I found a goldmine on YouTube last month—the 1965 movie adaptation of the Nick Joaquin classic, Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. The film was occasionally scratchy and was chopped up into seven 15-minute parts, but these were trivial inconveniences compared to the nearly two hours of being transported, first to 1965 when the film was made and shown to that generation, and to the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the play was set.
Portrait is originally a three-act play about two sisters, Paula and Candida Marasigan, who grew up in the privileged neighborhood of Calle Real in the Old Manila. Their father, Don Lorenzo Marasigan, was an artist, a thinker, and whose tertulias were the stuff of legend. But those days are no more: now the war is imminent, Don Lorenzo is sick, and the sisters are dirt poor, driven to rent out a room in their grand house to law student/ piano player/ playboy Tony Javier.
The only thing of value remaining in the house is a portrait of a young man carrying an old man on his back. The faces belong to one person—Lorenzo. It is the old man’s gift to his daughters. Tony and just about everyone else are urging the sisters to sell the portrait to make some money. Even Bitoy, whom they knew as a little boy and who had grown up to be a newspaper reporter, found his way back to the old house not to visit old friends but to see the painting that everybody was talking about. The sisters, however, would not budge.
The 1965 movie starred National Artist Daisy Hontiveros Avellana as Candida (the older, more authoritative sister), and Naty Crame Rogers as Paula (the shy and docile one).
Fast forward to October 2012. Rogers, who is turning 90 next month, this time starred as Candida in the sala theater adaptation of the same work, staged at her very own living room in Barangay Kapitolyo, Pasig City.
The intimate setting of the sala theater brought the audience—no more than 40, I believe, on that Sunday evening, the final show—closer to the sisters Paula and Candida as they grapple with guilt, poverty and a longing for old times. It turns out they do not want to sell the painting because their father painted it right after they ganged up on him and accused him of ruining their lives. It turns out too that Lorenzo did not really fall from the terrace—he in fact tried to kill himself right after he gave the portrait to his daughters and said goodbye. The sisters are too poor but still too proud, and could not bear living with their married brother and married sister. They try anything—Candida catching rats at some government office and Paula overcoming her timidity to offer piano and Spanish lessons to anyone who would come by—to earn money of their own and stay where they are.
The spinster sisters can still fall prey to the handsome, sweet-talking Tony Javier, who eventually succeeds in seducing Paula just to get her to agree to selling the painting (he is looking at a fat commission).
Connection between the actors and the audience is apparent and palpable, and one cannot help smiling and being overcome with sadness at the same time as the sisters contemplate whether the power company had cut off their service or the entire street really had a blackout.
In the end, the sisters get their way, enlisting the help of their father’s old friends to get him to go out of his room, face the world again—and forgive them, perhaps.
Professor Florina Castillo played Paula, Francis Kenn Cayunda played Tony, and Gaby Castillo was Bitoy. All were in their element, but it is difficult not to notice that Rogers, despite her age, remains as formidable and as moving as she was decades ago.
The applause for Ms. Rogers was bittersweet as it was her last theatrical performance. She also announced that she was entrusting the stewardship of AmingTahanan Sala Theater, which she founded and which conducts acting workshops for young people during the summer, to the young people in her organization.
Not many people are blessed doing what they love to do, but even fewer are able to do what they love to do until they are 90. Or beyond. Ms. Rogers is one extremely fortunate character.