Review: Every Letter Counts (Factory Theatre)
By Wayne Leung
Toronto’s Factory Theatre opens its new season with Nina Lee Aquino’s play Every Letter Counts
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. is a storied figure in Filipino political history; in 1967 he was elected to the senate of the Philippines (the youngest person to be elected to the senate in that country’s history). He was a populist politician, a fierce fighter for the working class and an outspoken critic of President Ferdinand Marcos’ administration and the excesses of the president and his wife.
When the Communist Party of the Philippines started waging a guerrilla war, President Marcos seized the opportunity to declare martial law and effectively assumed absolute power in the country. Aquino was imprisoned for seven years before being granted exile in the United States. His decision to return to the Philippines in 1983 would ultimately prove fatal; he was assassinated as he disembarked from his airplane.
Every Letter Counts is playwright, actor, director Nina Lee Aquino’s fascinating and deeply personal take on the political figure. Nina Lee Aquino is Ninoy’s niece; although she only spent four days with him during his exile in the US when she was six years old, the man and his legacy obviously left a major impression on her life.
Every Letter Counts is equal parts political biography and personal memoir, it starts off with the character “Bunny” (played by Nina Lee Aquino; a fictionalized version of the playwright herself), visiting Manila for the first time and making a pilgrimage to The Aquino Museum, a shrine dedicated to Ninoy.
The play that follows is a series of flashbacks to the playwright’s initial visit with the exiled politician and historical scenes including speeches made by both Ninoy and Marcos that sketch out the hotbed political climate of the Philippines of the era and provide context to the story.
The play is often framed as political history from the point of view of a child and that framing creates a unique and compelling point of view; it’s history filtered through emotion and nostalgia and it’s obviously written and performed from a deeply personal place.
Ninoy is romanticized as a hero but I sometimes wished his character could have been explored in greater depth so I could get a better sense of what compelled the man to make the choices he made; to remain incarcerated for seven years and to return to his homeland to certain death. He remains a bit of an enigmatic figure throughout the show.
Nina Lee Aquino delivers an impassioned, focused and emotional performance, her performance is the engine that drives this play and she is every bit as compelling as she ought to be. She is helped by a strong supporting cast including an outstanding performance by Jon de Leon as Ninoy who strikes the right balance for the character between the larger-than-life political figure and a little girl’s uncle.
Ninoy Aquino’s story is reminiscent of the great political underdogs and revolutionaries throughout history like Che Guevara or Emiliano Zapata. He is the type of legendary political figure whose life story would make for a compelling adaption for a bio drama. Every Letter Counts is a unique exploration of this historical figure lovingly rendered by a niece he knew fleetingly but whose life he left an indelible impression on.
- Every Letter Counts is playing through February 24, 2013 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide), Toronto.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $22 – $42.
- Tickets are available in person at the Factory Theatre box office, by phone at 416-504-9971, online at www.factorytheatre.ca
Photo of Earl Pastko, Nina Lee Aquino and Jon de Leon by Nir Bareket