Saturday, April 23, 2016

PDI Review: 'The Pillowman' by Egg Theater Company

Tomorrow, April 24 (Sunday), three shows play their final performances: Dulaang UP's "The Dressing Room"; Repertory Philippines' "Stepping Out, The Musical"; and Egg Theater Company's "The Pillowman," my review of which is in today's paper--here.

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The devil lurks in the devilishly good 'The Pillowman'

Fear--the truly hair-raising, spine-chilling sort--bears a new face in the theater these days, and his name is Renante Bustamante, who's giving a force-of-nature performance in Egg Theater Company's production of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," a tale about tales and the twists and turns they can throw at an otherwise quiet life.

As the detective Tupolski, the self-appointed "good cop" in a tandem sent to interrogate the writer Katurian (Gabs Santos) about a series of grisly murders, Bustamante hardly looks the part. But stare into his eyes a second longer and let his voice linger in your ears, and you'll be surprised at how quickly your spirit shrinks and bends to this man's will.

Magnetic figure

It may be subversive to say that Tupolski is the star of this staging of "The Pillowman," directed by George de Jesus III; that honor, at least on paper, belongs to Katurian himself. But Bustamante, with only a raised brow, a curl of the lip or the slightest shifts in a voice that seems to emanate from the bowels of the earth, cuts a magnetic, menacing figure as Tupolski, a presence looming large in a production that's often too intimate for comfort.

This is "The Pillowman" by way of De Jesus' Filipino translation, which demands more than a single listen, if only for its fine-grained linguistic switches between the pedestrian and the poetic. Crass cursing and shouting run aplenty, but so do occasions for transporting imagery and metaphor.

Katurian, you see, is the author of some 400 stories, almost all of which have to do with murdering, mangling, mutilating a child. Then a crop of kids turn up as corpses in his neighborhood, all of them dead by means creepily similar to those detailed in his stomach-churning bibliography. Thus the interrogation, which is essentially the entire play itself.

Tupolski is assisted by "bad cop" Ariel, played by Acey Aguilar, who's obviously having lots of fun with the character's temperamental, if not outright violent, nature. 

Inquisition

A second subject gets dragged into this inquisition: Katurian's brother Michal (Paul Jake Paule, alternating with Paolo O'Hara). Michal suffers from some form of developmental delay, and Paule beautifully strikes a balance between humor and pity, his wide, blank eyes and deliberately dopey delivery shaping a convincing portrait of a mind trapped in a body beyond its years.

Santos as Katurian is no slouch here, in case you're wondering; it's just that, during the quieter moments, he tends to lose grip of that burning intensity that should make Katurian a compelling protagonist throughout. (The result, perhaps, of having been away from the stage for too long?)

But throw him in the midst of a confrontation, an emotionally charged scene, and there is much truth and ardent feeling that Santos summons and sustains. Even better, his connection with Paule is genuine; the bond they form as brothers is heartfelt and heartwarming.

It is this connection that renders Katurian and Michal sympathetic characters throughout the show, their pain impossible not to be felt despite the eventual revelations. Much of this empathy is also a direct consequence of the staging. With its theater-in-the-round setup--the edges of the stage are literally next to the viewer's feet--this production ensures that the audience misses nothing, not a single punch or kick or graphic gunshot.

Yardstick

The staging is only one of the differences between this "Pillowman" and the first time the play was staged in Manila two years ago--a one-night-only reading of the original script by The Sandbox Collective during the Imaginarium festival at the Peta Theater Center.

That show, directed by Ed Lacson Jr. and starring Audie Gemora (Katurian) and Richard Cunanan (Tupolski), was "the year's most entrancing piece of theater," we wrote, and remains a yardstick for any subsequent production of the play hereabouts.

Lacson's "Pillowman" appeared to hew closer to McDonagh's original vision for the play. Never less than funny, it was black comedy from start to finish, the gripping stories within seizing the spotlight.

De Jesus' "Pillowman" feels like a whole other creature. The stories and their repugnant, comedic nature are still there, given conscientious treatment by Joee Mejias' charming video projections, but they are no longer its stars.

Instead, this "Pillowman" is now a procedural bereft of happy endings, and one that mirrors the corrupt practices of the times. Terms like SOCO come up in the conversation, and for a moment, you wonder just exactly where we are and at what point in time--this country in a couple of years, maybe?

If Lacson's "Pillowman" left you enthralled, hungry to listen to more of these gruesome stories, this one brought about a sense of liberation. You exit the theater having seen the meltdown of goodness and the creation of dread. But you've also escaped the devil's gaze--Bustamante's eyes chillingly staring Santos' Katurian into submission--and lived to tell the tale.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

PDI Review: 'Stepping Out, The Musical' by Repertory Philippines; 'Kalantiaw' by Tanghalang Ateneo

These days, Manila theater is not just all about "Les Mis." The online link to my piece in today's paper here.

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Age-defying feats in 'Stepping Out' and 'Kalantiaw'


Tanghalang Ateneo's "Kalantiaw."

It would be gratuitous to begrudge the currently running Asian touring production of "Les MIserables" its unequivocal success at The Theatre at Solaire, where it plays to sold-out crowds eight shows a week. Its design elements alone--the ravishing incorporations to the brand-new 25th anniversary staging upon which this tour is based--make it worth the expensive look.

But if you've seen or are planning to see "Les Mis," then certainly you can spare some time to check out the two homegrown productions brave enough to run alongside this foreign juggernaut.

Even better, they can very well hold their own against Cameron Mackintosh's musical in terms of the sheer talent and imaginative caliber they showcase.

