Saturday, June 17, 2017

PDI Review: '50 Years of Telling Stories' - The Repertory Philippines 50th Anniversary Concert

My review of the Rep@50 concert last Sunday is in today's paper--here. Shoutout to the best editor in the world, Gibbs Cadiz, who used to be huge in Blogger.

*     *     *     *     *

Rep's '50 Years of Telling Stories' an evening poignantly told

Eighty seasons and 443 productions are a lot to cover in two hours.

That was what Repertory Philippines attempted to do during its star-studded 50th anniversary concert, "50 Years of Telling Stories," at The Theatre at Solaire last June 11. The result was an evening that will be remembered more for the magnitude of talent on display than for the way such talent was put to use.

Best moments

Spanning nine segments, each directed by a distinguished Rep alumnus (with overall direction by Bart Guingona), the concert highlighted in its best moments one of the things this company does well: triple threats in sweeping ensemble numbers.

Never mind polish or perfection of technique. Occasionally, "50 Years of Telling Stories" felt like it could have done with a bit more rehearsal time.

Not that the entire affair, buoyed by Ejay Yatco's splendid musical direction and orchestrations, was a shallow celebration--far from it. But if we're talking of concerts to end all concerts to mark such a landmark event as Rep's golden year, as this evening ought to have been, then two examples come to mind.

The first is the Stephen Sondheim birthday tribute at New York City's Lincoln Center seven years ago. That evening, filmed live for a global audience (and, if we may add, posterity), was performed tightly and flawlessly, and never removed the genius and spirit of Sondheim centerstage.

Closer to home, the Philippine Educational Theater Association's 50th anniversary concert two months ago was, from start to end, a moving salute to true-blue Filipino theater.

Most inspired

Still, whenever the concert found its footing, it delivered--poignantly, sometimes powerfully.

The most inspired and most entrancingly performed segment, directed by Michael Williams and dedicated to the directors, had Guingona singing Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat" (an apt choice!), while three pairs of women harmonized with him to different tunes: Pinky Amador and Morissette Amon ("This Is the Moment" from "Jekyll and Hyde"), Sheila Francisco and Cathy Azanza-Dy ("I Can See It" from "The Fantasticks"), and Caisa Borromeo and Carla Guevara-Laforteza ("I Wanna Make Magic" from "Fame").

For the "In Memoriam" segment, Becca Coates and Liesl Batucan sang "Some Things Are Meant to Be" from "Little Women" (one of Rep's best musicals in recent years), and the downtempo arrangement only made this song about letting go and moving on all the more heartrending.

'One Day More' finale

The cherry on top, of course, was the finale: "One Day More" from "Les Miserables," which opened with the original cast of Rep's landmark 1993 production, who then literally handed over the microphones mid-song to a next-generation lineup, in a kind of symbolic turnover that saw Williams giving Marius to Joaquin Valdes, Monique Wilson passing over Eponine to Borromeo, and Karla Gutierrez, Cosette to Coates.

As finales go, that was pretty much the real deal.

When all is said and done, 80 seasons and 443 productions is still a feat unlikely to find parallels anywhere. It's this tradition of telling stories--or staging them, as Freddie Santos puts it--and telling them well that Rep has more or less sustained, creating for itself a brand that's now equated with excellence in English-language theater.

That, in the face of a 50-year history, is what truly matters.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The 56th Silliman Writers Workshop in retrospect, now that my emotions have settled

For Tiff and Catherine and Tanya; for Jam and George, Jake and Baby H, Miggy and Arlene; for JMax and Renz and Lendz and Gillian; for Parts and Mo; for Jimmy and Gimmy and Sawi and Krip and Wendell and Neil; for Susan and Grace and DM and Ian—the first of many pieces sure to come. I have nothing but immense gratitude.

I write this now that I am two islands, three provinces, and hundreds of miles away from Dumaguete. It’s been three days since Miggy and I left on that early morning plane. The weather had been balmy—a far cry from the stifling humidity plaguing where I am now—and as I made my way across the ramp to the parked turboprop, the Cuernos de Negros had at last unveiled itself, those olive-green peaks stripped of the cloud cover that had concealed them for the past two weeks. The only clear thought I remember having at that time—for I had admittedly been worn out by the previous night’s game of beer pong (my first time, and our team lost twice!)—was how perfect, how right, that the mountains should finally reveal themselves during my last few precious minutes in the city. I was in the right place at the right time.

I write this now that I have taken the time to sit back and take in the breadth and depth of the past two weeks. Had I tried writing this much earlier, the result would have undoubtedly been a sort of incoherent wreck, for a part of me had wished, right there on that tarmac, that I never had to leave; just the thought of this whole workshop experience wrapping up was enough to get me teary-eyed (and those who know me well enough know I don’t tear up easily, but let’s not dwell on this).

