“Bloodletting”: A Filipino Look at Life with Witches

‘Tis the season for witches. For a weekend (well, more like a month), weird sisters come out to dance in our fantasies and in our streets. Then we turn our eyes toward Christmas and they disappear.

Elsewhere, people of many cultures take it for granted that witchery lives among them. All the time. And they have to find a way to make that work.

Without violence, if possible. (As Europe and America have clearly shown, exorcisms and lynchings add to human suffering, but change nothing.)

Evie Abat, Myra Cris Ocenar (photo: Playwrights' Arena)

Evie Abat, Myra Cris Ocenar (photo: Playwrights’ Arena)

In Bloodletting, playwright Boni B. Alvarez looks at how folks on the Philippine isle of Palawan coexist with what we would call the supernatural (they don’t). This is a play, not an anthropology text — so the exploring is done by a brother and sister who’ve traveled from LA and New York to lay their father’s ashes in his ancestral home.

They find a great deal more than they bargained for. Their family pilgrimage bogs down in a rain-soaked village, on the porch of what may or may not be a cafe. There, they learn nothing’s as simple as they’d like. They learn about the aswang, a vampiric witch; and they begin learning how we must deal with extraordinary beings and powers among us — and within us.

Bloodletting comes out of the gate fast, with an engaging but unsettling moment where we’re eavesdroppers, then takes us on a journey that’s both comic and harrowing. Much of the comedy comes in the bickering between Farrah (Myra Cris Ocenar) and her brother Bosley (author Alvarez). Their reluctant host Jenry (Alberto Isaac) and his mercurial daughter LeeLee (Evie Abat) lead them — and us — into the dark recesses of the world they’ve stumbled into.

One of the many pleasures of this sometimes discomforting play is its music. Supported by Howard Ho’s sound design, the rhythms of Philippine speech — including pauses and silences — saturate the piece (Alvarez’s ear is remarkable). Jenry at once confronts the siblings’ urban American directness, but gently; LeeLee does so more abruptly. And gradually, the two visitors fall into the more relaxed rhythms of the language they grew up in.

The music of speech subtly works as a metaphor, paralleling the way Farrah and Bosley slowly come to accept reality as it appears in Palawan. The story’s “supernatural” elements work metaphorically, too — an aswang must learn self-restraint (and self-acceptance) in order not to harm others, a lesson each of us must learn, witch or not. When all the layers of a story support one another like this, there’s some first-rate playwriting going on.

This Playwrights’ Arena production also glows with first-rate directing — the masterful Jon Lawrence Rivera — and performing. Before we know anything, Abat’s LeeLee draws us into the play’s world, at once natural and mysterious; throughout, she sustains this volatile blend of wise reliability and fey danger. Abat makes real what  we must believe (and does it as well as the best Ariel I’ve ever seen). When we meet Jenry, he’s pinned between hospitality and the need to hide; bit by bit, Isaac lets us see his even greater need to confide, and to help these hapless newcomers, until it overwhelms his caution. It’s a lovely slow dance, a fierce struggle concealed by a mask of geniality, but revealed by a delicate artist.

As Farrah, Ocenar travels an equally reluctant arc, from brusque confidence to shattered humility. She makes us feel each step rasping against the grain of her accustomed self; she also lets us glimpse something eager and unknown that waits to be released. And as Bosley, Alvarez deftly creates a “type” yet makes him fully human. We laugh with him even as we sense  his inner mountain being shaken apart, and we cry with him when his armor for meeting the world is torn away. It’s hard to imagine another actor doing this part so well.

In the Halloween season, Bloodletting may look like another costume parade of scary phantasms for us to shiver at and forget; it’s not.
Set in the tropical world of Palawan, far off in the Pacific, it may seem too distant and exotic to affect us; it’s not. Bloodletting is a fine piece of theatrical storytelling that alters our sense of what is real, and what in life matters.
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Bloodletting, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays at 7:00,
through Nov. 27,

Tickets: <www.bloodlettingplay.brownpapertickets.com>