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.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I'm going to Silliman!

I'm over the moon! This is like the Tony Awards of writing workshops in the country. You can't claim to be a serious Filipino writer if you haven't once thought about applying here. My first try was three years ago, and that was for poetry, which is like the most random field there is. (Obviously I didn't get in.) So now you guys know where to find me in May.

Still have six weeks left before the board exams, but right now it feels like I've already passed.

"In time, we might learn that any gesture
is a kind of displacement, that geography
is as near and small as our birthmarks. If you happen
to remember anything at all, that is because it is hard
to forgive the world's loveliness--the quick shape
of movement, repetition, each fierce

--from Allan Pastrana's "Geography," from the anthology "The Dumaguete We Know" (edited by Merlie Alunan), which I bought in Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio City three Decembers ago.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Year in Film (2016)

Same personal system as the previous years: My longlist included films from this and last year that I saw this year (oh hello there, "Apocalypse Child"). So here's me once more playing favorites.

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1. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
This is why journalism--the truth and its telling--matters.

2. The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
Seals the case, once and for all, for Farhadi as one of our modern masters.

3. Apocalypse Child (dir. Mario Cornejo)
Drama with a capital D. Drama that actually makes sense and moves with a believably human brain and knows which wounds to poke and sores to reopen on your puny mortal soul.

4. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (dir. Lav Diaz)
In a year partly defined by the devil's conscious effort to revise our nation's history, this eight-hour Lav Diaz could not have been timelier.

5. Pamilya Ordinaryo (dir. Eduardo Roy Jr.)
Richard Bolisay for CNN Philippines: "Poverty always needs to be told, especially if it's as effectively worrying as this."

6. Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley)
Just plain saksak-puso beautiful.

7. Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
"Would that it were so simple."

8. Your Name (dir. Makoto Shinkai)
Once, you were young, and love could bend time and space and the laws of nature.

9. Oro (dir. Alvin Yapan)
If everybody who's outraged by that scene with the dog were as outraged by the murder of those four miners, I suspect we'd be a much better country.

10. Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Small-town dynamics compellingly brought to life.

And ten more titles that genuinely made my year at the movies, in alphabetical order: Ang Babaeng Humayo (dir. Lav Diaz); Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven); Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater); Ma' Rosa (dir. Brillante Mendoza); Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols); Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach); A Monster Calls (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona); The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black); Sing Street (dir. John Carney); Sunday Beauty Queen (dir. Baby Ruth Villarama). 

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No shit: My favorite piece of acting in 2016 is MOIRA LANG as Ertha a.k.a. Baby Arjan's abductor in "Pamilya Ordinaryo." Here are 19 more noteworthy performances:
  • Irma Adlawan (Oro)
  • Paolo Ballesteros (Die Beautiful)
  • Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship)
  • Paula Beer (Frantz)
  • Emory Cohen (Brooklyn)
  • Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)
  • Barbie Forteza (Tuos)
  • Joshua Garcia (Vince & Kath & James)
  • Tom Hanks (Sully)
  • Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
  • Jaclyn Jose (Ma' Rosa)
  • Hasmine Kilip (Pamilya Ordinaryo)
  • Rooney Mara (Carol)
  • Khalil Ramos (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
  • Charo Santos-Concio (Ang Babaeng Humayo)
  • Kristen Stewart (Café Society)
  • Laila Ulao (Women of the Weeping River)
And the pitch-perfect ensemble of "Apocalypse Child."

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Best of Manila Theater 2016

In the Lifestyle-Theater section of today's Philippine Daily Inquirer--here--my year-end report encapsulating 64 productions (23 musicals and 41 "straight" plays), and excluding ballets, concerts and cabarets. This post contains my own pictures, as well as hyperlinks to my reviews.

1. My Best of Manila Theater 2015
2. My Best of Manila Theater 2014
3. My Best of Manila Theater 2013
4. Compilation of links to my theater reviews

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More Best of Theater 2016: A fine sampling

Red Turnip Theater's "Tribes."

Yearend lists, film critic Richard Bolisay wrote early this year, are only "the writer's vain idea of playing favorites and revealing his 'preferences...'" So it goes with theater.

There came a point back in September when it was no longer possible for me to see everything on offer. There was the sudden inclusion of "The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!" in Tanghalang Pilipino's season.

