nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 14, 2013
A scene from Universal Self
Universal Self is a one-man performance by Kilusan Bautista about his formative years, growing up in the Bay Area in the '80s and '90s. It's a tale of dysfunctionality that we've heard enough times to make it feel almost banal: his father is unemployed, an alcoholic and a crack addict; he grows up poor and victimized, eventually finding his way (in his early teens) into a tough street gang; and then, thanks to an uncle, he finds a way off this dead end path when he takes up the study of martial arts.
What makes Universal Self rise about the generic? Not enough, alas: the storytelling is pretty rudimentary, here, and there's a lot of repetition and more self-pity than feels advisable. The emphasis is very squarely on impotence, whether that of a five-year-old boy trying fruitlessly to appease his drunken father or a fourteen-year-old excusing his bad behavior because his father is an out-of-work junkie. The uplift that young Kilusan's discovery of martial arts presumably brought to his life is reserved for the last five minutes or so of an hour-long show: too little, too late, and in nowhere near enough depth or detail to erase the portrait painted of a character who has been cast by circumstance (and ultimately himself) as a victim.
Indeed, this sense of victimhood extends to Bautista's view of his Filipino heritage, which is another area where Universal Self tries to differentiate itself from the garden-variety coming-of-age tale. The blurb in the FringeNYC Program Guide says the show "explores race in multicultural America," but the only culture that really gets examined is that of his family, and almost always in connection to how the Philippines have been exploited by foreigners from Spain and then the U.S. Brief allusions to learning the Tagalog language and ancient rituals of his ancestors get a bit of play, but aren't shown or realized in any way in the piece. The only rituals I noted, in fact, were those of the Catholic faith that was brought to Bautista's ancestors by the Spanish conquerors centuries ago: a trip to the church with young Kilusan's wizened grandma and a trip to Manila to see Pope John Paul's visit there.
Though I was disappointed in the material for the most part, I was definitely impressed with Bautista's skill as a dancer and martial arts practitioner. Several segments in the show deal with some of his teenage hip-hop idols, and feature Bautista really cutting loose (and often breakdancing) without, for the most part, breaking a sweat.
No director is credited in the program; an outside eye might be helpful in both adding variety to the piece and lightening it up, figuratively and literally. According to the program, Bautista has performed this piece in various festivals and especially in empowerment/educational programs, where its message will presumably resonate. The back of the program features the message: "Onward to Broadway!" It's probably not the most realistic goal for this show, but certainly with some development, perhaps with collaborators who specialize in playwriting and theater direction, Universal Self may well find its way to the commercial sector.