Perhaps it is because a dear friend of mine long ago had to explain to me why some referred to him as a “rice queen”. ..
Or perhaps it is because his now fiancée’s family tree calligraphy gift to one of his first cousins covered three walls of the living room, the plot lines of Mahal were easy for me to anticipate.
Does it matter that Mahal’s plot mysteries were easy to predict? Not really, by my lights. This is a good story with a great cast. It holds our attention firm from beginning to end—even if we know the end well in advance of it being acted out on the stage.
I think I can speak for many when I say that “Mahal”, if nothing else, is a needed wakeup call that many Asian stories and Filipino-American culture in particular go underrepresented on Chicago’s stages ---and elsewhere too.
The one person we don’t meet in Bailiwick’s Mahal is the one driving the action—the deceased mother of a grieving family who wanted nothing more or less than the group to meet for Sunday dinner.
Both her youngest son (Mikey Reyes, played expertly by Kevin Matthew Reyes) still grappling with his gay identity and her husband (Roberto Reyes, played with subtlety by Joseph Anthony Foronda) fill the vacuum left by her passing by calling her phone just to hear her voice repeat the phone number and to leave her a voicemail—until the mailbox gets filled.
The mother’s 30-something daughter (Mari Reyes, played by Kate Garassino) is quickly defined as a take-charge archetypal character we imagine we will meet in many a Filipino-American family.
She, more than anyone, tries to bring her mother’s vision of the united family to fruition, and ends up being the truth teller bar none who puts the idealized mother in a more human frame.
The cast and story is rounded out by the elder brother, Phillipine-born, who craves the respect he imagines is his due as eldest son (played by Karmann Bajuyo;
Tim, the aforementioned “rice queen” caught in the wheels of Mikey’s fear of intimacy (played by Patrick Byrnes); Kendall (played by Blair Robertson), the young beauty who serves as rebound lover to elder Roberto; and Kim (played by Jillian Jocson) whom the elder brother imagines as his mail-order bride from the homeland but who turns out to have an entirely different agenda.
All of the acting is on target and with an emotional pitch that tells you who they are quickly and moves the plot along.
The very short scenes required many set changes, and Stephen H Carmody’s set design did an admirable job of making these many transitions relatively painless.
Yes, go to see Mahal before the run ends on August 2. Let’s give playwright Danny Bernardo the encouragement he needs to keep putting Filipino-American stories in our psyche and help seed the stages for Asian playwrights in general.
It didn’t matter to me that the various plot turns could be anticipated. It certainly didn’t matter to me that Chicago’s delicious Isla Filipina restaurant got a shameless plug. What does matter is that you know that there is a recurring line in this play that “it is lost in translation” and that it isn’t lost.
The only spoiler alert, if you don’t speak Tagalog, is to not use your Google translator to find the meaning of “Mahal”. There is lovely dialogue in this play about the many meanings of this word, and the richness of those lines were definitely not lost in translation.
Photos by Michael Brosilow.
“Mahal” at Bailiwick Theater
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago
Through August 2.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm
Special Saturday matinee July 27 2 PM.