Saturday, November 15, 2014

PDI Review: The Imaginarium, 2 of 2 ('The Maids' & 'Dani Girl')

Part two of my sorta-coverage of "The Imaginarium" by The Sandbox Collective is in today's Inquirer - here. I talk about "The Maids," an endless parade of histrionics from the über-game trio of Topper Fabregas, Anton Juan and Peter Serrano; and "Dani Girl"--the musical production of the year thus far. (Sorry, "Ang Nawalang Kapatid.") 

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Imagination is escape in 'The Maids' and 'Dani Girl'

Sisters gone cuckoo and a pair of cancer-stricken kids were the unlikely stars of the two stage productions that played the Peta Theater Center's Main Theater, during The Sandbox Collective's multi-arts festival "The Imaginarium," which ran Oct. 28-31.

For these two shows--the returning "The Maids" (by MusicArtes Inc.) and a revamped "Dani Girl" (by Sandbox)--it's not "all the world's a stage," but the stage as a portal to worlds far wilder and more volatile than the ones their protagonists live in.

That stage, by the way, housed Faust Peneyra's library of a set, with shelf upon shelf of memorabilia from the different productions that took part in the festival. (It all made for a rather fun preshow ritual to spot the items, from a toy giraffe to a unicorn to a parasol.)

The physical and earthly hardly mattered for "The Maids" and "Dani Girl," though. What these shows set out to illustrate--and each did quite splendidly--was that imagination is a far greater tool than any other within human reach, especially in the face of an immutable end.

'The Maids'

In French playwright Jean Genet's "The Maids," the titular sisters Claire and Solange spend their days fancifully scheming to kill their employer, the unnamed Madam. When their boss is away, they engage in an elaborate role-playing game, where one of them pretends to be Madam while the other is the lowly housemaid.

We're not just talking dress-up, though that expectedly transpired on a set littered with seven flower vases, a kimono and a wedding gown. These sisters apparently take their pretend-play very seriously; there's slapping, spitting, beating, even asphyxiation.

But the fun hurtles to a halt one night when Madam's husband--whom Claire had secretly framed for some crime and thus sent to prison--is released on bail, sending the sisters in a panic spree as they think of ways to tie up loose ends, like poisoning the boss' tea, for example.

For this MusicArtes production, Topper Fabregas and Anton Juan (also the director) reprised their roles as Claire and Solange, respectively, while Madam was played by Peter Serrano as the love child of Norma Desmond and Helen Sinclair of Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway"--essentially the biggest, most demented diva there is (with a turban and feathered boa, no less).

The gender bending was in accordance with Genet's original vision for the play, and oh, what an utter delight it was to watch these men sink their teeth into such meaty, flashy parts.


Fabregas and Juan were nothing short of sublime as they feasted on their roles with rabid intensity, more than rising to the two-tiered challenge of male actors playing women pretending to be other women as they seamlessly maneuvered the shifts in voice, tone, delivery, and nuance.

With Serrano, this fabulous three-person cast turned Genet's play into a full-fledged black comedy, the dark humor and sadomasochistic elements fully fleshed out, the scenes unfurling in a manner that made it difficult for the audience to choose between laughing out loud and feeling frightened.

In their hands, "The Maids" startled and shocked, becoming itself a game of unpredictability, and thus firmly holding the audience's attention as they waited for the next nasty thing to happen or the next dirty line to be spat out.

Towards the end, Claire says, "We're playing idiotic games." We'd known that from the start, of course, but why bother with the idiocy when everyone's having such crazy fun?

'Dani Girl'

Meanwhile, imagination took a cleaner, more youthful form in "Dani Girl"--Toff de Venecia's formidable directorial debut.

Originally staged at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati City, this pioneering Sandbox production featured a vastly simplified landscape of two rollout beds, some foldable chairs, and a pair of wheeled staircases. Which worked out terrifically well in its favor, as the success of this production was basically dependent on the willingness of the audience to open up to its make-believe elements--and to leave their tear ducts freely flowing for the duration of two hours.

"Dani Girl" is about a child with cancer. The crisp writing and exquisite music by the duo of Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond do not waste a moment sugarcoating that hard fact.

It does its best to make the audience weep, laugh a little, then weep some more. After all, how does one "appropriately" respond to a 9-year-old leukemia patient's optimistic declaration that, "I'm not dying. I'm going to get my hair back, and everything will be back to normal?"

The titular girl's imagination conjures spaceships, monsters and visions of heaven in her quest to answer the question, "Why is cancer?" And the tears fall doubly hard, knowing that behind the surface escapism are cold and merciless truths--death and suffering, for example.


What is beautiful and ultimately touching about "Dani Girl" is that it is probably one of the sincerest things ever created about the disease. For this Sandbox production, the stouthearted cast withheld not a shred of honesty as they plumbed the depths of the musical's ocean of pathos.

The two alternating Danis, Rebecca Coates and Mitzie Lao, were just the most wondrous actresses--and what immaculate voices!--as they effortlessly disappeared beneath the skin of a dying girl. Coates' Dani was a tad more mature, seemingly more aware of the consequences and more in sync with reality, while Lao perfectly captured the lightness and innocence of the beguiling child.

Luigi Quesada, just a high school student, displayed skill, promise and confidence far beyond his years as Dani's roommate and eventual friend Marty. Sheila Valderrama-Martinez, as Dani's mother, turned her few scenes into moments of palpable heartbreak most adults and parents would have fully understood.

But the best part of this "Dani Girl" had to be Reb Atadero, in a shape-shifting performance that's probably without equal in this or any other year. As Dani's guardian angel Raph, Atadero had to be everything this girl could possibly imagine--and so he was father and friend, nerdy, lisping student and game show host, cancer personified and even God himself, through the most seamless and effective of transformations.

It just has to be put into writing: His impression of a Latino drug dealer was one for the books. Not everyone can stop a show cold by rapping the names of narcotics.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

PDI Review: The Imaginarium, 1 of 2 ('The Glass Menagerie', 'The Boy in the Bathroom', 'Real-Life Fairytales' & 'The Pillowman')

The first of my two-part review of "The Imaginarium," a multi-arts festival by The Sandbox Collective spearheaded by Toff de Venecia and which ran from Oct. 28-31, is in today's Inquirer - here. This article covers a fully staged production of "The Glass Menagerie," the staged readings of "The Boy in the Bathroom" and "The Pillowman," and Ejay Yatco's song cycle "Real-Life Fairytales." For part two: "The Maids" and "Dani Girl." 

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Toff de Venecia's blackbox of surprises at 'The Imaginarium'

The Sandbox Collective's recently concluded "festival of the absurd," dubbed "The Imaginarium," proved to be the ultimate devotional exercise for theatergoers.

