Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Best of Manila Theater 2014

On the last Saturday of the year, my final article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer-Lifestyle Theater section for 2014 - here.

SEE ALSO:
1. The Best of Manila Theater 2013
2. Compilation of links to my theater reviews

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'Little wonders': More of the year's best in theater


Remember that time back in March when a sizable closing-night crowd congregated at the CCP stage door and serenaded the cast of the Asia-Pacific touring production of "Wicked" with the musical's undying friendship anthem "For Good"?

Viral online videos exist as proof of this strange manifestation of separation anxiety.

Makes one wish something like that would happen also to one of our own--because while that imported blockbuster was unquestionably superlative in every aspect, there were actually 10, 15 times the number of equally terrific homegrown productions that graced our stages this year.

By now, this statement is already at risk of becoming cliché, but it just has to be said: Local theater has never been more alive. Seeing four, sometimes five, shows in a single weekend is becoming a more frequent occurrence, and it's not only the quantity, but more importantly, the quality of shows that's remarkable.

Most standing ovations used to feel forced; now, it's a race to be the first to get up and applaud. Exciting times, indeed!

Before anything else, it should be noted that what I consider to be the biggest shortcoming of this roundup is the non-inclusion of The Necessary Theatre's "Venus in Fur"--a formidable production, I was told, anchored by husband-and-wife tandem David and Jennifer Bianco, but which I failed to catch during its one-weekend run. As fellow theater reviewer Cora Llamas wrote, it "demands a rerun."

Second, this roundup also excludes the 10th year of the Virgin Labfest, the CCP's annual festival of new plays--again, because I missed it. A terrible shame because it was in the Labfest that I spent two of my most enthralling hours in the theater: Two years ago, the set of one-act plays that consisted of Floy Quintos' "Evening at the Opera" (starring the regal Ana Abad Santos), the revisionist "Kafatiran," and what I consider to this day as a benchmark for situational comedy, Rae Red's "Kawala" (with a star performance from Cris Pasturan).

And so, in what has been a most prolific year of theatergoing, here's a rundown of the best of 'em, in (sort of) ordered lists.

Productions

None of the year's five best productions came from the established or big-name companies, as opposed to last year, when Atlantis Productions' "Carrie" and "The Addams Family" emerged on top, or the year before, with Repertory Philippines' "Jekyll and Hyde" and Tanghalang Pilipino's "Stageshow."

Instead, 2014 saw the reign of the "little wonders"--the small shows that could, in a manner of speaking, by either fledgling companies or university-based theater organizations. Each one proved that craft and talent, and not size or repute, are what truly matter.

And a second observation: This felt like one of musical theater's weaker years, vis-à-vis the smorgasbord of polished and well-crafted straight plays that played the season. (Expanding the selection to 12, the list would immediately include TP's "Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente" and Rep's "Wait Until Dark.")

The ten best productions of 2014:


1. "Cock" (Red Turnip Theater): Diminutive in scale and devoid of decoration, this 90-minute play helmed by Rem Zamora was a surprisingly spellbinding experience that raged with explosive power, thanks to a superb four-person cast that fully inhabited their roles and their lines.

2. "Dani Girl" (The Sandbox Collective): It had the three things every stage production should aspire to have--imagination, innovation and inspiration. Thus, it made something utterly sincere and beautiful out of a young girl's deceptively sentimental quest to defeat cancer.

3. "Games People Play": It's tempting to hail this year's Aliw Award winner for Best Non-Musical Production as a miracle, but that's exactly what it was: a marvelously realized tragedy about twisted childhoods masquerading as a cautionary fairytale. That Aliw Award for ensemble acting for Kalil Almonte, Thea Yrastorza and Abner Delina Jr. was thoroughly well-deserved.

4. "Middle Finger" (Tanghalang Ateneo): An absorbing, affectingly fleshed out production of Han Ong's play about adolescent turmoil, told in the eyes of a pair of tormented Filipino teenagers in a (sexually) repressive America. But even with this foreign setting, everything and everyone felt uncannily familiar.

