Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eyes, Ears, Nose, Throat, Whatever

The Year Level 5: ICC Year blog posts - stories and anecdotes, patient encounters and hospital drama, and the many colors of UP med school from the perspective of a third year. Here's the tenth entry, under our one-week rotations in the Departments of Opthalmology and Otorhinolaryngology.

In Opthalmology, we dealt with small things in small corners of the body. The discovery was that people are more likely to lie about having bad vision than admit they need glasses, which really says a lot about the atrocious health-seeking behavior of Filipinos. 

We had a lecture or two. The struggle to keep awake continued.

We also had a public health lecture, and that was the most fun activity we had, in my opinion, mostly because we were using the naked eye to deal with stuff.

My greatest achievement during Opthalmology was this high score in Fruit Pop.

Meanwhile, in Otorhinolaryngology, which most people would know as ENT, or Ears, Nose, and Throat, we spent more time with small things. Navigating earwax-laden canals with our scopes. Stretching nostrils apart like vertically parting the Red Sea with speculums. Holding tongues and getting mirrors to the back of throats to see the vocal cords. No wonder patient feedback from previous blocks included "We felt like we were being treated like specimens."

Also, there was the constant presence of a gloomy sky that threatened to extend the two-day cancellation brought about by religious festivities - as I tweeted, the perks of being an ultra-religious, multi-religious country.

On our second to the last day, Pia attempted to finish "A Feast for Crows" at the clinics.

What a wonderful life. Clap, clap, clap.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

PDI Review: 'Carrie' by Atlantis Productions

My review of Atlantis' "Carrie," which closed last Sunday, is in today's Inquirer - here. I don't usually say this, but... Rerun! Rerun!

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It's 'Carrie' - and it's a bloody good show

Calling the revered American critics and other detractors of the musical adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie": This notorious Broadway flop recently had a three-weekend reincarnation in Manila as Atlantis Productions' season closer - and boy, was it a bloody good production, pun intended.

What former New York Times critic Frank Rich described in 1988, when "Carrie" premiered on Broadway and closed after only five performances, as "uninhibited tastelessness" was now a sensitive, occasionally jocular take on King's otherworldly coming-of-age story. And if the musical's 2012 Off-Broadway revival was "exceedingly sober" for the current Times critic Ben Brantley's taste, he should have seen this sparky but nevertheless affecting production directed by Bobby Garcia.

In the pantheon of Broadway disasters, "Carrie" occupies a legendary perch. The story of a bullied girl who slowly discovers her telekinetic powers and, later on, unleashes that terrifying power on her school on prom night, made for a bestselling novel and an Oscar-nominated film. A terrible thing happened on the way to the stage, however - much of it rooted in the writing.

Illusion of tightness

The book, by Lawrence Cohen, is comparable to a dense jungle of phantom trees. An illusion of tightness shrouds the thinly translated story, which is easily divisible into "Act I: Exposition, Act II: Prom Night." Here, conversational staples are a dime a dozen: "How do you do that?" asks one girl. "What?" her boyfriend replies. "Make everything better."

Dean Pitchford's lyrics possess a similar triteness. It's hard not to reflexively roll one's eyes when uninventive Valentine proclamations like "Then I know everything is gonna be fine/Because you're mine," lumber past the ears every so often.

Of the original creative triumvirate, it was Michael Gore and his music that makes the best impression. A second listen to the soundtrack reveals Gore's knack for bending music to the story instead of the reverse. For example, duets between Carrie and her mother in Act I were written in such a way that whoever sings, the latter would be sure to swallow up the former in sheer volume, reflecting the mother's dominance over her daughter.

So now, the question: Where did Atlantis' "Carrie" go right?

Well, first of all, it had a visionary director. Garcia, whose recent directorial successes were of the cerebral kind - "Next to Normal," "God of Carnage" - stripped "Carrie" of its fantasy veneer, and the result was a production that bled with palpable horror.

Creepy air

Three TV sets provided the first movement onstage, showing Sue Snell, the lone survivor of that murderous prom night, being interviewed. Then, the scene segued into the opening song, with Carrie's classmates worrying about fitting in and "standing out one bit." They danced in sharp, abrupt moves (choreography by Cecile Martinez), mirroring the fluctuations of their adolescent hormones.

Snippets of that interview would keep punctuating the show, and more than enhancing that creepy air of mystery, the reportage as a plot device became a constant reminder of an invisible but expected horror. Moments of laughter were allowed the audience, but almost immediately, we were made to question the appropriateness of our laughs. Such was the subtlety of Garcia's method.

Blood and horror were also awash in Otto Hernandez's scenography, perpetually lit in hues of red and brown by Martin Esteva. Three high wooden walls with barred windows and heavy-looking sliding doors, and a triangular roof of tired planks, contained the action. A cloistered cathedral, or a fortified prison cell?