From Oct. 28-31, 13 productions curated by artistic director Toff de Venecia were laid out buffet-style across the Peta Theater Center's three venues in a dizzying timetable that began at 1 p.m. and sometimes lasted past midnight.

Eleven of the shows played at the Blackbox Theater, and we've managed appraisals of the four that we caught.

True to their venue's experimental nature, these shows weren't polished to perfection but they showed promise, daring and innovation--three qualities that attracted audiences, resulting in packed houses and, in one case, even sending the ushers scrambling to add chairs.

'The Glass Menagerie'

"The play is memory. It is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic."

So begins this Tennessee Williams classic, as narrated by the character of Tom Wingfield.

In the production directed by De Venecia, those opening words seemed to have been taken dangerously too close to heart.

It was dimly lighted, sure. Within the confines of a large gilded frame, the cast, garbed in all black, painted their melancholy portrait of the dysfunctional Wingfields: the single mother Amanda; and her grown children--Tom, the default pillar of the family, and the crippled Laura.

It was also sentimental, but the play's inherent lyricism was almost extinguished by a more sinister life force. De Venecia's "The Glass Menagerie" was an elegy of the Transylvanian kind, a nightmarish recollection of great unhappiness, a memory you'd rather blur and forget--and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Alas, this production was also not realistic. For the great irony of "Menagerie" is that only by becoming most real and vivid can it ever acquire that wispy, dreamlike quality. Only when its characters feel most corporeal can we ever buy them as ghosts from an earlier time.

The role of time, for instance, requires gravitas, a certain authority to hold the play together--which Nelsito Gomez lacked.

Instead, he was just this brooding young man perpetually longing for escape, like a fresh college graduate hungry for greener pastures.

Thus, without a commanding enough narrator, this "Menagerie" was left inchoate.

An even greater misfire was Jay Glorioso as Amanda. As the matriarch of "Menagerie," Amanda is supposed to be a faded Southern belle, once the most coveted dame in town, now reduced to selling magazine subscriptions on the phone and dwelling on the scraps of her glorious past.

Glorioso could sure do "faded," but her Amanda was too refined, too regal, too tamed; in her flowing black dress, she hardly came across as desperate and frustrated. Was that you, Morticia Addams?

Still, the overwhelming darkness did serve a fine purpose: It allowed for the second act, about the ephemeral romance between Laura and Tom's friend Jim, to spark into the one shining sequence of this production.

The actors were Justine Peña, whose Laura was this terribly meek, shy, and ultimately pitiful blossom of a girl; and JC Santos, who impressively transformed the character of Jim, the thinnest of the four roles, into an earthbound, kinetically charged and, therefore, the most realistic presence in this production.

It was truly their chemistry and fully realized interpretations that gave life to this bleak and fuzzy "Menagerie."

'The Boy in the Bathroom'

Michael Lluberes and Joe Maloney's one-act musical gives us a man, David, with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who has been living in his bathroom for a year.

What he obviously needs is psychiatric intervention, but his mother Pam would rather feed him hand-flattened pancakes slipped under the door than call the shrink.

The third character is the total opposite of David, and to ignite some rom-com sparks, is a girl--Julie.

There was reason to applaud what became of the prosaic material in the hands of De Venecia as director. Sidestepping the cutesy and commonplace, this staged reading was the epitome of authentic charm, eliciting smiles at every corner without sacrificing what little inherent dramatic heft the musical had.

Topper Fabregas balanced the funny and the serious in David, and Sheila Francisco shaded the doting-mother routine with traces of the frighteningly overprotective (exactly why she could make a great Mama Rose in "Gypsy").

But this show belonged to Caisa Borromeo, one of the most underrated actresses of the industry. (Her last big leading role was as a smashing Jo March in Repertory Philippines' "Little Women" in 2010.)

As Julie, Borromeo blended curious, determined, sexy and, finally, frustrated, to really elevate the new-girl-in-town stereotype.

She and Fabregas had a scene where their characters dare each other to undress. The confidence and nuance that Borromeo showcased here could only come from a genuine leading lady. Which is to say, give this woman her next big role, please!

'Real-Life Fairytales'

Reviewing Ateneo Blue Repertory's "Toilet: The Musical" this year, we wrote: "With last year's 'Sa Wakas,' and now, 'Toilet,' Ejay Yatco is fast proving himself to be one of, if not the most exciting, young musical director and composer of the contemporary local theater scene."

This time, Yatco was represented in "The Imaginarium" via his song cycle "Real-Life Fairytales," featuring his original compositions sung by a crew of mostly fellow Ateneans.

Yatco's lyrics have the most interesting imagery and wordplay, making it a real treat to listen to his songs.

From "Skinny Disney Princesses": "Skinny as a Disney princess/fit in an extra-small dress/Skinny as a Disney princess/a size-zero damsel in distress."

And his music displays a keen eye for evoking tone and atmosphere.

"Fairytales" had some of the best singing of the festival. Borromeo, Abi Sulit, and the ever-reliable Hans Dimayuga were standouts, each beautifully melding expressiveness and topnotch vocals.

Just a quibble, then: Could this song cycle have gotten any more depressing? That's not a diss against theme or message. Everybody got it--real life and hard truths should not be sanitized. It's just that, why did this hour-long show feel bereft of variation?

Yatco's songs are individually outstanding, but clumped together, they sure made for a downward emotional spiral toward the culminating number, aptly titled "The Darkness That I Find."

'The Pillowman'

It's absurd to think that a staged reading of a play could be the year's most entrancing piece of theater, yet here was this one-night-only performance of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman"--so terrifically acted and sharply staged that it was easily the towering highlight of "The Imaginarium."

On Broadway, this play prompted all manners of reactions from the crowd, frightful fidgeting and walkouts included. None of the latter during this reading, but the roller-coaster of emotions emanating from the audience that night was almost tangible.

Set in a police interrogation room of an unspecified totalitarian regime, "The Pillowman" is about the inquisition of a writer named Katurian and his mentally challenged brother Michal by the good cop-bad cop tandem of Tupolski and Ariel.

Katurian, one soon finds out, is the author of a compilation of some 400 stories, almost all concerning a child dying in a most terrible way. (One ingests apples stuffed with razor blades; another, in a tale called "The Little Jesus"--you know how it goes.)

But it's not the writer's wildly morbid imagination that's in question here. It's that his stories have become reality, as bodies of children dying in suspiciously similar fashion have popped up in town, and he is the main suspect. (Not a giveaway: He's not the killer.)

The beauty of this play lies in the storytelling, and the stories its protagonist tells. And as staged by director Ed Lacson Jr., "The Pillowman" was an immensely powerful back-to-basics experience in narrating a horror story.

The primal act of listening became the audience's undoing, as Katurian's gory tales took all-too-vivid life through the actors' deliveries and inflections.

