Friday, February 25, 2011

Being Jack

Roughly 24 hours ago, we took abreak from being pre-medical students facing ten more exams in the next four weeks to conjure an alternate universe not quite different from the one we're presently in. It was certainly liberating, and for most of us, it only served to tighten the bonds and further solidify the class spirit.

Mediscene, the annual one-act play competition of the UP College of Medicine, was supposed to be tonight. But since today's become a holiday (I'd be totally surprised if Ninoy Aquino III decided to live through today like it's any other day), the Culture committee of the college student council chose to have the event a day earlier. They were actually rather good at disseminating the information - because we found out about the move only last Monday, and through indirect sources to boot. If it's any consolation (?!), five days ago, we still hadn't gone through our script as an entire cast.

One of the perks of being an Intarmed student is that, as a class, you're somehow masters in the art of cramming. Heck, you can strangle exams and unparalleled expectations from teachers, and still assemble a production in less than a week. No one's saying the production will be flawless, because even Spider Man needs at least three months to sling through Broadway in previews.

We had mini-readings towards the end of last week, mini because we were never complete. Then, we finally had the first blocking of all nine scenes last Tuesday. We had a field trip on Wednesday to survey the UP community program in San Juan, Batangas (and also, to see the mangroves in Pinaglabanan and savor the sea and sand in Laiya) - meaning we couldn't rehearse at all. Then, yesterday, we had a final blocking, a technical rehearsal, and a run-through. It was show time.

If there's any descrption that I can think of for our story, it's this: WILD. I wasn't surprised when I first read the script; after all, the writers have some of the wildest, most colorful, and most sadistic imaginations in class. The play's entitled "Hippocritic Oath" with this premise: It is (at least) 2030, and a bunch of UPCM graduates are going through some really outrageous times. One of them decides to kill the others as a favor for the Philippines.

Opening scene: all nine main characters standing onstage in different poses before they break into speech and into reality one by one.

Francis has just been deported from China after failing to pay the rent and bills for three months, despite being a cardiologist (maybe the Chinese have developed super sturdy hearts). His shoulder angel and devil add color to his mental and emotional state. Robin, now a senator of the Philippines, is receiving nationwide attention for a very controversial bill and is pestered by the media about her past with the President, among other things, every time she emerges from the Senate. Jose works as part of a team of military doctors in Basilan, together with Sarah (the dumb blonde stereotype), Galileo (the amazona type), and Lea, who's near the saturation point. An ambush by the Abu Sayyaf results in Galileo's brainless death and Jose, in his extremely serious and workaholic state, killing the Abus.

At Galileo's funeral, Jose's blatantly honest eulogy gets him into a fight with Francis. Jack, the seventh classmate, then has an epiphany: His classmates have been rather useless to the Philippines - an irony considering that they once signed a return service agreement for the country after graduation. He then sets out to kill the 'useless' one by one, using a killing spray invented when they were still in school and now recently banned. He first kills Francis at the airport, just as the latter's waiting for his flight to New York. He then hunts down Sarah in the dead of night at the hospital and finishes her off too. Then, he guns down Robin as she is being mobbed by the media outside the Senate. The play ends with Jack in Lea's clinic, with the one person that he deems worthy enough to live. Lea's tired from everything that's happened, and Jack's still misguided.

The repo company representative in Francis's place. 

I played Jack, who's actually a leading role and a rather difficult character to create, and I also had a supporting performance as the representative of the repossession company who takes away Francis' things in China. What an unbelievably fun night, though I honestly feel that another go at it would result in better performances.

Here, now, is a list of bloopers (actors' names withheld) during the course of our play (this may be incomplete):

The Abu Sayyaf attack!

1. Francis didn't even get to finish his first line during his fight with Jose at the funeral. He started with "Ano ba, Jose, magpakita ka naman ng konting res-- (Hey Jose, show some res--)" before breaking into laughter (probably at the sight of his real-life roommate's unusually serious/angry face, or at the sheer absurdity of it all). The audience went wild.

