Monday, July 27, 2015

Shame. Shame. Shame. *Rings Bell*

The UP Manila-PGH complex, as seen from University Tower.

It happened after 47 episodes: "Game of Thrones" finally affected me. 

Ned Stark's beheading? This was so Sean Bean. The Red Wedding? Underwhelming. (Plus I wasn't a fan of Catelyn Stark and so was actually quite glad the show had gotten rid of her.) Joffrey's poisoning? A sad occasion; he was my favorite character, as portrayed by Jack Gleeson, who stretched the limits of the ruthless, seemingly unstoppable kontrabida. The blinding of Oberyn Martell? Fun, fun, fun. 

But the army of the dead blitzkrieg-ing Hardhome? Now that was seriously creepy shit, like heart-racing serious creepy shit. I had to watch an episode of "Modern Family" right after to restore the balance of the universe. 

Then we had "The Dance of Dragons," where, in an upsettingly but hilariously question mark-ridden finale, Daenerys rides her dragon and leaves her court behind like, Shit, y'all saved my ass from those fanatics, now I'm flyin' away and y'all just gotta make do without me.

Lastly, "Mother's Mercy." Otherwise known as "Shame. Shame. Shame. *Rings bell* (repeat 1000x)." Hannah Waddingham (yes, I just found out it's her!) deserves a Guest Actress Emmy for playing that mean bitch of a nun. And then they repeatedly stabbed Jon Snow, whom I didn't really care for until he became Lord Commander, and it was how quickly and subtly it all happened that actually made it so powerful. "Game of Thrones" had so far been all about loud, violent, dramatic deaths, and then this. Ouch. Now the Wall is presumably left in the hands of traitors, ingrates and imbeciles. 

If anything, "Mother's Mercy" should be remembered for its many powerful images--Cersei's shorn, dirtied head; Jon Snow's lifeless(?) face against the white of snow and the red of his blood; Melisandre (who is always dressed to undress) looking, for the first time, like her bag of voodoo melted into shit. 

Me? I'm great. Having the time of our lives in our first vacation month of internship. Went to the Pinto Art Museum last Saturday. Been eating in different places. Watching lots of shows. Studying on the side. The works. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

PDI Review: 'The Normal Heart' by Actor's Actors, Inc.'s The Necessary Theatre

Injustice is "The Normal Heart" running for only one stormy weekend. This is necessary theater, and good thing it's coming back in October. My review is in today's Inquirer--here. Some of you are probably wondering why it only came out today, two weeks after the show's premiere run ended. Well, Wednesday night is our deadline for the theater section, which comes out every Saturday. And as a rule, I don't review preview performances (unless it's a near-perfect show, which is rare). And also, I had my Virgin Labfest reviews for last week's issue, so taddah.

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The heart-shredding 'The Normal Heart'

The Necessary Theatre's production of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" was a fearlessly mounted, thrillingly acted--and distressingly short-lived--show, playing only five performances from July 3-5 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza, Makati City.

Anyone with a heart, regardless of nationality, sexual preference or attention span, was bound to exit the theater bruised, or at the very least, mildly shaken. All those explosive confrontational scenes, the vicious truth-telling and incendiary diatribes, delivered with scalding conviction by a magnificent cast led by Bart Guingona, Topper Fabregas and Roselyn Perez, guaranteed just that.

Three decades since its inception, and thousands of miles away from its Manhattan setting, "The Normal Heart," Kramer's Pulitzer Prize-winner about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York, has lost none of its blistering power.

It did, in fact, only acquire an added layer of urgency with its timely Manila debut, what with the distressing rise of HIV-AIDS incidence in the country in recent years.

Loud fight

"The Normal Heart," supposedly patterned after real-life events in Kramer's life, is anchored on the character of Ned Weeks, who takes it upon himself to start the big, loud fight against HIV-AIDS at a time when the rest of the world, including his gay friends and the rest of their sex-loving community, would rather be silent, if not blind.

It's a highly dramatic story, to put it bluntly, and in this production, there was really almost nothing to distract the audience's attention from the storytellers. On a bare stage, harshly lit in shades of white, with only the most essential props--tables, blocks for chairs, lots of paper, a carton of milk whose violent end was also met with shock--Guingona and his cast sublimely took it upon themselves to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible, to sensational effect.

But the beauty of this production, which Guingona also directed, was in its refusal to be a mere provocative polemical drama--although as that, it was quite compelling. Rather, this "Normal Heart" was more a character study, a meticulous dissection of several fictional individuals, in our view, by the tightest ensemble to have graced the stage so far this year.

In their hands, there were neither good guys nor villains--only real people, with motivations and principles and conflicts. And so when they fought, we watched, felt for them, even shed a tear or two for them, but hardly took sides. It was a plagued community in danger of collapsing onto itself, and we could actually understand why.

Most affecting

Kramer's language--at once vicious and playful, verbose and vivid, and most affecting when delivered in brutal spurts--requires a certain level of theatrical skill and verbal dexterity to pull off.

What's more, each character gets at least one extended dazzling moment in the spotlight, an opportunity to vent his rage and scream at the world. That these actors--Red Concepcion, Jef Flores, Nor Domingo and TJ Trinidad (in a superb, self-assured stage debut), playing gay men who couldn't be more different from each other--made it seem as if the words were flowing out of their brains and mouths for the first time, was also this production's triumph.

As Ned, Guingona showed both the relentless stridency and a hint of coldness intrinsic in the character. We actually understood that he would stop at nothing to fight for what he believes in, that he would wage the noble war even if that means breaking off with his brother (Richard Cunanan, excellent).

