Halloween is upon us, and, this year, with it comes the world of the Filipino myth of the aswang. The aswang is a haunting creature, which looks similar to the vampire, but it possesses various abilities: splitting its body in half to be in two places at once, shapeshifting into any being and flying around at night. This blood-sucking entity is center stage in Pork Filled Productions’ latest play “Bloodletting.”
The play, written by Filipino playwright Boni B. Alvarez and directed by Zenaida R. Smith, is an absolute pleasure to watch and nothing short of engaging. But beyond this, “Bloodletting” provides critical cultural relevance and representation of Filipino culture. Being Filipino, I’m so glad I was finally able to attend a play that represented my culture with the stories of my childhood.
“Bloodletting” has been a passion project in the making by the producers of Pork Filled Production (Omar Faust, David Le, P. Alyda, Soem, Roger Tang, Kendall Uyeji and Josh Valdez) and now finally gets to see the light of day with its current run at Theatre Off Jackson in Chinatown/International District.
The play follows siblings Farrah (Jen-Ai Clinton) and Bosley (Matt Dela Cruz) as they visit the Philippines to spread their father’s ashes across Palawan’s famous underground river. Upon arriving, they stumble across the Princess Cafe, which looks like a typical Filipino bahay kubo, or house, during a typhoon. There, they meet its owner, Henry (Sam Prudente), and his mysterious granddaughter, Leelee (Anna Mulia).
The only setting portrayed in the play is the Princess Cafe. Undeniably, this set depicts the Philippines: The simple banig, a traditional woven mat made of dried pandan leaves, adorns the wall, and wooden decorations and jewelry — even smaller details like the plastic, colored chairs — are staple furniture items found in Filipino households and cafes. Additionally, the characters are seen eating a typical Filipino breakfast of tapsilog. The story being set in the cafe lends a special emphasis on food and drinks, which really helped to show how important food is in the Filipino culture. It’s a source of comfort and brings everyone together to connect.
Throughout the siblings’ journey to fulfill their father’s dying wish, the secrets of their past unravel, connecting them with the history of the mythical aswang. An encounter with the creature leads Farrah to explore newfound powers, as we as the audience wonder: What will she do with them? Can she control these powers? Does she want them? Uncovering the secrets of Farrah’s past leads to heavy, suppressed feelings surfacing, unveiling themes of generational trauma and ultimately acceptance; while Farrah reckons with her new identity, the two siblings also accept the death of their father.
“Bloodletting” truly felt representative of the Philippines — the tales, the inside jokes and even the traditional family expectations. The play accurately follows aswang lore while also connecting to many Filipino traditions.
And you might assume the title’s use of “bloodletting” is based on the aswang, but it also has an underlying meaning about the dynamics of Farrah and Bosley’s family. Bloodletting is what an aswang does —drain blood to feed — but the story also centers on removing the impurities and toxicity of generational trauma. Over the course of the play, as more family information is unraveled, we discover surprising actions that take place. The siblings don’t get along because of the differences that were perpetrated by their father, and they both are becoming aware of how harmful their family has always been. Bloodletting represents the aswang sucking life from humans, but, to Farrah and Bosley, it also means the sucking of toxic energy from their dysfunctional family.
The storyline mainly considers the themes of acceptance and the high expectations that are placed by parents on their children, which many second- and third-generation Filipino Americans can relate to. Bosely is a lawyer but was still not enough for his father. The expectations between second-generation Filipino Americans are high: parents sacrified their native home, dedicated to emigrating and starting a new life in the U.S. This feeling is something I expect many can relate to, the idea of one thing considered “good” about you not being enough for your parents. This leads to so much mental and emotional distance between parents and children. This is a generational problem, especially in Asian American families.
Another important element of the set was the blood orange moon to the far left of the stage. The moon plays a crucial role in the aswang story as a site of energy and foresight. I was told stories of the aswangs ever since I could remember by my mom and auntie, as it was told to them when they were kids in the Philippines. The aswang stories are usually told during a blackout when there’s a full moon, as that is when the aswangs are their strongest. They come out to hunt and feed through the night. These stories keep kids entertained with fear.
I have always been entranced by the stories of the terrifying half-body aswang that splits at night, the epic ways to defeat them and how they were perceived in the cultural books I read growing up. I specifically remember the aswang illustration in a book that I still have, and it all came to mind when I watched this play. Cultural folklore is the way I connect to my culture and express my Filipino identity. It’s so great to see the stories told of the aswang, and I was in awe throughout “Bloodletting.”
Aside from cultural representation, this play included topics of queer identity. The play handles acceptance and the constrictions you place on yourself when you’re not living your true self. It gets more personal, furthering the complex layers of the story.
I’m generally captivated by plays that have flashy lights, various changing set designs and multiple costume changes, but the simplicity of the stage of “Bloodletting” was just as if not more entertaining. Despite the minimal props, the play uses in-depth dialogue and persuasive acting. This play made me laugh, got me on the edge of my seat and even made me gasp at the various twists and crazy events.
“Bloodletting” is so authentic and interesting that you can’t get bored watching it. With minimal stage setting, they made great use of establishing when and where the characters are. The sound design was also very realistic — the loud crickets, the distinct pounding of Filipino rain and even the sounds of the aswang were authentically captured and recorded from the Philippines. Everything used was either imported from the Philippines or made by Filipino artists.
The actors also shone through their performances. You felt their trauma, making it easy to form a connection with them. The writing, acting and characters of “Bloodletting” were believable, as they were performed by a Filipino American cast. This play was especially dialogue-heavy, but it kept me engaged all the way through. Clinton and Cruz created such a complex dynamic between Farrah and Bosely.
If you’re a fan of cultural folklore, horror or emotional dramas, “Bloodletting” is a perfect show to watch. It’s an excellent combination of humor, emotional distress and suspense tied into one show. The play runs through Nov. 4 at Theatre Off Jackson. “Bloodletting” incorporates Filipino mythology beautifully, and I hope we can continue seeing Filipino mythology spread to more audiences. Filipino or not, this is a perfect production for everyone to watch on a cold, rainy October night in Seattle.
Rowan Santos is a Filipinx actor, writer and social activist. They are passionate about uplifting underrepresented youth in film and acting.
Read more of the Oct. 25-31, 2023 issue.