This was, in a manner of speaking, my final shot at getting into the workshop. And I almost didn’t get to submit my application—so thank you, I suppose, to the screening committee for extending the deadline, for giving me ample time to spruce up “In Teresa” and finish the first draft of “Manchester Boys”; for the time to get myself lost in the glass-and-metal heartland of Ortigas on a wet November day in search of the office of Dean Alfar, who had obligingly agreed to write my recommendation. Were I a more fatalistic person, I’d go as far as to proclaim that deadline extension the sign that jumpstarted my way to Dumaguete.

And there I finally was, one late Sunday afternoon: the last fellow to arrive for the 56th Silliman University National Writers Workshop, after two delayed flights and almost four hours in the sweltering marketplace that was Mactan Airport. There I finally was, in the right place at the right time, almost a decade since I first heard of this workshop’s existence.

*     *     *     *

I had planned to blog about the workshop on a day-to-day basis, but this was the only thing I came up with.

“Second night in the Writers Village in Valencia. The signal here is basically next to nothing. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Messenger—which does not bode well for my obsessive-compulsive nature. So this is why the workshop is called a retreat. Evenings here are gorgeously chilly in the way evenings never were back in Iloilo. This morning I awoke to find my glasses all fogged up. I’d been having a weird dream about some malevolent force my cousins and I had to escape from (spoiler: one of them didn’t make it) when this rhythmic knocking slowly drew me back to the mundane. Turned out to be a hen and her chicks outside my window, which reminded me of that rooster that never failed to wake Justin and I up during our time in Bailen last year. Jam and George, my cottage-mates, had declared the previous night their unwillingness to sleep alone, so I have a room to myself. Our cottage is supposed to be the “Tikbalang” cottage, but by now I’m pretty sure I have no third eye. Also, I sleep in complete darkness.”

Mornings in the Writers Village quickly acquired a semblance of routine. George would be the first to wake up, and the flushing and splashing from the bathroom would be my alarm clock. Est. 6-6:30 for five consecutive mornings—a record of sorts for my post-med school self. I’d be bathed and clothed by 7-ish and would head to the common hall for breakfast, where some of the fellows would already be gathered ‘round the table on the terrace. Every now and then, a cacophony of crickets (or were they some sort of bird?) would break the hilltop silence; the mountain breeze would descend upon the village and rustle every leaf, bush and stem to life. Sirius Black and the other dogs would start the day’s loitering. Between the pine trees, we’d spy the urban plains in the distance, and across the bluish blur of the sea, Cebu and Siquijor.

On our last morning, I was awakened by the mooing of the village cow on its way to pasture. On our last evening, we discovered the gems behind the portrait (of a plant? a vase of flowers? I can’t remember now) in the common hall: a pair of huge-ass tokay geckos straight out of my childhood nightmares.

*     *     *     *

Before joining the theater section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I had already been dabbling in poetry, having had a few pieces published abroad (but, ironically, never hereabouts). In a way, I view this workshop as a warm welcome back to literary writing, though I found fiction a more accessible, if not easier, means of return.

Certainly, one of the highlights of the first week was the Dorina-Laviña tag team of Sir J. Neil and Wendell, except one never splashed the other’s face with a glass of something. (I suspect, had we gotten the two of them drunk enough, they would have hurled literary theory and vocabulary words at each other instead.) Sir Jimmy and Sir Gimmy instantly came across as mild-mannered grandfathers you’d want to adopt. Sir Sawi was ever the poet, at times seemingly lost in some landscape only he had access to.

My notes in the manuscripts, in fact, contain mostly quotable quotes that would probably make for flavorful dialogue in a play—from the unwarranted inclusion of certain panelists’ mothers in the conversation to the labeling of an essay’s narrator as ‘spoiled,’ ‘condescending,’ ‘judgmental’ and ‘Messianic.’

The second week’s sessions exuded a different energy. Now, we had the feminist eye of Ma’am Grace and Sir DM’s uwian-na summation of every piece, among others. Now, we had panelists who would jam, mid-session, to “The Age of Aquarius” from “Hair” without batting an eyelash. Now, as well, we were more confident in diving straight into the heart of the piece, and more comfortable in articulating our thoughts without fear of hurting the author.  

I’d spent the past four-and-a-half years reviewing other people’s works; now it was my turn to be “reviewed.”

*     *     *     *     *

How many times can a band of writers be almost left behind by a ferry in a single day?

9:15 on Saturday morning. While Jake and Kuya Mo—the oracle of Silliman—stayed behind to purchase their tickets for the next ferry, the rest of us languidly made our way to the Dumaguete passenger port terminal. The woman behind the terminal fee counter was moving at the speed of a snail on its way to lunch. If ever there were a competition on who could count bills the slowest, she’d be a sure win.

What we didn’t expect was that we also had to line up for seat numbers at a different counter inside the terminal. We ended up literally running all the way to the ferry.

In a café across the main plaza of Siquijor, Kuya Mo told us about the time Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, then a fellow herself, visited the island with her batchmates and returned to Dumaguete with extra baggage. She had fallen ill—a man in dark clothes was supposedly following her around—and she was told by one of the healers to go to a body of water in order to “release” the spirit. I spent much of the first leg of the jeepney ride just conceptualizing a specfic piece out of that anecdote.

