Friday, August 31, 2012

My First Ever Two-Show Day

Leon, Iloilo, November 2007.

Let's not talk about the present. Congratulations to the UP College of Medicine Class of 2012 for being the top performing school in this year's August Physician Licensure Exam (on that note, congrats to Dr. Carol Tan - pride and loyal spawn of Intarmed). 

Let's not talk about un-awesomeness as well. This morning's 2nd (and last) exam on pulmonary medicine was quite, shall we say, unoriginal. Like, incredibly, unbelievably unoriginal. Now I'm no longer certain if anyone of us actually knows, and really knows, enough of Pulmo to be worthy of the next year level.

Instead, let's talk about the awesomeness of last Saturday. 

Because in theater parlance, it was my first ever two-show day. And it wasn't even a planned two-show day, and by 'planned', I mean conceived and laid out the day before.

Friday, I bought a ticket to the Saturday night performance of Upstart Productions' rerun of Forbidden Broadway. That was after I had my haircut at Bench Fix (don't care how it's stylized), Robinson's Manila. A word of advice: Don't go there. The employees are as rude as can be, and the stylists are as uninterested as a bunch of whales watching badminton.

So there I was, set for my grand Saturday-night return to RCBC Plaza. Then I thought, "This will also be the first weekend for PETA's Bona." And the initial critical reactions were quite good. 

Therefore, at around 1:30PM Saturday, I found myself inside a taxi headed for the PETA Theater. I'd thought of taking a jeepney, but then decided against it as it would entail two rides, the second of which would be the horrendous stretch from Manila City Hall to St. Luke's Medical Center.

I Know Him So Well filled the taxi. It was a terrible version, like plastic surgery gone wrong. Two divas screaming their souls out.

Good thinking with the taxi - I arrived at the theater an hour later. But as it's only the opening weekend of a show whose publicity's nowhere near that of The Phantom of the Opera (now at the CCP), quite a lot of tickets were still available. I got a balcony seat for P600.

When I entered the balcony section, I thought this theater must have the best sight lines in the Metro. With an estimated capacity of 400, there mustn't be a bad seat in the house. I settled for the center section's highest row, which was empty at the time.

But heaven must have missed me. Students and teachers of St. Peter's College Seminary (not sure if it's the one from San Pablo, Laguna) were on a field trip. First, they tried out balcony left. Then, some of them saw where I was and so decided to fill the endless void around me. The only awkward thing about it was that I was already seated in the middle of my row, so I ended up being literally surrounded by the group. If you guys ever read this, maybe you can send me links to some of the photos we had.

But seriously though, I'm all praise for this institute (it is an institute, yes?). I may not have age on my side, but perhaps I have passion for the theater enough to be allowed to commend the administrators of St. Peter's for exposing the kids to this side of the arts. Heck, it's beyond brilliant they're taking the time to expose the kids to the arts at all, and not just classroom talk. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing, what they're doing. By the way, the reason they chose such a heavy piece? Walang Sugat at the CCP was sold out.
Also, residents of the Department of Pathology were apparently benign enough that afternoon to be at the theater as well. Fancy seeing you there.

I left the theater at around 5:30PM (no, I still wasn't ready to meet Eugene Domingo in person). Decided that a taxi would be the fastest with 2.5 hours left before my next show, so I got one there and then on the rolling terrain of E. Rodriguez Avenue. 

"Traffic's everywhere," the driver told me. But then that's what all drivers are bound to tell you during peak transit hours. And indeed, traffic was hell along the entire stretch of Gilmore Avenue. At that time, it was apparent I was in for a long ride. 

So I decided to cut it short. I got off at Gilmore Avenue-Aurora Boulevard and took the LRT 2. Gilmore station has to be best station I've been on yet. And because of this, I finally stepped foot inside Gateway Mall after more than three years of living in Manila. Took the MRT from EDSA to Buendia Avenue. A guy had a badminton racket sticking out of his bag, which made me realize I haven't played since last year. Anyway, I had a quick dinner some place at the corner of EDSA and Buendia, and then had my first jeepney ride along the latter.   

And that, in a (humongous) nutshell, was how I transported myself between the two theaters.

Now, on Forbidden Broadway.

Best act of the night had to be Liesl Batucan as drug-addicted Liza Minelli.

The Sondheim segment! ("Into the Words").

Lorenz Martinez as Mandy Patinkin!

