Review: The Unpredictable Witches of Palawan

April 7, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Bloodletting," Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, Mar. 29-Apr. 8, 2018

In Brief: Family secrets and the supernatural come together in a fascinating drama set in a remote philippine village on a dark and stormy night

Recalling Dark of the Moon and, to a much lesser extent, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Boni B. Alvarez’s terse, tense Bloodletting overlays the prosaic story of two discordant families – one Filipino, the other Filipino American – with a contrasting theatrical mantle of occultism and witchcraft drawn from Philippine folklore.

Boni B. Alvarez, Anne Yatco, Myra Cris Ocenar in "Bloodletting." (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)

If that strains credulity, Alvarez is a gifted enough writer to knit everything together into an engrossing, exotic whole that exposes long-festering filial secrets and recriminations while at the same time offering a fascinating glimpse into the superstitions that animate the Philippine psyche.

It’s a dark, torrential, hot – and ill-omened! – night on the remote, provincial island of Palawan as brother and sister Bosley (played by the playwright Alvarez) and Farrah Legaspi (Myra Cris Ocenar) seek refuge at the Princess Café. They’ve just arrived from Los Angeles, but the roads are washed out and they cannot make it from the tiny regional airport to their hotel. The bickering pair have travelled to the Philippines, reluctantly, to spread their dead father’s ashes at his homeland; they’d rather be back America where there’s air conditioning and reliable Wi-Fi.

The café is modest place – a hut, really – run by Jenry Flores (Alberto Isaac) and his quirky granddaughter LeeLee (Anne Yatco) who, we soon learn, is an aswang, or, Filipino witch. The place is also their home. Jenry’s not happy at the intrusion. The preternatural LeeLee, on the other hand, welcomes the visitors with open arms. What does she know that we don’t?

The stage is now set for a long night of the soul, as father and granddaughter and brother and sister come to terms with years of guilt and resentment, and Farrah learns, to her displeasure, that she is an aswang, like LeeLee, with fearful powers that must be tamed and applied wisely.

Anne Yatco, Myra Cris Ocenar. (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera artfully guides his seasoned cast through the play’s tonal shifts, fluently transitioning between the naturalistic scenes and supernatural ones. He’s aided in this effort by Lily Bartenstein’s expressive lighting and Howard Ho’s atmospheric sound effects and music. Christopher Scott Murillo’s sets are pleasing, as well, smoothly morphing several times from the modest café into a mystical forest and back again.

Ocenar and Yatco deftly handle both their representational scenes and the heightened intensity that the witchcraft scenes demand. Los Angeles stage veteran Isaac is the model of elderly circumspection tinged with resignation. Playwright Alvarez is a kvetchy but endearing Bosley. On the whole, it’s an appealing ensemble that is up to the task at hand.

Bloodletting was first mounted at the Playwrights’ Arena. It’s being revived by the Center Theatre Group as part of its Block Party series, an annual event designed to bring the work of smaller Los Angeles theaters to the attention of a larger public. Kudos to the CTG for this. Next up from April 19, the Critical Mass Performance Group's Ameryka.

As strong as this production of Bloodletting is, it does require a leap of faith to accept the author’s dramatic intentions, sense of place, and mystical flights of fancy. His witches aren’t charming or fun; they’re the real, nasty thing. This isn’t a musical, and it’s not Kansas. As Bosley proclaims several times in the play to explain why things in Palawan don’t make sense to Westerners, “It’s the fucking Philippines!”

"Bloodletting," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 628-2772, www.ctgla.com​