At the oldest convent in Asia, Kuya Mo pretended he couldn’t understand Bisaya and led our party into the building, which was closed for restoration. The second floor was a dusty open space with wooden floors punctuated by wide, unsightly posts.  

Ganito kasi ang kuwento,” Kuya Mo said, referring to the posts.

Then he proceeded to grope his way around the post like a virginal damsel in distress, all the while delivering the day’s most hilarious piece of dialogue: “Father huwag po, Father huwag po.” I stubbed my thumb on one of the walls, by the way, so the blasphemy’s been paid for.

We crossed the street to the church, where a funeral was taking place. Kuya Mo insisted on having a photo shoot involving the confessionals.

Later in the day, after we’d left Salagdoong Beach Resort to catch the 5:15 ferry, only to return in a state of mild panic to retrieve Baby H’s mobile phone, and then head back to the port (on the other side of the island) with only 45 minutes to spare, Kuya Mo was the perfect example of joie de vivre, as Jam called it: on the back of the jeepney, singing at the top of his lungs.

We ran, once again, all the way to the ferry. At the crucial last minute, Jake couldn’t find his ticket, so we had to pay the officer on the spot to issue him a new one. (We later found his ticket inside his bag.)

We arrived in Dumaguete on a drizzly evening, the whole batch complete—and without extra baggage.

*     *     *     *     *

Dumaguete reminded me of the Iloilo of my childhood, back when things were still slow and simple. Sunday mornings were spent in the public park by the port, where my brother and I would gaze at the majestic ships tethered to their docks, and watch the smaller motorized pump boats make their way across the Guimaras Strait. Some afternoons were spent at the airport, in a park—it would be hyperbolic to even call it that, for it was no more than a small patch of concrete opened to the public—beside the control tower, where we would wait for the planes to land or take off. Else, we passed the hours on our rooftop; our house was right along the path of the planes, and those stately kings of the skies never failed to leave us wonderstruck as they made their way closer to land.   

On our second (and last Tuesday), I decided to take a solitary walk. My inner Catholic voice had been reprimanding me for not having paid a visit to the cathedral since my arrival. I began at the Silliman Church, where the lawn seemingly stretched all the way to the sea, this unobstructed view framed by towering acacias on both sides. Along Hibbard Avenue, tricycles plied their routes beside shiny private vehicles, but even their chaotic crisscrossing exuded the kind of gentleness the city is known for. Ahead of me, a bunch of Caucasian tourists wearing almost nothing stopped every now and then to check out the wares being sold by the stores lining the street.

After the cathedral, I briefly walked around Quezon Park, before deciding to hail a trike back to campus. There was none available, however, so I decided to walk further east. The Boulevard was lit with a faint afternoon glow, the waters calm, the air a tender mixture of salt and smoke. Two kids no older than five made their way across the waters, and for a moment I could almost see their sweet innocence drip off their tiny bodies into the ripples of their trail. The acacias hardly moved; age, after all, eventually strips us of the capacity for wonderment.  

*     *     *     *     *

I write this now that I have allowed my emotions to settle. But every now and then, the thought of Dumaguete, of the Silliman Writers Workshop, bursts into my consciousness, and so I do nothing else but remember.

I remember my roommates, the boys of 314: George, both genius and gentleness, the Christine to my Phantom, a fount of endless jokes ranging from downright unexpectedly funny to downright pun-ny; and Jam, rock star, who always took the quickest baths, whose poems glimmered with measured musicality and demanded to be spoken. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to have shared my first time living in a dorm with these men.

I remember the boys of the other room: Jake, whose geekiness could match my own, whose expansive knowledge of space and spacecraft could fill a conversation alongside my love for the Boeing 787 and the A350; Baby H, whose writing reminded me of my own when I was his age, who was the first to dare break our batch’s goody-two-shoes image one Sunday night in Hayahay, who assumed the role of icon of devotion during the impromptu procession up four flights of stairs in Vernon Hall; and Miggy, one of the coolest dads I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, period.

I remember Tanya’s elegant silences, how it all translated into this workshop’s most elegant writing; Tiff’s self-professed love for bread, and all those moments spent talking about the theater, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, Repertory Philippines and Tanghalang Ateneo; Catherine’s self-professed dipsomania. I remember Tiff and Catherine and our AA meetings at Ciao Bella and Hayahay and Allegre. I remember Arlene, “oh yes, absolutely,” and wonder how she must be doing right now, an ocean and thousands of miles away.

I remember Parts and her serenity of speech; JMax, her unparalleled coolness, and our covenant to fill the world with our spawn, and the moments spent trying to outgross the other (she always won!); Lendz and how what I initially perceived to be shyness turned out to be something entirely opposite; Renz and his peerless fabulousness.

I remember those games of Resistance, where we tried to out-Oscars each other while doing our best not to replicate that time I oversold my innocence. I remember that final night in the Village, how the aftertaste of tubà resembled fresh oysters.

