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Export Quality

The personal toll of the insidious mail-order industry for brides for American men is revealed in a moving drama.

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Arianne Recto, Myka Cue, Jill Jose and Cat Grey in a scene from Dorotea Mendoza, Carolyn Antonio and Erica Miguel’s “Export Quality” at HERE Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

Export Quality is a poignant, yet clear-eyed tale of the trafficking of women from the Philippines as brides for American men, a business that has often led to tragic outcomes.

Written by Dorotea Mendoza, Carolyn Antonio and Erica Miguel, Export Quality begins innocently enough with the four main characters introducing and describing themselves, using the colorful language from their mail-order bride catalog listings.

Myka Cue plays Jesusa Angela Espiritu, the youngest, whose immaculate appearance camouflages her desperation; Cat Grey is Lillibeth Villanueva, a 31-year-old living in San Jose, California as the breadwinner in a dysfunctional, abusive marriage; Jill Jose plays Ellen Mercado, a forty-something tough cookie living in Hawaii as a wife-cum-housekeeper; and Arianne Recto is Josephine Agbayani, at sixty, the oldest of the four whose sad life in the Philippines has taken its toll.

Jill Jose, Cat Grey, Myka Cue and Arianne Recto in a scene from Dorotea Mendoza, Carolyn Antonio and Erica Miguel’s “Export Quality” at HERE Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Through a technologically astute production and fine acting, their intertwining stories unfold in a dramatic tapestry that reveals the sad business of mail-order brides.  Using an intricate combination of pre-recorded videos, live video feeds and “ghost voices” (Joy Tamayo), the live actors emerge as engaging and moving women, their fates becoming ever more fascinating and heartbreaking.

Ellen is the most sardonic of the four, dressed in tight jeans and sexy tops—impressively character-revealing costumes by Siena Zoë Allen—who also seems the most in control.  She lives in Hawaii, the arranged marriage more of an arranged care-giving ploy.  She makes the most of having to care for her “husband’s” wheelchair-bound father by rationalizing about how great Hawaii is.

Josephine, mother to an adult son, came out of one of the poorest areas in the Philippines.  Her story is heavy with physical and sexual abuse even though she appears, at least on the surface, to have fortified herself with rationalizations and fantasies.

On the surface, Lillibeth’s marriage has been the most successful.  She has become the dominant force, controlling the finances and day-to-day, a recipe for domestic disaster.

Cat Grey, Jill Jose, Arianne Recto and Myka Cue in a scene from Dorotea Mendoza, Carolyn Antonio and Erica Miguel’s “Export Quality” at HERE Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Jesusa, the most spiritual presence of the four, and the youngest, has devoted herself to keeping her daughter safe from her husband’s brutality.

The connective tissue of Export Quality is the interactions among the characters as they videotape each other, support each other’s stories and illuminate the sad history of mail-order brides.

They are invaluably aided by the simple set designed by Joey Mendoza:  large boxes that are moved about in front of a back curtain of vertical slats behind which relevant, informative films are shown.  The boxes prove to be quite versatile as pieces of furniture and screens for videos.

The films by Stefania Bulbarella, projected onto the back wall, become dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, flashing behind the anguished tales of the play’s characters.

Myka Cue and Cat Grey in a scene from Dorotea Mendoza, Carolyn Antonio and Erica Miguel’s “Export Quality” at HERE Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Both the intricate sound design by Chai Tamayo and the moody lighting by Reza Behjat contribute to the storytelling.

Sonoko Kawahara, the director, has pulled all the disparate stories into a moving whole.

However, most of the praise must focus on the brilliantly detailed performances of the cast who not only had to master the technological demands of the staging, but also bring to life these stories.

The final minutes of Export Quality are frightening and heartbreaking.

Aside from its historical insights, Export Quality is simply good theater.

Export Quality (through December 17, 2023)

HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.HERE.org

Running time:  90 minutes without an intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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