HOW many of us have lived to tell about cancer, or have seen a friend or a loved one triumph over it or waste away because of it? Why do we see cancer as something so dreadful and vile and evil when we know that sooner or later we will all have to die of something sometime?
The thought of being hit by a bus or, worse, trapped while fully awake inside the still missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as it finally plunges into the heart of the deep, dark waters of the Indian Ocean after cruising aimlessly for hours is equally horrific to contemplate, yet very few if any of us lay awake at night thinking about it.
We could even drop dead right this very second from embolism, aneurism and all sorts of isms, but in the long and growing list of possible reasons to leave this earth, perhaps nothing captures the modern person’s imagination as immensely as cancer does.
Theater of the absurd
Not a few hypochondriacs even equate every minor ache and pain they experience to cancer. No disease on earth, it seems, has gotten credit more than what is due it than the Big C.
Indeed, why is cancer? Director Toff de Venecia, in his quest to advance “the theater of the absurd,” tries to answer this question, perhaps even demystify cancer, as he stages Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond’s “Dani Girl” at RCBC Plaza’s Carlos P. Garcia Auditorium in Makati.
In so many words, De Venecia (the award-winning former child actor who went by his full name Christopher) told audiences in an informal Q and A after the show why he chose to tackle a seemingly dark and heavy material like “Dani Girl” instead of going for the tried-and-tested crowd-pleaser.
Apart from his group’s mission of being “committed to the procurement and development of new, groundbreaking and cutting-edge theatrical work,” as written in the musical’s souvenir program, De Venecia posed the age-old universal question to his audience: why do we keep on living and searching for beauty and meaning in this life when misery and ugliness abound?
Enough reasons to live
Why do we, like Dani, find enough reasons to live and even savor life when in the end death awaits us? That, in essence, is an example of the themes tackled in theater of the absurd, which De Venecia seems to have fully embraced in his real-life role as stage director.
The production, a collaboration of young, creative people who call themselves the Sandbox Collective, will run until July 27.
Dubbed by its creators as “a musical good for the soul,” “Dani Girl” revolves around Danica, or Dani for short, a nine-year-old girl, and her newfound friend Marty in their search for answers to questions that consume all of us—from the dreaded disease that afflicts them to what God, if there is indeed one, has to say about it.
To further complicate the situation, Dani also wants to know why her father left them soon after her parents were told that her cancer has returned. Thankfully, her prayerful if a bit regimented mother stood by her to the very end.
(You’d have to find out how it ends, including what happens to Mr. Fritz, Dani’s huggable brown teddy bear “afflicted” with ovarian cancer.)
The kids’ trips in their makeshift space ship, including their conversations with Raph, Dani’s supposed guardian angel who could probably give Meryl Streep a run for her money in the accent department, and lightsaber fights with Darth Cancer, all happen in their heads.
Grownup actors playing children
There’s a reason, said De Venecia, why the musical’s originators chose adult actors to play Dani and Marty. The material and the roles might be too dark and too complex for child performers to fully understand.
On the night my friend Cheche and I watched, we caught a believable Mitzie Lao playing Dani to Reb Atadero’s Marty. Atadero, whose timing and deadpan humor were perfect foils to Lao’s childlike earnestness, is proving himself to be a versatile actor. We learned later that he also plays Raph during certain performances.
In Raph’s shoes that night was veteran actor Lorenz Martinez, who easily brought the house down with his baritone voice and myriad characterizations. Pamela Imperial, as Dani’s tortured mother, completed the cast.
(Rebecca Coates and Luigi Quesada, both 16, play Dani and Marty, respectively, on most nights. Alternating with Imperial as Dani’s mother is Sheila Valderrama.)
For a supposedly young, inexperienced director, De Venecia did surprisingly well. Apart from his tight blocking and quick phasing, the director was able to bring the material’s serious message across with clarity and enough lighthearted touches to keep audiences from being too weighed down.
Toff’s biggest triumph
But I guess De Venecia’s biggest triumph is his unflinching belief that there are enough audiences out there who’d go out of their way to spend precious time and money to watch something as urgent and as real as a musical revolving around cancer.
“Dani Girl” might not leave you smiling and humming the melodies to any of its songs as you step out of the theater, but it could leave you thinking way into the night how we survive and even thrive in myriad ways as we try to grapple with and understand the unexplainable.
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