An elaborate piece of work can either test or arrest one’s attention. Such is the case with Repertory Philippines’ adaptation of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s The Secret Garden, a musical based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel of the same title. In it are symbolic set pieces, ghosts walking — and singing — among the living, flashbacks, and quite a large cast of characters with a chorus.
The year is 1906, the place is England. Young Mary Lennox, after being orphaned, lives with her widowed uncle Archibald Craven. In her new home she discovers locked up in one of the rooms her sick cousin, Colin, who is about the same age as her and is convinced that he’ll die at any moment. She also learns of and is lured by a secret garden, which, as is later on revealed, is emblematic of the characters’ lives. It is dead because their spirits are down, and it blooms when they begin to open up.
The audience doesn’t get a peek at this wondrous garden. Even the house that contains the complicated family and its ghosts is only hinted at. On the stage is what seems like a huge stone roughly chiseled to form ladders and platforms, barely resembling a dwelling. “When we look at rocks or crumpled surfaces, figures and faces surge out of them. I wanted the house to be that of a rock from which memories would come out of,” explains director Anton Juan.
“The garden and the house must be completed in the imagination of the audience. Hence I wanted (the color) white and steps leading as if to nowhere. Once, I was in Hagonoy directing a traditional play for Babaylan, and I saw a madwoman, once rich, climb the only remnant of her once-mansion — a flight of steps. She would climb it and descend, then disappear into a shack behind it,” he continues.
With all the build-up to the garden, the detailed costumes, playful lighting, and unique imagining of the Cravens’ house, it’s natural to expect an equally creative set design for the titular garden. But the audience will soon realize that the production is leaving it entirely to their minds, where most of the magic happens anyway.
“The audience is the garden — the wick inside of us that Dickon sings about to Mary,” shares Juan. “This is also the colonized self inside us, the culture and history in us oppressed by dominant cultures, empires, order, technology and ‘science’ mis-used. The millennials (the silent generation) must see this. The wick awaits to grow and blossom, awaits freedom of expression.”
The question is, can the show be enjoyed without knowing the intent behind it? It certainly requires undivided attention. The actors’ affected accents can get in the way of following the dialogues, and the music — save for Final Storm, which incorporates a haunting version of nursery rhyme Mary, Mary Quite Contrary — is missing the melodic hooks that are crucial in sustaining one’s interest in a musical. It helps that there’s a committed cast onstage. Standouts are Lorenz Martinez (as Archibald), who makes the songs soar; Daniel Drilon, who steals scenes as the stubborn, distrustful, yet charming Colin — he makes you root for him; and Red Concepcion (as Dickon), who’s always been a reliable thespian.
Aside from the cast, especially the child actors, whom Juan selected for their “talent and truth,” Juan takes pride in collaborating on a show with his former students. “I am working with a dream team of artistic collaborators who were my students: Dexter Santos, Ohm David, John Ilao Batalla, Bonzai… And this time it is they who are there, helping me shape what I want for us to articulate, and expect: excellence,” he says. “Surmounting the difficulties of the stage used by two plays all at once [the musical runs alongside another Repertory production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs], and the humble fees they receive, the dream team has collaborated on The Secret Garden and makes it mean (something) truthful and profound in these days of great violence.”
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Repertory Philippines’ The Secret Garden runs until December 20 at the Onstage Theater in Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Book tickets through TicketWorld at 891-9999 or online at ticketworld.com.ph.