Also, as a livid, middle-finger response to the Duterte administration's unsurprising complicity in the Marcos burial issue, the "Never Again: Voices of Martial Law" mini-festival of one-act plays was assembled in less than two months, and ran alongside Guelan Luarca's adaptation of Lualhati Bautista's "Desaparesidos." All of which I missed.

Still, the 64 productions I saw this year--not including dances such as Ballet Philippines' "Firebird and Other Ballets" and concerts like the Triple Threats series at the Cultural Center of the Philippines--yielded a fine sampling of top-10 worthy titles.

Musical theater, in particular, enjoyed a better year compared to last, and that's not even counting the returning productions of "Mabining Mandirigma" and "Rak of Aegis" or the international tours of "Les Miserables" and "50 Shades! The Musical Parody."


A list that goes beyond 10 would automatically include, for instance, George de Jesus III's harrowing, in-your-face adaptation of "The Pillowman" for Egg Theater Company; or "The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away Ultimately Becomes Nostalgia," Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' most accomplished piece since "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" two years ago.

Or, from the Virgin Labfest, Carlo Vergara's "Mula sa Kulimliman" and Alexandra May Cardoso's "Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," adapted from Ian Rosales Casocot's short story.

Here, then, are the 10 best productions of 2016:

Repertory Philippines' "Almost, Maine."

1. "Kalantiaw" (Tanghalang Ateneo). It was a celebration of everything that theater should represent: ingenuity, imagination, panache where it matters, and that rare ability to overcome so many odds given so little. More importantly, its subject--one of the biggest hoaxes in Philippine history--could not have been timelier, what with the rising tide of historical revisionism plaguing this country. [REVIEW]

2. "Constellations" (Red Turnip Theater). A show of marked intelligence, emotional depth and humanity, this two-hander about lovers swimming through multiple possibilities in the multiverse was foremost an irresistible display of its actors' tremendous range and never once strayed into self-indulgent territory. [REVIEW]

3. "Tick, Tick... Boom!" (9 Works Theatrical). Beautiful things really do come in small packages: three highly capable actors, Robbie Guevara's understated direction, an underrated specimen of the Broadway musical, and the burning will to tell a story right.

4. "Fun Home" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). Shaped as a graphic cartoonist's attempt to fathom the tangles of her youth, "Fun Home" rendered the act of remembering with piercing clarity. No answers guaranteed, but the boulder it left on your chest by curtain call was its welcome brand of catharsis. [REVIEW]

5. "Almost, Maine" (Repertory Philippines). A thoughtfully realized, captivatingly told gem of a production, held together by Bart Guingona's restrained direction and his first-rate quartet of performers, who dove straight to the whimsical heart of John Cariani's collection of vignettes.

6. "Jersey Boys" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). A song-and-dance spectacle that fluidly transitioned from one stunningly sung number to the next, "Jersey Boys" was one of those shows that had you thinking, "Can anything go wrong with it at all?"

7. "Boy" (Tanghalang Ateneo). In telling the story of a boy who was intentionally raised as a girl, and the tragedies that followed, "Boy" captured sadness as neither exaggeration nor frailty, but simply an all-too-human attribute, making sure the viewer fully understood the consequences such great unhappiness entailed. [REVIEW]

8. "Changing Partners" (MunkeyMusic). Vincent de Jesus' gender-bending, May-December love affair--stirringly played by Agot Isidro, Jojit Lorenzo, Sandino Martin and especially Anna Luna--was the real deal: a towering musical that mangled your heart and drained your tear ducts. [REVIEW]

9. "Tribes" (Red Turnip Theater). A mesmerizing, altogether powerful play about the gravity of human bonds, touch, words and the pauses we leave in between. If you think you've seen enough variations of the family-under-fire drama, think again.

10. "Ako Si Josephine" (Cornerstone Entertainment/ABS-CBN Events). Its inherent cuteness notwithstanding, "Josephine" was a vitalizing addition to the jukebox-musical landscape, selling its transfiguration of Yeng Constantino's music with aplomb while also speaking truth--in ways rambunctious yet subtly unnerving--about the state of our nation. [REVIEW]


Expanding the slate below would include, to name a few, the unembellished lead turns of Kalil Almonte in "Tribes" and Blanche Buhia as the searing center of "Ang Sugilanon... ni Epefania."