Fiddler on the Roof! ("Ambition").

War of the Anitas!

And for a nightcap, here's one from a favorite Sondheim song: "But if life were made of moments, then you'd never know you had one."

The cast of Forbidden Broadway in the Les Miserables segment (L-R): Lorenz Martinez, Caisa Borromeo, Liesl Batucan, and OJ Mariano. Photo from

Monday, August 27, 2012

PETA's Bona: A Study on Devotion

Some twelve kilometers northeast of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera will be haunting audiences with a falling chandelier for the next seven weeks, a scaled-down yet more corporeal horror is taking place.

That horror involves only a man stripped to his underwear, the woman whom he treats as his maid, and a boiling kettle of water. "Sige, paliguan mo na ako," the man says to her. Bathe me. And so she does, dousing his bare skin with the water in two splashes. The effect is instantly chilling: He falls to the ground writhing in a most visible form of excruciation, she bathes him with pent-up anger and all the cuss words her lips can muster. "Hayop ka!" Animal!

Whether the man ends up as disfigured as Lord Webber's masked phantom is left to the imagination. But the woman, it must be stressed, is neither musical genius nor malevolent phantasm.

She is Bona, the titular character in Philippine Educational Theater Association's (PETA) 45th Season opener, a modernized take on the Lino Brocka film that brought the venerable actress Nora Aunor, then in her late twenties, all the way to the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. But whereas Brocka's Bona is a student hailing from a middle-class family, in this stage adaptation by Layeta Bucoy (with additional scenes by Phil Noble), she has transformed into a single, middle-aged call-center agent. The slums have given way to an ordinary household and a condo unit with an elaborately tiled bathtub equipped with a functioning faucet. 

Eugene Domingo as "Bona." 

That said, perhaps the best way to approach PETA's "Bona" (directed by Soxie Topacio) is to have no background whatsoever on the film. At the very least, forget everything one has heard or seen of Aunor's incomparable acting prowess or Brocka's indelible directorial imprint on the local film industry. Call centers weren't so popular in the Philippines back then, to begin with.

The play opens with Bona, devotee of Quiapo's Black Nazarene, praying to a miniature version of the image on a homemade altar whose drawer doubles as a piggy bank. This is a woman who prays with the untainted sincerity of a child. But she also runs an online fortune-telling business, which is ironic, and teaches English to Koreans via her computer. She is the breadwinner - her nephew Bingo depends on her, but also the child's mother (her sister) Binky, who flits from one boyfriend to another. Her best friend Baldy runs to her in times of financial shortage, but at least his neediness is outweighed by more genuine traits such as honesty (as every best friend is wont to possess). Such is Bona's colorful life.

Along comes Gino, contestant of TV talent search "Star of Tomorrow." He promised his dying mother he would become an artista. Bona, introduced to the show by Baldy and his boyfriend Raf, becomes inexplicably drawn to him. She spearheads his fan club "Gino's Angels," and when he gets eliminated from the show and beaten up in a bar, brings him home out of pity. Just a helpful adoring fan playing hero of a lifetime. The natural thing to do, if there's such a thing, is to have Gino wake up in the morning sober and less bruised, get an autograph and perhaps a photo, then say farewell, 'til we meet again.

But what transpires is a story that so absurdly portrays human downfall and destruction, it's quite tempting to label it 'Shakespearean'. In retrospect, "Bona" feels like two polar halves joined together by one woman's tragic fall in life. Act I ends with Bona, internally swelling with love for the man, finishing off Gino's drunken, dissonant take on "The Greatest Love of All"; Act II ends with the boiling water scene. The first act, chock-full of laughs and romances; the second, a darker, grittier depiction of what comes after.

Joey Paras as "Baldy" (left) and Domingo.

Bona is played by Eugene Domingo - and potential viewers, be warned: This is hardly usual Eugene fare. Last year, in "Ang Babae sa Septic Tank," the Cinemalaya film that won her the festival's Best Actress award, Domingo also took a turn for the unexpected, playing a hard-to-reach diva version of herself. This is also not the work that's most likely to propel her to immortality - that would be "Kimmy Dora."