The cast was nothing short of sensational. Audie Gemora was an anguished Katurian whose eyes mirrored stories of their own. Robie Zialcita infused his Michal with equal measures of child-like innocence and murderous cunning. Niccolo Manahan was an appropriately explosive Ariel.

And Richard Cunanan gave what could be the comedy performance of the year, landing zinger after zinger like an Olympian archer, employing his burly physicality, his pitch-perfect line readings, gestures and expressions to utmost hilarious effect.

All things considered, this "Pillowman" could not have been a better Halloween treat. A fully staged production can be the only logical follow-up. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

My First Post Since Clerkship Started 3 Months Ago

Sunset over Jones Bridge, Manila. Oct. 16, 2014. #nofilter

For the first time, I wasn't in Iloilo for All Saints' Day. The past fourteen years, we'd make our way to the cemetery mid-morning and spend close to two hours at my paternal grandparents' mausoleum. There'd be candles of varying heights lined up before their tombs, and father and I would burn traditional Chinese paper money, and some family from a few lots away would drop by and give more candles.

Not yesterday, though. I was here in Manila instead, because a mere weekend seemed too tight and short and hectic for some air travel, and because tomorrow, we begin our month-long rotation in pediatrics.

Yesterday, I watched the third run of Atlantis Productions' "Rock of Ages" (staged this time at the Meralco Theater), capping off my historic, kind-of-maddening five consecutive days of theatergoing. By some divine alignment of the stars, I was able to attend all four days of The Sandbox Collective's multi-arts festival, The Imaginarium, and see six shows (that I should be writing the reviews for right now). Was it exhausting, traversing the Manila-PETA Theater Center-Manila route for four days? Yes. Was it worth it? I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

A week ago, I lost my voice. You know how singers or musical theater actors would say that they just woke up one morning and their voice was gone? That's what happened to me. I couldn't even say "Para!" loud enough for the jeepney driver to hear. I couldn't interview my patients. I couldn't order food without resorting to pointing. I couldn't talk to my friends without some faux sign language.

(The day before I lost my voice, I was at Punta Fuego in Batangas. We soaked up the afternoon sun, swam in the sea at 3PM, lazed by the infinity pool, drank Cabernet, watched a gorgeous sunset, and headed to Tagaytay for dinner and the divine evening chill.)

We're now three months - twelve weeks, to be exact - into clerkship, and this appears to be my first post about it. It's not for a lack of time, trust me, but because I've been mostly doing reviews for the Inquirer (probably my subconscious way of compensating for my three-month absence during the extended summer vacation).

Here's a quick rundown of notable med school-related things and thoughts so far:

1. a needle-prick injury during our penultimate day in ENT, or otorhinolaryngology. It wasn't even because of a blood extraction or IV line insertion. I was trying to empty the syringe after aspirating the patient's thyroid mass.

2. Orthopedics is the rotation of eternal waiting. That is, of course, a reference to the exasperatingly fluctuating schedule of teaching rounds. We also learned to curse - A LOT - during this rotation.

3. an impulsive trip to Manila Zoo one Saturday morning after watching Tanghalang Pilipino's grossly overrated "Sandosenang Sapatos." This zoo has so many reticulated pythons, it's too cute.

4. a late-afternoon walk in Luneta and a side trip to the Japanese Garden. This was during opthalmology, after watching "Barber's Tales" (featuring a super-funny Gladys Reyes) at SM Manila. Again, simply because I had the luxury of time.

5. comedy bar at Timog on a Thursday night with Eli. Yes, I still can't believe that happened.

Sometimes, i find myself asking, Is this really clerkship? What's up with all this free time? Why am I spending way too much time at the theater for a normal med student? Am I still a med student?

And then, of course, I snap back to reality and say, Yes, this is legit, this is happening, haters gonna hate, YOLO. Clerkship has so far been a fun, fun ride, both in- and outside the hospital.

Oh, and have you heard? I'm going to be in a book next year! Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 2015 is expected to hit bookstores in February, and my short story "The Woman of Sta. Barbara" will be in it.

My first successful solo blood extractions. 

Mali the Asian Elephant. 

Reticulated python. 

Saltwater crocodiles. 

The "junior" cast of Tanghalang Pilipino's "Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente," a Filipino translation of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." 

 My sister and I went to the Mind Museum on a Sunday in September.

My legs in Punta Fuego. 

Punta Fuego sunset.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

PDI Review: 'FnL' by PETA

My review of the preview run of PETA's new play with music, "FnL," was in yesterday's Inquirer - here. The production returns for a full run in January 2015, so do try to catch it. 

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Peta's 'FnL' finds craziness in language--or several versions of it

Three years ago, Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) put on a show that aimed to make Shakespeare more accessible to the Filipino youth by transplanting the Bard's dated English to the hip language of rap. The play was "William," and it was a gamble that handsomely paid off, in both the pedagogical and theatrical sense.

In six performances from Sept. 27-Oct. 5 at the Peta Theater Center, the company previewed a brand-new show that's pretty much in the same vein as "William": a two-act play with music, titled "FnL," which has much to do, but is actually very little about, every Filipino high school sophomore's nightmare, Francisco Baltazar's "Florante at Laura."

Judging by what was glimpsed during this brief run, it looks like the theater company's all set for another winner, kinks and glaring glitches notwithstanding.

At its best, "FnL" was one crazy roller-coaster ride down the infinite twists and turns that have come to define the 21st-century Filipino language. Some mild postshow pain-killer might have been a good idea, for as long as one hasn't been living under a rock for the past decade or so, one was sure to exit the theater with aching jaws and overstrained ears.

That's because "FnL" has a book that is a hodgepodge of variations of the Filipino language--Tagalog, Bisaya, gay lingo, Pinoy slang, jologs speak, the jejemon phenomenon--written by the brilliant trio of Rody Vera, Anj Heruela, and Maynard Manansala.

To tell the story of Lance, a Filipino born in the United States with aspirations of becoming a professional rapper, and Flor,  a Cebuana call center agent in Manila, the writers have crafted a script that uses "lengua estofado" (an ox tongue dish) as a substitute for "tongue" and turns singer Donna Cruz into a verb, as the gay lingo equivalent of "doon" (there).

Some of the transpositions were a bit more obvious. The character that is the embodiment of all things tacky, corny, cheap and low-class is named Jologs, for example. But there's no denying the fact that, to untrained ears, this script was a challenge to follow. (This highlighted the need to polish the lights and microphone cues, and also for a sound design that would tip more in favor of the actors' voices, instead of the background music.


A script that plays with language to the hilt deserved only a production that could match its inherent excessiveness--which, admittedly, could have been a turn-off for some. (Amihan Ruiz and SC Seasico's versions of Lance's mother, for example, could easily fit under the definition of "overacting.")