5. "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" (Dulaang UP): In this condensed retelling of the Indian epic "Mahabharata," director Dexter Santos' extraordinarily agile and talented corps of mostly student-actors executed his dizzying, bone-breaking choreography quite spectacularly to produce the year's best and most complex dancing.

6. "August: Osage County" (Repertory Philippines): A deafening three-act Grand Guignol whose terrors took the form of vicious wordplay and frayed relationships, and marked by so many stellar turns that all coalesced to produce a harrowing, oftentimes hilarious portrait of familial dysfunction.

7. "Rabbit Hole" (Red Turnip Theater): In the frigid landscape of this Pulitzer Prize winner about a grieving family, nothing was ever as it seemed; everything was "fine" and everyone acted "okay." Yet, every scene bore astounding emotional clarity and rang with the cold, unforgiving truth.

8. "Rak of Aegis" (Peta): This two-act jukebox musical had a rather spotty book, but at its best, it was a downright accurate illustration of how that distinctly Pinoy spirit weathers and eventually overcomes a deluge. And what an ensemble, who not only sang gloriously, but also crafted such entertainingly idiosyncratic characters.

9. "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (Resorts World Manila): An exuberant, freewheeling joyride saturated in pink and feathers about drag queens journeying across the Australian outback. It was fun, fab and foolish, but also had the class and depth care of the peerless Jon Santos.

10. "Rite of Passage" (Tanghalang Ateneo): A coming-of-age story about a hapless boy, his unhappy aunt and the hopeless rural outpost they call home. As directed by Ron Capinding, it unspooled as a simmering, slow-burn tale of regret, ruin and longing.

Performances

There were so many excellent performances this year that trimming this list down suddenly felt as stressful as Christmas shopping.

Just to cite a few that could easily fit in a longer selection: the breakout turns of Deli del Rosario in "FnL," Rebecca Coates and Mitzie Lao in "Dani Girl," and Cholo Ledesma in "Rite of Passage"; Baby Barredo and Pinky Amador tearing the house down in "August: Osage County"; Cris Villonco and her heartbreaking rendition of "With You" in "Ghost The Musical."

Also, Topper Fabregas as the frustratingly indecisive unnamed protagonist in "Cock"; Celeste Legaspi throwing shade in "Mga Ama, Mga Anak"; Che Ramos-Cosio as the devil-may-care sister in "Rabbit Hole"; George de Jesus as the king of dry humor in "Ang Misis Kong Promdi"; and Jimmy Marquez in a role that finally made full use of his fabulous talents in "Rak of Aegis."

But the ones that, to paraphrase Kylie, just won't get outta my head:


1. Reb Atadero ("Dani Girl"): A shape-shifting performance that's without equal in this or any other year, as he juggled about a dozen characters, including a show-stopping, rapping Latino drug dealer, through the most seamless of transformations.

2. Pepe Herrera ("Rak of Aegis" and "FnL"): 2014's breakout actor was quite the revelation as an expert at playing "kanto boys": sensational as the boatman Tolits in "Rak," but even better--and absolutely believable--as the jologs cousin in "FnL."

3. Jenny Jamora and Niccolo Manahan ("Cock"): As a pair of disparate personalities fighting for the love of one man, they also just as much fought for our attention and allegiance. She was grace personified; he was the cattiest bitch in town.

4. Agot Isidro ("Rabbit Hole"): This screen actress rendered herself completely vulnerable as a mother unable to move past the accidental death of her son, a haunting, no-holds-barred portrayal that left the audience just as wrecked as the character.

5. Liesl Batucan ("Wait Until Dark" and "August: Osage County"): This year was but another showcase for Batucan's versatility, as she added a blind woman squaring off against home robbers and the narcissistic sister in a family under fire to her already-crowded list of first-rate performances.

6. Joaquin Valdes ("The Last Five Years"): In a span of 90 minutes, Valdes literally and wrenchingly grew before our eyes, from a bright, promising young man to one hardened by the darker facts of life.

