nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 14, 2011
Do you remember when we used to receive packages from the States? The first time you opened the box, there was this smell. The only way to describe it is better. That smell that came from a box from America is better. And every time I smelled it, I wanted to hold it in forever. Now we don't have to wait for any boxes Aying. Now, we smell like the boxes from America.
For decades—maybe a couple of centuries, even—that was the conventional wisdom about America. The melting pot. The land of opportunity. The great equalizer. Immigrants poured into the New World, ready to smell, as this young woman named Evangelina whom I have just quoted puts it, "better": like America. In Ralph B. Pena's fascinating and touching play, Flipzoids, the immigrants are from the Philippines and the timeframe is the second half of the 20th century. But the idea belonged to my great-grandparents and probably some of your ancestors as well, from Europe or Asia of Latin America or the Caribbean or the East Indies or wherever, from the Potato Famine to the Russian pograms to more contemporary upheavals in Vietnam and Eastern Europe.
But: does America always smell better than home? Is there something in the American atmosphere that dilutes, as immigrants assimilate, the textures and rhythms of our roots? This is one of the key questions Pena considers in this piece, as he introduces us to three Filipino Americans, all of whom are very different from one another, and all of whom share one important thing, which is a desire to reconcile their pasts with their presents. Evangelina, a nurse who worked hard to get herself and her mother out of Pagudpud, is busy learning as much English as quickly as she can (she is essentially memorizing the dictionary, in fact) while basking in a new life filled with shopping malls. Aying, her mother, yearns more and more for her homeland and resists the lure of America; she spends days alone on the beach, looking across the Pacific to the island of her birth and remembering stories of her past and of heritage that, unfortunately, Evangelina doesn't want to hear.
The third character is Redford, in his mid-20s, steeped in a punk aesthetic (the play takes place in 1985), deeply conflicted about being an American whose Filipino immigrant parents assimilated so wholeheartedly and breathlessly into their new country that he seems to have no roots at all. When he and Aying meet—in a single, event-filled, life-changing afternoon on the beach—they discover a symbiotic connection. Can Redford become the repository for Aying's memories?
Pena's play is impressionistic and highly theatrical, filled with moments where the characters tear the fourth wall down to confide in us and juxtapositions and events that feel surreal or absurd. But Flipzoids is always anchored by the deeply-felt ideas of its author. Director Loy Arcenas gives the piece a fluid staging; a beautiful element of the set, which he designed, is the rear wall on which are written the signatures of dozens of Filipino immigrants. (On closer inspection, we realize they are alumni of Ma-Yi Theater, of which Pena is artistic director; a tangible though subtle link to the company's own past, echoing the themes of the play.)
Flipzoids was originally presented about 15 years ago by Ma-Yi, and then and again now the cast is headed by Ching Valdes-Aran, as Aying; this formidable actress makes Aying the force of nature she must be, and adds tenacity, humor, and grace to the mix. Carlo Alban is convincingly ill-at-ease in his skin as the confused Redford. Tina Chilip is resolute and determined as Evangelina.
There are a few references in the script that I suspect will resonate more if you happen to be Filipino; but Pena's exploration of the tension between looking ahead and looking backward here in America is one that anyone with an immigrant in their recent family history will identify with.