Both these shows--Repertory Philippines' "Stepping Out, The Musical" and Tanghalang Ateneo's "Kalantiaw"--opened last week to little fanfare. Yet, they make Jean Valjean's zippy (and occasionally unconvincing) excursion through the aging process look like catnip.

'Stepping Out'

A gaggle of women and one man who meet once a week at a tap-dancing class are the stars of "Stepping Out," written by Richard Harris based on his original nonmusical version of the play, with largely forgettable songs that do serve their function in character exposition and narrative propulsion (music by Denis King, lyrics by Mary Stewart-David).

Miguel Faustmann's set design literally expands the stage of Greenbelt's Onstage Theater sideways, and the deliberately low-rent furnishings effectively give this make-believe dance studio a beat-up look. (There is also a bar scene wittingly lifted straight off the pages of "Miss Saigon.")

Still, on paper, "Stepping Out" sounds like an alternating leisurely walk and trudge. There isn't anything remarkable with its story--motley crew of old and young Britons prepare for a community presentation--nor are its characters interesting or novel enough to really sustain our attention. And the conflicts do tend to feel contrived.

It's the cast assembled by director Jaime del Mundo that provides zest and zaps of energy to the otherwise middling material, and keeps the audience glued to the proceedings all the way to the slightly scintillating surprise at curtain call.

Crackling cohesion

Del Mundo, one of the few who can whip a production to opening-night perfection by its first performance, here gives us a delectable panoply of some of local musical theater's finest actresses (plus an appropriately subdued Raymund Concepcion) working in crackling cohesion as an ensemble.

Some, like Cara Barredo and Natalie Everett--reliable Rep regulars--manage to supply dimensions to their blandly written characters. Others finally get to sink their teeth into roles worth their weight, such as Angela Padilla, a last-minute addition to the cast, who plays the group's dance instructor with beautifully understated authority.

And then there are the grand dames of Philippine theater, the likes of Joy Virata, Bituin Escalante and even the comebacking EJ Villacorta, who voraciously pounce upon their parts and every so often threaten to walk away with the show.

Here they play women of a certain age who have discovered the rejuvenating powers of dance, and their performances can definitely teach the younger generation a thing or two about comedic timing, line delivery and body language.

They light up every single scene they're in, whether with just a perfectly timed retort to a harmless "hello," as in the case of Virata, who hasn't had a role this good since "Mind's Eye" a few years back; or a bombastic song number that literally screams "bootylicious," as in Escalante, who plays a vaguely Black or Caribbean woman with a winning accent.

Their characters may be well past their prime, but look how they're claiming this newfound youth with aplomb. Truly, the body may wither, but the spirit remains a child, and talent, their storied theatrical arsenal, is ageless.

'Kalantiaw'

The reverse takes place in "Kalantiaw": a scrappy band of university students aging themselves so convincingly, in a play that grabs at you in unexpected ways.

If we're being clear-eyed about it, it wouldn't be baseless to proclaim this production Tanghalang Ateneo's best since its electrifying take on Han Ong's "Middle Finger" two years ago.

But really, it's amazing what wonders a small student-run show can achieve with so little, and in a span of just over an hour. In fact, "Kalantiaw," a 1994 Palanca winner by Rene Villanueva, owes much of its dramatic heft and potency to its brevity.

The topic: a famous hoax that marred our history books for some time, the infamous Code of Kalantiaw, which was passed off by one José E. Marco as a landmark anthropological discovery akin to that of the Code of Hammurabi. It has since been proven fake, and "Kalantiaw" imagines an unnamed young historian unearthing the truth through a mesmerizing blend of history and drama, past and present, fact and fiction.

What the play asks its audience are questions that still pound the heart with burning relevance, especially now with the coming national elections. Historical revisionism and the shameless vandalizing of our past, for example--as well as notions of history as the product of a people's choices, as the version of the mighty, or as an ongoing story reflecting a way of life--ring with clarity here, as if they're being proposed for the first time.

Celebration

It's one of the many pleasurable achievements provided by Charles Yee's direction that "Kalantiaw" literally screams "Theater!"--this enthrallingly stylized production marking out its young director as primed for the big leagues.

The set designer is Ed Lacson Jr., who, with just tons of paper, transforms the stage of the Ateneo's Rizal Mini-Theater into a wasteland where falsehood and confusion loom high. (The lampposts, he reportedly built out of illustration boards--school materials for this quick history lesson?)

Together with choreographer Gio Gahol, lighting designer Meliton Roxas Jr. (his brown and sepia tones adding years to this show's look), costume designer Carlo Pagunaling (history personified as a woman wrapped in a papery gown, anyone?) and sound designer Jeff Hernandez, Yee and Lacson craft spellbinding tableaus out of crumpled paper and bodies floundering and falling.

The cast thankfully live up to the challenges imposed by this slyly cerebral production. In particular, John Sanchez and Brian Ramos are completely believable as José E. Marco and the young historian, respectively, each one an equally commanding presence onstage. And Yvonne Ricaro (as Marco's wife) and Jonnel Inojosa (as the old historian) raise the bar even further in this age-defying act.

It goes without saying, then, that "Kalantiaw" is a celebration of everything that theater represents: ingenuity, imagination, panache where it matters, and that rare ability to overcome so many odds (foremost of which is a script swirling in lyrical, formalistic Filipino)--compelling reason, really, why local theater deserves as big an audience as those visiting denizens of the barricades at Solaire.

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"Stepping Out" runs until April 24 at Onstage Greenbelt Theater in Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Performances on Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 3:30PM and 8PM and Sunday at 3:30PM. Call 843-3570.

"Kalantiaw" runs until April 16 at Rizal Mini-Theater in the Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City. Performances from Tuesday to Saturday at 7PM, with 2PM shows on Saturday. Call 0917-926-8196.