I remember Monday night watching Nana perform, her distinctly breathy sound something I could listen to over and over again; Melody Enero and her soaring, altogether lovely rendition of “La Vie en Rose” and “Falling in Love with Love” during our closing ceremonies.

I remember the Acacia Picnic, how George and Ian turned into a tree, how we all passed the afternoon on mats on the grass, listening to music and poetry, while the sea ebbed and flowed behind us, the sun neither too warm nor absent.

I remember all of these people, with whom I could watch “Alien: Covenant” on a Sunday afternoon and emerge from the cinema ready to launch into a discussion of its merits; with whom I could talk about Steve McQueen’s “Shame” at length; with whom I could fanboy over Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton; with whom I could debate, late at night, whether “Arrival” or “Interstellar” is the better film (the answer is “Arrival”). 

And in my head, I hear Sir Sawi’s voice chiding me from the dreamscape, “Now you’re just making a list!”

But what was the workshop, after all, if not an idyll, a place where time and the life beyond stopped; where nothing else mattered but the literary work at hand and the literary work demanding to be put into page; where I could take stock of the passing of the minutes and of people, could make a list of the fortune, both tangible and intangible, that had landed on my lap, and say to myself, yes, I am happy—here, as I was before I came here.

I remember these two beautiful weeks in Dumaguete and can only consider myself the rarest form of lucky for deciding, all those months ago, to give this workshop one last try. I came to Dumaguete with three pieces of fiction, and left with a thousand more stories to write, most of them made with the most gracious people, all of them memory of the purest, most priceless form.  

*     *     *     *     *

P.S. I don't think this piece is very coherent, but I do hope it contains saysáy, soul, and datìng. [Exit with Sir Gimmy’s signature, smiling “Aha!” pose with pointed thumbs and index fingers. Mic drop.]

P.P.S. “I have now become Wendellian and very anecdotal.” –JNG

P.P.P.S. “You horrid crook! Let me speak!” –GA

P.P.P.P.S. "I love germane!" –Anonymous

Plus 10 more photos:

Pre-morning session at Writers Village. 

Krip Yuson cutting up a pig alongside other literary luminaries. 

Chin-Chin, Tiff and Tanya at Lab-as. 

On the jeepney in Siquijor. 

Hezron at Scooby's. 

Chin-Chin and her idol somewhere in Looc. 

At the Beyonce room in Top Hits. 

Tiff at Cana's Retreat in Amlan. 

Lendz, JMax, Jake and Renz on the final night. 

Room 314.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Halfway to the 56th Silliman National Writers Workshop

Our Bombardier Q300 for the Iloilo-Cebu leg.

I'm now in Cebu, where in an hour I shall hopefully be boarding my flight to Dumaguete for this year's Silliman Writers Workshop. The airport has become a sprawling marketplace. When my flight from Iloilo (aboard a Q300, which by the way, has way better seats and legroom than Cebu Pacific's A320s) landed earlier, we were held at one of the runway exits for some time. Crazy. Then it was a rather long wait before our luggage arrived at the carousels.

Mactan Airport has this prehistoric rule of requiring passengers to dispose of outside water prior to entering the pre-departure area. What idiocy. 

The check-in hall looked like an East Asian convention. So does the pre-dep, actually. There's a huge swath of the domestic wing that's a sweltering dump right now. I can't stop thinking how Mactan has become what Manila used to be. I don't want to call this airport a mess, because that would be just a little bit inaccurate and hyperbolic. They better open that new terminal quick.

On the bright side, at least people haven't resorted to sitting on the floor en masse. Not yet.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

PDI Review: 'Angry Christ' by UP Playwrights' Theatre

Short of calling this the best play I've so far seen this year--the online version of the review here. For tickets, contact 0917-967-3616 or 0916-555-2782. Shows from Tue-Fri at 7PM and Sat-Sun at 10AM and 3PM, until May 14 at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, 2/F Palma Hall, UP Diliman.

*     *     *     *     *

'Angry Christ' is a masterpiece

 Opening night curtain call.

One thing nearly a decade of conscientious theatergoing can teach is that very few productions have the capacity to leave you completely stunned and searching for words, just as the lights finally dim and the curtain falls. True masterpieces are certainly not a dime a dozen.

We should consider ourselves blessed, then, that this rare experience of witnessing a work of such superlative, gratifying quality is currently attainable, albeit for a very limited time, at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, University of the Philippines Diliman, where UP Playwrights' Theatre's "Angry Christ" runs until May 14.

This nearly three-hour production of Floy Quintos' newest original piece is simply an occasion of pure theatrical joy. The text itself is an enthralling display of the author's unparalleled skill at deftly filling a relatively empty canvass drawn from a point in history with cogent conversation, scenery and flesh-and-blood characters--the result a wholly believable, if not more memorable, version of the original.

