Sunday, October 26, 2014

PDI Review: 'FnL' by PETA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The singing was also not for 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).


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.


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

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

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

Vocal acrobatics

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

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

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

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

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

Candid, freewheeling

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Galvanizing life

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

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

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

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

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

Discordant thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two segments

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

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

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

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

Separate life force

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatically staged

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

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

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

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

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