Two other shows opened this week:

Dulaang UP's "The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away Ultimately Becomes Nostalgia" by Shimizu Kunio, presented in both English (all-female cast) and Filipino (all-male cast). Performances at the Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall, UP Diliman from Wednesday to Friday at 7PM and Saturday and Sunday at 10AM and 3PM.

Egg Theater Company's "The Pillowman," with a Filipino translation by George de Jesus III. Performances at Pineapple Lab near Powerplant Mall, Rockwell, Makati City on April 8-10 and 22-24 at 8PM.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

PDI Review: 'Tiyo Vanya' by Tanghalang Pilipino

In today's paper, my review of "Tiyo Vanya," a "recital" by the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors' Company last March 18--the online version here. I also talk about Rolando Tinio here, a day after that freakin' fire at the UP Diliman Faculty Center, where his original manuscripts were supposedly kept. Shit.

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'Tiyo Vanya' ought to visit again--and stay longer


Tanghalang Pilipino's (TP) two-performances-only staging of the Anton Chekov classic "Uncle Vanya"--now "Tiyo Vanya" with a Filipino translation by the peerless Rolando Tinio--was billed as a "recital" by the TP Actors' Company, a culminating activity of sorts for their script analysis class under Dennis Marasigan.

Well, then, if only recitals were always as movingly acted and perceptively staged as this undeservedly short-lived production. As the theater calendar heads into the lull of summer workshop season, the sensible next move for TP would actually be to take a long second look at its next season's lineup and ensure this "Tiyo Vanya" gets its glowing spot in there. 

After all, how often do we see Chekov on our stages? Early last year, we had Philippine Educational Theater Association's "Arbol de Fuego," Rody Vera's superb adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard," directed by Loy Arcenas and starring Cherie Gil as a Negrense plantation heiress on the brink of bankruptcy. 

But then you'd have to go back almost three years to find another major Chekov: Dulaang UP's "The Seagull," which was presented in both English (with the sublime Ana Abad Santos taking charge as the faded actress Arkadina) and Filipino (utilizing another of Tinio's indispensable translations).

Visits by the Russian playwright on our shores ought to be moments of celebration then, especially when done right--the tragicomic elements that mark his works thoughtfully and thoroughly fleshed out.

Random flow of life

Charles Spencer, who for the longest time served as chief drama critic of the London-based The Daily Telegraph, often wrote that in the best productions of "Uncle Vanya," "you seem to be watching the apparent random flow of life itself rather than a carefully meditated work of art."

One could say this about the best moments in TP's "Tiyo Vanya," whose focus seemed shafted toward tragedy. The dacha where Chekov's Russian aristocrats roamed now seemed a ruthlessly sunless place, a remote, rundown estate where the hopeless gather to rue the day.

The sense of ennui and regret hung thick in the air: These people were either so bored with their lives, or sick and tired of living. It's an illness that affected everybody, but more prominently the men--Jonathan Tadioan's brutish, blundering Vanya; Marco Viaña's charismatic but cynical Doctor Astrov; and JV Ibesate's egotistical Serebryakov.

Their women, in turn, bore the brunt of their blistering behavior: Antonette Go, steely in her silence as Yelena, the subject of both Vanya and Astrov's maddening affections; and Doray Dayao as the homely Sonya, whose love for Astrov goes unrequited.

That is to say, the world conjured in this "Tiyo Vanya" is a product of superb ensemble-playing, almost every performer finely attuned to the movements and language of the rest (the unfortunate glaring exception being guest artist Christine Penserga as Vanya's mother; she seemed to inhabit a world of her own).

Piercing quiet

An even bigger reason, then, why this "Vanya" deserves a longer life: How often do we get to see a so-called Actors' Company actually become a genuine "actors' company"?

Those of us who've tirelessly followed the theater scene for at least the past four years have seen these actors in a myriad of shows and roles, all the way to TP's latest hit, the splashy historical romp "Mabining Mandirigma."

Two Tinio translations figure prominently in our memories: 2013's "Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia" (Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," but reworked by Vera) and 2014's "Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente (Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman").

Both had Tadioan and Viaña splendidly essaying major parts--Shylock and Antonio in "Der Kaufmann"; Willy and Biff Loman in "Pahimakas," respectively--with Go, Ibesate, Dayao, Aldo Vencilao and Lhorvie Nuevo in various supporting roles.

The stripped-down setting of "Tiyo Vanya" marvelously magnified these actors' beautiful onstage harmony.

In the piercing quiet of this production, it was as if each one now lived under each other's skin--acting as a whole, their rhythms familiar, their presence no longer discrete or disparate. They've come a long way, this actors' company, and it showed in "Tiyo Vanya."

However, that it ran for only a day meant very few people saw it--and isn't that a great tragedy?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

PDI Review: Fringe Manila 2016 ('Schism'; 'Titas of Manila'; 'We Choose to Go to the Moon')

Still haven't figured out what exactly happened to Fringe Manila this year, and don't care to find out anymore. But there wasn't a bad egg among the four shows I saw, which included Twin Bill Productions' "Dog Sees God" (the marvelous surprise of which was Vince Lim). My reviews of the three others are in today's paper - here.

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Gossipmongers, spunky 'titas' and emotional wrecks at Fringe Manila

Trency Caga-anan during curtain call of "Titas of Manila."

The urge to take a bath after watching "Schism" was strong. It's a dirty play littered with disgusting people, though you wouldn't know it if they only kept quiet. Get one foot out the door and chances are, they're probably stabbing you in the back already.