7. Sheila Valderrama-Martinez ("Shrek The Musical"): She was subtly funny in Rep's "Noises Off" and devastating as the mom of a cancer-stricken child in "Dani Girl," but it was as the bipolar, tap-dancing Princess Fiona that Valderrama-Martinez showed the world just what an indomitable triple threat she really is.

8. Guelan Luarca and Joe-Nel Garcia ("Middle Finger"): They made for a compelling and ultimately sympathetic pair of powerless adolescents dealing with, among others, hormones and societal hypocrisy, just like the lead characters in Frank Wedekind's "Spring Awakening."

9. Yul Servo, Marco Viaña and Gina Pareño ("Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente"): In this Filipino adaptation of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Servo and Viaña, as alternating Biff Lomans, and Pareño as their mother Linda, more than helped steer this epic of shattered dreams and fractured futures; they were its emotional core.

10. Sheila Francisco ("Rabbit Hole" and "August: Osage County"): In these two shows, she established herself as the go-to actress for matronly characters with a talent for landing acerbic zingers.

11. Poppert Bernadas ("Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini"): This contender in the current season of "The Voice of the Philippines" virtually set the stage ablaze and stole the show with his fiery interpretation of the (historical) political firebrand Artemio Ricarte. He also sang the hell out of the part, but you probably already knew that.

12. Frances Makil-Ignacio ("Rite of Passage"): In this Palanca-winning Glenn Sevilla Mas play, her powerful portrayal of the ill-tempered spinster aunt was a mirror of misery and a stormy reminder that the past will forever haunt the present.

13. JC Santos and Justine Peña ("The Glass Menagerie"): As Jim O'Connor and Laura Wingfield, respectively--the two supporting roles in this four-character Tennessee Williams classic--they provided much needed light and life to an otherwise elegiac affair.

Direction


Upon exiting the theater, you usually hear something along the lines of "The show was great!" or "That actor was really good!"

But directors, the puppeteers who see all, know all, and yet remain invisible behind the scenes, deserve just as much recognition, if not visibility.

This year, there were four men who really distinguished themselves in this field. Only one of them is a veteran--Jaime del Mundo, in whose hands "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" acquired some semblance of soul despite its excessive, overly flamboyant nature.

Toff de Venecia and Topper Fabregas hardly came across as debuting directors, the way they made uncompromising, stirringly acted tearjerkers out of "Dani Girl" and "Rabbit Hole," respectively.

But the one name every honest-to-goodness local theatergoer should know by now: Ed Lacson Jr., who, in three productions--"Games People Play," "Middle Finger" and Sandbox's staged reading of "The Pillowman"--proved himself a master of transforming the small and obscure into the dazzling and electrifying.

Technicals



Otherwise known as the categories that don't make the full telecast of the Tony Awards. Which is such a shame, for what's a show without the designers, orchestrators, writers and composers?

The six most noteworthy achievements in this vast arena, apart from Dexter Santos' choreography for "Ang Nawalang Kapatid":

Joey Mendoza's strikingly red set design, flooded with flowers, vases and posh furniture, was fully responsible for giving "Full Gallop," starring Cherie Gil as fashion icon Diana Vreeland, its air of class and opulence.

Gwyn Guanzon's persuasive transformation of the stage of the Ateneo Rizal Theater into a nipa hut in Antique province for "Rite of Passage."

John Batalla's lights, the instigator of suspense in "Wait Until Dark."

Myke Salomon's orchestrations for "Rak of Aegis," which succeeded in reworking and revitalizing the seminal rock band's songs.

Ejay Yatco's making a name for himself in the realm of musical composition through Ateneo Blue Repertory's "Toilet: The Musical" and his original song cycle "Real-Life Fairytales."

Finally, Jethro Joaquin, who deserves to be cited for best use of music in a play. Who could've guessed that the requiem classic "Pie Jesu" could make the ending to "Rite of Passage" such a cathartic high point.

Special events


Lastly, 2014 would have been only half as exciting without these two defining theatrical events:

"Everything in Bituin"--or the concert-to-end-all-concerts--showcased Bituin Escalante in magnificent vocal form, capping the CCP's Triple Threats concert series with a stratospheric belt and a deafening roar. The highlight, of course, was her earth-shaking, sea-parting rendition of "Heaven on Their Minds" from "Jesus Christ Superstar."