2. In his China apartment, Francis has a telephone which the repo men also retrieve. Problem was, our props men forgot to set the telephone up onstage. Instead, the head of the repo company had to take the phone out with him from backstage and tell Francis that they're also taking 'his phone' away. Francis, sticking to his lines, said, "Wait, let me take this call." Oh, and we also forgot our prop telephone ring.

Francis with shoulder angel and devil.

3. The repo company employees double as imaginary acrobats who take out the bodies of Jack's victims. When Jack finished Francis off and turned for his exit, the first repo man made his entrance and cartwheeled straight onto Jack. Having barely recovered, he got hit by the second repo man as well.

4. Jose kills the Abu Sayyaf leader last. When Jose hurled the prop scalpel at the Abu, he died even though the scalpel visibly bounced off his chest.

5. The killing device is actually just a sprayer that once contained formalin that we used during cat dissection. When Jack killed Sarah, she died on cue, even though the sprayer got stuck and barely got her face wet with prop water.

The media in a frenzy over Robin.

6. Robin's death defied Physics. She died as rehearsed and the media men reacted as rehearsed. Then came the gun shot sound effect.

7. Jack and Lea, towards the end of the final scene, momentarily forgot their lines. They began doing the scene ad libitum. Jack said, "O ano (roughly intended as "So, what now?")", and Lea responded with the exact same line, both saying it in the way that actors on film do before they kiss or make out or confess their love for one another (cue romantic music). The audience went wild with the surprise, on-the-spot, and totally unintentional romantic angle that the actors never even thought could possibly exist as a subliminal message of the dialogue. The spirit of the rest of their scripted lines was extremely altered.

Jack in Lea's office. The piano's a permanent fixture of the stage, so we made it part of the clinic.

When Francis messed up his line and the audience was going wild during Galileo's funeral, my brother thought (and still thinks) I was being out of character (when Jack was supposed to be all mockingly sad and visibly cynical-bordering-on-glad at the riot that was ensuing, and was supposed to break the fourth wall). Oh, and he also says I had lots of Jarby faces on last night. That's one possible problem with extreme familiarity: Even in make-believe, you see a person only as you see him in reality, including real-life expressions and gestures and manners of speech. He still has lots of comments regarding our play but probably needs a little more prodding.

We won only one award, for Jer's supporting performance as the shoulder devil; the rest were once again swept by Class of 2014. We didn't have a proper set design, the lights and sounds were rushed, and we basically had no hair and makeup to qualify us for those awards. But it didn't matter (at least, not to me). It was really, really fun, and the feeling was akin to winning. For another night (and these nights are extremely rare), we weren't simply the nerds of Intarmed.

The cast of Hippocritic Oath with our director-scriptwriter missing from the frame.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

They're Not Gonna Pay Rent

The late Jonathan Larson will forever be remembered for having set to life a group of bohemian New Yorkers who essentially live to defy the norms and plunge through society’s shallow albeit time-tested cultural constructs. This time, they’re back on the Manila stage, and they’re mad as hell.

In the third incarnation of 9 Works Theatrical’s production of Rent, currently running until March 6 at the RCBC Theater, Makati City, we are treated to a darker, if more compelling adaptation of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner. This, coming from someone who breezed through the company’s first run exactly a year ago and exited the theater with a less pleasing experience than what he initially had in mind.

It was my third professional musical production, and personal expectations were running high, what with the show being one of my four most favorite pieces of theater. If memory serves me right, however, the night was not one without stains and splotches: missed notes here, awkward acting there, technical errors scattered throughout both two acts. In his review, the theater critic Gibbs Cadiz even singled out the show’s lack of despair and genuine emotion, without which the soul of Larson’s magnum opus breaks to a thousand pieces.

But as they say, third time’s the charm – and this couldn’t ring any truer for this current production of Rent. Having caught it on its second Sunday, I must say – and congratulations are in order – that at the very least, the company has finally found its footing. Somehow, somewhere in the span of five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes or less, including eight performances for a second run last December, Director Robbie Guevara and his team of thespians left the previews niche and finally opened the show for real.