The singing was also not for anyone. Only a few in the cast were evidently gifted with pipes for musical theater (again, this is a play with music), and the songs weren't particularly memorable and often felt like removable devices.

But once you acquired a taste for this particular brand of theatrics, there was no denying that "FnL" was a vibrantly stage laugh trip of a show, the camp and histrionics fully realized through Ian Segarra's direction.

The cast was (mostly) up to the challenge of diving head first into this ocean of farce. Eko Bacquial as Lance and Meann Espinosa as Flor delivered more grounded interpretations of their roles, but it was the winning breakout performances of the alternates, Deli del Rosario as Lance and Divine Aucina as Flor, that catapulted this play to lofty, zany heights.

Del Rosario and Aucina fully embodied the ditzy nature of this play--the former spouting the character's rhythmic hip-hop English without missing a beat, and the latter turning Flor into a hilarious victim of circumstance caught up in a whirlwind of hysterics.

The standout supporting performance came from Pepe Herrera, who slipped into the skin of Jologs with chameleonic ease. The stance, gait, and demeanor that Herrera adopted could have fooled the clueless into believing he's an actual "kanto boy," to use the Tagalog label.

Michelle Ngu and Yeyin dela Cruz milked charm and comedy out of the role of Butch, who is--surprise, surprise!--the stock lesbian character, and who expresses her love for Flor through serious poetry. Ariel Diccion and Gio Gahol were also quite believable as Beki (Flor's gay sidekick).


But as much as "FnL" begged to be indulged for its insanity, it also demanded to be taken seriously.

On the surface, it explored the American dream in reverse: the phenomenon of the balikbayan, as personified by Lance's family, who become instant celebrities in their part of town and an easy source of liquefiable dollars.

Lance himself typified many Filipinos' fascination for foreigners (not just Filipino-Americans) with an able command of English and matinee-idol looks that can melt television screens. In the age of Daniel Matsunaga's Pinoy Big Brother, this could not have been a more timely subject.

Underneath all these, though, a bigger dragon rumbled. The discussion that "FnL" truly wanted to start was two-pronged: the continuing dissection of the Filipino language by different sectors of the community; and the age-old debate on the role and importance of speaking English in the Philippines.

"If we speak English, we achieve progress," intones Flor's mother Blanquita (a spot-on sketch of that familiar matronly, bespectacled teacher figure by Kitsi Pagaspas), and that is only the beginning of the lecture.

Perfectly fine; in fact, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that, on some level, "FnL" achieved its pedagogical goals to compose an argument and rekindle a timeworn discussion for younger audiences. But the more preachy lines also happened to be the show's less assured moments, and it begged the question: How does one sustain a comedy?

Extended homily

The second act essentially came off as one extended homily on the purported virtues of speaking English versus Filipino. Too much talk that was chock-full of arguments polemicists and linguistics professors know quite well, and which irritatingly bordered on the academic. It was apparent the show had inevitably stagnated, in stark contrast to a smooth-sailing Act I.

So, to liven things up, it relied on gimmickry. An extended sequence involved Beki teaching Jologs the basic tenets of gay lingo (like substituting the firs letter of each word with "j") and then, Jologs teaching Beki how to count money using terms like "etneb" (P20). It was a hoot to witness the chemistry between those actors, but at some point, one started questioning the necessity of this scene.

Before you knew it, the cast was already gathering onstage for the final song (an eerie resemblance to the Department of Tourism's "Pilipinas, Tara na!" campaign jingle). One could not be faulted, then, for thinking, here's another premature resolution to an otherwise crackerjack story--a problem that Peta's runaway hit "Rak of Aegis" similarly suffered from.

By then, however, one could also very well be too tired from all the laughing to actually complain.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

PDI Review: 'Everything in Bituin' - Bituin Escalante in Concert

My review of Bituin Escalante's solo concert, "Everything in Bituin," is in today's Inquirer - here. This concluded the 2nd installment of the CCP concert series, "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater," and boy, was this night one for the books! This woman, and those pipes of hers, is simply not human.

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The 'halimaw' Bituin, who belts and roars for a living

If the Aliw Awards were still interested in upping its credibility--or if it wants to show that it does pay attention at all--then the race for the Best Female Concert Performer trophy should be over by now. The winner is Bituin Escalante, whose voice basically nuked the CCP Little Theater to the ground during her solo concert, "Everything in Bituin," last Oct. 9.

That's hyperbole, but what language is more apt for that celestial instrument inhabiting the woman's throat, which evades any English adjective and can be justified descriptively only by the Tagalog word "halimaw"? ("Monster" just doesn't cut it.)

But "halimaw" is also very much Escalante herself, who proved that with a microphone in hand, she could fashion musical miracles out of the unconventional--by making "crazy" the new normal.


For instance, who besides her can open a "Jesus Christ Superstar" medley with a chorus of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," only to upend the laws of the universe and make the musical theater worshipers in the house shoot up from their seats and everybody's ears achieve a kind of auditory orgasm by segueing into an earthshaking, sea-parting rendition of "Heaven on Their Minds"? (That's the big solo of the Judas Iscariot character--yes, a man's song.)

Or how about a scorching rendition of Cole Porter's "Find Me a Primitive Man" (in a medley that also included "So in Love," "Night and Day," and "Begin the Beguine"), the lyrics oozing from Escalante's mouth with a kind of primal yearning for flesh, as befits lyrics that go, "I could be the personal slave/of someone just out of a cave/The only man who'll ever win me/has gotta wake up the gypsy in me"?

Or, widening the selection further beyond showtunes and jazz standards, who in this country can pull off an explosive "Proud Mary" so effortlessly, as if her body were a reservoir of big notes all waiting to be spewed out the way a dragon breathes fire?

Vocal acrobatics

It's reasonable to crown Escalante the Filipino queen of vocal acrobatics. Even outwardly simple melodies like Randy Crawford's "One Day I'll Fly Away" were reshaped and pared down to prayerful form, a hymn to the hits and misses of love, as Escalante emitted runs and riffs midway that sounded almost animalistic, like the strange cries of a wounded beast.

But this is also a woman who can poke fun at her plus-sized figure and come off even sexier. (For isn't humor an aphrodisiac?)

Thanking her costume designer, she said, "Eric Pineda, you always get the curve of my ass when you make my pants." And to her partner, she allowed us the slightest glimpse of their romance: "To the tatay of my daughters--no words. Kita na lang tayo sa dilim."

A third into the concert, it became apparent that this unfettered craziness runs in the family. A rousing duet of "Minsan ang Minahal ay Ako" from the musical "Katy!" with her sister Kalila Aguilos devolved into a hilarious back-and-forth as the siblings ribbed each other of their personal idiosyncrasies.

