The Romance of Magno Rubio
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 24, 2007
Ma-Yi Theater Company's new revival of Lonnie Carter's The Romance of Magno Rubio is like great jazz: it swings, it has soul, and it blends all of its elements seamlessly. It's also a bit mysterious, which might trip other plays up, but not this one. Why? Because The Romance of Magno Rubio is an optimistically heartfelt work: whatever darkness it contains gets crowded out constantly by the eternal sunshine that Carter believes exists inside everyone. The production's creative team, obviously on the same page with the author, have taken this maxim to heart, and from it created a magical evening of theatre.
The title character is a Filipino migrant farm worker in 1930s California. He longs for love, and sets out to find it through a long-distance correspondence with Clarabelle, an Arkansas woman he meets via a lonely hearts magazine. Magno is unsure about his ability to express his feelings properly (he's not well-educated and English isn't his first language), so he recruits a fellow worker, the bookish and erudite Nick, to write the letters for him. Translating Magno's Filipino dictation into English on paper, Nick turns his friend's love letters into swooning, romantic affairs that would make Cyrano de Bergerac jealous.
Magno's fantasies about his life with Clarabelle fill his heart with hope and joy. But, will his dreams jibe with reality? He will find out soon enough.
Carter's script, partly written in both rhyming verse and Filipino, is poetic and musical. The language has a built-in rhythm that propels the entire production. It swings in both its construction and its ideas, as in this passage spoken by Atoy, the bunkhouse instigator:
On the pout of his lower lip
He arches north; she marches south
A moment, o so fleeting, charged with desire unrequited
Two souls, finally meeting,
One an angel; the other a liar
Or this brief section in which Nick tells Magno the story of Robinson Crusoe:
The world is an island, Magno
We are cast upon the sea of life
hoping to land somewhere in the world
But there is only one island—
and it is in the heart.
Director Loy Arcenas's production is strong and imaginative, giving beautiful realization to Carter's evocative words. He creates a close-knit world of kinship and community between the men, one that fully explains why they frequently erupt into spontaneous jam-like, a cappella song. Later, as the play delves deeper into Magno's romance, Arcenas creates a particularly lovely moment when Magno, dreaming of Clarabelle, dances romantically with a chair as a substitute. Another evocative (and funny) moment comes when Magno sings a Filipino love song for his beloved while a screen with the English lyrics (so we can see what he's really saying) is hoisted behind him. (Special mention to lighting designer James Vermeulen, whose stunning use of sidelight creates whole worlds unto themselves.)
The teamwork and the obvious rapport that Magno Rubio's five-person cast has is undeniable. They influence and inform each other much like a relay team passing the baton from one runner to the next—or a jazz band feeding off the group's collective energy. Jojo Gonzalez and Arthur T. Acuña give endearingly powerhouse performances as Magno and Nick, respectively, with Bernardo Bernardo, Ramon De Ocampo, and Paolo Montalban providing what may be the best support in town right now as their co-workers. All five actors are so thoroughly convincing that one never doubts for a second that they are anyone else but those characters.
The Romance of Magno Rubio is not without its ebbs and flows. And, as with all things poetic and mysterious, there were some parts of it I didn't quite follow. But, that doesn't matter, because I got the overall idea. This is a play that speaks to the heart, from the heart. That is a language we all speak and understand.