Fostering a sense of emotional detachment in an audience (also known as the alienation effect) in order to intellectually stimulate it is one reason Bertold Brecht is still hailed as one of this century's Brilliant Theater Minds. But Brechtian theater can also be excruciatingly difficult to sit through. Case in point: Dogeaters, which is receiving its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. Jessica Hagedorn's adaptation from her 1990 novel, Dogeaters, focuses on the turbulent history of the Philippines, circa 1959-1982. Brecht's influence is all over the Michael Grief-directed production. From its visual projections and sprawling cast to its epic scope and constantly interrupted action, this production is a triumph of postmodern style over substance. The play is the first major work by a major theater to focus dramatic attention on a nation and a people that, for the most part, are nearly invisible (quick: name one thing you know about the Philippines other than Imelda Marcos' vast shoe collection). But the ambitiously trippy production prevents the audience from caring about its characters. Dogeaters attempts to say so much that it ends up saying very little. Hagedorn is a fine writer. At her angriest-railing against politicians, Army leaders and the baleful influence of American culture-she's capable of searing poetry. She also has much to say about her native country's volatile past, from its rampant political corruption and seedy urban underbelly to the weight of imperialism. But it all gets muddied in a frustrating melange of images. The play spans 23 years and features 31 characters played by 15 actors. That scope-and Hagedorn's fragmented, nonlinear structure-makes it difficult to care about the one thing Hagedorn most wants us to care about: the Philippines. Director Michael Grief does nothing to make this stew more digestible. His staging is ambitiously conceptual and stylish, but it suffers from a gross lack of focus and an astonishing lack of subtlety. The play's nonlinear structure, dual time lines, commercial interludes, quick-cuts, abrupt tonal shifts, dream sequences, dim lighting, and dizzying carousel of characters and events make it nearly impossible to follow the story or connect with what's happening onstage.An example: at one point, five storylines taking place in two eras intersect onstage. There's a coke-snorting German art-film director who's attempting to bed a young hustler he picked up at a disco; a fortysomething Filipina about to lose her virginity to an aspiring actor; two teenage girls in a bedroom in 1959 working out the physics of kissing; and the daughter of a Filipino senator conspiring with a communist rebel. Their conversations stop and start, jumping among the five stories. Grief's ability to stage five separate scenes in the same place is enviable, but it's not the one thing it ought to be: comprehensible.Dogeaters would be more powerful without the action and characters from 1959. The story in that era centers on Rio Gonzaga, an adolescent who is an obvious stand-in for Hagedorn. Rio (convincingly portrayed by Sandra Oh) is a smart, sensitive girl, as enamored of her country's history as she is of American culture-an obsession that manifests itself in her dedication to a melodramatic radio soap opera, Love Letters. It's unclear why Rio is even here; at play's end, there's a half-hearted attempt to turn her into a narrator commenting on the events of 1982. But then it's far too little too late. The meagerness of Rio's story is inescapable, as it's constantly played against the more contemporary-and compelling-events of the early '80s. Those events swirl around the real-life assassination of the reformer Benigno S. Aquino (fictionalized here as Senator Domingo Avila) and the host of characters who are either in on the murder or affected by it. These include Avila's daughter, Daisy (Tess Lina), who has fallen in love with a communist rebel leader; Joey Sands (Seth Gilliam), a hustler and DJ at Manila's hottest gay nightclub who is the lone witness to the hit; General Nicasio Ledesma (Jo Jo Gonzales), a sadistic army chief; Chuchi Alacran, the Philippines' richest man, emblematic of the country's widespread corruption and many (many) more characters. No, really: many, many more. Fifteen more. And because most of the actors play multiple roles, it's absolutely impossible to remember who the hell anyone is.While multiple characters are confusing, they're not embarrassing. What is grievously embarrassing is the juxtaposition of intensely serious events with patently silly commercial spots. The most notable example involves Daisy Avila, who, while tied to a chair, endures a cruel interrogation by Ledesma and a minion. She's shown bloody pictures of her recently executed father. Then a door opens to reveal three soldiers, one of whom drops his pants as the lights dim. Suddenly, lights come up on two of the radio soap-opera stars from 1959, who cavort across the stage, shilling for a soft drink. The focus then shifts immediately back to the brutally raped Daisy, who lies sobbing, beaten and bloodied. Giving Dogeaters the benefit of the doubt, I'd guess we're supposed to understand that brutal repression is the underside of American capitalism. Making the Philippines safe for the liberation of the marketplace costs each Filipino his or her political liberty. It's a provocative insight. The only problem is that the way it's staged in this play didn't prod me to think about the possibility that Coke equals rape so much as it prodded me into asking, "What the hell is going on here?" That's not always a bad question to ask in the theater. The purpose of Brecht's conceptualized drama was to force the audience to think about what was happening onstage and to force the audience into taking a stand. But one of the challenges in that strategy is to make the audience want to think about what's it seeing. For that to happen, Dogeaters needs some serious spice in order to make it easier to swallow.Dogeaters at the La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Dr. & Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla, (619) 550-1010. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. $21-$39.
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