The company, recently plagued by controversy, opens a new chapter with a play that goes back to Nina Lee Aquino's roots.
Nina Lee Aquino’s eyes brimmed with tears as she took her curtain call Thursday evening, at the end of the opening-night performance of Every Letter Counts at Factory Theatre. She wrote the play, and acts in a starring role—and what’s more, the whole thing is about her Filipino heritage. And so presenting Every Letter Counts to an audience was, for her, a bold step into the past.
For Factory Theatre, meanwhile, opening night was a bold step into the future. It marked the start of a new season, shortened because of a boycott aimed at getting the theatre’s board of directors to resign for its unceremonious firing of former Factory artistic director Ken Gass.
The round of applause that the Every Letter Counts cast received was enthusiastic, especially when Aquino took her bow. But it still fell short of a full standing ovation, as is customary on many opening nights. That may have been the audience’s way of expressing their acknowledgement of their absent colleagues, or maybe we’re just reading way too far into it. Even so, it was clearly an emotional night for Aquino, and we imagine for director Nigel Shawn Williams as well. That’s because, aside from their roles in this particular production, Aquino and Williams are the two halves of Factory’s Interim Artistic Team, tasked with carrying on where Gass left off.
So, let’s get to it then. As Every Letter Counts begins, Bunny (Aquino) breaks into the Aquino Museum after hours (a bit of exposition that’s very helpful to know beforehand, because it isn’t entirely clear in the show), as she’s been told to do by her father. There, she has visions of her uncle, Filipino Senator and activist Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. (Jon de Leon), who was assassinated in 1983. Traveling back and forth from the present to the six days she spent with Ninoy as a six-year-old child, the script explores Filipino politics, Ninoy’s protests against President Ferdinand Marcos (Earl Pastko), his relationship with his older brother (Bunny’s father, played by Anthony Malarky), and the cryptic reason for Bunny’s visions. The story here is theatre gold: there are conflicts between life and death, passionate speeches, historical facts, complex characters and relationships, and a uniquely personal, first-hand perspective. This play has the stuff of greatness. But right now, it’s just good.
In only 75 minutes, there’s not enough time to complete all of the storylines Every Letter Counts begins, in part because much of the play is appropriately devoted to providing historical context. De Leon manages to flesh out Ninoy, who delivers rousing political speeches as passionately as he destroys Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in karaoke, and who feels as strongly about the rules of Scrabble (everyone picks from the same bag) as he does about the rules of society (everyone picks from the same bag). Unfortunately, we only get a glimpse into Bunny’s father Cecilio, who spends most of his time bristling at Ninoy or reaching for the liquor cabinet. One scene, however, exposes him as a man forever living in the shadow of his little brother even though he’s a hero in his own right—a one-time janitor who eventually built his own company. Cecilio is the hard-working man that Ninoy gave his life to protect. He deserves more attention, especially considering Malarky’s strong performance.
But perhaps the least relatable is Bunny herself. Her character is a complete blank until the final few minutes of the show. When we do discover the reason for her breaking-and-entering and the potential lesson to be gained from encountering her deceased family member, it seems like an afterthought. It was more satisfying to think of Bunny as Aquino herself, especially as Ninoy preaches about the power of words to change the world. The moral has less to do with Bunny’s situation than with Aquino’s profession as a playwright.
With a solid and dynamic set by Anna Treusch, lighting by Bonnie Beecher, and projections by Cameron Davis, the design elements are all solid. But the script could benefit from some expanding, and then a lot of tightening. As with Factory Theatre, the story’s not over yet for Every Letter Counts.