Either way, the tightness of the space (augmented by the ideal size of the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium) effectively shuttered the world away, trapping the audience in the unfolding story.

With GA Fallarme's graphic and projection design joining forces with Hernandez's set and Esteva's lights, the iconic prom scene climax became this production's towering technical achievement, with its collapsing ceiling arches and a fire steadily engulfing the night.

Tangible humanity

Blood in this "Carrie" also coursed in the tangible humanity of the performances. Apart from one or two ensemble members sticking out like sore thumbs, the acting was otherwise topnotch. Notable supporting performances came from Yanah Laurel as the repentant Sue, Jill Peña as bully-in-chief Chris, and Sheila Valderrama-Martinez as the compassionate Miss Gardner.

Highly critical to this production's success was its astute understanding of the protagonist's mother, Margaret White - the Bible-thumping seamstress who, in depriving her daughter of the household must-knows of female biology, becomes the very force that establishes and propels the story forward.

There probably isn't any superlative left that hasn't been used to describe the extraordinary onstage life of Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. Yet, the clarity - in speech, song, and action - that marked her compelling interpretation of Margaret was but another invitation to marvel at her peerless skills.

Introduced in a shabby dress and baggy sweater by costume designer Raven Ong, Lauchengco-Yulo's Margaret was, to borrow from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," a pitiful creature of darkness - all of the world's narrow-mindedness made manifest in human form.

In that four-minute bravura segment, "And Eve Was Weak," she revealed a woman whose delirious reaction over news of her daughter's first menstruation was more than just a fit of rage; it was religious fanaticism at its most terrifying.

Star-making turn
But above all,  this "Carrie" was about the star-making turn of its lead, Mikkie Bradshaw. With her hunched posture and harried gait, and speaking in quick, nervous sentences, Bradshaw projected quite clearly a Carrie who was both dork and damsel in distress, an "anomaly" of nature in need of rescue in so many ways.

And when she sang, as in that first sustained note of the title song, it was with this crystalline, slightly nasal voice that conveyed an image of innocence so far off from the awkward, unworldly body it inhabited in the story. True beauty, after all, lies within.

Incidentally, Bradshaw was sidelined by illness after the Sept. 19 opening night. K-La Rivera ("In the Heights," "Disney's Aladdin") had to learn the part in just six days, and word was that she was just as splendid.

And so it was that this "Carrie," in the hands of very capable actresses, also became a cartography of two women's psychological journeys. With Lauchengco-Yulo's Margaret, the tormentor became the frightened; with Bradshaw's Carrie, the bullied found assured ground, if only for a while.

By the time their paths once again converged, it was in the gripping final scene, marked by death, tragedy, and the last flickers of human love. In the ensuing silence, with the specter of unimaginable familial homicide grimly keeping watch, "Carrie" posed one final question: Could it all have ended another way?

At the end of Act I, Carrie pleaded with her mother to allow her to go to the prom. "Everything isn't bad, Momma. Everything's not a sin."

The young girl could very well have been talking about her brief foray into the Manila stage. Rare is that local production that turns a Broadway flop into an insightful success, and for that, Atlantis' "Carrie," which closed Oct. 6, deserves to be remembered as a bloody good show.

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Four theater-loving future doctors after "Carrie's" last Saturday night show. 
Photo by Jenn Gargar.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Butuan II: Geography from the Sky

I had a cup of freshly brewed coffee the morning we left for Butuan. I was wide awake throughout the plane ride, skipping and jumping all over the place an hour after arrival, and was a walking zombie by two in the afternoon. The horrors of brewed coffee - this silent black evil - have been vividly imprinted on every square inch of my skin. As the extreme left would say, never again!

But the gift of geography - and a half-empty airplane - is even more precious in the sky. Here, for example, is Taal Lake. Plus points if you can spot the infamous volcano.

Masbate Island - land of cattle ranches and gold mines.

Leyte (foreground) and Samar, separated by that serpentine body of water called the San Juanico Strait.

Blame the camera's zoom function, but that is Metro Cebu and Mactan Island. And the islands that look so blue, they can be the Maldives or an uninhabited patch of the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking towards Bohol.

Camiguin Island. Mount Hibok-Hibok is its most famous inhabitant. An unfiltered photo was taken post-take-off during our return flight.

And finally, the approach to Butuan Airport. Gradients in the water. Butuan Bay. The town of Buenavista.

PREVIOUS: Butuan I: The Way to the South and Back
NEXT: Butuan III: Touristy Things

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beauty and Brains

The Year Level 5: ICC Year blog posts - stories and anecdotes, patient encounters and hospital drama, and the many colors of UP med school from the perspective of a third year. Here's the ninth entry, under our one-week rotation in the Section of Dermatology.