But fear not, Domingo delivers by all means. Again, the temptation is there - to use 'tour de force' in this sentence - but hers really is a carefully constructed performance, that no trace of celebrity remains once she commands the stage. Here, she becomes the character - not a Go Donghae twin, but pure and palpable Bona. She's hilarious (her comedic skills should be unquestionable), but with every laugh comes the strain of a bored, fragile middle-class life. In the pivotal Act II climax, even as she boils the water with her back turned to the audience, we feel a kind of repressed evil slowly clouding the air. It's a rare skill in the theater nowadays - the ability to build up terror through silence without falling flat midway and settling for the expected.

Domingo, however, is only one half of the pair that sustains the play's trajectory. Enter Edgar Allan Guzman, who won last year's Cinemalaya Best Actor trophy for "Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me." Here and now, he should be awarded 'best fit for a role'. How he effortlessly conveys celebrity search contestant and user/know-nothing/desperate second-rate actor without contorting his face and throwing his arms to the air to make himself 'big' must be a heaven-sent skill.  

In truth, without Guzman, Domingo wouldn't be as successful in her role. Guzman feeds Domingo with the kind of awkwardness needed to highlight the age gap, the kind of frustration to trigger her climactic act of fury, the kind of helplessness that her Bona chooses to turn a blind eye to whenever his Gino rats on about Gino and Gino alone. Mutualism, it's called in science, a give-and-take relationship which is also evidently at work between Domingo and the rest of the supporting cast. 

Joey Paras as Baldy is especially winning (his joy over discovering that there exists a sleeveless version of the Gino's Angels shirt is priceless). Applause must more so be accorded to Juliene Mendoza, who, as the condo landlord infatuated with Bona, delivers all the cheesy pick-up lines with a most natural flair, he makes cheese seem the best weapon to wooing a woman. Gabs Santos is a very believable straight-acting gay, BJ Forbes surprises with a nuanced, toned-down turn as Bingo, and Olive Nieto voraciously attacks Binky as if the role were Blanche DuBois (it's not). "Tingnan mo nga ang sarili mo ate, may pinagkaiba pa ba tayo?" she tearfully spits at an equally tearful Bona, bereft of everything late in the second act.

 Domingo and Edgar Allan Guzman as "Gino" (right).

At the end of this two-and-a-half-hour play, one leaves the theater with a heavy, prodding feeling, as if the hilarity of the first act had entirely dissipated. That's because "Bona" fearlessly asks more questions from its audience than it allows its audience to do unto it.

Consider, for example, how the mother figure is here dissected three-ways. First, in the form of Gino's mother, whose death (involving the ensaymada that would later become staple Gino's Angels giveaway) leaves him hungry for fame and celebrity. Second, as a martyr - Bona serving Gino his breakfast, preparing his baths, scavenging for money while her 'son' gambles and sleeps with a childhood sweetheart (Anna Luna, strikingly naive). And just before the lights dim at the end of the play, a twisted take on Michelangelo's Pieta - Gino, burnt and unconscious on the floor; Bona, standing over him. "P*tang ina mo!" she screams at his body.

Now what does that make of the caring and loving mother? She does have cougarly sex with him (to fireworks and blooming roses projected on the overhead screen - excellent technical decision, by the way, if not somewhat stereotypical).

Which begs an even bigger question: Is Bona ever truly in love with Gino? What, for instance, is the mysterious force that leads the woman to surrender P15,000 just so a press conference can be staged for him, care of his talent managerial team (a trio portrayed with much welcome, if sometimes uneven camp by Jef-Henson Dee, Dudz Terana, and Juvenir Tabor, who manages to turn a stumble with his lines into cause for laughter)?

It starts off as pity, that much is clear, but just how far can pity go before it unknowingly transcends boundaries and turns to obsession? For sure, it's no longer pity that drives Bona to mortgage the family home just so she can finance Gino's launching film (or "lunching" as the boy would have it, to comedic effect). And even that is not spared an inquisition: Why on earth would she, the breadwinner and lone stronghold of sanity in her family, do that? Pretend it's not a plot hole, a directorial or actorly misstep, and it proves a fairly difficult thought to wrap one's head around.

In "Devotion," the 2004 Palanca Award winner for Essay in English by Wilfredo Pascual, Jr., the author tackles one man's fascination with Nora Aunor and the times he met her in person. Backstage, after a concert, he recalls, Aunor was surrounded by adoring fans, as if she had become the image of a saint enshrined in a grotto by her cult. In "Bona," Domingo plays an Aunor role, but this time, she is the devotee. It must be safe to assume that at any point in Act II preceding its climax, the temptation for Bona to replace the Black Nazarene with a framed photograph of Gino must have been laborious to resist. 