And then the original singer in the family--mother Gigi Escalante of the Ambivalent Crowd fame--strode in and joined them in a mashup of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and Pharrell Williams' "Happy," and with such fitting titles, the number resembled a drunken tour de force threesome on a midnight karaoke session, one you simply couldn't resist bopping your head to.

Candid, freewheeling

Given its candid, freewheeling nature, it didn't feel like "Everything in Bituin" actually received methodical, no-nonsense direction--and that could only be the shared success of Escalante and director Audie Gemora.

There was even a segment where members of the audience went up the stage and sat on the once-empty risers that constituted the "set design." In that moment, the concert assumed an entertaining, double identity: an intimate, in-the-round cabaret, and an arena in ancient Rome, with Escalante as the lion and the people in those seats laid out for her like a buffet.

Nothing remotely cannibalistic occurred, of course. She belted and roared for close to two hours, the music provided by the three-piece band known as the Habemus Papas, composed of Joey Quirino (keyboard), Meong Pacana (bass), and the wildly talented Jorge San Jose, who summoned the drums to rumbling life.

Now how about a gender-bending production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," with Escalante as Judas? It should take serious balls for any theater company to rise to that challenge; this woman already has 'em. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

PDI Review: 'Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini' by Dulaang UP

My review of Dulaang UP's "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" is in today's Inquirer - here. It's originally set to close on Oct. 19, but has been extended to Oct. 24, and seats are selling out like hotcakes (no small thanks to the limited capacity of the Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall, UP Diliman). Call Samantha Hannah Clarin or Camille Guevara at 926-1349, 433-7840, 981-8500 local 2449. Consider yourself lucky if you get a ticket. 

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'Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini': Opera in the guise of a small-scale musical

Dulaang UP's latest offering, "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini," is a one-act reimagining of the titular national hero's final days in exile in Guam and his conditional return to Manila, with book and lyrics by Floy Quintos and original music by Krina Cayabyab.

It is a tight-paced, economical production buoyed by a topnotch technical setup: set design by Ohm David, lights by John Batalla, period costumes by Darwin Desoacido and video design by Winter David. (The only antagonizing element to all these is the strangely infernal air-conditioning in UP Diliman's Guerrero Theater, where this musical plays until Oct. 24.)

Galvanizing life

Yet there is reason to believe that a more appropriate title would be something along the lines of "Ang Huling Awit ni Artemio Ricarte," not because the actor playing Mabini is a slouch (Roeder Camañag, who is marvelous), but because the one playing Ricarte, the political firebrand most famous for never taking the oath of allegiance to the American colonizers, virtually sets the stage ablaze and runs away with the show.

That would be Poppert Bernadas, who is only in his fifth musical production and is probably better known as a member of The Ryan Cayabyab Singers. You wouldn't suspect his relative acting inexperience, however, from the way he summons the famed revolutionary to fiery, galvanizing life while belting the score's oftentimes punishing notes to the rafters.

In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bernadas' interpretation of the role (Al Gatmaitan alternates) hews most closely to what feels like the intended vision of this production.

"Huling Lagda" is an ambitious opera trapped in the body of a small-scale musical. At a lean 95 minutes, it burns with dramatic urgency and almost always benefits from director Dexter Santos' deft handle of heart-pounding, eardrum-bashing theatricality.

Note the qualifier, for the loudness and hyperbole that have become Santos' signature don't always work to his advantage. For example, his "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" earlier this year, a dance-o-rama based on the Indian epic "Mahabharata," was a fever dream of somersaulting bodies and bone-breaking choreography. Meanwhile, his staging of "Maxie the Musicale" last year was weighed down by the amplified volume and the drawn-out, overindulgent execution.

Discordant thoughts

In "Huling Lagda," Santos finds himself confronted by a two-edged sword of his making. The show opens with the harmonizing voices of unseen men as images of archival material on the Filipino-American revolution flash on the walls of the cramped stage.

Minutes later, these men are spouting exposition like participants in an oratorical contest, complete with hand gestures, and one can only dazedly wonder, "Why is everyone shouting?" This is the manner of speech that would sustain the rest of the show, and woe to those who would be incapable of getting used to it.

Yet, it somehow makes sense that "Huling Lagda" should be shaped by this heightened sense of theatricality. After all, this is the story of exiles--men on the brink of madness, trapped in an island that vaguely resembles home, consumed by discordant thoughts of freedom from Western colonization and freedom from their isolating imprisonment.

It is this very kind of madness that Bernadas fleshes out quite stunningly. His Ricarte is no generic fighter, but a commanding, mesmerizing leader in the mold of Enjolras from "Les Miserables," one fueled by the purest brand of nationalism.

This we glimpse quite early, in a number titled "Ang Maikling Kasaysayan ng Ating Himagsikan," where Bernadas thrillingly leads the all-male ensemble in a satirical encapsulation of the country's failed revolutions. Here, Santos' talents as a choreographer take glorious flight, as the men engage in a storm of singing, stomping, and guitar-swinging, to exhilarating effect.

For all the noise and operatics, however, "Huling Lagda" is still very much rooted on cerebral ground. Its basic premise is a hero fighting not against physical arms, but against words--the oath of allegiance to America and the titular signature that would guarantee his freedom.

Two segments

Quintos' crisp storytelling divides the musical into two segments: the first, set in a beach in Guam, as the exiled revolutionaries receive news of Emilio Aguinaldo's pledge of allegiance to the Americans; the second, aboard a ship in Manila Bay, where Mabini and Ricarte meet with General William Taft to discuss their release.

But this is not about the veneration of a hero; the success of "Huling Lagda" lies greatly in the fact that the dramatists have created a layered portrait of an ordinary, flawed person. Mabini is presented not as an icon, but as a character torn between home and country--a choice that need not involve politico-historical debate to matter to the audience.

The task of unraveling the person becomes only half as difficult, thanks to Camañag's affecting turn as Mabini. One would be hard-pressed to find any semblance of the "brains of the revolution" in Camañag's portrayal; what we see in this musical is not the mysterious hero, but a weary soul, tired from the fighting and betrayal, who only wants to go home and die in peace.

The emotional torment that haunts Camañag's Mabini are all too visible in those questioning eyes, the agony echoed in his anguished singing. When he utters, "I'd rather be an irrelevant invalid," one can only pity him.

Separate life force

There are no plain good or bad guys in this musical. Even the character of Taft (a terrific Leo Rialp in a stroke of genius casting) is granted shades: His biting refusal to refer to Ricarte as "General" is balanced out by his spoken, vaguely reverential admiration for Mabini as "the most dangerous man" of the revolution.

There is also the lone female character--the nurse Salud, who is pivotal in influencing Mabini's decision regarding the oath. But the only genuinely interesting thing about her is that she has the singing voice of an angel, in the form of Banaue Miclat (alternating with Jean Judith Javier).

But to speak of Cayabyab's music, it is almost like talking about an entirely separate life force.