Outside the Section of Dermatology, there's a sign in embossed golden plates that says, "No ugly people allowed."

That's not true, obviously, but that everyone in this section is exceptionally groomed, exceptionally dressed, and exceptionally fresh (compared to the rest of their colleagues in the hospital) is the farthest thing from a lie. Plus, the toilets are one of a kind: functioning bidets (not that I ever bothered dumping a shit there). Naturally, it may come across as ironic that the most literally flawless people in the hospital are made to deal with all sorts of skin afflictions.

With Section Chief Dr. Georgina Pastorfide.

With 3rd year resident Dr. Emy Onishi, who graduated top of her class at the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Medicine and Surgery.

This is a truly outstanding rotation. Everyday, we saw at least three patients - did the histories and physical examinations - and then discussed their cases with the consultants or residents (and it was only natural that most of us preferred the latter). A lot - A LOT - of learning in a span of five days!

We had  a public health lecture on leprosy last Friday. The highlights were an empowerment wall on which we encouraged the audience to write their messages or sentiments via Post-it notes, and a balloon wall, with the balloons containing myths on leprosy, and behind them, a print-out of the new Miss World Megan Young (because, you know, beauty is found within).

 Setting up.

 Check out that balloon-covered face.

 Warm-up before lecture.

 Tongue twister time!

Bravo to this rotation: the first time I gave a 4/4 in the student evaluation!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

PDI Review: 'The Bluebird of Happiness' by Trumpets

In today's Inquirer - here - my review of Trumpets' "The Bluebird of Happiness," an original English-language Filipino musical now running at the Meralco Theater until October 20. If you enjoy the humor of "Modern Family," this might just be the show for you. Bonus points if you're a theater geek and a LOTR fan. Check for tickets. Also, I'd like to thank Eugene O'Neill for the title.

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The long night's journey into day that is 'The Bluebird of Happiness

It is easy to dismiss Trumpets' "The Bluebird of Happiness" - which the Christian theater company dubs its "big musical comeback" - as just another extravagantly fantastical, unrestrainedly colorful kiddie show. When the musical's first promotional posters were unveiled online some months ago, the central image of two children heading into the bluish unknown with the eponymous bird hovering in a trail of glitter seemed like a black box warning for those allergic to the cutesy, the silly and juvenile.

But preconceptions be damned: "Bluebird" is hardly the stuff that kindergarten nap time storybooks nowadays are made of. In fact, that it sells itself, or appears to do so, as a children's musical may just be its most golden move. Viewed in that context, this two-and-a-half-hour musical that runs at the Meralco Theater until Oct. 20 plays out like the offspring of a satire and a primetime evening sitcom.

Moaning and whining

"Bluebird" begins on Christmas Eve in the house of two siblings, Mytyl (Chimmi Kohchet-Chua) and Tyltyl (Anton Posadas) - apparently the only ones in their gift-obsessed village without presents. After finding out that the only surprise in store for them come morning is a caged bird from their parents, their moaning and whining prompts the arrival of Berylune, a loony, big-nosed fairy (Jennifer Villegas-dela Cruz), who sends them out into the freezing night to find the bluebird of happiness.

Accompanied by their transiently human pets, the dog Tylo (Robbie Zialcita) and the cat Tylette (Lynn Sherman), and Light (Carla Guevara-Laforteza), the siblings embark on an entire night's journey that might as well be the product of their wild imaginations.

That's a rather typical method of sustaining interest in a children's story, but in the hands of book writer, lyricist, and director Jaime del Mundo, this adaptation of the Belgian philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck's 20th-century play becomes a hilarious musical adventure brimming with a potpourri of pop culture and religious references.

In the Palace of Night (played by Joel Trinidad), the gigantic clock face from the opening scene of the Stephen Schwartz musical "Wicked" gets transported to the backdrop. In the Forest, the protagonists go head-to-head with angry talking trees, and one can only imagine how discussions on environmentalism would have turned out if these were really the ents from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

In the Land of the Future, unborn children are sent off by Father Time (who can also be Jesus, or Aslan the lion from C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia") via a stair-climbing ritual that, for theater geeks, calls to mind Grizabella ascending on a tire to the Heaviside Layer in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats." And in cameo appearances - the flying ship from Disney's "Peter Pan" and the fairy godmother's song from Disney's "Cinderella," among others.

Effective integration

But the ubiquity and effective integration of puns and cat jokes aside, "Bluebird's" book is also commendable for its bravery, its ambitious attempt to put a creative spin on a variety of themes.