It’s winter, and Larson’s band of eight friends aren’t the only ones who are angry with the way things are. It seems the whole Lower East Side has been saturated with the ‘injustices’ of life. They’re mad because they can’t (and yet, are being forced to) pay the rent. They’re mad because in their generic apartment units, they have no heat. Worst of all, they’re mad because life hasn’t been easy. Half of the eight are struggling with AIDS, the other half lashing out their best to cope with time, change, and culture. The world is not as bright as it once promised to be.

That last statement is basically half the message that the show left me upon exiting the theater. If you’ve seen the 2005 film version of the musical, or even just the 2008 Live-on-Broadway DVD, you’d eventually notice that this production’s approach to the material is not conventional. Yes, the hopeful mantra of ‘No Day but Today’ still hangs proud across the stage, but whoever said today can’t be cloudy and gloomy? Promotional photos of the cast posted earlier on Facebook bear glum and morose faces. The motif has been changed as well, and it's no longer as colorful as last year's. Even the lovers in the musical aren’t spared the melancholy. Oh, and there's an abundance of eyeliner (but this may be more of a rock thing).

But whatever the exact state of the weather, this company certainly worked well under it. If they’ve decided to leave the state of flawless optimism in favor of conveying confusion and internal struggles, then what I witnessed last Sunday was already an adequate job, to say the least. I must admit, this take on the musical left me a fraction of a bit apprehensive at first, but it won me over by the end.

Thanks, in no small part, to the performers themselves.

As I’ve somehow breached the topic of performance evaluation, let me begin by saying that no one else in the cast gave as much passion and truth to his or her performance as Carla Guevara-Laforteza – the Miss Saigon alum who was undeniably the biggest star of that matinee.

In her comeback turn as Maureen, a role famously originated by Idina Menzel of Wicked and Glee fame, Guevara-Laforteza simply raised the bar for local theater, demonstrating what a true artist of the stage really is. I’d probably be right to say that her Over the Moon was the highlight of both acts combined, what with the sing-speak monologue delivered with originality and fervor like never before seen onstage, and with crystal-clear vocals to boot. Those more acquainted with Menzel’s work would be quick to draw a comparison between the two, perhaps even equate one with the other. In this, I shake my head in vehement disagreement. Guevara-Laforteza wasn’t trailing after someone else’s shadow; she was holding her own, playing the role as if it’s being played for the first time, in the end owning it in her own stellar way.

Then, there’s the role played by two actresses who are both not exactly the type that theater traditionalists would expect to see singing and acting onstage. In fact, the role of Mimi Marquez is actually the one that I most ‘feared’ for, simply because the ladies who won the part are TV, film, and mainstream music mainstays – in other words, a tiny bit stunt cast.

Instead, Ciara Sotto, our HIV-afflicted dancer for the afternoon, proved that there’s always something to be found in new talent. I’m not saying that her performance was perfect – because it wasn’t. Most notably, her singing in Out Tonight wasn’t exactly the best version we’ve heard, thanks to some notes that were oddly belted out and some that plainly missed the spot (though she did get the acting and dancing parts). Without You, though silkily sung, isn’t just any plain love song; it’s supposed to be driven by its last line: But I die without you. However, for someone who’s only into her second foray in theater and in a singing-acting-and-dancing role at that, I was more than positively surprised by her turn. Her Mimi was sexy and fierce, visibly angry at her plight yet trying her best to put up an untroubled, sensual exterior. But yes, Mimi’s supposed to be sick and an addict, not gorgeous all over.

(Trivia interlude: When Mimi was already supposedly dead, Sotto’s arm was quite obviously stiff – something she should work on. Oh, and she has this Ciara face – a sort of all-in-one facial contortion denoting hurt, anger, sadness.)

I suppose shows with performers who alternate in a single role have foreseen the stakes long before rehearsals began. A one-time audience only gets to see one of the two sharing a role, and how that one fares totally affects the reviews and word-of-mouth endorsements. But Cadiz has lauded both Sheree Bautista (the other Mimi) and Mian Dimacali (the other Maureen) for their work, so that should be a relief for the curious and those who have yet to catch the musical. 

On the rest of the old cast, countless improvements were really observable.