In "Angry Christ," Quintos allows his audience access into the Filipino painter Alfonso Ossorio's brief time in Victorias, Negros Occidental, during the creation of the local chapel's controversial sanctuary mural--dominated by a frowning Jesus, hence the play's title.

The production Dexter Santos directs and choreographs is an entirely satisfying realization of Quintos' reimagination. No moment ever feels forced or fake; the scenes all bear the touch of careful, thoughtful composition.

Here, Ossorio's struggle to reconcile the demonic and the divine is captured beautifully. Against the backdrop of a rustic, close-knit community where word gets around easily and where traditions and the old guard still hold sway, there is his earthly existence of excess and homosexual guilt, on one hand, and his devotion to a God all-knowing and all-powerful, on the other.

Unique restraint

It's an internal tug-of-war that materializes quite persuasively because of the perfect rendering of time, place and local texture, thanks to Gino Gonzales' spare, unobtrusive set and costumes, Monino Duque's pitch-perfect atmospheric lights, Krina Cayabyab's sound design, and Steven Tansiongco and Josef Garcia's video design.

This unique restraint also appears to be the first-rate cast's watchword. The performances, led by Nel Gomez as Ossorio and Kalil Almonte as his fictional assistant, ripple with convincing ordinariness that only adds both life and dimension to these imagined beings.

Gomez--barely three months ago, the extraordinary anchor to Twin Bill Theater's "My Name Is Asher Lev"--captures with unflinching precision a man of many demons, bleeding from so many unseen corners within. Almonte provides a grounding heart to the play, the much-welcome quotidian yang to all its grandiloquent yin.

In their scenes together, Gomez and Almonte even provide a subtle portrait of that centuries-old white master-brown boy dynamic, their pairing inviting conversations that go beyond the realm of simple artistic merit.

Piercing exploration

Such is the overall effect of "Angry Christ." Long after you've exited the theater, and for days on end, it leaves you talking about it, and wanting to talk about it even more. Its piercing exploration of human frailty clings to your brain, begging for repeat viewings.

The consummately crafted finale, which harnesses light, darkness, sound, dialogue, graphics, gesture and physical timing into a resplendent whole as it virtually transforms the stage into the sanctuary of the aforementioned Victorias chapel, is a feat of stagecraft unlikely to find many peers in this or any other year.

In such instances, when every element onstage works so convincingly to suspend your disbelief and create a world that looks, sounds and feels more real than the mundane--when you find yourself thoroughly swept away by the storytelling--it's best to just let the piece consume you and be consumed.

Such moments of complete abandon in the theater are not a dime a dozen. There, right there, is the mark of a true masterpiece.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The 2nd IWP Workshop ended by force majeure

 Post-earthquake with first couple Mookie and Sarge.

My old self, I suppose, would begin with an apology, an attempt to explain--yet again--my prolonged absence hereabouts, which in recent years I have come to equate not with laziness but, simply, with my presence elsewhere (in other words, the non-virtual world), and therefore something wholly excusable, if not better, entirely acceptable.

So no apology, because yes, I was indeed "out there": in a writing workshop this weekend, in the bastion of Dutertard-ism the weekend before, and the Macoy heartlands the week before that. And the preceding months, a "healthy," should I say, mix of studying for that darned exam, watching as much theater as I could given the prospect of that darned exam, and stretches of time spent trying to tame my mind and keep it from panicking and manifesting that panic externally.

That workshop was the 2nd International Writing Program (by the University of Iowa) Alumni Writers Workshop at La Salle, an excellent place to be in when an earthquake strikes. Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, workshop director, must have initially thought no one was paying particular attention to her closing remarks; minutes later, we were all hurrying down 13 flights of escalators (thank goodness this was such an embarrassingly rich school), hoping there would be no aftershocks. "Of course the workshop had to end by force majeure," posted Mookie on Facebook that afternoon.

But the workshop itself: No deep insight from me, given I'm new to all this. You can even say I applied to it on a whim--a day before the deadline, with a hurriedly, mindlessly composed synopsis that would eventually derail everybody's reading of my short story. (This was between the first and second weekends of the board exams, so you can imagine the pretty tight schedule I was contending with.) Now did I have fun, did I learn something? I can't believe I even bothered typing those clichés.

Short of fanboy-ing, that panel though. I can listen to Mookie talk all day, and there was also her husband Sarge, one of the fictionists I look up to. There was Susan Lara, whom I first encountered in high school ten years ago; Eros Atalia, who wrote "Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me"; Carlomar Daoana, behind "Crown for Maria" and "The Elegant Ghost."

My one sadness coming out of this workshop, I confided to them, is the realization that I will most likely be reduced to one meticulously written story a year when I enter residency training. That's on top of my theater viewing and reviewing, and for now I would like to just stop thinking about all this. (On that note, however, Repertory Philippines' "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)" is one of the year's best so far and will have one more weekend of performances, up to the 23rd, after Holy Week.)

I suppose it would be better to post about that Davao weekend and that week in Ilocos separately. Let me leave this here: We will always have history, and it will always be up to the individual to accept or reject history. And you would have to be a goddamned fool, so thick and full of yourself, to have the balls to reject the offensive, the unarguably evil, in the name of pride of origin.

