A wan light glows in the movie ticket booth, revealing a middle-aged woman with haunted eyes and a blank expression. The roar of a subway train is heard in the distance, but she seems not to notice it. As a customer approaches to purchase a ticket, she dully tells him the movie has already started. These first few moments in Han Ong's new play Watcher establish a noiresque feeling that is brilliantly realized throughout the rest of director/scenic designer Loy Arcenas' production for the Ma-Yi Theatre Company.
Mia Katigbak plays Loretta, a single mother who feels secure and protected within her ticket booth, interacting only minimally with other people. Costume Designer Clint E.B. Ramos has clothed her in a white shirt and black skirt that make her look like an overgrown schoolgirl. Katigbak plays her role with a soft-spoken voice, confined mannerisms, and a vacant stare. However, in moments of extreme emotion, the actress hyperventilates into a crying jag that is disturbingly effective.
Loretta's son, Angelo (Orlando Pabotoy), is emotionally stunted. Nineteen years old and still in high school, he spends most of his time watching movies. He feels threatened by his mother's involvement with a male co-worker named Cinquenta (Gilbert Cruz) and acts out through rude behavior and petty tantrums. Angelo is also something of a loner--that is, until he meets the handsome and charismatic Nestor (Anthony Ruivivar). The two young men become friends. Nestor is a hustler, delighting in anonymous gay sex with multiple partners; he makes the ugly ones pay. Angelo is drawn further and further into Nestor's world, even as he's driven further and further away from the world of his mother.
The words uttered by the characters seem to barely scratch the surface of what they want to say. Ong's scenes are short and fragmented, and everything is loaded with subtext. Arcenas directs the play with a measured pacing that heightens tensions between characters. Glass partitions dominate the set, and transitional scenes often have different characters observing each other through the glass. Shadowy lighting by James Vermeulen and composer Fabian Obispo's evocative sound design further enhance the mood.
"Without the glass around me," says Loretta, "I feel infectious, exposed." Metaphorically, the glass stands for the barriers between people that prevent them from fully connecting. These barriers may give us the illusion of safety, but they also keep us isolated.
The production features several strong performances. Katigbak is quietly effective in a role that requires understatement. Pabotoy captures the awkwardness of a sexually confused teen who wants romance but finds actual sex disgusting. Cruz exudes a simple charm that wins you to his side and makes a second-act speech to Angelo all the more devastating. Ruivivar is both sexy and charismatic, prowling the stage with a swaggering confidence.
Several actors excel in smaller parts. Ching Valdes-Aran brings a quiet intensity to her role as Nestor's substitute mother figure, Tia Maria. As Loretta's West Coast relatives Bessie and Jun, Virginia Wing and Jojo Gonzalez are also terrific (not to mention hilarious) in their brief scene in the first act.