It's another swarm of odd theatrical creatures George de Jesus III has created for "Schism," his second play under Egg Theater Company to premiere at Fringe Manila. But while his first, "Maniacal," featured characters that more strongly adhered to stereotypes--the temperamental diva, the famous film import, the delusional actress--those distinctions were no longer as vital in "Schism."

Dropped to a minimum, too, was the name-dropping that made "Maniacal" a laugh-your-heart-out, leave-no-prisoner-alive satire of the current theater industry. Instead, the people in "Schism" lived in a nest of gossip and lies, like serpents slithering between truth and untruth, the spoken and unspoken.

It's still effective, compellingly written backstage drama, but this time everything felt more organic, in-your-skin, real, the characters seemingly plucked from the same rotten branch.

Maybe it's because we've grown accustomed to a world where it is easier to pretend, to be dishonest, to be "kind"; where shoving aside hard truths in favor of artifice is considered socially normative; where being nice is what everyone expects from everybody else.

Only the character of the playwright Alex, embodied with moving vulnerability and transparency by Tuxqs Rutaquio, begged to differ. And because he actually had the balls to do so, the whole universe, as it were, conspired against him.

Everybody else around him--a first-rate ensemble that featured such fine turns by Angeli Bayani, Chinie Concepcion and Jojo Riguerra--dared not speak or walk the truth.

And when the dust had finally settled, the question De Jesus had been asking throughout those 90 minutes of tantalizing tittle-tattle rang even louder: Is it all worth it--standing up for what's morally right and turning oneself into a social pariah, isolated on the other side of this "schism"?

'Titas of Manila'

Two other works made their respective marks in this year's Fringe Manila, which, it must be said, arrived in a package so thin, transient and truncated, it hardly registered on the cultural barometer.

ADHD Productions' "Titas of Manila" called to mind their previous entry, "Kwentong Komyut": Both utilized the five-short-plays-in-a-play format to flesh out a singular theme.

"Titas of Manila," which enjoyed a sold-out run, obviously took inspiration from the Twitter account of the same name, itself a parody of that middle-aged female relative who thrives in pointing out how fat you've become, or that you're still single after all this time.

We can do without delving into the finer points of the word "tita," its regional and social contextual implications. "Titas of Manila" was, on the whole, a fresh, insightful piece from a refreshingly new player in the theater scene.

Sure, some segments were better written, and better acted, than others. And Jethro Tenorio's direction didn't exactly manage to fine-tune all five sketches into the same plane. 

Yet, it gave us "Forever Young" by Dolly Dulu (who also penned the best chunk of "Kwentong Komyut," about a quirky pair of ex-gay-lovers on their way to a Halloween party).

True to its title, "Forever Young" was about the young-at-heart tita, the one who's taking the world by storm through Zumba and her choice of boys, the one who's had enough of dreary marriages and cheating husbands and cheap divorces.

More than anything, however, this segment was a pleasant reminder of why theater festivals such as Fringe and the Virgin Labfest are vital to the industry, if only because they serve as launching pads for raw, untainted talent.

In the case of "Forever Young," it was the potent combination of Dulu's snappy, unpretentious writing, and a blazing performance by Trency Caga-anan, she of limitless spunk and fiery sensuality, that all but assured her a spot in our theatergoing maps.

'We Choose to Go to the Moon'

There were no standout performers in Vlademeir Gonzales' "We Choose to Go to the Moon," produced by Project Mayheim Productions, and that could only be because its cast cohered so seamlessly to produce a work that tickled the mind and never really left it.

Directed with flair by Fitz Edward Bitana, "We Choose to Go to the Moon" was a searching, intelligent piece on sexual and emotional connection told through the (interconnected) lives of strangers.

It wasn't always an easy watch: Particularly during the first act, the feeling that one was inside someone else's mind on a burnout daze was hard to shake off. But whoever said connecting to another person on any level is a walk in the park?

What gratification is there to be had in paying for sex? How far can one stretch the heart before a long-distance relationship starts tearing it up? What has become of this generation, where smart phones are now metallic extensions of our limbs?

The questions and ideas ran aplenty across the sprawling fabric of modern-day ennui wrapped around "We Choose to Go to the Moon," and that the answers did not always arrive immediately could only be reason for this production to experience a rebirth. This show, as it was, deserved it.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

PDI Review: 'Dear Walt' by the One Night Stand cabaret series

I'm still on a Disney high. My short piece on that awesome One Night Stand cabaret is in today's paper--here. "What I love most about rivers is/you can't step in the same river twice..."

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'Dear Walt' was shining, shimmering, splendid


It was nearly midnight by the time the latest One Night Stand cabaret--"Dear Walt," featuring the songs of those beloved Disney movies--wrapped up. By then, most of our throats were parched from cheering and screaming, a motley crew of kids-at-heart exhausted for all the happy reasons after a helluva party.

For those of us who either spent our childhoods or came of age during the so-called Disney Renaissance, an era best-defined as "The Little Mermaid" to "Tarzan," "Dear Walt" was an enchanting night of nostalgia, of reliving the songs that, once upon a time, taught us love, hope, humanity, the world.

Next to the "Rent" original Manila cast reunion concert last December, this edition of the cabaret undoubtedly had the most devoted, if not rabid, fans, who greeted every song, every unmistakable opening chord, with roars of joy.

The moment Pinky Marquez belted out the Zulu opening chant of "Circle of Life," we were hooked. And with every iconic song, the signature moving image flashed in our mind's eye: Ariel, wistful, sun-drenched on the ocean floor ("Part of Your World," from "The Little Mermaid"); Simba and Nala, appearing and disappearing in the mist and waterfalls ("Can You Hear the Love Tonight," from "The Lion King"); Mulan's face, half-white, a portrait of sadness ("Reflection," from "Mulan").