There are just eight songs in this show, all set to live accompaniment every performance by the Manila String Quartet; but they indubitably mark a triumphant debut for Cayabyab.

The dissonance that marks the score seems straight out of the school of Stephen Sondheim. There are no sweet or hummable melodies here; everything serves a function in the weaving of a scene and the propulsion of narrative.

Dramatically staged

And for maximal impact, Santos has noticeably chosen to leave no room for applause after the numbers, preserving the brisk pacing of the production in an ever-growing bubble of an unvented emotions on the part of the audience. It is little wonder that those of tremendously patriotic heart would find occasion for tears in some of Santos' most dramatically staged scenes.

Consider, for example, the way he frames Mabini's signing of the oath of allegiance: Right at the end of a haunting choral piece set to the hero's "The True Decalogue," Mabini signs the oath, a camera flashes, and the background changes to an actual newspaper headline proclaiming the hero's submission to the Westerners, all done in a somber cloud of silence.

Or consider the moments that pit Camañag's Mabini side by side with Bernadas' Ricarte--two contrasting personalities, complicated, storied figures bellowing note after sublime note to the heavens--and the dynamic becomes as riveting as that of Jesus and Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar."

In such fleeting instances, "Huling Lagda" really achieves a kind of theatrical transmigration: a small-scale musical breaking free from its shell to assume the form of an opera--glorious singing, impassioned acting, and all.

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We went to this health center in the wilderness of Sta. Mesa last Tuesday, and when we got off the jeepney in front of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, this was what greeted me. (It's the green marker that prompted the taking of this photograph.) The universe can be a funny place.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

PDI Review: 'Never Felt Better' - Michael Williams in Concert

My review of Michael Williams' solo concert, "Never Felt Better," is in today's Inquirer - here. "Never Felt Better" was the second night of this year's "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater" at the CCP Little Theater. Bituin Escalante will conclude the concert series on Oct. 9. 

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Michael Williams: Life is a cabaret

In the event Michael Williams decides to retire from acting, he can open a jazz club and take to the stage every night, seven days a week, singing Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rogers, telling anecdotes from his colorful career, and engaging his male staff in flirtatious banter.

He'd be very, very good at it, to judge from his Triple Threats concert at the CCP Little Theater, dubbed "Never Felt Better," last Sept. 18.

Those who made it to the show in spite of the sudden deluge and the resulting traffic jams brought about by the beginnings of Typhoon "Mario" were rewarded with an entrancingly warm, intimate atmosphere inside the theater-- the combined triumph of Roselyn Perez's unflashy direction, Inday Echevarria's spare accompaniments, John Batalla's lights and Williams' undeniable knack for going solo.

Tricky shifts

"I'm just gonna be honest and straightforward. I am... 51," Williams said at the beginning of the concert, to the audience's knowing laughter. "You're not too eager to please people, and there's an ability to zero in on things that are important."

There couldn't have been a more truthful introduction.

"Never Felt Better" had the bearings of a heart-to-heart chat, its star navigating the tricky shifts between candid and solemn, deadpan humor and sincere storytelling, with the ease of a cabaret star. In the dimmed theater, it was as if all that space had been eliminated, and Williams was right in front of us, doling out precious bits and pieces of him for our perusal.

One suspects it had a lot to do with his voice-- a considerably high-ranged, deceptively lightweight instrument that seems like the property of someone barely out of puberty. But it's precisely this characteristic that makes Williams a master of the art of speech-level singing-- his lyrics granted added weight and his phrasing more insightful.

Thus, his rendition of "Stars" from "Les Miserables" might not have had that rip-roaring operatic quality so often attached to it, but it was a breathtaking fleshing-out of the song as one man's declaration to heaven to pursue justice at all cost.

Prayers, pleas

In Williams' hands, other Broadway anthems like the two other songs in his thrilling "Les Mis" medley, "Bring Him Home" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," as well as "The Impossible Dream"-- an aria from "Man of La Mancha" that has transcended time, place and vocal prowess to achieve songbook immortality-- ceased to be mere character songs. They became prayers, pleas, revelations.

The intimacy of the evening was also largely because of Echevarria, musical director and pianist, who stripped down most of the numbers to bare-bones accompaniment. Sung by Williams then, Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" overwhelmingly resonated with the pain of lost love; and "Marry Me a Little," a bachelor's unspoken wish to somehow find that special someone, never sounded more sincere.

Rolando Tinio's Filipino translation of "If Ever I Would Leave You" from "Camelot," now rendered as "Paano Ba Lilisan," invoked images of native pastoral love with its beautiful poetry. (This was only the second time this version was performed, said Williams.)

Personal ground

Twice that night, Williams also touched on deeply personal ground, singing an amped-up version of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from "My Fair Lady," in tribute to the late Zenaida Amador whom he considers his mentor; then, in memory of his father, what could only have been a rare male cover of "Something Wonderful" from "The King and I."

But the somberness never lingered, easily countered by Williams' brand of humor.

"I tend to say yes to everything, and before I know it, I'm double-booked," he said, before aptly segueing to "Call Me Irresponsible," which was originally written for the legendary Judy Garland.

A segment imaginatively set in a nightclub had Williams singing back-to-back renditions of pretty self-explanatory titles: "I Think About Sex" and "The Lies of Handsome Men." More than landing the laughs, however, this portion of the program offered an illustrative glimpse into the kind of evenings one can expect from Williams-- if ever he does choose to immigrate to the land of cabaret.

A farfetched idea, obviously, as the man's too much of a theater gem. But a livelier concert career would be an acceptable compromise.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

PDI Review: 'Musikal!' - The CCP 45th Anniversary Concert

"Oh what a circus, oh what a show! Manila has gone to town!"

My review of "Musikal!"-- a revue of original Pinoy musicals in celebration of the CCP's 45th-- is in today's Inquirer - here. It ran Sept 5-6 at the Main Theater. So incredibly #blessed-- to be part of history, to have been witness to this gem of a night of a thousand stars.

(Two "Evita" puns in one blog post ought to win an award. Also, in the online version, the 1st of two smaller pictures is mine-- my Inquirer photo debut!)

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Magical 'Musikal!'

It was a night bigger than any other.

While ABS-CBN assembled its bevy of celebrities for its annual, highly publicized dress-and-glam-up festival known as the Star Magic Ball, the palatial Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) played host to an event of even grander and genuinely international scale.

How often, after all, do you get the biggest names of the Philippine performing arts in a single room: the likes of Lea Salonga, Joanna Ampil, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, and Audie Gemora watching Isay Alvarez, Robert Seña, Dulce, and Sheila Francisco perform the works of Ryan Cayabyab, Vincent de Jesus, Mario O'Hara, and Bienvenido Lumbera?

It was also a night unlike any other, as the sweet smell of victory for the true-blue Pinoy talent pervaded the air. 