In the case of Jonathan Tadioan and Marco Viaña, the victory was thrice as sweet: They top-billed the Labfest's "Mula sa Kulimliman" and "Daddy's Girl," respectively, and were also featured in Tanghalang Pilipino's "Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw" and a perceptively staged translation of Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya."

In musical theater, there were Tanya Manalang bringing a true musical theater voice to "Rak of Aegis"; a trifecta of heart-wrenching performances by Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, Cris Villonco and Lea Salonga in "Fun Home"; and three more delectable star turns, from Via Antonio ("Ako Si Josephine"), Carla Guevara-Laforteza ("3 Stars and a Sun") and Bituin Escalante ("Stepping Out, The Musical").

In order, the year's 18 most noteworthy pieces of acting:

Resorts World Manila's "Annie."

1. Mayen Estañero ("Mula sa Kulimliman"). Her portrayal of an ordinary housewife who discovers her husband is of another world was the pinnacle of tragicomedy--an actress giving the performance of a lifetime in a play that matched the magnitude of her abilities.

2. Sheenly Vee Gener ("Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean"). As a former revolutionary coming to terms with love, loss and the demons of her past, Gener delivered a consummate portrait of womanhood devoid of glitz or vanity.

3. JC Santos and Cris Villonco ("Constellations"). In a play that bent time, space and the laws of physics, they were "a pair of stars on terra firma," I wrote back in February. Transformative, moving acting through and through.

4. Missy Maramara ("The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away..."). Hell hath no fury like an actress scorned--or threatened: That was the gist of Maramara's larger-than-life performance. Her character owned that play, and she owned that stage.

5. Renante Bustamante ("The Pillowman"). As the self-appointed "good cop" in a criminal investigation, Bustamante's was a force-of-nature performance that virtually gave fear--the truly hair-raising, spine-chilling sort--a new face.

6. Angela Padilla ("Tribes"). Amid the deafening noise and silences of that quirky household in "Tribes," she was the refreshing ray of reason and clarity, and this cerebral story's most human touch.

7. Nyoy Volante ("Jersey Boys"). The role of Frankie Valli earns the spotlight only in the show's last quarter, yet Volante had your attention from the moment he let out that pitch-perfect falsetto. By the time he finished his show-stopping rendition of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," you knew this was no mere impersonation; this was the year's finest musical theater performance.

8. Jef Flores ("Tick, Tick... Boom!"). He was a divine, charismatic Jesus in MusicArtes, Inc.'s "Godspell," but it was here, in the unglamorous part of a struggling musician, that Flores really distinguished himself as musical theater's newest leading man. Plus, anyone who can squeeze the rock out of Jonathan Larson and make it sound so effortless deserves our attention.

9. Ricci Chan ("Ako Si Josephine"). Playing the despot in "Ako Si Josephine's" dystopia, he single-handedly lifted the show to epic heights of kabaklaan and brought the house down by sheer force of taray. He was your bes, mars, mudra, gurl and frenemy all squeezed into a crowning performance worthy of the world--the universe, rather.

10. Trency Caga-anan ("Titas of Manila"). As the young-at-heart tita, the one who's had enough of cheating husbands and cheap divorces, Caga-anan was a riot, all limitless spunk and fiery sensuality.

11. Mako Alonso ("Suicide, Incorporated") and Vince Lim ("Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead). We owe Twin Bill Theater for these two breakout performances. The roles--a suicidal young man and a reclusive pianist--may be depressing as hell, but Alonso and Lim surprised us with their sharp, beguiling turns.

12. Cholo Ledesma and Camille Abaya ("Boy"). Two years ago, they already evinced much promise in "Rite of Passage." In "Boy," where they expertly juggled parts obviously way beyond their age, they proved themselves more than ready for professional theater.

13. Bodjie Pascua ("3 Stars and a Sun"). Only a true veteran of the stage such as Pascua can convincingly play a hermit who stops the show cold with a rollicking History-of-the-Philippines rap number.

14. Michael Williams ("Dirty Old Musical"). As a former boy-band member who has come to terms with his identity, Williams was a hoot. His entrance was one for the ages: red jacket, red shoes and Ryan Cayabyab's "Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika" at the ready.

