Angry Christ looks at several months in the life of Alfonso Ossorio (Nel Gomez), the Filipino-American abstract expressionist painter who returned to Negros Occidental in 1949 to paint a mural for the Chapel of St. Joseph the Worker. The play imagines what circumstances he must have been in to cause him to paint The Last Judgment, a scandalous and frightening mural of the Holy Trinity. Playwright Floy Quintos speculates that Ossorio must have been buckling under mounting pressure in his life: his confusion over his sexuality, the class division in Negros, and the looming shadows of his past.
Less a story about Ossorio and more an attempt to piece together Ossorio’s artistic process (based on stray pieces of information), Angry Christ tries to understand why The Last Judgment, or “The Angry Christ,” is the way it is. The play’s masterstroke is its very uncertainty — which extends all the way to the production itself. Through unending revisions, Quintos and director Dexter M. Santos have created a work that is simultaneously about identity, class, and religion, while grounding everything in its inquiry on art. “I think that’s what makes [our] collaboration healthy and fruitful,” Santos explains. “We’re not afraid to make mistakes.”This is a play that is about voices. Some of the most powerful moments in Angry Christ depend on the company’s accents and delivery. On one side, you have the precise enunciation and occasionally exaggerated American twang of Ossorio, who fills the theater with frantic bursts of self-doubt. On the other side, we hear the playful rhythm of Negros locals attempting to speak proper English — mostly from the character Anselmo (Kalil Almonte), who assists Ossorio in creating the mural. As the play progresses, Ossorio’s voice becomes more condescending and cruel, while Anselmo’s playful Negrense accent becomes more pointed and courageous.
But as these literal voices fight for dominance, Quintos’ own voice emerges. All throughout Angry Christ, a Lecturer (Micaela Pineda/Arya Herrera) interrupts the drama to explain whatever research has been dug up about Ossorio. This Lecturer isn’t simply an omnipotent observer dumbing things down for the audience. Rather, she is Quintos, agonizing over the details of Ossorio’s life, going through his own creative process. “I’ve always tried to ask myself, what makes them most human?” Quintos says. “You can take all the research and put it in a play, and it just may sound like a lecture. If it’s not interesting on a human level, don’t make it into a play.”This multiplicity of voices comes across visually as well. The set is a bare but beautifully constructed imitation of the actual sanctuary at the Negros chapel. It is Ossorio’s literal canvas and a nagging reminder of everything he has yet to figure out (like that damned blinking cursor at the beginning of every new Word document). But when the Lecturer comes in, images are projected onto the concrete walls, plastering themselves over the other characters onstage, blurring the line between past and present.
The only real snag that Angry Christ hits is in its depiction of Ossorio’s growing frustration under pressure. Ossorio’s abrupt outbursts are slightly unearned, making us less sympathetic to Ossorio, and more eager to rush onstage and defend Anselmo from this angry mestizo. Still, Gomez is captivating in the role, especially when he shares the stage with Almonte’s Anselmo, and even more so when either of the actresses who play the Lecturer join them.
By embracing the interplay between facts and speculation, Angry Christ becomes a production about the creative process itself. “It’s a chance for me to reimagine the process,” Quintos states. “Theater is never about reality. It’s a distillation of reality into a truth.”
Photography by Vladimeir B. Gonzales
ANGRY CHRIST RUNS UNTIL MAY 14 AT THE WILFRIDO MA. GUERRERO THEATRE, 2F PALMA HALL, UP DILIMAN.