Family and friends gawking at koi at the Davao Crocodile Park.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

PDI Review: 'Makbet' by St. Benilde Arts and Culture Cluster/TAXI Theater

My review of the Nonon Padilla-directed "Macbeth" is in today's Inquirer--here. The production has two remaining performances today.

*     *     *     *     *

A mesmerizing yet confounding 'Makbet'

George de Jesus III and Irma Adlawan are an enthralling pair as the manipulative, murderous titular couple in the Filipino translation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at the St. Benilde Blackbox Theater.

Their performances alone, their effortless command of language and the unwavering dramatic heft they summon throughout this nearly three-hour production, are enough to keep viewers awake and glued to their seats.

Here are two actors who visibly listen to each other and grasp the full extent of their onstage relationship. To see them play out this twisted husband-and-wife dynamic is, in effect, to understand the origins of greed, despair and hunger for power pervading this Shakespearean tragedy.

Vivid translation

The same cannot be said of the rest of the cast, who mostly don't seem to understand their lines or have a difficult time internalizing their characters--a lamentable disservice to the script. The story of the Scottish general who, upon the prodding and scheming of his wife, goes on a killing spree to fulfill a prophecy promising him the throne is here rendered in vivid, lyrical Filipino by the late Rolando Tinio.

Tinio's translation, like his work on the other classics that recently saw life in Manila ("Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente" for "Death of a Salesman," "Tiyo Vanya" for "Uncle Vanya"), retains the play's setting, the foreign names and places unchanged.

It's a technicality that should affect director Nonon Padilla's "Asian-ification" of the material, but actually doesn't. Reuniting with designer Gino Gonzales, with whom he previously collaborated with on "Haring Lear" (Shakespeare's "King Lear" as translated by Bienvenido Lumbera), Padilla's "Makbet," on occasion, even calls to mind Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood."

Figurative approach

The characters are dressed in flowing black robes, their faces splattered mask-like in red and white, even as they talk of England and Scotland, thanes and kings. During the pivotal feast scene, everybody sits cross-legged on the floor drinking from traditional teacups. In battle, some of the warriors wield katana.

While Kurosawa's film was a complete transposition of Shakespeare into a feudal Japanese milieu, Padilla's "Makbet" is a more placeless, figurative approach--a "reenactment of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden," as he writes in his program notes.

And this so-called reenactment has no shortage of ravishing moments. Especially in a couple of crucial scenes when Gonzales' scaffolding set, dominated by lines of paper, looms toward the audience, "Makbet" can be a feast for the senses.

Visceral sheen

Too often, though, Padilla's method is blurred by his excesses, and the effect is a production that is curiously so many things at the same time.

A video camera manually handled by an ensemble member is used to project certain scenes onto several monitors. When this theatrical device succeeds, the viewing experience acquires a more visceral punch, like being privy to a crime being committed. Such moments are hard to come by, though.

An extended epilogue attempting to establish a Catholic connection with the play simply falls flat and comes across as dispensable, if not overindulgent.

Then, there's the use of the entire theater as set: Sometimes it elevates the immersive viewing experience; other times it becomes a literal application of the phrase "all over the place."

As a thesis production in technical theater, "Makbet" should earn top marks for those involved; in the larger scheme of things, however, even the Asian influence starts feeling unnecessary, as if just another (exquisitely rendered) piece in this gimmicky puzzle. The connection to Eden, meanwhile, is all but forgotten.

In those moments, one can't help returning to De Jesus and Adlawan's performances--twin examples of focus and truthfulness in the face of all that artistic razzmatazz.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Passing the boards and other matters

So this is what the morning after feels like. Oscars speeches are made of mornings like this. I feel new, reborn.

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I'm the least thing from an exemplary Catholic. So believe me when I say everything I'd prayed for has come true. Better: You know what they say about Simbang Gabi, the nine morning masses preceding Christmas Day, that when you attend all nine mornings, things will happen for you? Again, I'm no exemplary Catholic, but.

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The Physicians Licensure Exam is a game of chance. It's not standardized. It hardly measures anything as far as being a competent doctor is concerned. Questions are repeated, sometimes more than once. Some are lifted off review books. Some are lifted out of certain institutions' review materials. Typographical errors abound. I wish the examiners would take it more seriously. But I bet all they'd tell me is, "Who are you to complain?"

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I was in Robinsons Magnolia yesterday when the results were released. Some friends and I were watching "Care Divas" at the nearby Peta Theater, and that was where we had agreed to meet. The signal in the area was atrocious: Thirty minutes of refreshing my phone, and then when it finally came out, it was almost ten more minutes of loading that page. Those ten minutes felt like a day. The calls and texts soon followed. I was half-running inside the mall, but I didn't care. 