First-rate vocalists

If this evening was, to borrow the oft-quoted lyric, "shining, shimmering, splendid," it was all thanks to its cast of first-rate vocalists composed of Marquez, Reb Atadero, Kakai Bautista, Micaela Pineda and former Disneyland performers Noel Rayos and Gian Magdangal.

The director was One Night Stand cofounder Joaquin Valdes, while Ceejay Javier played the keys.

Almost two weeks since, the memories refused to lose form and clarity: Bautista leaving the audience in stitches with a long-winded account of her "rise to stardom," of her early days as Lea Salonga's wardrobe assistant ("Naghubad siya sa harap ko"), and then blasting the roof off of Twelve Monkeys Music Hall and Pub with her take on "Let It Go" that made the "Frozen" anthem seem as easy as a nursery rhyme.

Or Marquez intelligently digging into a pair of contrasting numbers--"Colors of the Wind" from "Pocahontas" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from "The Little Mermaid"--as only a true-blue tita of the theater could.

Pineda, Magdangal and Atadero capped off Act I with the night's most inspired medley, starting out with Pineda's spirited "Just Around the Riverbend" ("Pocahontas"), followed by Magdangal's "Go the Distance" ("Hercules"), and finally, Atadero joining in with "Out There" ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame") for a thunderous three-part harmony.

Walking attraction

Speaking of which, if there's a takeaway message from this cabaret, it's that Atadero could pass for a walking Disneyland attraction; he was its MVP and runaway star.

To once more borrow from "Aladdin," Atadero was the embodiment of the evening's "soaring, tumbling, freewheeling" spirit--whether he was gender-bending as the sassy Black Greek chorus of muses in "I Won't Say I'm in Love" ("Hercules"); doing backup vocals as the school of fish in "Kiss the Girl" ("The Little Mermaid"); or stepping to the foreground with a ravishing, stripped-down rendition of "A Change in Me" (from the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast").

One cheered for this generous cast as they took their final bows, but cheered even louder for this wonder of a man. And as midnight chimed, one couldn't help but cast that singular wish: May Atadero finally get his solo concert, and get it soon.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

PDI Review: 'Constellations' by Red Turnip Theater

This production is now on its second to the last weekend. You, my friend, should be scrambling to get hold of a ticket. Take my word for it. The online version here.  

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In 'Constellations,' a pair of stars on terra firma


Nick Payne's "Constellations" is not in any way about stars, those distant specks draped across the night sky. But in Red Turnip Theater's mesmerizing, flawlessly executed production of this play, they are front and center of it, and in glorious human form.

Their names: JC Santos and Cris Villonco, who play Roland the beekeeper and Marianne the physicist, respectively, in Payne's two-hander about love and loss in the multiverse.

Trying to capture in precise words their performances, one realizes it is an almost futile exercise in reaching for new superlatives; but really, it's never too early to dish hosannas out in generous dollops when the acting is as transformative and moving as the kind Santos and Villonco are turning in in this Red Turnip season closer.

In fact, consider yourself (hashtag) blessed if, by year's end, you've encountered a more spectacular pair of career-defining performances onstage.

Higher physics

In "Constellations," Payne has woven the potentially alienating mumbo-jumbo of higher physics into a love story, exploring the idea of multiple universes, of multiple possibilities and outcomes existing simultaneously, against the backdrop of the commonplace boy-meets-girl setup.

The idea it posits is that anything--from the weather down to one's choice of clothes and words--can, may and will affect any given situation.

The play illustrates this theory by telling the grand romance of Roland and Marianne in linear fashion, but with scenes repeated or told from various perspectives.

Thus, for example, Roland's wedding proposal to Marianne, a speech involving honeybees--something I suspect married nerds would wish they'd have written--unfold in several versions, set apart only by how he actually delivers it (in one scenario, he even forgets the script at home and decides to just wing it).

A confession of betrayal halfway through is explored in varying degrees of fear, anger and dejection. At one point, the playwright even imagines them as a mute couple, conversing through sign language, and the effect is magical. 

Acting acrobatics

In a way, then, what Santos and Villonco are doing here is something akin to a higher form of acting acrobatics. They're each not playing multiple characters, but variations of a single character--which, if you really think about it, is an even more grueling, mind-numbing ordeal.

That their efforts emerge as consummate unions of nuance, subtlety, tone and body language, never overdone or once straying into self-indulgent territory, is this production's most important triumph.

The director is one of Red Turnip's founders, Rem Zamora, and it is thanks to him this "Constellations" remains, as the text necessitates, a show of marked intelligence, emotional depth and humanity. At 70 minutes, it may seem a breeze, and its cerebral specifics may be off-putting to some, but one would do well not to underestimate the irresistible qualities of this production.

No false notes

On Ed Lacson Jr.'s set, Zamora choreographs a thespian dance of the highest order, in which the actors shift from emotion to emotion, scene to scene, in rapid succession as the script demands--no false notes dropped, and not a hint of strain or struggle. 

Villonco's is the showier role, and is a stunning display of her tremendous range. 

Santos' requires more understatement, but it is the maturity he endows the character little by little as the hour passes that's most noteworthy. 

Lacson's design is itself a vision of imagination. What may at first seem like a bland installation of carpeted polygonal boards on bases painted black conjures an illusion of infinity once the metaphorical curtains go up. In the darkness, the carpets absorb all the light, the illumination provided by the ever-reliable John Batalla, and suddenly the boards become terra firma floating in the limitless expanse of space. 

On these islands, in the midst of the universe, Villonco and Santos are just two people fallin in and out and in and out of love. If you look just a little bit closer, you can even swear they emanate a glow of their own: two of our finest actors absolutely slaying it, to use the millennial expression, in a production that's second to none. 

