Reviewed by Irene Backalenick
Presented by Ma-Yi Theatre Company at the Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 E. 24 St., NYC, Sept. 14-Oct. 1.
With "Middle Finger," Han Ong's new drama now at the Blue Heron Arts Center, Ma-Yi Theatre Company adds one more thoughtful piece to its worthy body of work. The 11-year-old company continues to throw light on the Filipino-American experience, with such past pieces as "peregriNasyon" and their version of "Mother Courage." And now this incisive, hard-edged coming-of-age drama can be added to the list.
Ong tells the story of teenage boys in a repressive Catholic school, capturing perfectly their language, circumstances, and angst. The school, with its ignorant leaders, lays a burden of sin and guilt on its young charges which some survive, while others do not.
Specifically, the tale is about Jakob and Benjamin, two Filipino/American boys, each of whom comes to terms with life in his own way. Benjamin, the conscientious student, is treated more unfairly than Jakob, and ultimately cracks.
But the rebellious Jakob, Ong's anti-hero, survives—and survives on his own terms. The title itself encapsulates his attitude toward authority. But he moves from petty acts of sabotage, to a new, sophisticated level of control behind a façade of compliance.
Ong claims to have been influenced by Franz Wedekind's "Spring's Awakening." Though both plays revolve about adolescent turmoil, both share surreal moments, and both have suicides and ghosts, Ong has replaced dewy-eyed girls with a prostitute, 1890s Germany with contemporary America, and schoolbook language with street jargon. "Middle Finger" is very much a play of today.
Under Loy Arcenas' direction, all elements come together in this production: the work of the design team (James Vermeulen's lighting, Fabian Obispo's sound and music, Gino Gonzales' costumes), as well as generally fine performances. In particular, Ramon de Ocampo is electrifying as Jakob, and he gets solid support from Orlando Pabotoy as the hapless Benjamin, and Seth Michael May as another schoolboy chum.