In the first few moments it becomes apparent that this will be a swirling mass of vivid imagery and an impressively memorable piece of theatre. It may take a while to realize that the particular character who will emerge as the protagonist, however, cannot be found in the hands of one of the actors. Our hero is the Philippines. As playwright Jessica Hagedorn tells us in Dogeaters (based on her novel of the same name) at the play's end, "The soap opera of the Philippines continues."

Said soap opera is introduced immediately, by Liza Del Mundo and Orlando Pabotoy as Barbara and Nestor, our lively narrators and hosts of an annoying radio show. We are in 1982 Philippines, which is fully caught up on American pop music (sound by Bob Blackburn) and fashion trends (costumes by Marya Krakowiak and Dianne K. Graebner), well-supplied with Western addictive substances, but adhering to its old class-conscious ways. The narrators, heard on radios listened to compulsively throughout the country, introduce the audience to the many characters and let us in on up-to-the-minute news.

Jon Lawrence Rivera's direction is imaginative, detailed, crisp, thorough, and smart. He sets the action in the round, the cast arranging and rearranging four benches on the ground level and using various platforms and staircases above (John H. Binkley's scenic design, evocatively lit by Steven Young), to keep the many scenes flowing uninterrupted. And uninterrupted it must be, as the characters and their stories intertwine swiftly and unexpectedly.

The actors, most playing various roles, disappear into each with authentic accents and quirky physicalities. Especially noteworthy among the gifted cast are Dom Magwili in a chilling performance as a military man; Christine Avila's devout and now cracking matriarch; Ramè´¸n de Ocampo as a deejay and callboy; Ivan Davila as the dancing owner of a gay bar; Alberto Isaac as the politician under fire; Nick Salamone, priest, news reporter, and another terrifically, humorously rendered character the actor disappears into; and Natsuko Ohama as an Imelda Marcos so realistic you will inevitably check out her shoes.

Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Jan. 21-Feb. 11. (213) 628-2772.