If there's any doubt before, there shouldn't be any now: genuine stars, both of them are. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

PDI Review: '3 Stars and a Sun' by PETA

My review of "3 Stars and a Sun" in today's paper--here. Saw it twice already, for the alternates. Contemplating a third visit. I liked it way better the second time around; it grows on you, it really does.

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'3 Stars and a Sun': predictable--but also ambitious and compelling


Futuristic dystopia by itself is a closed, predictable circuit. What books and films seem to tell us is that it is a land of few surprises.

It's all a matter of setting: the numberless train carriages of Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," adapted from the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige"; the childless Britain of Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men," based on the P.D. James novel; the glamorous, celebrity-fueled neo-America of "The Hunger Games." They're all bound by recurring narrative elements--widespread discontent, glaring class divide, an uprising and the fall of the powerful, to name a few.

No different

"3 Stars and a Sun," a brand-new musical that opens the year for Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), is no different.

Jointly written by Mixkaela Villalon and Rody Vera, it imagines the Philippines in 2096 as literally a world of light and dark, the little that survived the near-apocalypse of 70 years ago now divided into spanking-white Lumino City and scrap-metal wasteland Diliman, both existing in disharmony under a protective, supposedly indestructible steel encapsulation known as the Stormdome. 

The rich and mighty, represented by Vidame Inky and her family, live comfortably in Lumino; the poor, exemplified by the renegade Tropang Gising, struggle in Diliman.

You don't have to be a science fiction fan to know what happens next; it's a story--and an ending--that's visible from miles away. In fact, one gets the gnawing feeling that, on the page or onscreen, the story would have no doubt benefited from a more elaborate exploration of the alternate realities it presents. 

Still, there's no denying that the musical's book brims with wit and distinctly Pinoy humor, with pop-culture references cleverly thrown in the mix. Vidame Inky alone has two lines that unabashedly borrow from Adele and the Spice Girls.

First-rate

Which brings us to the question of the hour: How does "3 Stars and a Sun" fare as a jukebox musical using the songbook of the late rap and rock artist Francis Magalona?

Groundbreaking it isn't. Tanghalang Pilipino preceded it by two years with its original rap musical "Kleptomaniacs." And that's not even dragging Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights," "Hamilton") into the conversation.

Ambitious? Yes. It's no walk in the park to merge rap, dystopian sci-fi and Filipino nationalism and social commentary into a singular coherent show. And, for that, the writers should certainly be lauded.

This reach-for-the-heavens attitude pervading "3 Stars" is even more visible in Gino Gonzales' set design--a somber matrix of metal bars and scaffolding that, while heavily resembling his work for Peta's Filipino adaptation of "King Lear," directed by Nonon Padilla, is nevertheless a stylish evocation of the Stormdome's all-imposing nature. (Gonzales is also "3 Stars'" costume designer.)

But what's truly first-rate about it is in a name: Myke Salomon.

Granted, two pieces of work are barely an adequate gauge of skill, but to judge Salomon by what he did with the songs of Aegis in Peta's runaway megahit "Rak of Aegis," and now with the Francis M songbook in "3 Stars," it's safe to say that the man is the most essential musical director around today.

In Salomon's hands, "Mga Kababayan Ko," which serves as the opening number, now acquires a sheen of power-hungry deceit as sung by Vidame Inky. The kundiman-like "Bahala Na" is now a tango, the crafty accompaniment to the demo sequence of the musical's concept of "reconditioning," which is how Lumino unwittingly wipes the citizens of Diliman clean of their memories. 

"Kaleidoscope World" has become a haunting lullaby, while "Cold Summer Nights" is reimagined as an anguished cry of heartbreak rendered through a fresh Filipino translation.

Consummate

Thanks to Salomon and his reinvention of the music of Francis M, "3 Stars" actually makes sense as a musical. It's an even greater feat when one considers how the songs are almost thematically similar (Magalona, after all, used his music as a platform for social activism), and yet, once settled within the mold of the show, they start to sound and mean different.

Too often, "3 Stars" teeters on the brink of narrative repetitiveness--you hear yourself thinking, didn't we just see this sequence?--but is salvaged by the performances at hand.

It is through Nicco Manalo, as Tropang Gising leader Sol, that Magalona's words and Salomon's musical alterations find their most consummate vessel. Rap requires rhythm and enunciation, the beat following a lyrical bent, the consonants clear and hard. Manalo's singing has all that, but watch, too, how this diminutive figure commands the stage, his presence as effortless and forceful as his rapping.

Madcap fun

Thank heavens, too, this production has Bodjie Pascua, who plays the hermit Mang Okik (the stock old-man-of-wisdom character). Look at him gaze into the night sky, and in his eyes you see eons, those lost and wasted years. Then, he slays a rollicking, show-stopping History-of-the-Philippines rap number. Clearly, Pascua is having madcap fun, and it's infectious.

There's also Carla Guevara-Laforteza as Vidame Inky--not a regular mom, but a cool mom, and also a devilish snake in angel's clothing (seriously, even her hair's dyed white). Giannina Ocampo as Inky's daughter Diane is the most convincing "conyo" of Lumino, while Gio Gahol as son Chino marvelously evinces his character's transformation from uncaring, spoiled brat to cruel leader. And Nar Cabico, as the rebel Poy, showcases some of the production's most solid singing.

The alternates for the roles include: Che Ramos-Cosio (Vidame Inky), Raffy Tejada (Mang Okik), Gold Villar (Sol), Justine Peña (Diane), Paolo Valenciano (Chino) and John Moran (Poy).