And the staged reading of "The Pillowman," with a sensational cast composed of Audie Gemora, Robie Zialcita, Niccolo Manahan and the endlessly hilarious Richard Cunanan. Hands down, the year's most entrancing piece of theater. So before we ring in the new year, allow me to make one last appeal: A fully staged production, please!

Friday, December 19, 2014

PDI Review: 'Chicago' - The US National Tour in Manila

My review of the touring production of "Chicago" at The Theater at Solaire is in today's Inquirer - here. It closes Sunday night, so hurry! And two things: One, this is the first time I'm appearing in the Friday issue, instead of the usual Saturday theater section - because tomorrow is that which every honest-to-goodness local theatergoer anticipates every year: our editor Gibbs Cadiz's annual theater roundup! Two, this review caps my theatergoing for 2014. What a year this has truly been.

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The dancing is the star in 'Chicago'

Is it mere coincidence that "Chicago," the Tony Award-winning musical centered on celebrity criminals, should end its 23-performance run in Manila on the same week that the country is rattled by the mind-blowing exposé that high-profile crooks in the New Bilibid Prison are living in sickening luxury?

Or is this a case of what Oscar Wilde called "life imitating art?" It's irresistible to think that perhaps this is just the universe once more playing a cruel joke on the weather-beaten, notoriously optimistic Filipino people.

One would do well, however, to try and forget for a couple of hours the disheartening goings-on in the real world once one steps foot inside The Theater at Solaire, where "Chicago" closes Sunday night.

First-rate

This production--the first to play the casino complex's spanking-new, state-of-the-art theater--is nothing if not first-rate, and not the least bit dispiriting.

That is, in a sense, to be expected, given that this "Chicago" is a re-creation by director David Hyslop and choreographer David Bushman of the version currently running on Broadway. Now the second longest-running show in the Great White Way, this version was directed and choreographed to critical acclaim by Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking, respectively. (It arrived in Manila for a three-week holiday of sorts before returning stateside as the musical's 16th national tour.)

The first thing one should know about this production is that, as far as design elements are concerned, it is as stark and somber as they come. The orchestra is planted right smack in the middle of the barren stage, where the only inanimate objects are a couple of ladders and some chairs; where Ken Billington's lights evoke the bleak atmosphere of prison; and where the performers, garbed (some of them barely) in William Ivey Long's all-black costumes, roam predatorily.

Festive life

But don't be fooled by this seeming absence of splash and glitter. This production is a bewitching, scintillating experience, all thanks to its top-flight cast of triple-threats, in whose hands, feet and deliciously flexible bodies the story of murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in 1920s Chicago comes to festive, farcical life.

Bianca Marroquin and Terra MacLeod, as Roxie and Velma, respectively, are an evenly matched pair. Both alumni of the Broadway production, they bring grit, spunk and masked despair to their roles so effectively, even if they don't exactly possess the kind of singing voices that could make radio hits out of John Kander and Fred Ebb's songs.

Their interpretations border on caricature--more so with Marroquin, who sing-speaks like Minnie Mouse in a femme fatale's clothing--which is just right for a show that glamorizes deceit and murder. (One of the production's highlights is a number called "Cell Block Tango," where six of the murderesses, including MacLeod's steamy Velma, engage in a tell-all dance-off that can be alternately titled "Variations on Killing Your Philandering Lover.")

A corrupt prison matron (the brassy Roz Ryan), a smooth-talking, manipulative lawyer (Jeff McCarthy, excellent), and Roxie's vacuous husband Amos (Jacob Keith Watson, in a standout supporting turn) are the other characters that lend "Chicago" a more familiar, realer-than-real air.

Apt finish

It's the dancing, however, that ultimately makes the price of admission worth it--an apt finish to a year that also saw Dexter Santos' insanely talented, ballistic corps of university students in the "Mahabharata" adaptation "Ang Nawalang Kapatid," and the disco gay fantasia in overflowing pink and feathers, otherwise known as Resorts World Manila's "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Here in "Chicago," it is an endless barrage of thrusting pelvises, swiveling hips, snapping fingers, angled limbs and high kicks--a testament to unwavering devotion to craft, polished in the style of the venerable Bob Fosse.