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My grandfather--my father's father--would have been 95 the day before yesterday. Picture this: At four years old, going up the stage with him to receive my very first gold medal in school; at five, me and my siblings standing in a corner of our roof deck back home, punished for some trivial misdeed, while he stood somewhere off-center, barking orders at the house help; me at six, just arrived home from school and greeted by his reedy frame, that distinct smell of last night's alcohol sticking to his shirt, his veiny hands brought close to my forehead; me at seven, and him in and out of hospital, until one day lung cancer got the better of him. 

I try my best to remember: me, whom they say looks very much like him. I find my memories of him grow fewer by the day, and sometimes I'm no longer certain about the details. Do I have the shape of his face right? The sound of his voice, the way he walked? I wish to remember, and to remember more.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

PDI Review: 'Wicked' - The 2016 International Tour in Manila

My review of the British "Wicked" playing The Theatre at Solaire is in today's Inquirer. And here is the link to my review of the Asia-Pacific tour of 2014. I would also like to take this opportunity to say that Madame Morrible reminds me so much of Kellyanne Conway.

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'Wicked' now more than just a spectacle

It should come as no surprise that "Wicked," which debuted in Manila three years ago and is now back via a brand-new international tour that started in Britain last year, still delivers.

This is, after all, a replica of the Broadway and West End productions, give or take a few alterations. To buy a ticket would be to see essentially the same song-and-dance spectacular that made Idina Menzel a household name and "Defying Gravity" a go-to anthem for those with lungs of brass.

At this point, it seems almost superfluous to extol the individual virtues of this show. Put it this way: You definitely get your money's worth, as far as entertainment value is concerned.

The sound is especially excellent in this production, and that has a lot to do with the top-notch acoustics of The Theatre at Solaire, where the musical plays until March 19. The voices don't strike you as amplified, and the dynamic mix of the orchestrations allows individual instruments to come to life without distracting from the totality of the music.

Everything else--from the gargantuan scaffold-and-cogwheel set and the rapturous dancing, to the cast of triple threats who amusingly speak and sing in the Queen's English--helps drive home the notion that it's the audiences, in the long run, who determine the success or failure of a show.

But there's also the notion that theater should be a mirror of society. And who would have thought that "Wicked" would turn out to be such a resonant show in the post-2016 era?

A good-hearted witch outcast for her green skin, a vapid blonde beloved for her beauty, an autocratic but fraudulent political leader, the eventual rule of the misinformed mob--suddenly, the musical's broad (and sometimes broadly illustrated) thematic points cease to be just fodder for the plot.

Time capsule

To see "Wicked" today is to see the year that was--one marked by divisiveness and fear-mongering--unfold as a time capsule in unending shades of green.

That may just be reading too much into a musical that's meant to be wish fulfillment for teenage girls the world over, of course. But, midway through the first act, seeing that sign that says, "Animals should be seen and not heard," lets you realize just how closely hewn to real life this revisionist take on "The Wizard of Oz" has unintentionally become.

This production of "Wicked," led by the winning pair of Jacqueline Hughes (Elphaba) and Carly Anderson (Glinda), with Kim Ismay as a wickedly funny Madame Morrible, may remain a perfectly satisfying sensory assault. The show itself, though, has become so much more than that. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

PDI Review: 'Sa Wakas' by Culture Shock Productions/Fringe Manila

My review of the restaging of "Sa Wakas," which ends a sold-out, five-week run at The Circuit Makati, is in today's paper--here.

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'Sa Wakas': The sleeper hit is now hit-or-miss

It's definitely a hit if there's even a Facebook page pleading for your show's return.

Nearly four years later, "Sa Wakas," the jukebox musical that spins a love triangle around the songs of defunct rock band Sugarfree, is back. And the beauty of time is that it brings perspective.

Effective structure

"Sa Wakas" of 2013 was a beautiful surprise, not only for the effectiveness of its inverted-time structure, but also for its clear-eyed and lived-in depiction of middle-class millennial life in Manila. It captured not just a youthful belief in dreams and possibility, but also the gritty push-and-pull of romantic entanglements.

This time, Andrei Pamintuan still directs. Ejay Yatco, whose revitalizing rearrangements of the Sugarfree songbook are one of the best things about this musical, now helms a seven-piece band. The design elements more or less retain the original look.

But Pamintuan has admittedly tinkered with and expanded the original script (which he co-wrote with Ina Abuan). If anything, this "Sa Wakas" now feels uncomfortably long (three hours with intermission).

Edited lines such as "Wala nang James Reid sa iyong Nadine" in the song "Wala" serve their purpose in updating the play's milieu, but the bigger picture is now a wordier one. More talk may mean more complex, fleshed-out characters, but it also runs the risk of these people falling into stereotype.

There are three new leads--Pepe Herrera as photographer Topper, Cara Barredo as neurosurgeon Lexi and Maronne Cruz as magazine editor Gabbi--alternating with original cast members Victor Robinson III, Caisa Borromeo and Justine Peña, respectively.

Ideal match

The truth is, the success of each performance of "Sa Wakas" is heavily dependent upon the combination of actors one gets to see.