Long overdue

Every year for at least the past five years, the CCP's Main Theater, as the venue is popularly known, has played host to sold-out touring productions of Broadway musicals-- "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked," to name a few.

So it was only fitting and, in many ways long overdue, that the hallowed theater would once again be occupied by a homegrown Filipino production of similarly colossal proportions-- or some 20 of them.

"Musikal!"-- a revue of songs and numbers from original Filipino musicals, mostly performed by the original casts themselves-- can be read as the local theater industry's response to the endless parade of foreign imports finding home in the CCP, and the deafening standing ovation that capped its gala night on Sept. 6 was nothing if not life-affirming.

Indeed, in the last few years, something resembling prosperity has descended upon the original Filipino musical, as evidenced by the ever increasing amount of new works and revivals being churned out annually, matched only by an undeniably heightened awareness, interest, and patronage on the part of the audience.

Philippine Educational Theater Association's (Peta) "Rak of Aegis," for example, just recently celebrated its 100th performance, while playing to sold-out houses show after show-- a kind of vindication for those sadder days when the original run of Mario O'Hara's "Stageshow" had to contend against "Phantom" back in October 2012.

Impressive performers

Twenty-two productions displaying a decades-spanning selection of genres were represented during the two-act affair directed by Chris Millado. There were musical ballets ("Rama Hari," "Rock Supremo"), jukebox musicals ("Sa Wakas," "Rak of Aegis"), historical pieces ("Lorenzo," "Ang Kababaihan ng Malolos"), paeans to lost Pinoy forms of entertainment ("Stageshow," "Katy!"), and the indefatigable, rapturous gay romps ("Maxie the Musicale," "Caredivas").

Almost every notable theater company was present, from industry bulwarks like Peta and Tanghalang Pilipino to the fledgling 4th Wall Theater Company and Culture Shock Productions and the student-run Blue Repertory and Dulaang Sibol of Ateneo.

Most impressive, though, was the roster of performers. Imagine: Established names like the husband-and-wife tandem of Alvarez and Seña, newly minted stars such as Aicelle Santos and Myke Salomon, and emerging young talents like Jayvhot Galang (in the title role of "Maxie the Musicale") and the kids of Trumpets' "The Bluebird of Happiness"-- all sharing the same stage in number after rapturous number.

On that note, Alvarez and Salomon were definitely the evening's MVPs, each headlining at least three shows of varying genres: the former shifting from jazzy and growly in "Katy," to rock in "Rak" and a dash of the operatic in "Himala the Musical"; the latter, also in "Rak," as well as doing pop in "Magsimula Ka!" and a bit of cross-dressing in "Caredivas."

Five rectangular panels, upon which GA Fallarme's video projections served as a kind of onstage digital program, flanked the two-tier skeletal performance space (set design by Ricardo Cruz). If anything, such a bare space only served to focus attention on the singing, the acting and the music.

The ending of Act I, in particular, totally captured the spirit of the show: First, the Philippine Madrigal Singers in a specially arranged choral medley of Cayabyab's "Noli Me Tangere the Musical"; followed by the cast of "Rak" singing "Munting Pangarap" to an a capella finish. In other words, just voices, plain and gorgeous.

Vibrant life

The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerard Salonga was the other half of the evening's success, summoning to vibrant life some of the best musical theater compositions ever written. The overture was one of those rare times when you wished it would just go on and on, especially during that solemnly haunting instrumental of "Matimyas Mabuhay sa Sariling Bayan" from "Noli."

By curtain call, the stage literally spilled over with a constellation of stars-- the actors, writers, musicians, and directors of local theater-- singing "Minsan Ang Minahal Ay Ako" from "Katy," as images of departed performing arts luminaries like Atang dela Rama, Katy dela Cruz, Nicanor Abelardo, and Antonio Molina slowly filled the panels. 

It was a moment of pure musical theater magic, a perfectly realized conclusion to an evening that evoked decades' worth of memories and celebrated some of the highest points of this brand of show business. 

Amid shouts of "Brava!" and teary eyes, one could only imagine-- and silently, excitedly wait for-- what could possibly be in store in five years' time.

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It's time to play Spot That Musical Theater Person!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

PDI Review: 'Once in a Lifetime' - Sheila Francisco in Concert

My review of Sheila Francisco's solo concert, "Once in a Lifetime," is in today's Inquirer - here. "Once in a Lifetime" opened this year's "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater" concert series at the CCP Little Theater. Up next is Michael Williams on Sept. 18.

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Sheila Francisco gets her turn to shine-- and how

The Cultural Center of the Philippines' Little Theater better be sufficiently insured. Last we heard, the roof had been blown to pieces by a vocal supernova in the form of Sheila Francisco, in her first solo concert dubbed "Once in a Lifetime," directed by Roselyn Perez.

When was the last time you heard Francisco sing onstage, anyway?

She had one throwaway duet playing the queen in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" at Resorts World Manila late last year. She was also the neurotic Jewish mother in the smartly written though vastly unhummable "No Way to Treat a Lady" staged by Repertory Philippines.

But you'd have to go back at least two years to find her last big role, as the Mother Abbess in Resorts World's "The Sound of Music."

"I don't have a pretty voice," Francisco declared early into her concert, the first of this year's "Triple Threats" series. Fair enough, but what she has is even better: a voice that can bend itself to any song, that can channel characters and convey emotions with crystalline precision.

Natural performer

It's this voice that literally torched the stage as she tore through the Judy Garland anthem, "The Man That Got Away," then shifted gears to pay homage to Celeste Legaspi hits like "Minsan Ang Minahal Ay Ako," both sung with simmering passion.

There were two other things that occurred to us during that evening: One, Francisco can belt the hell out of anything. She did so with "The Sacrifice," a song seemingly composed of stratospheric note after note, from the original Filipino adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

Two, Francisco is a natural concert performer. She had full command of the stage throughout her one-and-a-half-hour show before a packed house, yet nothing ever felt forced or scripted; this woman was here to really have fun in her moment under the spotlight.

Her banter with her stage manager, Ed Lacson Jr., director of the critically acclaimed "Games People Play" and "Middle Finger," was a joy to observe. And when, more than halfway through the show, she gave out a sigh and said, "Tired na," one could only acknowledge and laugh along at the truth of the statement.

Francisco herself certainly knows how to land a punch line. Three times, she said, she auditioned-- and got rejected-- for international productions of "The Lion King" (which she demonstrated by singing the famous Zulu opening verse of "The Circle of Life" multiple times, to hilarious effect).

Then, she launched into "They Just Keep Moving the Line," from the TV series "Smash," belting out lyrics like "I've made friends with rejection/I've straightened up my spine!" with a show business survivor's unparalleled gusto.