Between roommates Roger and Mark, it was the latter who displayed a more impressive growth in performance. A year ago, Fredison Lo as Mark Cohen failed to make us believe that he was an amateur filmmaker with an invisible load on his back and a whole lot more of stuff bugging him day in and out. In this third run, Lo’s finally got it: Mark’s external penchant for simplicity and living in the background, and his internal struggle to find his place and make his mark. On the other hand, Gian Magdangal’s Roger is now more pained, more tired with life, struggling all the more to get on. Both were vocally outstanding.

Like Guevara-Laforteza, OJ Mariano once again made his presence in the show a gem. His Collins displayed the most natural character transformation from love to loss, from joy to despair. If, until last year, he never had a taste of performing onstage, then his acting and singing did not betray that fact (one would think he was trained to play the role). In contrast, Job Bautista totally delivered – but only in the acting arena (as the cross-dressing Angel, he was a natural); his vocals, it seemed, weren’t in top form, or judging from the previous year, have somehow deteriorated. In Today 4 U, Angel’s ultimate talent number, the moves definitely trumped the voice. And as Joanne and Benny, respectively, Jenny Villegas and Lorenz Martinez did what they could with the least showy main roles.

Now for a musical like Rent, excellence can never be achieved without a good ensemble. If there’s one major observation in terms of acting that I had with this show, it’s that the ensemble members now have more well-developed characters, one-sided though they may be. In particular, Peachy Atilano (squeaky and simply adorable), Johann dela Fuente (those who caught last October’s The Wedding Singer would think he’s having lots of fun with his make-up-heavy characters), and newcomer Pam Imperial (with just as exquisite a voice as the best Seasons of Love soloists worldwide) caught my eye. Interestingly enough, where Atilano was all rays of sunshine, Imperial was as gloomy as can be. The rest played angry and full-to-the-brim with as much zest as one could summon.

On the technical affairs of the matter, much praise is also in order. The choreography, in particular, brims with lots of originality, from the opening number Rent to the hullabaloo of Christmas Bells to La Vie Boheme (taking bits of inspiration from a Da Vinci masterpiece). Angel’s death was another outstanding piece of work, something that should be immortalized in the annals of the local Broadway stage: Collins stands center stage, weeping and clutching the clothes that are now his only connection to his love. His friends take turns to eulogize the death. Angel, for his part, ascends the stairs, a bright light illuminating the stillness, a trail of white cloth sweeping his traces from behind. Captivating bordering on mystical would be a perfect description for it (though yes, it reminded me of Grizabella’s ascent to the Heaviside Layer in Cats).

Where the production falls the hardest, then, is in the sound. The Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium exudes intimacy and coziness, but really now, can’t they fix and improve the sound system? Glaring static marred otherwise mellifluous musical numbers, most notably Take Me or Leave Me (the lesbian break-up anthem by Joanne and Maureen). Other times, the band drowned out the singers, and still, there were times when I couldn’t understand what the actors were saying. Whether it’s their diction or the system that went astray, improvement has to be made in this arena. After a year, I have to say that much of Happy New Year and many a spoken line in the latter half of La Vie Boheme A still remain incomprehensible.

So, this 9 Works Theatrical production’s managed to conquer the local stage three times in just a year, often times to packed houses. There must be something that’s drawing audiences to the theater. When it started out last year, Rent was all about being bohemian, about celebration, about living life to the fullest. Even the programme resembled a painter’s palette. This time, in what the company labels as the ‘farewell run’, there’s a darker soul coursing through Larson’s masterpiece. The spirit is weary from all the jazz that everyone’s throwing at everybody else. Roger and the gang (and yes, that includes a whole lot more people than just the denizens of Avenue B) are just tired, it’s driving them mad. After all, no day but today – meaning, you might die any time now, which simply doesn’t work out for most.

After over two hours comes the show’s only real take at genuine, untainted hopefulness, when another cycle in the lives of its characters unfolds. Angel’s dead, Mimi’s returned to life, the guys have cash to spare, and everyone’s lived to see another year pass. When Mark starts singing those soulful lyrics: There is no future, there is no past…, that’s the only time in the entirety of the story that the characters finally burst into smiles unstained by trouble, undaunted by the thought of tomorrow.