All this takes place on a seemingly cramped rectangular space, and the sass and sultriness spill over, seeping into every seat and grabbing the viewer by surprise with that tingling sensation that can only be the result of the most sensual non-R-rated viewing experiences.

Oh, if life were only this preposterously fun--where criminals are worth rooting for, and all one needs to do is dance a storm out of the ordinary. But to quote the musical, "that's showbiz."

 Terrible photo of the cast during curtain call.

Not a bad seat in this theater, I tell you.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Elective in the Rice Paddies

Some of the Atis I "worked" with.

Here are some reasons why, four months ago, I chose "Traditional Medicine" with a community rotation as my clerkship elective:

1. It sounded lighter. Unlike some of my classmates, I do not see an elective that includes 24-hour duties as a particularly appetizing adventure.

2. I'd been told that last year, the student who took the same elective tagged along with the all-powerful elective coordinator (who's also a former DOH secretary) to a conference in Brunei.

3. "Community" is code for "place of your choice." Regular electives don't really give you that option; you more or less have to do it in PGH, unlike the summer elective and its limitless, borderless possibilities.

4. There was that faint glimmer on the horizon that told me I could somehow tweak the details and do my elective in Iloilo.

The main roads of Pototan, Iloilo are lined with mahogany trees painted white round the bases.

Now here are some "reasons" that have absolutely nothing to do with that choice:

1. To have a "chill" time. That's lazy, mind you.

2. To be able to go home for the Christmas break earlier than most everybody else. 

3. To go to Baguio with my blockmates on the first official week of my elective.

The Atis of Barangay Ubang.

And here's a quick rundown of the details of my elective:

1. Interviewing Ati healers in a municipality in Iloilo. (Yes, the stars somehow aligned and made it possible for me to do my elective in my hometown. Or as kids would say these days, 'chos.)

2. Writing a paper about it. (Which, some people have told me, I'm rather skilled at.)

Yeah, rice paddy goodness.

Finally, here's what has actually happened:

1. Two-day field work in the town of Pototan, around 30km north of Iloilo City.

2. A fifteen-minute ride via the rural health unit's ambulance to Barangay Ubang, where an official settlement of some 50 Atis can be found.

3. Interviewing the one and only healer of the Atis of Ubang. She's a forty-something farmer who's an all-in-one package: midwife, "taga-luy-a," etc.

4. Said interview took place under the shade of a tree just off a rice paddy that we had to traverse (I'm quite good at doing this walk-dance-ballet across woods and nature-y stuff, mind you, thanks to my high school adventures with the school paper).

5. The above happened because the Ati that we told the day before to inform Manang Healer of the interview did not do as instructed.

6. Helping Manong Joey and Manang Barbara, the nurses who served as my official companions, administer flu vaccines to some Atis while we were figuring out how to get to Manang Healer.

7. Free lunch and use of laptop and internet, courtesy of the office of Dr. Mondragon, municipal health officer of Pototan, who also drove me to and from the city for those two days. If you get to read this, thank you a million times over! 

8. Zero progress on the paper. Merry Christmas!

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The road to Pototan.

Pototan rural health unit.

Across the rural health unit, goats.

Furniture for sale at the RHU.

The lobby also has some medical stuff.

The entrance to Barangay Ubang.

Dirt road to the barangay.

Aftermath of the sugarcane harvest.

Traveling in style with Manong Cleo.

Entrance to the Ati settlement.

Outside an Ati's house.

Drying the harvest.

Vaccination.

Snacks for the kids.

The communal "toilet."

Into the rice field! Enlarge the photo to see the white dots in the distance - the Ati farmers, one of whom was the healer I had to interview.  

Leaving.

 Reflections. 

