Saturday, March 28, 2015

PDI Review: Fringe Manila 2015 ('Haring Lear'; 'Friction'; 'Manhid'; 'The Pillowman'; 'Tungkol kay Angela'; 'Kwentong Komyut'; 'Maniacal')

The first paragraph of my article in today's Inquirer, on the seven shows I caught during Fringe Manila--here--is just my nice way of saying WHAT THE EFF THIS FESTIVAL WAS CRAZY WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE LOLJK.

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Freshness, surprise and provocation at the first-ever Fringe Manila

Just scanning the official guide to Fringe Manila, which ran Feb. 12-Mar. 1, was enough to give us a headache. Eighteen days, 22 productions, 7 venues--it was as if the organizers were subtly daring us to kill ourselves for the love of theater.

The scheduling made it impossible to see everything, with most of the productions playing less than five performances, some even playing the same dates and time slots. Plus, it seemed almost all of Manila's theater companies just had to open their shows for the first quarter of the year in February as well!

So we "theater-hopped" the best we could, always hoping that our perseverance might be rewarded with yet another genuinely pleasant surprise of a show or a marvelous breakout performance by some up-and-coming actor. Suffice to say, most times, we got what we were seeking for.

'Haring Lear'

The return of the Philippine Educational Theater Association's adaptation of "King Lear," now "Haring Lear," was certainly a welcome assault on the senses. The stage, designed by Gino Gonzales and lit by Jonjon Villareal, was transformed into a stark landscape of despair and decay--leafless branches, torn drapes, glaring fluorescent tubes. The all-male cast, their heads shorn, faces variedly colored, and garbed in flowing silhouette costumes in shades of black and white, spouted Shakespeare like devilish children gathered for a much-awaited funeral.

Bienvenido Lumbera provided a shimmering translation that rendered the anguish and tragedy inherent to the Bard's prose more vividly. And none among the superlative cast directed by Nonon Padilla had a more masterful grasp of this language than Bernardo Bernardo, whose Lear was the blistering hurricane raging at the core of this howlingly innovative production.


Lack of innovation, on the other hand, was what haunted "Friction," a brand-new musical with music by Ejay Yatco and book by Bym Buhain and Miyo Sta. Maria.

For a musical about a writer grappling with his inner demons, it ironically featured depressingly uninspired and unoriginal writing, the dialogue irritatingly trite. The songs, while bearing Yatco's tuneful flourishes, felt hardly vital to the story's progress. Broadway devotees would have recognized the "Next to Normal" references, but the psycho-thriller elements in "Friction" never once thrilled, or inspired suspense, or made hairs stand on end, though director Toff de Venecia and his unquestionably talented actors--Red Concepcion, Gab Pangilinan and Myke Salomon--did what they could to keep it afloat.

'Manhid: The Pinoy Superhero Musical'

Fantastical figures with tongue-twisting names landed on the CCP Main Theater for what was probably Fringe's most widely publicized event: "Manhid," the self-proclaimed Pinoy superhero musical, now resurrected by Ballet Philippines.

And two-and-a-half decades since its premiere, it was unfortunately more than just stale; the book by Kanakan Balintagos (the filmmaker Auraeus Solito), written as a protest piece against American neocolonialism and the apathy and ignorance supposedly hounding this nation, now came across as misguided, a case of not asking the right questions (a discussion that deserves a space of its own).

Worse, however, was the storytelling--or the excess of it. Jumping from setting to setting, scene to scene, with characters appearing left and right, lines and cues thrown here and there, none of them having ample time to settle, "Manhid" felt like watching an "X-Men" or "Avengers" movie, but with twice the number of characters let loose in an overgrown forest of a plot.

Thankfully, the music (by Carina Evangelista, Vincent de Jesus and The Eraserheads) found glorious life in the hands of Radioactive Sago Project, as directed by Francis de Veyra. And Fred Lo (oozing with sex appeal as the many-faced Radia), KL Dizon (enchanting as the insect goddess Urduja) and Kim Molina (the potty-mouthed, hotheaded Allunsina) provided three of this quarter's strongest musical theater performances.

'The Pillowman'

The Sandbox Collective's devised reading of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," about a fictionist's brutal inquisition by a pair of policemen, inadvertently illustrated that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Ed Lacson Jr. had mounted an astounding staged reading of this play last year. This time, pushing the idea way into the tricky realm of meta, he staged this version as an actual interrogation, with just three screens showing "live footage" of the entire play (behind the wall, the actors performed in a triangular sliver of space, captured by a pair of cameras).