So, who’s up for another run? Larson and the entire world of Rent would find it ironic not to have one.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Facts About My Face

In school, my nose is known as the Russian nose.

That compound description stems from two facts: That my family, though pure Chinese by present-day standards of ethnicity, is descended from Asian Russians (like the ones living in Vladivostok, perhaps); and that the figure of my nose uniquely - and literally - juts out from the rest of my living family's.

Of the first reason, I hardly have a shred of proof, save for my aunt's fancy analysis as to why her grandfather (my great grandpa) and I share this oddly mystifying facial feature. According to her, since both 21st-century ethnic Chinese and overseas Chinese are typically gifted with noses that are easily distinguishable from Westerners', we must therefore have some sort of non-Mongoloid blood in our veins. Also, she told me over dinner months ago, there are three of us in the family who do not possess the stereotypical narrow Oriental eyes. This could only mean that although our immediate ancestors lived in southern Fujian province, the distant ones might not at all have lived in China as we know it. Now I hate to say this, but Russian was actually just the nationality that came out of her lips. Who knows? Maybe it's British or French that's crawling through our system.

In any case, I have gene expression to thank for this majestic bodily protrusion hanging on my face like a dead president on Mt. Rushmore. With this, however, a second theory arises: Allen's Rule, which states that the farther a people live from the equator, the 'taller' their noses are. Blame the cold climate for this and the fact that we need to moisturize and 'warm' the air that we breathe. So, could it be that in a past life - if such a thing exists - I was either a Viking or a Crusader?

* * * * * * * *

There is another structure on my face that is just as hungry for attention. At the right tip of my upper lip, there occurs a triangular patch of skin where lip should be, creating a sort of two-dimensional pit. There are two entities responsible for this: some random carpenter, and Disney.

When I was two, my parents bought a VHS copy of The Lion King, then one of the hottest movies around - and still is. One night, they gathered the family in the living room to watch the movie, and when I say family, that included me who still hadn't perfected the art of pooping in the potty. Note that a low wooden table was the room's centerpiece.

So came the part where Simba and Nala, already adults, first meet each other in the jungle. In their uncontrollable excitement, they rush towards each other and slam their bodies together in total playful feline fashion. Thus, I also started jumping around in my direst efforts to imitate tumbling cats. I jumped, and jumped, and jumped, and bumped.

In a wicked twist of fate, I hit the table. My lip hit the table. The wood tore my lip, creating a bleeding gash that sent everyone in panicked frenzy. Perhaps you will never understand this, but back then, the sight of my lip - or any other body part - oozing with blood was an apocalyptic phenomenon. The movie was stopped, I was rushed to the hospital, and my lip got stitched. Today, there is only skin to mark the spot.

So what was the greatest lesson everyone learned that night? Lions always make for engaging animated characters.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Last night, I slept with a rock for a stomach. Now, my lower back's sort of paying the price. Today is the first time (and should be the last) in both semesters that I took an entire day off from school. One of my proudest achievements in high school was never ever being absent due to sickness during all ten months of fourth year.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Theater year 2011 officially kicked off last Saturday with The Joy Luck Club by Repertory Philippines at Onstage Greenbelt (performances from Friday-Sunday until Feb 20). Probably the best bargain we've ever made: Fourth row orchestra side aisle seats for P400 apiece. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

1. Best daughter: Cris Villonco, hands down. Hers was the most consistent and authentic performance, exhibiting perfect control over her characterization of the chess prodigy struggling with present-day relationships. Jenny Jamora comes a not-so-close second. Best mother: Frances Makil Ignacio (Cris's onstage mom). Some may disagree with me, but I thought her performance was entertainment in every sense of the word.

2. Ana Abad Santos was a disappontment. It was as if she was trying to make herself larger than she already was, as if she was afraid the theater would swallow her up. At many points along the show, I thought her voice would break. And her childhood scene seemed an extract from a high school declamation piece.