Consider, for example, how each act opens with the song "Much More." Yet, while the Act I version depicts the simple revelry of villagers on Christmas Eve, Act II's is an illustration of excess in the Land of Luxury, where the siblings get lulled into wanton greed and end up squealing and getting physical (like how aggressive kids are wont to fight).

Further highlighting the Christian influence, Act I opens in the siblings' home, which, in its sparseness and intimacy, may as well be the manger in the Nativity. The Act II opener, however, segues into "Living in the Lap of Luxury," in which the seven deadly sins are personified Andrews-Sisters style while the "sinful" fighting kids are gleefully serenaded.

On that note, much praise should be lavished upon this production's cast, who sang their way through opening night on Sept. 27 without a single bum note in sight.

But there are three standouts: Guevara-Laforteza, whose soprano and stratospheric belt is essentially behind the incandescence of her portrayal of Light; Trinidad, whose intelligent grasp of character and ease with comedy transforms Night into a charming, scene-stealing villain; and Kohchet-Chua, who perfectly captures Mytyl's bratty but still charming persona, and whose unembellished delivery of the title song is one that child stage performers should learn from. 

Worthy of admiration

Mio Infante's scenography, hand in hand with John Batalla's lights, is also worthy of admiration. In particular, his design of the Land of Luxury takes a leaf from "Alice in Wonderland" - all bright colors and ornate props, with a chandelier to rival "The Phantom of the Opera" at the back.

And finally, there's the score (music by Rony Fortich), which has the bearings of a mix tape eclectic enough for a long, leisurely drive.

After all the jokes, the occasional clichés, the isolated moments of preachiness that expose minute lapses in the writing, "Bluebird" makes one last jab at philosophizing: the idea of happiness as invisible, or personal. We see the children (spoiler alert!) peering into the covered cage at the bluebird, where it has been the entire time - but we never really see the bird for ourselves.

But to see them finally content in the simplicity and dignity of their place - that becomes the instructive reward for all the extravagance and wildness of their adventure, for their exhausting long night's journey into Christmas Day. 

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The massive cast of "Bluebird" at curtain call on opening night:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Butuan I: The Way to the South and Back

It's been two weeks since we came back from Butuan, and it's thanks to Father, who claimed possession of my laptop for the past few days (he's back in Iloilo now), that I'd been unable to blog about the trip.

The idea of Hospital Management I & II is still vague to me, but of course that's something I wouldn't dare say before our superiors. I'd probably blurt out something that's presumably to their liking: "Management teaches us to be leaders in health care!" "Our field work in Management is wonderful exposure to the administrative and financial machinery behind a hospital!"

I surmise the above sentiments would probably get me into some sort of trouble, but truth be told, that field work was one big holiday. That we got to spend five days away from the noise of Taft Avenue, the musty, narrow streets of Malate, and that distinctive smell pervading every ward in PGH could not have been a more welcome treat.

1. This post is all about the plane rides (but the detailed aerial shots will appear in the next post). Our journey began at 7AM in NAIA Terminal 3. We had four airplane virgins, which is always a cause for celebration. Our plane was in a remote parking slot, or the ones that use stairs, so we assembled at the ground level pre-departure area. Ray, our wonderfully flamboyant, Pharmacist Licensure Exam topnotcher classmate paid us a visit; his group was headed for Davao City.

2. An All Nippon Airways special livery B767-300ER waiting for its mid-morning return flight to Tokyo Narita. Inside the airplane, a couple shot!

3. Clouds, taken by Pia. Meanwhile, Teddy won his first Cebu Pacific game!

4. More clouds! This was over Masbate, if I'm not mistaken.

5. Arrival! Butuan Bancasi Airport is small. There's no other way to describe it. There's a wisp of a baggage carousel in the arrivals hall that's no bigger than a regular National Bookstore outlet. The plus side was getting to walk on a tarmac under prickly sunshine after so many years of buses and airbridges.

6. Now, photos taken during the return flight to Manila, beginning with Bancasi Airport's check-in area. The recent senselessness in Zamboanga - at the time, it was just a day or two after the Davao mall bombings - reached in spectral form even this relatively peaceful city. Hence, the tightest airport security check I've experienced.  

7. The pre-departure area, a similar style to the old Iloilo Airport, where my first concrete memories of the airport were formed. Passengers bound for three cities all fit in the area, but before entering, a final security check!

8. Our plane was relatively on time. A view of the entire tarmac of Bancasi Airport - the smallness of it exudes a charming rusticity.

9. Creative shot of Pia and a Cebu-bound A320. The tarmac, viewed from a left-window seat.

10. Arriving at NAIA, I finally got to see one of the ex-Iberia A340s that Philippine Airlines has leased. God, what an awfully tasteless sight, especially when put side by side with a sleek B777-300ER.