Biggest surprises

The biggest surprises of "Once in a Lifetime," though, came mainly in the form of Francisco's guests. For one, there was her Carole King medley with her sisters Carol and Poe Blay, and it was honestly quite a refreshing sight (probably nostalgic, too, for most of the audience) to see three adult women jamming together to "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," instead of the current generation's boy band and teenybopper obsessions.

There was also the surprise appearance of Audie Gemora the dancer, showing off a side of the actor rarely seen nowadays, as Francisco sang Stephen Sondheim's "Old Friends." (A stroke of déjà vu, given how she was one of his guests in "I Was Here," his "Triple Threats" concert last year.)

The main attraction, however, was Francisco's "South Pacific" medley. Back in 2001, she was selected to play the role of Bloody Mary in Sir Trevor Nunn's staging of the Oscar and Hammerstein musical, and became the first (and so far, only) Filipino to perform in the National Theater of London. This evening was as close as local theatergoers could get to seeing her in the role, as she delivered a haunting, stirring rendition of "Bali Ha'i."

Calling the theater companies of Manila: Isn't it high time for a "South Pacific" production next year?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

PDI Review: 'Rabbit Hole' by Red Turnip Theater

My review of Red Turnip Theater's first show for its 2nd season, "Rabbit Hole," is in today's Inquirer - here! This production closes on August 31. Have you seen the film version released in 2010, directed by John Cameron Mitchell and starring Nicole Kidman?

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Cold, unforgiving truths in a beautifully depressing 'Rabbit Hole'

There is much to praise in Red Turnip Theater's "Rabbit Hole"-- one of the trifecta of "beautifully depressing," emotionally searing shows playing in Manila this month, the other two being the exquisitely mounted productions of Han Ong's "Middle Finger" (by Tanghalang Ateneo) and Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years" (by 9 Works Theatrical).

Never mind that "Rabbit Hole's" venue, Whitespace, does not have the ideal acoustics, and so requires the viewer to contend with the performers' voices occasionally bouncing off the place or petering out.

There is also no real stage here. The set must literally sprout out of the ground originally designed for parties and other events. And though that wasn't a problem with Red Turnip's past two shows-- a map of the London Underground for "Closer" and a bloody red cockpit for "Cock"-- this time, the space inadvertently subverts one of the production's missions.

Voyeuristic experience

"Rabbit Hole," the Pulitzer Prize winner by David Lindsay-Abaire, is about a grieving couple, a family trying to get back on its feet after the tragic death of their child. This Red Turnip production confines the play to a sprawling set of a house, with a living room, kitchen, even a second-floor bedroom, intricately and obsessively furnished down to the bottles of beer in the fridge. (The set design is by Faust Peneyra.)

The keyword is "sprawling," because the artistic team mentioned that this "Rabbit Hole" is intended to be a voyeuristic experience, where the audience members are seated so close to the action, it'd be like they were unwillingly spying on the neighbors.

But even with a thrust design-- with the audience surrounding the stage on three sides-- the set still feels too big, and the actors, distant.

So it must speak miles of this production's virtues that, despite the less-than-desirable geography, every scene in "Rabbit Hole" bears astonishing emotional clarity, and every line conveyed to the viewer rings with the cold, unforgiving truth.

This is a play loaded with subtext. It relies on the slow unraveling of events, on the viewer's ability to pick up clues, just as the characters do a lot of talking but spend even more time trying to intimate between the lines. Not for a moment does this two-hour play err on the side of unbelievability, and that can only be the achievement of actor Topper Fabregas in this directorial debut-- his assured, perceptive direction.

It's been eight months since Howie and Becca lost their son Danny in a car accident. Both are doing their best to cope and seek comfort wherever it may lie, but are evidently finding it almost impossible to move on.

To the world, to their family (Becca's mother Nat and her sister Izzy), and even to each other, they struggle to keep a facade of painless existence.

Through Fabregas' ministrations, we see how these characters feel obliged to maintain silence, ignoring the elephant in the room, so to speak, that is Danny's death.

This is the glass house that Fabregas has assiduously constructed-- where everything looks "fine" and everyone acts "okay," though the viewer knows it isn't so, beneath that polished surface. It is through this glass house that his intelligent cast, led by screen actress Agot Isidro and Michael Williams, has bravely walked into.

Tangible sadness

The sadness is so tangible in "Rabbit Hole," so that one can't leave the theater without feeling depressed, even if mildly. Not only do we see this family's pain, or feel it; we actually also understand it.

The heart of "Rabbit Hole" is Isidro's shattering performance as Becca. What we see at first glance is a woman who seems to go on, with the burdens rippling just beneath her skin. But what Isidro really gives us is a Becca quietly struggling with grief, a woman who must endure the torture of the memory of her son and the imprints he leaves in her house.

In one scene, Becca invites over to her house the driver who hit Danny, a 17-year-old named Jason (Ross Pesigan). He goes there to confess, maybe to seek absolution; she, instead, tries to get to know him as a person.

She asks him about prom, and in the middle of Jason's retelling, Becca suddenly breaks into tears. It is impossible to watch this incredibly delicate scene and not relate to the mother's heartbreak. After all, to outlive one's child, to know that he or she will never get to enjoy the normal things in life, is a pain only the bravest parents can endure.

Williams is no easier to watch onstage (and that's a compliment). Consider how Howie must still play "pillar of the family," to be the voice of reason in his marriage. But Becca sees right through him.

"You're not in a better place," she tells him, "just a different place."

Watch how Williams allows Howie an armor of toughness during the day, then subtly sheds it off in the dead of night as he seeks solace in Danny's baby videos. It's a performance so spare, yet utterly absorbing.

Comic pinpricks

However heavy on the heart "Rabbit Hole" can get, it also has its pinpricks of comedy, mostly through Izzy and Nat.

Che Ramos-Cosio is an absolute delight as Izzy, the way she infuses the character with a devil-may-care attitude in her unending, if ill-timed, battle to be the room's main attraction. It's the combination of body language and perfectly timed line deliveries that makes one wish Ramos-Cosio's version of this character gets her own spinoff.

And Sheila Francisco is a portrait of misplaced motherly instincts as Nat, a woman trying her best to keep things light and be of service to her hurting daughter, but ends up causing more damage simply through the things that come out of her mouth. She also nails a monologue (in a nutshell, "The Kennedys are cursed") that one wishes would just go on and on.

There is a bedroom scene in Act II where Becca and Nat sort out Danny's things-- what to keep, what to give away. What they're really doing, though, is trying to find common ground as two women who have tragically lost their sons and are trying to make sense of what many would rather call "God's plan."

It's a sequence so flawlessly executed, where almost every emotion is summoned, where body language and conversation are employed to paint a sorrow so big yet unseen.

Fabregas and his actresses should consider this among the truest, brightest moments of their careers.