So perhaps devotion is the answer to everything. That in this age where celebrities sometimes find themselves elevated to the level of saints, the lines between fandom and obsession, and obsession and devotion, can just so easily be blurred. Here in the world of PETA's "Bona," even the sanest, most rational person can fall victim to this kind of societal blindness and inflict upon oneself not just corporeal damage, but tears and wounds of the soul.    

The final scene plays out Bona's "interview" with celebrity host Boy Abunda. How surreal it must be for the woman to finally be the star herself. Boy asks her the difference between alipin, servant, and fan. "A servant is paid with money; a fan is paid with a photo, an autograph, a smile," she says. Only, she certainly gets paid more than just that.

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Bona runs at the PETA Theater, off E. Rodriguez Avenue, Quezon City until September 23. Visit PETA's website and for show dates and tickets. This review is based on the matinee performance of August 25. All photos in this post were taken by Jory Rivera for - Philippines. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Liaisons and Wannabe

The view from where I spent Saturday night, courtesy of pharmaceutical company Pfizer. "It's like being in the villa of Madame Armfeldt," my brother would say. Not exactly great imagery - Angela Lansbury and her huge eyes would pop up before my mind's eye in an instant. 

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The Southwest Monsoon had one hellish bout of dysmenorrhea two weeks ago. Three days of classes got cancelled. What's left of the last of three weeks of Cardio: the practical exams on Monday, then the 200-item gigantic exam on Friday. That was three entire days of lectures turned into self-study sessions. That, and struggling against the feeling of "There are homeless people out there, but you can't do anything about it because you have to study for this exam." Ah well, as the fellow-in-charge told us (through text message), "be mature, man up, and study." And if the entire section of cardiology had been offering eggs to Sta. Clara for the longest time, then by Jove, it worked.

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I'm probably one of the very few who never went all giddy over the Olympics. I woke up one fine morning and didn't even know the Games had opened. It's only my aunt who kept score of China's medal tally, comparing it to the US every few days. I don't know if she cried in her sleep when Mother China finally fell to second place for good. 

The only part of this year's Olympics that I saw and felt passionate about was the closing ceremony performance of the Spice Girls. I was in kindergarten the year they first conquered the charts. As a kid, I knew the lyrics to Stop, 2 Become 1, Wannabe, Too Much, and Say You'll Be There by heart. That moment in the video when the announcer says, "It's the arrival of the Spice Girls!" actually gave me goosebumps, the years of wild abandon(?) finally coming back to me. (Now this sounds like a Jim Steinman song.)

P.S. Stop = best Spice Girls song of all time. Rant away now. Also, that up there's not the best video in YouTube, but blogger's acting up. 

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Why did it take me such a long time to see Memento, Requiem for a Dream, Mysterious Skin, and The Squid and the Whale?!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

An Enemy of PETA

I ate crocodile claw for dinner. Now I feel like a sinner. For all I know, I'd willingly hand myself over to PETA and be burned at the stake. If you've read this blog for quite some time, you'd know crocodiles are one of my most favorite animals in the world (along with rhinos and hippos and snakes and the capybara and the octopus). Shit, all this talk is making me feel sick. Maybe it's the crocodile, or whatever's left of the claw, talking.

But what the hell. It was my aunt's birthday dinner. You can't exactly blame her: She's not so young anymore (Patti LuPone's only a couple of years older than her), and she's as Chinese as Chinese can be. Yes, that includes siding with the motherland when it comes to Scarborough and Panatag debates, and rooting for the Chinese Olympians to conquer London by the end of the month. So crocodile claw is probably no more than just exotic fare for her, one that should be had during monumental celebrations. I'm not the least bit surprised. Last year, we had ostrich. And the year before, turtle soup, complete with carapace.

I wonder if next year, we can have some leopard stew or roasted leg of gnu.

We only have a week left for the cardiology module. The ginormous 200-item exam's next Friday. At this morning's preceptorials at the PGH Pediatrics ER, I saw my first TOF baby. The weather has been wild the past week. Based on satellite images, next week should bring an even wilder storm. Memries/ Like the corners of my mind/ Misty water-colored memries...

Since we are being oh-so-Chinese, look what I found in the suki DVD store last June.