It felt like watching CCTV footage alright; it was distant, dragging and ultimately tiring. The palpable horror, the twisted humor and sense of the macabre that made last year's "Pillowman" such an emotional and sensationally acted production--"the year's most entrancing piece of theater," we wrote--were all lost, blunted by the newly installed technological barriers (and we haven't even mentioned how awkward the blocking translated onscreen).

Even Richard Cunanan, still landing those zingers as self-appointed good cop Tupolski, couldn't salvage this show. (Art Acuña was a proper fit as temperamental bad cop Ariel.) As for the new leads--Bong Cabrera as the writer Katurian and Jojo Cayabyab as his mentally impaired brother--well, let's just say those roles were already in perfect hands with Audie Gemora and Robie Zialcita last year.

'Tungkol kay Angela'

"Tungkol kay Angela," Joshua Lim So's Palanca-winning play about a couple who encounter a young man named Fred, was an intimately powerful experience, benefiting from Banaue Miclat's restrained direction and perceptive dissection of the text. Understatement and the unspoken hovered thickly over Io Balanon's approximation of the couple's cramped apartment, which persuasively conjured the claustrophobia of the play's martial-law setting.

Mailes Kanapi and Roeder Camañag were their usual brilliant selves as the nameless couple, but this show was really about Vincent Kevin Pajara's fierce breakout turn as Fred, in a portrayal that at once displayed youth's fragility and unstoppable vitality, and remarkably more than stood its own alongside those of the veteran performers.

'Kwentong Komyut'

"Kwentong Komyut," consisting of five short plays all directed by Jethro Tenorio, was a literal joyride that reveled in fleshing out the minutiae and subtle ironies of middle-class life in Manila, using the various modes of public transport as its platform.

Tyron Casumpang's "Si Aling Coring" featured the talkative, borderline-intrusive lola (a wonderful Virlynn Ramirez) who unfortunately had to be your seatmate on the longest plane ride ever. Victor Robinson and Rissey Reyes' "#Halaga" had the peculiar denizens of the jeepney world--the chicharon vendor, the fare collector, the beggar--all essayed rambunctiously by a shape-shifting Karlo Erfe.

The best of the lot was Dolly Dulu's "Pasensya Na, Bakla Lang." This showcase of sharp, elegant dialogue offered a hilarious, moving portrait of love past, lost and lingering, as seen through the eyes of a gay ex-couple--terrifically and touchingly played by Lei Ramos and Kalil Almonte--trying to hail a taxi on their way to a Halloween party.


If any production from Fringe deserves a second, longer life, it's "Maniacal," the backstage drama written and directed by George de Jesus. With a sterling cast that lent their stereotypical characters much-needed vibrancy--among them, Mayen Cadd as the mercurial diva, Red Concepcion as the egotistical film actor, and especially Via Antonio as the splitting, tumbling, pirouetting bitter-actress figure--this take on a fascinating but worn-out subject was marked by an unexpected freshness and unforgiving truthfulness.

The explosive dialogue, littered with tongue-in-cheek references to all things Philippine theater and sparing no local company in the process, hit quite close to home. That the satire came packed with so much heart, utilizing the idiosyncrasies of this booming theater scene to transform itself into an endearing tribute to a complicated industry, was its tender, welcome surprise.

Monday, March 23, 2015

PDI Review: 'Into the Woods' by Upstart Productions

This past weekend was kind of a whirlwind. Saw three productions: 9 Works' "La Cage Aux Folles" (Audie Gemora's "I Am What I Am" is one for the ages, one of those singular moments in musical theater we'll remember for a long, long time.); and the two plays from Dulaang Sipat Lawin's recital, Rashomon (excellent) and Three Sisters (flat). Which is why I only got to post this today. My review of Upstart Productions' "Into the Woods," which played its final performance last night, was in Saturday's Inquirer--here

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'Into the Woods': A fairytale of missed opportunities

It's been almost five years since Manila last tasted a professional production of a Stephen Sondheim musical.

There was Repertory Philippines' restaging of "Sweeney Todd" in 2009--pretty, polished, and propelled by magnificent lead performances from Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. A year later, it was Atlantis Productions' "A Little Night Music," a lyrical and glamorous, if occasionally too-somber, affair that will foremost be remembered for screen actress Dawn Zulueta's triumphant return to the stage as Desiree Armfeldt.

Extended run

That drought, as certain sectors of the theatergoing community are wont to call it, has finally ended with Upstart Productions' "Into the Woods," which has virtually enjoyed a sold-out extended run (up to March 22), no doubt benefiting from the musical's newfound popularity hereabouts. In a stroke of genius creative planning, it opened within a month after the local premiere of the Disney-sanctioned movie adaptation directed by Rob Marshall and starring the likes of Meryl Streep and Chris Pine.