15. Reb Atadero ("Almost, Maine"). His "underacting," in a production that largely eschewed acting pyrotechnics, worked wonders: His characters emerged the most tangible and believable. That's discipline.


"Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," with Blanche Buhia (3rd from left) and director Charles Yee (5th from left).

This is a pretty small circle, as one is bound to discover over the course of assiduous theatergoing.

For example, two of my picks for the year's best shows--"Constellations" and "Changing Partners"--were both directed by Rem Zamora. And probably no other director hereabouts has a better grasp of the contemporary American musical than Bobby Garcia ("Jersey Boys" and "Fun Home").

This field, however, was defined this year by a pair of young names. The first is Topper Fabregas, who, since making his directorial debut in "Rabbit Hole" two years ago, has really come into his own. In "Tribes," his finding of harmony amid the chaos allowed the work to soar and become, as my colleague Cora Llamas wrote, "compelling, consequential theater."

And the second is Charles Yee, whose enthrallingly stylized work for "Kalantiaw" and "Ang Sugilanon... ni Epefania"--both deftly marrying the mystical with plaintive ordinariness--marked him out as primed for the big leagues.

Artistic and Creative Achievements

The set of 9 Works Theatrical's "American Idiot."

1. Leslie Dailisan's choreography for Artist Playground's "Happiness Is a Pearl"--elegant, expertly calibrated movement within very limited space. At one point, I found my face within inches from an actor's stiletto.

2. Myke Salomon's audacious, genre-spanning musical reimagination for two dystopian stories: Francis Magalona for "3 Stars and a Sun" and Yeng Constantino, largely by way of electropop dance music, for "Ako Si Josephine."

3. The dreamy, hipster look of "Josephine's" denizens, thanks to Carlo Pagunaling's red-pink-and-blue costumes and Gio Gahol's essential choreography.

4. Pagunaling's costumes, Ed Lacson Jr.'s paper-wasteland set, Meliton Roxas Jr.'s sepia-tinted lighting design and Jeff Hernandez's sound design vividly conjuring the otherworldly, old-world aesthetic of "Kalantiaw."

5. In "Tribes," the house of a family of academics believably constructed and furnished by Lacson and lit with strategically placed lamps by John Batalla.

6. "Boy" as a technical feat of small, seemingly insignificant design details cohering into a functional whole: the sound by Teresa Barrozo (her best work to date), Lacson's set (again!) and Barbara Tan-Tiongco's lights.

7. Ma. Cecilia dela Rosa's script for "Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean," a poetic cascade of past and present giving rise to a compelling feminist character study.

8. The year's finest piece of singing: "Jersey Boys."

A final plea

Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay."

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the international touring company staging of Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay," along with maybe less than 30 other audience members. That its one-weekend run was little seen is a tragedy in itself.

Despite being a tremendously paired down version of the original, this production was nevertheless a transfixing, artfully mounted piece. The cherry on top was watching the cast--a reunion of sorts of the best of the company's most recent alumni--run the show with aplomb. Rerun, please!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

PDI Review: 'Mula sa Buwan' by Black Box Productions; 'A Little Princess' by Repertory Philippines

My last review(s) for the year in today's Inquirer--here.

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'Mula sa Buwan' sings, 'A Little Princess' sags

Opening night cast of "A Little Princess."

It's hard to resist the charms of "Mula sa Buwan," Pat Valera and William Elvin Manzano's musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac."

True, it's but another tale of broken hearts and hankering lovers, but you'd be surprised at how deep this production reaches into you. In its best moments--and that means all clichés considered--it comes off as a meandering poem you simply wouldn't mind listening to for hours.

Like the original text, Valera's Filipino translation is also in verse. Moreover, he transposes the story's 17th-century setting to pre-Second World War Philippines, to a time when sarsuwela and bodabil were staples of the stage.

That transposition is tenable, but the bigger achievement of this production is making its poetic structure sound plain, as if speaking in rhyme were part of natural pedestrian life. That authenticity is best captured by the first-rate turns of Nicco Manalo as Cyrano (a splendid balance of bluster and tenderness) and KL Dizon as Roxane.

But it's also hard not to wish "Mula sa Buwan," though cogently directed by Valera, had found a better venue.

