Theatre Review – Nina Lee Aquino’s Every Letter Counts (Factory Theatre)

First of all, kudos to Nina Lee Aquino and Nigel Shawn Williams who stepped into the breech and planned a season for Factory Theatre after the big Ken Gass debacle. Their first effort is Aquino’s own play Every Letter Counts directed by Williams. It is a powerful story that, unfortunately, deserves a sharper treatment.

The play is a personal memory of Aquino’s relationship with her famous uncle, Ninoy Aquino, who fought against the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines (yes, husband of Imelda of the many shoes), and was assassinated for his dissent. Apparently, Aquino, who plays herself, had just one meeting with her uncle (Jon de Leon) when she was six, but it seems to have been life-defining.

The play’s clever leitmotif is the game of Scrabble. Her uncle uses the letters to both teach her to read, and to opine on his philosophy of democratic freedom. Unfortunately, Aquino, in her writing for herself as a child, has made a character in the state of terminal whine.

Unfortunately, the play takes a long time to get underway, with time spent on “Why am I here” etc. The set is the Aquino museum. We find out that her father (Anthony Malarky) has sent her to Manila to discover her roots. Yet, during the play, he is in one mode – always angry at is brother for putting the family in danger. The other character is Marcos himself (Earl Pastko) who appears from time to time spouting monologues that detail the corruption of his character and regime.

There is an irritating factor. We keep hearing about the strong Aquino women – her mother who is a diplomat, her grandmother who was an activist – but they don’t appear, and should have, to give us the sweep of the Aquino family and its fight for social justice background. I also wanted more on Ninoy’s life. I got by implication that he was the youngest senator ever elected, but I wanted more biography acted out in scenes – a show not tell. He was in the play, but not enough. Williams does what he can moving the characters through the many doors of Anna Treusch’s set.

The strongest element is the visuals. Cameron Davis’ projections are outstanding, bathing the stage in Filipino history. Through these images we get the biographical bumf that we’re missing on stage.

I hope Aquino keeps working on the script because there is a good story here. The Scrabble imagery is a great idea that deserves more fine tuning. She should get rid of the whine and concentrate on the plot development about her uncle and her, clearly, remarkable family.

Every Letter Counts by Nina Lee Aquino, Factory Theatre, (starring Nina Lee Aquino, Jon de Leon, Anthony Malarky and Earl Pastko, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams), Factory Theatre Upstairs, Jan. 26 to Feb. 24, 2013