Robinson and Borromeo, for example, are an ideal match. Their equally self-possessed takes on their characters make for a level playing field, and when they engage in the modern-day game of love and loss, the stakes feel so much higher and more exciting to witness.

Robinson's singing voice remains a wonder, while Borromeo is a perfect fit for this pragmatic, Philistine-doctor-with-a-heart version of Lexi. Their portrayals make you understand how they could have fallen for each other, how they could feed off each other's energies, and how their love could eventually go up in flames.

Herrera provides a more grounded approach to Topper, and his particular brand of self-deprecating humor opens more emotional channels for the character. But pairing him with Barredo makes you question how Topper and Gabbi could have even worked in the first place.

Lost battle

Barredo's take on Lexi is more cute and charming than confident, which doesn't do anything to make her believable as a neurosurgeon. Paired with Herrera, the battle is just about lost from the start: There's no way the passionate, strong-willed Topper could not have overwhelmed this rather simplistic Lexi. You see why he would actually tire of her and set her gaze elsewhere.

It's also worth noting that Herrera looks absolutely nothing like Hans Dimayuga, who plays Topper's brother. With Robinson in the lead, the number "Dear Kuya" not only becomes a thrilling vocal showdown between brothers, but also a case of convincing casting.

Cruz and Peña, both tracing their roots back to Ateneo Blue Repertory, each elegantly fills the part of the self-assured, liberated Gabbi (though Peña's weaker singing voice falls victim to the atrocious sound design plaguing this production at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater).

The perfect trio of actors can summon the very qualities that made audiences fall in love with "Sa Wakas" back then. Absent that, this musical can end up evoking the treacly "kabit" movie or teleserye one of its characters scoffs at.

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ERRATUM: Paragraph five of the version of this review published in today's Philippine Daily Inquirer cites Pamintuan and Abuan as being both responsible for the rewrites in this production. But Abuan was not involved with this year's production. This version reflects that correction. Apologies.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

PDI Review: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' by Repertory Philippines

First review of the year is in today's paper--the online version here! The show runs until Feb. 12 at Onstage Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Buy tickets here.

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'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' is a winsome foursome

Mica Pineda (left) and Joaquin Valdes.

A working knowledge of Anton Chekov's oeuvre is not a prerequisite for having a ball at Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which opens Repertory Philippines' 50th anniversary.

Theatergoers who know their stuff may have the added benefit of getting the references to "Uncle Vanya" or "The Cherry Orchard" or "The Seagull," but Durang's transposition alone of some of Chekov's best-known characters into 21st-century America proves to be sufficient comedic fodder.

The siblings Vanya and Sonia are now middle-aged, jobless and have spent their whole lives in the family home sustained financially by their Hollywood-elite sister Masha. When Masha arrives one weekend with her latest boy toy Spike, old wounds are reopened alongside new ones, and insecurities reexamined.

The play's very DNA is obviously the domestic drama: the absurd and the real meeting in a house in the country (a setup itself very Chekovian). But in its best moments, "Vanya and Sonia..." plays out like a writer's dare gone nuts, a small joke that's allowed to go on and on and expand and soar to hysterical heights.

In on the joke

And, anyway, the characters themselves make darn sure everyone in the audience is always in on the joke. Many times, though, this self-conscious loquaciousness only undermines the play's status as a winner of the Tony Award for Best Play.

When Vanya, for example, points out that Sonia's attraction to him "comes from our living together, [because] there's no one else in the house ever since mother and father died...," one is made aware of an ungraceful quality haunting the expository parts of the writing. 

It speaks much of a production's virtues, then, when even the speechifying parts become less annoying and more, well, funny. This Rep staging, which unfolds on Miguel Faustmann's ornately designed sitting-room set (with convincing rustic exteriors), strikes a fine balance between pathos and all-stops-out comedy.

More than anything, it's the casting that does wonders to this production.

Everybody fits his or her role to a tee: Cherie Gil, who effortlessly supplies a surplus of glamour to Masha while capturing her fame- and age-driven anxieties; Michael Williams as Vanya, always vaguely aware of the things he could have but have not done; even Natalie Everett as the maid Cassandra, who, like her mythological namesake, has the tendency to spout seemingly nonsensical prophecies.

Gag pieces

But in terms of bringing something new to the table, this show belongs to Roselyn Perez, who lands punch line after punch line as the self-pitying Sonia while still giving us a woman who is more than just her frustrations or inferior self-image; and Joaquin Valdes, clearly having a delightful time playing Spike as an all-abs-and-pecs male bimbo.

Directed by Bart Guingona, this production unfolds like a series of gag pieces that aim to elicit not so much sustained guffaws as bursts of laughter. It knows when to hold back, and when to give its all.

And when Maggie Smith and Snow White finally enter the mix (in ways that must be seen to be understood), it's the absurd and the real becoming one, and you stop thinking of the hows and whys. You simply surrender to the charm and skill of this terrific ensemble and proceed to have a ball at the theater.