At Ateneo's Henry Lee Irwin Theater, you are always aware of the excess, unused space in the stage's periphery. The lighting and sound designs both need retooling, and the set design should have committed to either a true bare-bones approach or full-scale grandiosity, and not the middle ground that makes the show look like a high school production.

At over two-and-a-half hours, this production could definitely use some trimming.

Still, "Mula sa Buwan" beats with a heart that's truly its own, and one it never hesitates to bare in full to the audience. It's a little show that has so much to give, one that does not shy away from vulnerability. So, before you know it, you're already in love with it.

Notable revision

Curiously enough, a beating heart is what's missing in Repertory Philippines' "A Little Princess."

The irony here is that this story should be a guaranteed click with Filipino audiences: It's Princess Sarah, for goodness' sake! At the very least, one should be familiar with either the 1995 film "Sarah... Ang Munting Prinsesa" (starring pre-teen Camille Prats and Angelica Panganiban) or the 2007 ABS-CBN TV series.

This version, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Andrew Lippa, changes Sarah's background from the English Raj to an African childhood, but that's about the only notable revision.

This African bit takes center stage as director-choreographer Dexter Santos brings his signature emphasis on movement from the Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas stage to Rep, in the process whipping up a storm of tribal masks and thrashing bodies reminiscent of "The Lion King" on an acid trip (most of the dancing occur as imagined sequences, after all).

That's as authentic as things get.

Squandered opportunity

The problem, it seems, is that this production has a dismaying lack of emotional depth, rendering the overall proceedings inauthentic. You simply don't feel for any of the actors, no matter how well they sing, never mind the inconsistent British accents.

Worse, as you watch this headstrong girl struggle against her vile, iron-fisted orphanage matron, not for a second do you root for her, her friends, or her story.

As a play aimed for children, this "Little Princess" is dispossessed of the ingenious, entertaining qualities that can sustain a kid's attention. Adult audiences, on the other hand, may see this show as a squandered opportunity for emotional resonance (which need not even be something heavy or heart-stabbing).

All technique and no heart, this production sadly leaves you cold and yearning for a return to Rep's better years--"Little Women," "Jekyll and Hyde," "The Producers," etc. Maybe next year? 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

PDI Review: 'Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig' - Set A ('Mula sa Kulimliman'; 'Malapit Man, Malayo Rin'; 'Isanlibong Taon') by Dalanghita Productions

This festival ends tomorrow. This review's online version--here--did not have the second-to-the-last paragraph when it was published this morning, but that has since been corrected. 

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'Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig': Hooray for love--in whatever form

From Set B: "Corazon Negro," an operetta written by Layeta Bucoy, composed by Jed Balsamo and directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio. 

Love has to be the most overused subject in the theater, and yet here's Dalanghita Productions' "Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig," an ersatz festival of six one-act plays all centered on that mother of topical clichés. 

'Mula sa Kulimliman'

Among the offerings in Set A, Carlo Vergara's "Mula sa Kulimliman," directed by Hazel Gutierrez, stands out both for its quality and its thematic dissonance. It was, to our mind, the best entry in this year's Virgin Labfest, and we're not about to take those words back.

Here, it is the only play to tackle love as the glue that holds a family together, but it remains peerless in its unraveling of that glue. The pieces seamlessly come off and reshape themselves into something altogether refreshing--and downright hilarious--as the story takes a deliberate, unexpected turn from domestic normalcy into fantastic tragicomedy.

Jonathan Tadioan, Timothy Castillo and the sublime Mayen Estañero have lost none of their inspired touch in their portrayal of a family coming under a phantasmagorical fire. The laughs still burst in all the right places, and this production flows like a freewheeling circus of crazy you just don't want to end.

'Malapit Man, Malayo Rin'

The rest of the plays are varying takes on the boy-meets-girl trope. The finest among them is Chris Martinez's "Malapit Man, Malayo Rin," which was first seen two years ago during Philippine Educational Theater Association's one-weekend showcase of new work, dubbed "Peta Lab."

The timely premise alone is a winner: Can love still conquer all if traffic comes in the way? Boy lives in Valenzuela while girl lives in Las Piñas, and those who must deal with Metro Manila's hellish roads on a daily basis can only imagine how exasperating that can be.