My team: (Seated) Dr. Mondragon; (Standing, L-R) Nong Joey and Nang Barbara.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

PDI Review: 'Scrooge the Musical' by Repertory Philippines; 'Songs of an Electric Soul' at Sev's Café

My reviews of "Scrooge the Musical," Repertory Philippines' "big musical" for the year, and "Songs of an Electric Soul," an independently produced one-man show by Christopher Aronson, are in today's Inquirer - here. If anything, this only strengthens my suspicion that 2014 will go down as a relatively kebs year for musical theater.

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A barren 'Scrooge,' a berserk--but in a good way--'Electric Soul'

Why, indeed, do we go to the theater?

That's one trite thought worth revisiting as Repertory Philippines' "Scrooge the Musical" and Christopher Aronson's "Songs of an Electric Soul"--two shows that are poles apart in terms of subject and staging--both play their final weekends.

'Scrooge'

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote that "from the first, it has been the theater's business to entertain people."

If so, then "Scrooge" fails the test--and this, we write with sincere sadness, for the performance we saw simply felt beneath the repute and purported standards of the trailblazing theater company.

This disappointment is magnified by the fact that "Scrooge" is supposed to be Rep's season closer, and one that comes at the heels of its three outstandingly staged straight plays this year--the suspenseful "Wait Until Dark," the master class in ensemble work that was "August: Osage County," and the uproarious comedy "Noises Off."

Yet, for a show that's peddled by the company as its "big musical" for the year, there's hardly a smidgen of excitement coursing through its dreary two-and-a-half-hour running time.

To be fair, director Baby Barredo and her team really don't have much to work with in the first place, as writer and composer Leslie Bricusse has left them with mediocre songs and an overwrought story that's essentially a superficial lift out of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

It should also be pointed out that "Scrooge" conspicuously bears two of Rep's trademarks: a terrific ensemble (an assembly of veterans and unfamiliar names) and a clean staging. All the scenes are excellently blocked and choreographed; the singing and dancing are technically spot on, and not a hair out of place.

John Batalla's lighting design also does the trick of giving life, pun intended, to the famed ghosts of the story, and Miguel Faustmann's set ingeniously resembles a gingerbread town.

Letdown

All the more reason, then, why this production is such a letdown, for never does it rise above the limitations of its source material. Instead, this "Scrooge" has a mechanical feel to it, an over-sanitized, almost antiseptic sheen, as if the performers were only trying to make the most out of each forgettable scene.

The skill is there, but the heart, and more so the passion that has come to define the best of Rep (think "Little Women," "The Producers") is nowhere to be found.

As a Christmas treat, this production barely bursts with the excitement of holiday cheer. Even the final scene featuring Scrooge dressed up as Santa and spreading the love to the whole town wasn't enough to stop the kids in front of us from prematurely rushing to the bathroom.

And as a children's show, it is devoid of innovation, the kind that made similarly banal material sparkle and soar in Trumpets' "The Bluebird of Happiness" last year.

It also hurts to mention that Faustmann, as the titular character, is half a misfire in this production. As an actor, he can impressively juggle grumpy, scheming, heartless and frightened all at once. But a singer he is not, and so he resorts to (painfully) bellowing his songs, most of which are way beyond his range.

'Songs of an Electric Soul'

At the other end of the spectrum is Aronson's one-man show, "Songs of an Electric Soul," which is unquestionably the year's weirdest, craziest and most unpredictable piece of theater. It evades structure, hardly makes conventional sense, and expects unmitigated indulgence from its audience.

To paraphrase the playwright, it is a "mind-expansion ritual" that aims to imagine how the practices of the ancients would fit in the technological age. Picture a babaylan gathering the hunter-gatherers round a midnight fire and screaming her chants to the heavens with the aid of a Macbook, speakers and synthesizers.

Here, Aronson becomes the babylan (and more!), opening by instructing the audience to stop believing that this is just a show and he is a performer. After an hour, two questions demand answering. One: Is the man sick in the head? And two: How much of this self-proclaimed "ritual" is unscripted?

The first question is the result of watching Aronson bare the most insane and vulnerable parts of him, as he dances and contorts his body, spouts hummable songs in made-up foreign tongues, dramatizes tales of the Creation, and discusses his spirit guides residing in, um, wands.

