theater (reviews)

review: House Rules

House Rules

by A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Ralph B. Peña

Featuring Tina Chilip, Jojo Gonzalez, Mia Katigbak, Tiffany Villarin
Ma-Yi Theater Company, SubletSeries@HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue
March 25, 2016 – April 16, 2016

production site

(L-R) James Yaegashi, Tina Chilip, Jeffrey Omura, Mia Katigbak and Tiffany Villarin (on floor). Image by Web Begole.

(L-R) James Yaegashi (on floor), Tina Chilip, Jeffrey Omura, Mia Katigbak and Tiffany Villarin (on floor). Image by Web Begole.

  • “Listen to me and learn to play the game or prepare for a motherfucking solitary existence.” (Twee to Momo)
  • “I came here so you could be better than me. Happier than me. So you could take the rules I made up and come up with your own.” (Vera to her girls)

Close knit immigrant families, tied together by proximity in a New York apartment house, shared heritage, and the simple challenge of become adults yields amid old friendships and long-standing family traditions. Everyone is related by blood or friendship or romantic couplings and it’s all about rules: making the rules, learning the rules, learning to break the rules, making the rules your own. What this play is only in part about is cultural and ethnic differences (despite occasional sequences of Tagalog language). A. Rey Pamatmat‘s story is of generational embraces and reconciliation. This is an American story that works when the plotting and the staging and the set design don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. For most of the time, these characters provide a sweet emotional ride.

Vera (Mia Katigbak), Filipino matriarch of a family of U.S.-born daughters — roustabout “finding herself” older daughter photographer Twee (Tina Chilip) and steady doctor younger daughter Momo (Tiffany Villarin) — makes up her own rules as she goes along. She passes gas in her work break room and takes glee in sharing the story at home; she has her own rules for card games and board games that provide the rationale for a unifying weekly game night, and offer humor, punch, and symbolic power throughout the show. In a game of gin rummy, for example, Momo displays a winning hand by conventional rules, but Vera asks, earnestly, after the fact whether they are playing “with rainbows.” We don’t have to know what that means precisely in this family’s context, but most of us have or know of such family traditions, tweaks to rules that you have to be part of a family to know. It’s not exclusion but inclusion in this case. They’re speaking in code but a code that plays in its outline and rhythms to any audience of humans who are raised in families. This story plays to all of us.

Another family constellation is full of testosterone. Ernie (Jojo Gonzalez) is a father with a heart condition and two adult sons, the younger a jobless comic artist JJ  (Jeffrey Omura) and older son doctor Rod or “Toto” (James Yaegashi), whose ex-fiancee Henry (Conrad Schott), yet another doctor, who offers, as Rod notes a “pathetic consolation prize of consolation” being kind to Ernie in the hospital after dumping Rod. The dynamic of the Rod-Henry relationship pulls from the central powerful core of the story as a distraction, not a strong element, with too many “what’s going on” – “I can’t talk about it” sequences. The family scenes are so darn strong that these other sequences pull focus.

The story of assimilation in the first generation is one that endures in U.S. culture and theater (see Abie’s Irish Rose, see A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, see I Remember Mama). There may be too many notes in this plot. Do we need all the permutations of Henry’s leaving then approaching then stalking, and the neighbor family friends engaging? Where — and why — are the spouses of Vera and Ernie in the world of the play when we never meet them on stage? But the core is strong and true and funny and centered and charming in the best theatrical sense. Game night codes work cross culturally.

Scenic design by Reid Thompson is composed of realistic checker board, Sudoku sections that occupy the sizable real estate of the HERE main stage playing area. At times this decision is frustrating (why play way upstage or far right or left for extended periods of time when the whole stage is available?), but this choice in retrospect fits the three by three, puzzle and comic strip, game night metaphors that structure this story.

What this cast of characters calls for throughout, and in their lives, are the “house rules” they live by and define as they go along. It’s wonderful to spend some time with them.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 4, 2016)

Playwright | A. Rey Pamatmat
Director | Ralph B. Peña
Set Design | Reid Thompson
Costume Design | Martin Schnellinger
Lighting Design | Oliver Wason
Sound Design | Fabian Obispo
Wig Design | Sara Donovan
Fight Choreographer | Jon Hoche

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