Through the Bamboo, presented by Uwi Collective at the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival, is a play by husband-and-wife team Byron Abalos and Andrea Mapili based on Phillipine mythology. Directed by Nina Lee Aquino, artistic director of Factory Theatre, the show is an emotionally-resonant tale of generational connection.
The family-friendly story is a testament to the power of storytelling and memory, and the need to fully experience grief and loss, rather than to embrace denial. It is an absolutely charming piece of young people’s theatre; the writing is a bit more elevated than you’d find at a usual children’s show, but it’s still drawn in the broad, entertaining strokes that will appeal to kids. Aquino’s direction and visual sensibility is top-notch, and keeps things going at a furious pace, getting the best out of a large company of actors. Overall, it packs a huge emotional wallop, and will likely leave few of its audience with dry eyes.
In the myth, a loving mother to four daughters dies, and her influential husband, in his grief, bans her remembrance; there will be no telling of her story, no mention of her name. Three daughters are happy not to experience the brunt of their sorrow and forget; one finds solace in relaying her memories. This earns her the love of a sun god, and the ire of her sisters, who plot against her. Meanwhile, in the present, 12-year-old Philly (the very talented Angela Rosete) is mourning the loss of her Lola, or grandmother (Carolyn Fe, who ramps up the fire in her performance until it scorches), who gradually forgot her beloved family members before she died. When Philly, distraught over the family’s division of the matriarach’s goods, finds her old storybook, she is transported into its magical world; only she can save the day, and in the process, save her grandmother.
Through the Bamboo isn’t a musical, but it’s a play that places a lot of importance on music. The interstitial music and singing, primarily short traditional vignettes, is lovely; I found myself wanting to hear a lot more. Thematically, though, the tentative, gradual introduction of music makes sense; song is integral for Philly’s eventual reconnection with her Lola, and its absence for much of the show represents a lack of connection and grief.
The show has a lot of story to tell in 75 minutes, and, therefore, does miss a few opportunities. One of the great things about the “child gets transported into magical land where the cast of characters is played by her relatives” genre, like The Wizard of Oz, is that we see the personalities of the relatives underscored in the fantasy setting, and everything becomes just that much more symbolic. Because this trope is so firmly established in entertainment, it was an inclusion I found myself expecting to enrich my connection with the other characters.
Here, though, the symbolism is largely limited to the effective, heart-rending connection between Philly and her late Lola, and the overall message that stories help us remember what was once lost. Otherwise, we don’t quite get enough established present-day personalities in order to make any connection between current relative and fantasy analogue. The opening, shared-company monologue that explained the premise of the myth feels a bit long as-is; perhaps, if it also introduced us more clearly to Philly’s family, it could have served a more compact, double purpose.
Thus, other characters are more limited to being clear “types,” but I still got a kick out of all of them, like the trio of “evil” sisters (Karen Ancheta, Joy Castro, and Marie Beath Badian), the temporarily mute sea creature that communicates only in charades (Anthony Perpuse), Philly’s loyal, squeaky-voiced “runts” (Ericka Leobrera and Lana Carillo) and the wise, ready-to-rumble patriarch (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia).
What really gets a symbolic workout, instead, are the props (Farnoosh Talebpour). The transformative use of Lola’s household possessions to create characters and landscapes – a rocking horse creates a general’s carapace; sports equipment forms the wings of a terrifying giant bird (both John Echano); pool noodles become bamboo; household plants become trickster trees; pillows become enchanted turtles – is tremendously visually appealing and entertaining.
The full audience roared at the Filipino asides that went over my head, and clearly appreciated the story being told. It’s a story that’s both wonderfully culturally specific and emotionally universal, and it’s bound to be a hit at Fringe – and beyond.
- Through the Bamboo plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace. (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Wednesday July 3rd, 8:15 pm
- Friday July 5th, 9:30 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 6:15 pm
- Monday July 8th, 7:00 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 2:30 pm
- Saturday July 13th, 6:15 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 12:00 pm