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.


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.


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.