scene at its onset ensures that most everyone, even those unfamiliar with Philippine history, will track the course of events. The language is accessible, even the native slang--and if not, the program contains a glossary with most of the Tagalog and Bisayan phrases. Finally, leveraging another Brecht device, each message is highlighted in song.
For this production, musical directors Louie Pascasio and Steven Baz have created their own score. The compositions often echo Kurt Weill's haunting minor chord progressions and add nods to military marches and Islamic chants. More beautiful still, each song is delicately accented by native instruments--the tinkling gerantang (bamboo xylophone), the twanging kubing (bamboo mouth harp), the Korean pu drum--as well as other bells and chimes. Equally striking are the vibrant patterns of Susan Kirpach's native costumes; Cesar Conde's sparse, ramshackle village sets; and the exquisite detail of the Muslim prayer postures and ethnic dance movements (uncredited).
Distinguished Brecht translator Eric Bentley once commented that the role of Mother Courage is almost always miscast, because middle-aged actresses are often too ladylike to pull it off. Mary Ann de la Cruz is probably as far from Bentley's vision of Mother as one can get--she's younger, more energetic, more quick-witted and fierce (and the girl can sing!). But she clearly understands what lies at the heart of this heroine (or antiheroine): Nanay Isog is the consummate salesperson. She is a cunning judge of character, a gregarious, tenacious master of negotiation. This is her triumph and her downfall. It is the key to her survival in the direst circumstances and the distraction that allows her to haggle for a deal while her children's lives hang in the balance.
I'm guessing Bentley would unconditionally laud the actors playing the children--Miles J. Sanchez, Louie Sison, and Audrey Briones--for their sincerity and fresh faces, which reveal all the pride, naivete, and raw emotion of youth (especially Briones, who makes your heart ache without ever saying a word). The same can be said for the rest of the company, particularly Steve Weaver as the chaplain, the voice of moral idealism, and Bert Matias, who plays all the male characters over the age of 50. Each and every performance rings clear and true (though one soldier talks way too fast).
When a cast achieves this level of harmony and understanding, it's invariably due to the sensitive orchestrations of a talented director: Allan Sargan deserves the final ovation. Directing Brecht is no cakewalk. It's not easy to portray the provocative, even agonizing situations in his plays without conveying any bias. But if one side is ever portrayed as evil, the work turns into propaganda.
Sargan had to create a Nanay Isog--in fact a whole community of people--who views war not as a matter of intellectual principle but as an emotional and practical fact. That's way harder than it looks. But because Sargan and company pull it off, when Nanay Isog drags her cart into the final sunset, we weep over destroyed beauty, seethe at human complacency, and think long and hard about the evil of war--and even about its redeeming possibilities. Brecht would have been proud.