That exasperation is arrestingly translated by Melvin Lee's direction into a kind of theatrical urgency, as the play gradually convinces you that, yes, this quirky business of the heart must come to an end. As the fated lovers, Roi Calilong and Pat Liwanag authentically capture not only the frustrations and weariness of the Filipino everyman, but also the romantic's bullheaded conviction that things can still and will certainly get better.

'Isanlibong Taon'

Which brings us to the third play in Set A of this "festival": Pertee Briñas' "Isanlibong Taon," a musical directed by Guelan Luarca and composed by Ejay Yatco. It is the only debuting work in this set, and yet we would be remiss if we were to blame this production's shortcomings on its relative newness.

The ultimate challenge in this festival is to mount a play that sidesteps the hackneyed, one that can somehow take a fresh spin at the theme. "Isanlibong Taon," about a pair of fishermen burdened by a love that must not be named, does the complete opposite: Its script succumbs to overt triteness without really making its mind up on the kind of story it wants to tell.

Luarca and Yatco have certainly done better work in the theater, but, saddled by such a material, even they can do nothing about it. Despite its unlikely setting, this play manages to feel both stale and half-baked, and nothing in how it is told--neither the direction nor the acting--makes it remotely believable. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

2016 Cinema One Originals Film Festival

I saw nine films in this year's Cinema One Originals Film Festival, which ended yesterday. Seven of them are from the world cinema selection, which for me was the most exciting part of the fest.

The first one was this year's recipient of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, "Fire at Sea" by Gianfranco Rosi. It's a documentary on the European migrant crisis, focusing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has attracted refugees for its proximity to the African mainland. 

I'm not a particularly huge fan of documentaries, nor am I well-versed in their craft and language, the qualities and sensibilities that should make one good or bad. In "Fire at Sea," there's very little dialogue, and you wouldn't initially peg it for a docu from the way it was shot.

It follows two threads: one focusing on the refugees and another focusing on the lives of the islanders. The film attempts to weave the two stories together--the serene island life vis-à-vis the quiet horrors the refugees endure on a daily basis. I'm not quite certain the end product succeeds in reconciling the two, but I'm also pretty sure it would be less powerful if it did. To equate one with the other would be to simplify unutterable terror, and that would be nothing if not a disservice to those lives lost or ruined. 

The Palme d'Or winner in this year's Cannes Film Festival, "I, Daniel Blake" by Ken Loach, is a powerful and affecting portrait of the First World screwing its working class. It is also very timely in this age of Brexit, Duterte and Trump. 

From a Filipino perspective, of course, these characters don't really have much to complain about. They have the government providing them with unemployment benefits, housing, food stubs, etc. And really, none of this brouhaha, I think, would have happened if the protagonist had only kept his cool during his initial interview with the guys from the government.  

Still, you look at it from the point of view of those who have sweated and toiled their whole lives in a world that's supposed to be the land of promise and possibility, and you understand their anger and frustration. You realize that any point in this globe is the same dog-eat-dog world, and you stand a slim chance if those who are supposed to protect and uphold your rights are the ones out to covertly kill you.

I'm one of those who liked "Journey to the Shore" when it was shown in last year's festival, so I was surprisingly disappointed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest film "Creepy." 

Let's put it this way: the first half builds up the creepiness, then the second half ruins it. It begins as a typical detective story. A family disappeared and a pseudo-retired officer is on the case. Enter the creepy neighbor. Soon, the anomalies pop up one by one, culminating in the neighbor's daughter's proclamation: "That man is not my father. He's a complete stranger." What a fun concept, right?

Well I don't understand what makes the second act creepy. There are a multitude of corpses, and then the characters start behaving erratically, even histrionically, and I don't really see where their respective behaviors are coming from. I suppose that's the creepy element in it, but I just don't buy it, meaning the whole thing didn't really work for me. 

Also, I think part of the creepiness relied on the gruesome killings, and that doesn't really work if you're used to seeing dead bodies on a daily basis. That's just me, of course. 

François Ozon's "Frantz" is a game of subverting expectations. There are heavy homosexual undertones in the beginning, until the story tells you, "Look, that's not it, this is what it's about, you've been fooled." It is a gorgeous (and gorgeously shot) film, relying on understatement to carry its emotions through, and stars a divine Paula Beer (who won the breakthrough performance award in Venice this year).

Something like this could work, I think, in a Philippine setting. In place of post-war French-German tensions, we can have Marcos loyalists and apologists. 