But now to get around to answering that "other" question: No, "3 Stars" is not the new "Rak of Aegis," not in terms of artistry or consistency of performance. Nor Domingo's direction is seemingly hit-and-miss, and the lackluster ending is more confusing than clarifying. 

What "3 Stars" is, however, is a new piece of theater propelled by ambition, blazing with admirable confidence and purposefulness. And though its telling is imperfect, it is still, in the end, compelling--and thus worth a second, even third, look.

Runs until Feb 6 at the Peta Theater Center, with shows Tuesdays to Sundays.

Monday, January 18, 2016

PDI Review: 'Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein' by the One Night Stand cabaret series

This was in last Saturday's paper--my first article for the year. A late post, because I spent the weekend in the surf town of San Juan, La Union. It's true that you can fall in love with a place in a way that makes you seriously think about living there someday. 

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'Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein': Oh, what a beautiful evening


If there's one thing Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo taught us during "Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein," the first evening of this year's "One Night Stand" cabaret series, it's that dusting off a classic and making it sound new is a skill apparently only a few are gifted with.

No longer was the cabaret merely an arena for roof-rattling belting, as was the case with Ejay Yatco's concert (in our book, "One Night Stand's" best night so far); or a venue for celebratory nostalgia, as in last month's landmark reunion concert of the "Rent" 1999 Manila cast.

Interpretation

With these two pillars of our English-language musical theater, the watchword was interpretation, the evening transformed into a classy master class in singing some of the oldest and most beloved titles from the canon like they're being sung for the first time.

The likes of "My Funny Valentine" and "Where or When"--titles whose theatrical origins are probably lost to many nowadays--seemed to acquire a refreshingly modern-day burnish in Lauchengco-Yulo's hands.

Mind you, they weren't particularly polished renditions as far as vocal technicalities were concerned, but good luck finding anyone who could match the amount of heart and passion that Lauchengco-Yulo infused into those songs. These days, you'd be hard put to find a more expressive musical theater voice.

Tougher feat

Gemora, with his take on "Soliloquy" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," accomplished an even tougher feat: making a stand-alone song out of a musical theater number that would otherwise feel like a fish out of water once removed from the context of the show.

With lesser performers, "Soliloquy," written as a seven-and-a-half-minute rambling monologue by the show's antihero Billy Bigelow, would have no doubt come across as indecipherable, even alienating, to those who are unfamiliar with it.

Gemora, instead, made you appreciate the song in its entirety and singularity. Lines like "You can have fun with a son, but you gotta be a father to a girl" suddenly made much more sense, as one surprisingly grasped the ideas of fatherhood and parental sacrifice, the simultaneous uncertainty and joy of discovery, at the tune's core.

It's the kind of insightful song delivery, in which every phrase is picked apart and meanings unraveled, that sets Gemora and Lauchengco-Yulo apart from the rest of the thriving local musical theater scene, including the night's three other performers--Teenee Chan, Al Gatmaitan and Pepe Herrera.

Space constraints

Gatmaitan, in particular, struck you as a lion compelled by space constraints to act like a lamb. His soaring operatic voice was in no way suitably matched to the intimate interiors of Twelve Monkeys Music Hall and Pub, as evidenced by his wavering "Younger than Springtime" (from "South Pacific").

On the other hand, Chan, whose soprano has been the sparkling delight of her ensemble appearances in such shows as Repertory Philippines' "Jekyll and Hyde," was all script and formality, the very antithesis to cabaret's laid-back, spontaneous nature.  

Nevertheless, she served up two of the night's highlights--an appropriately steamy "I Enjoy Being a Girl" from "Flower Drum Song" and what many have described as the consummate Broadway love song, "If I Loved You" (as a duet with Herrera).

Peculiar humor

Speaking of Herrera: Thank heavens this cabaret got him, or the air of old-world, venerable nobility that pervaded the evening (these are classics with a capital C, after all) would have succeeded in turning it into a stately affair more fit for a spruced-up ballroom in Buckingham Palace.

Employing his peculiar brand of humor--best described as the mutant love child of the Filipino barok and pasimple--Herrera was the anchor that kept the evening firmly earthbound, the welcome antidote to any moment that packed on more than the acceptable amount of musical theater elitism.

Together with Lauchengco-Yulo, he took on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," and the result was a sexy, sparky and daring duet dripping with earnest longing and leaving a playful wink in its wake. It was, for this writer, the number that best captured the spirit of the night--a grand old dame of a song rendered breathtakingly new.

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ERRATUM: This article has been edited to reflect the following correction currently in the print and online versions. The 1934 classic "Blue Moon" was not performed by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, but by Pepe Herrera. Apologies for the misattribution.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Year in Film (2015)

Not even going to pretend this is some sort of credible "Best of" list, like something that Metacritic ought to include in its calculations and that you as interested cinephile ought to take note of. In 2014, I saw a total of 178 films, thanks in large part to the extended summer break. In 2015, that number was down to 99. Don't even ask what happened; the answer will still be the same: Life happened. More mingling and dealing with the real world. More theater. Less time in the dark of the cinema/in front of my laptop.

So instead, read this as a celebratory farewell note: What I liked, what I enjoyed the most, what, on a very personal level, defined the year in cinema. My posts stopped at movie no. 94, and this piece can only mean I'll no longer blog about the rest: From the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), the New Wave section full-length film winner, "Ari: My Life with a King" (No. 95); the disappointing "Walang Forever" (No. 96); and the rightful (but disqualified) Best Picture winner, "Honor Thy Father" (No. 97); and then Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" (terrific) and Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl" (beautifully captured but trifling as junk food).