The genius just about ends there, however; more than anything, this "Into the Woods" is a disappointment--a realization that becomes all the more painful when one thinks of the many things it could have done better.

There's the venue, for one. In the same vein as the musical's recent outings in London (at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre) and New York (at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park), Upstart's "Into the Woods" has also decided to toy with the idea of heightened reality by literally setting the show "in the woods"--in the open-air Kasalikasan Garden in Bonifacio Global City.

But what to make of that almost-bare multilevel stone platform decorated with some shrubbery and flowering bushes? Even with the outdoor location--surrounding trees, starry night sky, breezy atmosphere--what's in front of the audience is still very much a stage, devoid of innovation or transformation.

The lights are barely any help to the viewer; who's singing or which performer to focus on can be a frustratingly confusing business. The cartoonish choreography is reminiscent of high school production numbers.

No acoustic design

Above all, the sound is just bad, and that's not only in reference to how the sound system totally gave out at least four times on the night we caught this show. It's just that, no matter how good a piano player Dingdong Fiel is--the man single-handedly provides the music to this production--it still remains a fact that the venue has virtually no acoustic design, and worse, that nothing has evidently been done to remedy that problem.

Which brings us to two schools of thought: One, the technical elements are terrible because of "budget concerns." If so, then that's just being totally unfair to the paying audiences.

Two, the technical elements are almost inexistent because that's the goal of this production--a no-frills, bare-bones, farcical treatment of the musical, where storytelling and music-making are the highlights, akin to the currently running Off-Broadway production in New York.

And yet, this second reason is even more unfounded.

In the pantheon of Sondheim masterpieces (a term that sounds redundant in retrospect), "Into the Woods" must rank near the top in terms of difficulty. For how does one pull off a musical that combines our most beloved fairytale characters--Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk fame)--and throws them all in the woods in a tale that's as overgrown as it is dark and, later on, moralizing?

The trick, one soon realizes, is a perfect brew of silliness and seriousness. Just the former, and "Woods" devolves into surface-level farce; with only the latter, the enchantment becomes lost, the wit and humor that make these silly bedtime-story denizens so human and relatable all reduced to thin air.

Two minds

The main problem with Upstart's "Into the Woods" is that both traits want to hog the spotlight for its own. Director Joel Trinidad appears to be of two minds on how he wants to shape his "Woods," and the result is a perplexingly half-baked mess--one that revels in the musical-as-farce idea with the cheap props and economical costumes, while it also seriously wants to be a full-time fantasy-based dramedy about twisted happy endings.

This identity crisis manifests in the cast, who suffer from a lack of overall direction, their many-varied attacks on the characters never quite cohering into a singular shade.

Take Rachel Alejandro's portrayal of the Witch, for example. The character, however sinister, is also defined by what she sings: "I'm not good. I'm not nice. I'm just right."

Yet, Alejandro plays her too pretty, a princess in hag's clothing, with none of the inflections that would suggest this witch can cast curses and still be of clear mind to point out the mistakes of others. In other words, far from the musical's moral center, no matter how well she delivers her songs.

Or take Juliene Mendoza as Cinderella's Prince: a narcissistic, prancing philanderer, all right, but hardly alluring and, well, princely. Or Mica Pineda and Jillian Ita-as as Cinderella and Little Red, respectively--both pristine voices, but never quite full-blooded individuals so much as caricatures.

Human qualities

The only performers who evince genuine human qualities and showcase any growth in their characters are real-life husband-and-wife-tandem Lorenz Martinez and Sheila Valderrama-Martinez as the childless (and nameless) Baker and his wife--ironically, the two roles completely original to this musical.

During the performance we caught, the sound gave out in time for the Baker's big number near the end of the second act, titled "No More," when the happily-ever-afters have gone awry and he feels he's lost everything.

Pardon the cliché, but it was as magical as theater could get watching Martinez sing the number a capella, "all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses," as the song goes, harrowingly fleshed out in his heartfelt, lived-in portrayal.

And most of the cast could definitely learn a thing or two in articulation and interpretation from Valderrama-Martinez's "Moments in the Woods," when the Baker's Wife, after a particularly sensual encounter in the woods, expresses her confusion through tongue-twisting lyrics that go, "Just a moment/One peculiar passing moment/Must it all be either less or more/Either plain or grand?/Is it always 'or'?/Is it never 'and'?"