3. Best execution of a scene: the airport arrivals area at the end of Act II. Or maybe it's just me and my obsession with planes and stuff. Now I don't want to call this next one 'the worst execution of a scene', so I'll settle with 'most dragging part of the show': The Moon Lady Act I ender. Coming from a Chinese high school background, I say this with nary a bat of an eyelash: It was simply an unpleasant experience to sit through.

4. Somewhere along the show, I actually doubted whether I was watching a drama piece or a pseudo-comedy. Many times, I found myself laughing at the fake Chinese accents and unpolished Chinese lines. There were also scenes that seemed rushed, in the end unable to obtain that emotional and dramatic peak (like Pinky Marquez's childhood scene; I thought she was just okay there). Oh, and the matchmaker played by Gold Soon gave me a headache.

5. Overall, the play was mildly pleasant at the most.

They're renovating our biology lab in the middle of the semester, so we have to content ourselves with the corridors. Shit.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why I Write

... A rant, by lexical definition, is a loud and exaggerated manner of speech, often in a lengthy, bombastic, and aggressive fashion. Since posts are, by convention, the writer's voice in the blogosphere, ranting has as well come to define a method of writing bearing similar attributes to the oral form.

... This is the 21st century. Everyday, around six billion people make their way through this junkyard we call Earth. Survival is the ultimate goal, which makes expression the penultimate one. In this country alone - a seven thousand-strong congregation of earth jutting out of the ocean - there are almost a hundred million walking zombies plowing through fields and urban jungles. If one were to open his or her mouth, losing one's voice is no Herculean task. Shout loud enough, and chances are, the person next to you would have heard only a whisper that he'd easily mistake for the wind playing games with his ear.  

... Self-expression is tantamount to living. We are all biomechanical aggregations of cells and all that scientific poppycock; at our very core is the soul of Christianity, the 'West Ponente' of St. Peter's Square, the life force that science fiction has made a cliche. We can walk for endless miles, and yet, if we choose to remain repressed and silenced, we will eventually rot to oblivion. Choosing to express ourselves would still lead us to the same end, but it makes the journey far more interesting and worthy of time. There is a difference between walking to the market in autopilot and hopping down the sidewalk to the vendors' stalls.

... When I write something, it is not to please an audience. If you write solely for the admiration of others, you probably deserve to have your fingers chopped off. That in itself is a desecration of the art of writing. External appreciation that stems from the written word is but the sauce to the main dish. If the reader is happy with what you wrote, good for you. If what you wrote causes the death of the reader, then the most you can probably do is mention his death in your next piece.

... I have written things that have inspired people, even caused them to swoon over I don't exactly know which (the writer or the writing). A certain piece has even developed a sort of cult following. Then, they realize the terrible truth: Not everything that I write is true. I don't know what's new with this; proverb booklets have been circulating the message for quite some time now: Don't believe everything that you read.

... I write to express myself. If I wish to write about a trip to sunny Nairobi, which never took place, then I will write about that by all means. Writing it down, however, does not make an idea any truer than it already was in its unwritten form.

... When I write, I need to believe in the words that flow out of my body. The end result of my hard labor is always a palette of truths - truths that I stood for at the time of writing. Such truths may remain with me for a long time; otherwise, in retrospect, I can only summon a hearty laugh at how silly I sounded. So to all readers out there, take my advice (and this is not an original one): Take everything with a grain of salt.

... However, and in a way, I shall be debunking my previous paragraph, it is not the real-life veracity of a piece of writing that truly matters. It is not even as to whether the writer currently believes in what he's written. I am talking here of literary works, because the parts of the neuron as an anatomy book discusses them will remain true until maybe the next major evolution in the human system. No, what really matters is how the writing comes across to the reader. If one chooses to wholeheartedly believe in what he's just read, then so be it. You can always choose to label an essay or short story as balderdash.

... In the end, a piece of writing will always contain an amount of truth to it. The truth that I am referring to here is a personal truth: Did the writer really believe in what he was writing at the time? Because this, I believe, is a requirement for a great blog post or essay or newspaper article. All the crap that the rest of the world throws at you and your child is irrelevant. This is self-expression at its highest, because one can never genuinely and whole-heartedly express a falsehood in that moment in time when words start to form and ideas simply flow through the fingers.

File:West ponente.jpg