"You may find it hard to believe, but this wand is inhabited by Robin Williams," he says, before explaining how, one time, he heard a "Yawp!" behind him--the cry Williams makes in the movie "Dead Poets Society"--and knew it was the late actor calling to him (or something).

The next question is just a nicer and printable way of saying, Is this man sh***ing us? For "Songs" has the feel of an improv routine, but without the adherence to meaning, clarity or coherence. It's as if Aronson is only thinking up and dishing out shenanigan after shenanigan as he goes along.

There is a script, of course, and it is all an act--no matter how much he tries to convince us that neither exists.

Remarkable

But what is most remarkable about "Songs"is the amount of bravery involved in putting it up. For isn't great theater all about shedding off facades, about becoming as transparent, and therefore real, as possible?

That the most fitting word to describe Aronson in this show is "berserk" may just be the best compliment "Songs" can possibly receive.

With a voice harmony recorder in hand (he literally creates the music on the spot) and almost the entire control booth on the table in the performance space, Aronson single-handedly manipulates the technical elements of "Songs," most of the time while talking or singing.

This is a man of overflowing charisma with an air of mystery about him, who can easily command our attention despite the absurdity he's shoving down our throats. So when he asks us to emit animal sounds at the signal he'll provide (in a segment that will be hilariously familiar to those who've seen Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"), we gamely respond, if only to see what will happen next.

A word of caution: This show is not for the uptight, and definitely not for those who want their evenings at the theater neatly packaged in the familiar Broadway gift box.

But in Brechtian terms, "Songs" more than entertains; it shocks, startles, surprises--precisely why this little ritual is an experience that demands to be seen.

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Remaining performances:

"Scrooge" - today at 3:30PM and 8PM, tomorrow at 3:30PM
Onstage Greenbelt 1, Makati City
Tickets: (02) 571-6926/-4941

"Songs" - today and tomorrow at 8PM
Sev's Café, Legaspi Tower (across CCP) 
Ocampo St. cor. Roxas Blvd., Malate, Manila
Tickets: 0917-825-3067

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Quick Update in the Midst of Ruby

The view at Mines View Park, Baguio City. 
(From my Instagram account: vincengyu)

It's 1AM. My flight back to Iloilo is in 7 hours, which means I have to be at the airport in 5, which means I have to leave the condo in 4, which means I'll only get to sleep for, like, 3. The thought horrifies me, yet the prospect of leaving Manila in a few hours is literally pumping adrenaline into my bloodstream. 

Oh, and there's a storm outside. Ruby is her name, and bitch is what we call her timing.

But first: Yes, I'm alive. The blog is alive. (You should be tired of reading this proclamation by now.) No, it is not just a place to stuff my theater reviews (speaking of which, I should be writing the one for the terribly boring "Scrooge the Musical" by Repertory Philippines).

Last week, the block and I went to Baguio - my first time. A separate blog post or two for this, but right now I want to thank Eliza Victoria for introducing me (through her blog) to heaven in Benguet that is Mt. Cloud Bookshop. Also, the weather was Victoria Peak at night in April, which is code between my brother and I for "beautiful" (if the word is even appropriate to describe weather). 

Mostly, we ate. Walked a lot. Did some touristy stuff. Drank a bit. And some other stuff that shall remain in the past (No, nobody got pregnant, or had wild inebriate sex).

Yesterday (because I still think it's Monday), I watched my last two shows for the year: Dulaang UP's "Ang Misis Kong Promdi" with George de Jesus, master of dry humor; and the US touring production of "Chicago" currently playing The Theater at Solaire. I find it amusing that my first ("Wicked") and last shows for 2014 are imports, but this is no place for discussions on colonial mentality.

I shall sleep now. This post was written only to reassure the lot of you (but also myself) that this blog still has some smidgen of life to it.

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.

Intensity

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.

Touching

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 Tom, 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.)

Excessiveness

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 everyone. 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).

Dissection

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 first 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.

Earthshaking

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.