By now, any film by Asghar Farhadi should be an event, and "The Salesman" is no exception. Personally, I still think "A Separation" is his best work, but his latest is quite the experience as well. 

It's about an Iranian couple, both theater actors, whose house gets broken in, the repercussions of which echoes throughout the film. Once again, Farhadi grounds his story on seemingly small concepts of morality and plays with cultural norms. From there, he inflates his story, letting his scenes breathe and expand, until everything and everyone, including the viewer, is entangled in the conflict. 

There's never room for unshakable right or wrong in Farhadi's films. And the title? The couple is performing in a production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"--a plot point that may seem initially irrelevant but actually makes so much sense by the end.

I didn't like Xavier Dolan's "It's Only the End of the World," the Grand Prix winner in Cannes this year. It's based on a play, but the theatricality doesn't translate well onscreen. We get a lot of closeups (does Dolan think he is the next Tom Hooper?), as well as color saturation. The whole thing works like an alienating fever dream: You don't empathize with the characters, but feel annoyed by them. The whole film is irritating, actually, like it's desperately trying to stuff all conceivable emotions down the viewer's throat. At least I finished this one; I didn't last 15 minutes during "Laurence Anyways."

"Graduation" by Cristian Mungiu was the perfect film to watch after the Dolan. It is sober, tells its story in a straightforward manner, and doesn't rely on gimmickry to get its point across. It is a very powerful film in the sense that it completely draws you into its make-believe world: a small Romanian town that still bears the remains of communism, where everybody knows everybody and where success largely depends on whom, and not what, you know.  

I feel obliged to disclose that I have a soft spot for small-town stories, as I grew up in one, but I don't think that has any bearing in the capacity of this film to affect you. Its bigger point seems to be: Parents always want the best for their children, that much is clear, but what of their means to attain that "best"? Raising a child is no child's play, after all.

The ticket queue at Cinematheque Manila a good two hours before its last screening of "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten."

I only saw two of the main competition films. "Lily" by Keith Deligero is about a woman who's purported to be an "aswang." It's not really her story, but that of the father of her child. Exiting the cinema, I got the impression that this was made by someone who was high. No kidding: The story, while pretty straightforward in itself (the revenge of the wronged woman, or something like that), is literally filmed with twists and turns. The plot doesn't care for a linear timeline, nor does the editing care for simplistic clarity. There are cuts, jarring edits, interspersed dialogue, and juxtaposed and repeated scenes. It's a maddening experience, and I guess that's what's beautiful--and refreshing--about it.

I do think Petersen Vargas' "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten" is a deserving Best Picture winner (I don't have the same sentiment for last year's). The first thing that came to mind was actually "The Perks of Being a Wallflower": a loner befriended by two curious figures--in this case, Khalil Ramos (who deserved the Best Actor trophy way more than "Lily's" Rocky Salumbides) and the Snyder Brothers. 

Despite its flaws, the film works on so many levels. It draws on the power of nostalgia, on sadness and aloneness, on that all-too-Filipino hope to go somewhere where the grass is greener. It tells a millennial story and really knows its way around that narrative. Then, what could have been just a coming-of-age/friendship-brotherhood story takes a turn toward darkness, and though you may not find it a convincing turn, you will be drawn into it all the same. The film sucks you in, and with its immense capacity to make you remember, you end up understanding--and not necessarily feeling for--these characters. 

A shoutout to the theater people in this movie: Peewee O'Hara as the English police, Joel Saracho as the sly gay teacher, Meann Espinosa as the slutty teacher.

There were also four other films in the world cinema section that I had already seen.

"Goodnight Mommy" by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is another case of misleading the audience. Once you get what it's really about, though, the party begins. 

"Ang Babaeng Humayo" by Lav Diaz might just be the saddest film this year (though I do prefer "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" over it). This has to be Diaz's most approachable work to date, but if you're worried this film scrimped on his genius, don't you fret.   

"Swiss Army Man" by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan is so absurd and builds up to a make-or-break sequence that you either buy or don't. 

Finally, "Elle" by Paul Verhoeven stars Isabelle Huppert--and this should be reason enough to make you want to see it. But Huppert is magnificent in this movie; she wins you over and makes you root for her all the way to the end. 

**Screenshots taken from various sites through Google Images.