In those lines, Sondheim might have also been hinting at the secret to his shows. His musicals, which so often closely and accurately mimic reality, have always found their purest ground in ambiguity. There are no clear-cut paths and no singular answers, only moral dilemmas, decisions and choices all playing tug-of-war to create vivid, believable reflections of daily life.

In the case of "Into the Woods," it's the right blend of self-seriousness and self-parody. Failing that and one gets a production that's muddled, half-hearted and never striking a real chord in the viewer. One that remains, like the stories at its core, a shallow fairytale of missed opportunities. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 in Movies, 24-28

"The Boxtrolls."

24. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)

This is Channing Tatum's film. And also Mark Ruffalo's. Because everybody got so preoccupied with Steve Carell playing against type and with that bird's beak of a nose hanging on his face. But this is really Channing's movie. Hulking, brooding, troubled Channing, who should have been nominated for stuff.  

25. The Lego Movie (dirs. Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

Innovative? Sure. But its ten-gags-a-second format can be quite exhausting, no matter that the script is just devilishly funny (poLISH remover of Na-Yeel, anyone?). So buckle up, get on that Batmobile, and all together now, "Everything is awesome..."

26. The Boxtrolls (dirs. Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi)

In my book, the most beautifully animated film of the season. I simply couldn't get over the images after watching it, so I've devoted a separate section below. Notice how the animators never intentionally use straight lines; everything bends, spirals, curves. And the colors literally illuminate every face, object, place, it's all so festive, and the scenes just... twinkle. The story's nothing new: "Tarzan" set to Victorian England, where the apes have become trolls, and the invaders, cheese-obsessed snobs. And Tarzan is now voiced by Bran Stark, and Jane by Dakota Fanning's little sister! The ending's grotesque and definitely not for children. I mean, cheese allergy gone hideously wrong?! So not for kids. 

27. Big Hero 6 (dirs. Don Hall & Chris Williams)

I don't think any major player during the past awards season had a more profound sense of loss than "Big Hero 6." Here's this spunky, devil-may-care genius who's lost his parents, and then his genius brother, and now that hug-me-pinch-me-squish-me white robot too?! The animation is topnotch (San Fransokyo beats Rio in "Rio," in my opinion). But while we welcome and laud that reach-for-the-moon attitude, I did feel that the movie failed to honor some of its ambitions, that the story eventually fell apart and gave way to a clichéd superhero story--which it really had a huge chance of not falling into, as the earlier parts so astutely demonstrated. 

28. The Casual Vacancy (dir. Jonny Campbell)

I read the book a couple of years ago, was kind of bored by the slowness, but eventually ended up liking the small-town feel. This BBC adaptation is downright funny, occasionally sentimental, and looks like it was shot while the cinematographer was on 'shrooms.

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Right now, I'm thinking my vote for Best Animated Feature would probably have gone to "The Boxtrolls." I'll explain next time, but just look at these shots, they're so... delicious. The first two, by the way, are hands down the film's most disturbing parts.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

PDI Review: 'Juego de Peligro' by Tanghalang Pilipino

My review of Tanghalang Pilipino's "Juego de Peligro," which closes tomorrow, is in today's Inquirer - here. The two other reviews in the theater section are Carlo Rivera IV on Dulaang UP's "Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig," which wrapped up last Sunday, and Cora Llamas on PETA's "Arbol de Fuego," playing 'til next weekend--and there you have what looks to me like our version of a Filipiniana page. 

"Bilanggo," based on Jean Genet's "Prisoners of Love" plus some events in his life, resembled a Wikipedia page of the author transposed to the stage. The design elements were topnotch; Melvin Lee's portrayal of Genet and Rody Vera's book just didn't work. But Vera does a splendid writing job in "Arbol," which features terrific performances from Cherie Gil (not once overplaying the character), Raffy Tejada, Jake Macapagal, Bembol Roco, Angeli Bayani and Divine Aucina. The production, though, never quite achieves any climactic emotional payoff; if there's pain and pathos, it's because of the actors as individuals and not the show as a whole.    

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A verbose but beautifully played 'Juego de Peligro'

Less than 20 minutes into Tanghalang Pilipino's "Juego de Peligro"--an earnestly acted and ornately designed adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 18th-century epistolary novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (famously remade first into the play "Dangerous Liaisons" by Christopher Hampton, then a movie directed by Stephen Frears that starred Glenn Close and John Malkovich)--it's clear that the audience must shell out a little more focus and attention than usual, lest they get left behind by the mentally fatiguing proceedings.

The fatigue is chiefly the making of Elmer Gatchalian's adaptation of the Laclos novel. It utilizes, in layman's terms, your señorita lola's Tagalog--lyrical but lengthy, tortuous and torturous, sprinkled with Spanish expressions, the sentences seemingly having lost their periods.

