By Stanford Friedman
On the day before the opening of Orlando Pabotoy’s taut and lively solo show, Sesar, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor released a letter. In it, she announced her retirement from public life, due to illness, and stressed the importance of “putting country and the common good above party and self-interest.” The fact that this sentiment is also at the heart of Pabotoy’s script is not coincidence, it is verification of the old adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In this politically and autobiographically tinged tale of a boy and his father, Pabotoy, with a big assist from Shakespeare, explores what it means to be a friend, a Roman, a countryman, and an immigrant, invoking the past while finding a way to rise above it.
Last season, the Ma-Yi Theater Company sent Richard III to high school in their tragicomedy hit, Teenage Dick. In Sesar, they send Julius Caesar to the bathroom. But where the halls of Richard’s school were fraught with peril, this loo, in a house in Fiji of all places, is a sanctuary. It is where a 14-year-old from the Philippines, who has been “seduced” by Shakespeare’s language, can have some privacy in a crowded house. Having borrowed a copy of Julius Caesar from the library, this lad spends his free time memorizing Cassius’s famous “The fault is not in our stars,” soliloquy. It’s enough to make a father worry. That is, until the father, himself, gets a taste of the bard. Soon, both of them are occupying tub and toilet in a captivating analysis of Roman anarchy, personal conflict and regret. They are concepts familiar to the father. He brought his family to Fiji to escape the brutal period of martial law in the Philippines, surrendering his role as mayor of a small village there, only to encounter a Fijian coup d’état.
(In an interruptive bit of autobiographical disclosure, we learn that the boy, like Pabotoy himself, first discovered Cassius’s speech by hearing Christopher Plummer deliver it on a TV program. Unfortunately, that program was The Cosby Show. Pabotoy has added dialog to explain Bill Cosby’s image prior to the recent scandal, still it is hard not to ponder what Shakespeare could have done with Cosby’s history; an Othello who was secretly an Iago.)
Portraying both father and son, as well as a variety of other Shakespearean and contemporary characters, Pabotoy displays impressive linguistic and physical skills. He rails in pantomime against the winds of a hurricane, magically shrinks to boy-size then grows to manhood and back again. He speaks, or hypnotically whispers or sings, not only in modern and Shakespearean English, but also in Fijian and Visayan. Director Richard Feldman and his production team build the atmosphere around him via vivid screen projections on the stark white walls of designer Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set, quick blackouts that speed up time, then an extended blackout where it is easy to believe there are two actors on stage conversing. And yes, having staged a show entirely in a bathroom, Feldman could not resist an homage to the shower scene in Psycho. It’s a small film tutorial in a production full of lessons, both specific (Fijian and Phillipino history) and universal (“Regret was Caesar’s revenge. Which eventually made Brutus want to die. Regret is a storm. A great one.”). Pabotoy & company will be teaching these truths through November 1. Lend them your ears.
Sesar – Written and performed by Orlando Pabotoy; Directed by Richard Feldman.
Set and Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design: Oliver Wason; Sound Design: Fabian Obispo; Projection Design: Dan Scully; Production Stage Manager: Rachael Gass. The Ma-Yi Theater Company at Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd St., 212-239-6200, http://ma-yitheatre.org/onstage/sesar/. Through November 1. Running time: 1 hour.