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!

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