Bernardo Returns to Magno Rubio, in Two Languages

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Elizabeth Rainey, Giovanni Ortega and Jon Jon Briones in "The Romance of Mango Rubio"

Philippines-born Bernardo Bernardo — theater artist and ambulance company marketing director — has a history with The Romance of Magno Rubio.
Born, raised and educated in Manila, Bernardo has forged an active theatrical career since arriving in the U.S. in 2001, fluent in English and his native Tagalog. As an actor, he starred as Prudencio in the Midwest premiere of Lonnie Carter’s The Romance of Magno Rubio at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. He repeated it in the play’s Los Angeles premiere at LATC in October 2007 — for only four performances — as well as the earlier Culture Project re-staging at the first Asian American National Theater Festival in New York in June 2007.
Now he’s directing two casts in  Carter’s (2002) Obie-winning Magno Rubio –  the original English version and also his own Tagalog translation of the play, Ang Romansa ni Magno Rubio, in the native language of the Philippines.  Both versions are being presented at [Inside] the Ford, with the English version opening tonight and the Tagalog rendition on Saturday.

Bernardo Bernardo

Bernardo trained in theater. He obtained an M.A in dramatic arts from UC Santa Barbara, arts scholarships from ACT in San Francisco and the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (under a British Council grant).  He’s determined to help give Filipino-Americans a face and a voice in mainstream American theater.

Yet he won’t give up his day job as a marketing director for the 100% Filipino-owned Southern California-based Good Shepherd Ambulance Company.  “I could never leave the job,” he laughs.  “They have been so good to me.”

That includes the time necessary to stage two casts in Magno Rubio — simultaneously. “Naturally,” Bernardo understates, “this has been very time-consuming. And Good Shepherd has been more than understanding in giving me the time I need.”

Magno Rubio is an adaptation of Carlos Bulosan’s short story about a lovestruck Filipino migrant worker in 1930s California. It employs word play,  rhythms and Philippine love songs (“kundimans”) to depict the migrant workers –  “Manongs” — the immigrants who came from the Philippines to America in the 1920s and “˜30s. They had to band together to make a home within a land that was often quite hostile to their presence.

For Bernardo, the challenge has been to mold two disparate casts into fluid ensembles that are able to seamlessly interact with each other in two separate languages. “Tagalog is kind of a hybrid language, principally Spanish with some Malay and a little bit of Japanese and Chinese,” he says. “It is very much a living language, the national language of the Philippines.  It is the common tongue of 90 million-plus Filipinos and continues to be spoken when Filipinos move around the world as workers.

Gelo Francisco, Antoine Reynaldo Diel, Jon Jon Briones and Jet Montelibano in "The Romance of Magno Rubio"

“Even though it doesn’t offer the wide range of communication that English has, there is something about having a story about a particular race told in their own language that offers a direct connection to the action.  It is very visceral. You don’t have to go through a mental translation of what’s being said. It is very spontaneous that way. I wanted to offer that experience to the audience.  And, of course, some of that is already imbedded in Lonnie Carter’s original version. Actually, it’s almost bilingual.”

Of course, it would help to cast actors who were fluid in Tagalog, but that wasn’t as simple as Bernardo first believed. “Both productions have essentially the same casts, except for three characters. I was looking for bilingual actors.  I thought there’d be a lot of them in LA, but I had difficulty finding actors who were actually fluent in both languages.  I wound up having a mixed cast that simply learned the dialogue. We have been working for almost a month, mainly dealing with the language challenge.  The play was written in verse, so there is meter and rhyme to deal with in both the English and Tagalog versions. It just takes time to become comfortable with the speech rhythms.”

The ensemble features Jon Jon Briones (Magno Rubio), Antoine Diel (Prudencio), Elizabeth Rainey (Clarabelle), and Muni Zano (narrator), who appear in both the English (E) and Tagalog (T) casts.  The rest of the casting includes  Giovanni Ortega (E) and Frederick Edwards (T), who share the role of Nick; Erick Esteban (E) and Gelo Francisco (T) as Claro; and Eymard Cabling (E) and Jet Montelibano (T) as Atoy.

The production staff includes Gelo Francisco (musical direction), Peter De Guzman (choreography), Felix Roiles (fight choreography), Akeime Mitterlehner (sets),  Rani de Leon (sound), Gerry Lindangan (lights), John Geronillo (projections) and Dori Quan (costumes).

Gelo Francisco, Jon Jon Briones, Antoine Reynaldo Diel and Jet Montelibano

“This is not a musical,” Bernardo affirms.  “But having a musical director and a choreographer helped to amplify the onstage action. Of course, all of it is meant to enhance the play that Lonnie Carter wrote. He has been such a pleasure to work with.  Lonnie instinctively understood the life rhythms and the camaraderie of these Filipino workers.”

“With all the humor and comical interactions among these characters, and the romantic fantasies of Magno, the play also reveals the grittier side of reality, “ says Bernando. “These Manongs had nowhere to go after their workday. They lived in their bunkhouse all week.  Their only social interactions happened on weekends when they would spend their hard earned money on dance halls, pool rooms or brothels. They had no family, and they were forbidden by law from having any relationships with white women. The law also forbade them from rising above their station as laborers.  Yet, they came to this country to pursue the American dreams.”

When audiences walk in the theater, they will be greeted by a huge, hand-painted graffiti as the dominant backdrop, evoking the iconic discriminatory signs posted in many American establishments in the 1930s: “˜No Dogs and Filipinos Allowed.’

The Romance of Magno Rubio / Ang Romansa ni Magno, presented by PAE Live! in association with Good Shepherd Ambulance Company. Opens Nov. 4. Performances in English take place Thur-Fri 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm. Performances in Tagalog take place on Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm. Through Dec. 11. Tickets: $25. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood 323-461-3673.

***All The Romance of Magno Rubio / Ang Romansa ni Magno production photos by Hydee Abrahan/Studio1003

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.