"Sadyang ganyan ang pag-ibig: Ito ang nagbibigay sa atin ng kaligayahan ngunit ito rin ang nagbibigay sa atin ng pasakit," goes one meandering and all-too-obvious line. Now imagine drinking up this language for two and a half hours, and it makes sense why some high school Filipino classes in the audience can be a nightmare.

This is not to discount the purpose Gatchalian's script fulfills, which is to evoke the Manila of the late 19th century, when the denizens of that period had to grapple with traditionalist norms and mores against the backdrop of the crumbling Spanish regime. Such is the time and place for the playground of "Juego's" two principal characters: the scheming Margarita (Shamaine Buencamino) and the irreverent, womanizing Vicente (Arnold Reyes)--former lovers who find themselves at the start of the play turning to each other for their latest games of seduction.

Elaborate game

And that's really what "Juego" is about: an elaborate game of sex, woven by two masters, transcending the borders of family, friendship and class. Here, the indio helps the aristocrat, the godmother secretly shames the godchild, and the religious newly married woman succumbs to the wiles of a family friend.

On the stage of the CCP Little Theater, director Tuxqs Rutaquio's elaborate set, which believably conjures the interiors of those grand colonial ancestral houses, and James Reyes' costumes effectively transport the audience back in time. In fact, they jibe well with Gatchalian's archaic Filipino to summon a distinctively Filipino Old World feel.

However, it is also these design elements that threaten to undo the production. Between the tiring verbosity and the bulky costumes, it is quite difficult to discern the authentic steamy sexiness that should be this play's hallmark.

Which is why "Juego" owes much to its capable cast, who embody their roles so thoroughly, they make the language bearable and the scenes less tedious. Even though Rutaquio's direction (yes, he's on double duty here) makes the production a series of peaks and troughs--the subtlety ever present, the sensuality coming and going--he has at least extracted the best from his actors, who are really the reason this production floats.

At certain moments, "Juego" even flies. In the penultimate scene, Rutaquio conducts a literal three-way involving the suicide of a woman and a couple having sex, the whole tableau blocked and choreographed with daring artistry and intensity.

Luminous debut

Buencamino is expectedly good in a role that allots less scenery-chewing than most leading-lady parts. Arnold Reyes is terrific as Vicente, all cocky and raunchy at first, then (falsely) desperate and lovelorn the next--in other words, a playboy of the highest order played with not a false note.

The real surprise, however, is the luminous stage debut of screen actress LJ Reyes, who, as the newly married Teresa, the object of Vicente's lust, is at once a fiery and delicate presence onstage. And Adrienne Vergara fathoms genuine naivete and confusion as the virginal Cecilia, the unfortunate victim of Margarita's revenge and Vicente's seduction.

By the time the curtain falls on "Juego," there is also a kind of confusion rolling within the viewer, a mismatch between the eyes and the ears--beautiful performances vis-à-vis overwrought dialogue. But the overall vigor and plausibility of the enterprise do their work; the production ends up staying with you, even growing on you, long after the lights have gone out.   

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

2015 in Movies, 21-23

(Screenshot of the film's most gut-wrenching scene.)

21. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)

"Selma" first reminded me of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," which was so boring, I gave up on it after twenty minutes. But DuVernay has given us a masterpiece, a film that flows so smoothly, you see everything and feel everything. It puts the viewer in the place, in the time, in the heart of the horrors that sadly still persist in the racist Deep South. It also shows us Martin Luther King not as saint and revered icon, but as imperfect person imbued with all the telltale signs of greatness. There are many painful scenes in this movie, and a few that are simply gut-wrenching. I would have been absolutely fine with "Selma" winning Best Picture over "Boyhood." (Obviously, neither of them won, as is the usual fate of great films)

22. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

"Madness! This is madness!" is what I felt like screaming while watching Miles Teller (one of our terrific, under-appreciated young actors) beat those drums with bleeding fingers, because really, those sticks have become extensions of his limbs. In a parallel universe, where life is a curse, everybody's parents are JK Simmons' character and Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly, and all the kids are harassed overachievers.

23. That Thing Called Tadhana (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)

I need to see this movie again. That it is in Filipino, too often achingly, heartbreakingly expressed by the divine Angelica Panganiban, makes this film quite the experience. Everyone who has loved and been loved, who has hurt and been hurt, will find something here. Not exactly beauty, nor pain, nor tears and sorrow, but perhaps, memories dusted and once more relived, because isn't that the greatest kind of hurt?