The same rules apply: Only films from the current AND previous year were considered--AND they had to be first viewings. Thus, for example, the presence of "That Thing Called Tadhana," which I missed during the 2014 Cinema One Originals Film Festival, and the Argentinian darling "Wild Tales," which I only saw in February.

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My 10 best of 2015:

1. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The best films are the ones that keep surprising and delighting at every turn. Before I knew it, two hours had gone by--and I was so hungry for more.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
A post-apocalyptic chase fever dream you wouldn't want to wake up from.

3. Wild Tales (dir. Damián Szifron)
It stays true to its title. "Ida" was the respectable winner of the Foreign Language Oscar; this would have been the more fun and daring choice.

4. Tangerine (dir. Sean S. Baker)
Two transgender Black women hunt down a girl on Christmas Eve. Unsparingly crass and unapologetically vulgar. One of the year's most joyous surprises.

5. That Thing Called Tadhana (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)
You want to know what real heartache looks like?

6. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)
A worthy challenger to David Fincher's "Gone Girl" as the best directed film of 2014.

7. Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)
An engrossing three-act play fueled by the words of Aaron Sorkin and the highly accomplished turns of Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet.

8. Honor Thy Father (dir. Erik Matti)
The devils behind the MMFF disqualification scandal were right to fear this one: It's the best Filipino film of the year.

9. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)
A work of enviable intelligence, thanks to Ponsoldt's restrained direction, Donald Margulies' absorbing distillation of the sources and Jason Segel's compelling portrait of the subject.

10. Sleepless (dir. Prime Cruz)
You leave the cinema thinking about the idea of romance: how it is to fall in love, how it is to be loved.

And another ten, because what the heck, give love, not hate: Clouds of Sils MariaMia MadreInside OutJourney to the ShoreBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)Love Is StrangeEx MachinaThe MartianBridge of SpiesAri: My Life with a King.

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My pick for performance of the year is ALICIA VIKANDER in "Ex Machina." You'd have to give it to anyone who can make a seemingly bland robot so damn sexy and scary at the same time.

My nineteen other favorites, in alphabetical order:
  • John Arcilla (Heneral Luna)
  • Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria)
  • Rose Byrne (Spy)
  • Jessica Chastain (Crimson Peak)
  • John Lloyd Cruz (Honor Thy Father)
  • Tirso Cruz III (Honor Thy Father)
  • Matt Damon (The Martian)
  • Blythe Danner (I'll See You in My Dreams)
  • Glaiza de Castro (Sleepless)
  • Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
  • Edward Norton (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
  • David Oyelowo (Selma)
  • Angelica Panganiban (That Thing Called Tadhana)
  • Érica Rivas (Wild Tales)
  • Dominic Roco (Sleepless)
  • Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
  • Jason Segel (The End of the Tour)
  • Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)
  • Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck)
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Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in Movies, 91-94

"Tangerine."

91. Tangerine (dir. Sean S. Baker)

"Tangerine" moves like a whirling dervish, except it's the least bit religious. It wouldn't even make it to a mosque, because the faithful would definitely stone it unconscious at the square. It's the foul-mouthed market vendor you wouldn't want to cross swords with, the neighbor who'd ring your door at one in the morning and barge into the kitchen with a half-empty bottle of vodka. It's unsparingly crass and  unapologetically vulgar. And it's very, very good--one of the year' most joyous surprises.

Two transgender Black women--emphasis on the gender and race, because the dialogue wouldn't work as well in any other context--roam the more licentious side of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve in search of a girl. That's basically the plot, which culminates in a hilarious congregation of peculiar characters at a Donut Time. "You should apologize for taking her to a fucked-up hairdresser!" shouts one character during that climactic scene. It's all the kabaklaan and kaNegrohan at play, something I believe Filipino audiences today, myself included, would have a greater appreciation of, what with the likes of Vice Ganda, "Kalokalike," "Your Voice Sounds Familiar" and Kris Aquino dominating our screens. (Scratch that last one; the bitch has been around forever; she's essentially a timeless icon.)

"Tangerine" doesn't need class; it spits at the very notion of it. It also doesn't ask for your sympathy; it only wants your calm interest, if not attention. Most importantly, it looks at its subjects from a refreshing, no-big-deal perspective. It only wants, like all great movies do, to tell a good story. It is an accomplished work of art that needs to be remembered. 

92. Mia Madre (dir. Nanni Moretti)

"Mia Madre" will make you ask serious questions about your relationship with your mother. When was the last time you talked to her, called her, hugged her tight, kissed her on the cheek, told her you love her? Or are you taking her, the very fact that she's still alive, capable of providing for you, always there when you need her, for granted? This film can get unabashedly sentimental, but what the hell, I found myself in tears during more moments than I care to admit (and those who know me well know that I don't shed tears easily). And because of that, I strongly recommend--no, I insist--you watch this film, and when it's done, grab the phone or the nearest vehicle and reach out to your mom. Go to her or call her, and tell her you love her, and that she's everything to you. After that, reflect on how lucky you are that she's healthy and will no doubt still be around the next day. Consider yourself very, very lucky.

93. Goodnight Mommy (dirs. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

I was ready to give up on this film. I thought it's going to be about aliens. Or clones. And then it started getting macabre, and that upped my interest. And then the twist came, and I was like, dammit, I didn't see that coming at all. Or maybe that's just me, one who's terrible at guessing twists, and so enjoys mind-blowing shizzles such as this.

94. The Tribe (dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

This is original "Spring Awakening" meets Deaf West's "Spring Awakening" meets the first "Godfather" meets Quentin Tarantino when he was still a teenager (probably). It's all in sign language, and that can be a hurdle at the start, but once you get the rhythm of it all, everything starts to get interesting. How do you bash a head? Let "The Tribes" teach you the ways.