It was this blustering portrayal that made it quite clear why Ned would have the perfect partner-in-crime in Emma Brookner, the paraplegic doctor waging her own war against the disease, embodied with shattering authority by Perez.

Life partner

And Guingona's Ned also made the audience see why Felix, the closeted, sophisticated style journalist, would be the perfect life partner for his character. To say that Fabregas, in a gut-wrenching, refreshingly against-type performance that only the most heartless could have survived unmoved, was splendid as Felix would be an understatement. He and Perez were the best things of this "Normal Heart."

The most heartrending exchange in this production was actually almost an aside. Newly diagnosed with AIDS, Felix says, "I wish my mother were here," to which Brookner asks, "Where is she?"

"She's dead," he says, and the way Fabregas uttered those lines, as if the fact were a wisp of autobiographical detail to be shrugged off, sealed the case for casual, unexpected silences as potent tearjerkers.

Poignant silence is rather hard to come by in this play, however. And it's easy to call a show that ends with a treacly deathbed wedding, and that somehow designed every scene to end in a show-stopping monologue, manipulative.

But when it's done this well--an almost divine alignment of acting, scene work, design and direction--who, indeed, are we to resist the melancholic onslaught of tears?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

PDI Review: Virgin Labfest XI

My omnibus reviews of the 12 entries to this year's Virgin Labfest is in today's Inquirer--here. I will not lie: This was exhausting. But theater is love. And hashtag love wins. 

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Set A talkback.

'Sariwa' served two ways at the Virgin Labfest 11

"Sariwa" (fresh) is the theme of Virgin Labfest XI, and what has emerged at the tailend of this annual festival of "untried, unstaged, unpublished" plays, which concludes its three-week run tomorrow at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Huseng Batute, is a kind of accidental dichotomy, the 12 entries of this year's roster having somehow found a way to tackle the central motif in two distinct ways.

There is the obvious: "sariwa" denoting freshness, a departure from the old and stale, which is the principal appeal of the Labfest's three best entries--Maynard Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi," Jerome Ignacio's "Kublihan," and Eljay Castro Deldoc's "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala"--and not only because each features at least one bright new talent at the helm.

'Dalawang Gabi'

Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi," directed by Jade Castro, should be essential study material for people who aspire to write comedy. By virtue of crisp, naturalistic dialogue, it transforms a platitudinous subject--the teacher-student relationship, and not the pedagogical kind--into something riotous and refreshing, dated Alma Moreno jokes and all.

Just as Debbie (Meann Espinosa) is about to profess her love to her former student Lester (Ibarra Guballa) in hilarious fashion that involves a gaudily decorated bulletin board, he tells her he's engaged.

Two years later, the tables are turned. Here, Espinosa and her usual first-rate comic chops ("Hindi ako bumabata, bumibigat lang," she deadpans), and Guballa, in a breakthrough performance that demonstrates through the slightest gestures and silence the brutality of heartbreak, achieve a fine brew of hilarity and poignancy.


A different sort of sadness, one that echoes the us-against-the-world complex hounding the kids of Frank Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" and Han Ong's "Middle Finger," courses through "Kublihan," directed by Guelan Luarca. As written by Ignacio, this Labfest's breakout playwright, it is almost Chekovian in the way the unspoken does most of the elegant storytelling.

Two friends meet at their secret spot--a bench overlooking Marikina Valley in a school not named Ateneo--for possibly the last time, and what starts out as seemingly harmless bantering eventually surprises the audience with stifled feelings and electric revelations.

In this elegiac examination of a friendship in transition, Abner Delina Jr. as the flighty, kinetic senior, and Joshua Tayco as the introverted freshman, provide two of the festival's most nuanced performances--quietly powerful and nearly devastating.

'Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala'

Stagecraft and imagination take center stage in "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala," Deldoc's adaptation of Dean Francis Alfar's "The Kite of Stars." It's about a young girl who goes on a lifetime's quest to build a kite that can send her to the stars.

And what fantasy! As directed by the visionary Ed Lacson Jr., this play is hands down the Labfest's most audaciously mounted production, a dazzling union of puppetry and shadow play, lights and shapes and images and sounds, bringing sparkling life to what would seem like an impossible transposition. And the comfort with the archaic Filipino of the script evinced by the vibrant young ensemble, led by the incandescent Krystle Valentino as Maria Isabella, is laudable.

'Huling Huli'

There is also a worthy contender for next year's Labfest's Revisited set in Herlyn Alegre's "Huling Huli," about women who engage in the desperate sex-for-fish trade.

On a desolate stage, punctuated by the constant presence of a fishing boat and frayed fishing nets, director Lawrence Fajardo once again demonstrates a flair for the operatic (evidenced in his award-winning film "Imbisibol," itself adapted from the eponymous Labfest play of two years ago). 

Peewee O'Hara, Mailes Kanapi and the luminous Martha Comia as a virginal young woman on the cusp of a ruthless sexual awakening play three generations of women and virtually sear the stage with their intense performances.

In the end, when the nets finally straddle even the fourth wall and doom these characters to entrapment in their way of life, you can only feel real pity for them.


In José T. Garcia's "Birtwal," "sariwa" is in the staging. As the dialogue occurs through text message, the lines are slyly flashed on overhead screens, while the actors (J-mee Katanyag and Ron Capinding, as online lovers meeting for the first time in the mall) engage in a carefully orchestrated wordless dance.

What could have been a dreary and dragging experiment happily finds a hook and captures our attention, thanks to director-choreographer Audie Gemora, who brings an actor's eye to the proceedings to produce an entrancing, altogether original experience. We know it could only end one of two ways, yet we still hang on to every second in anticipation of the inevitable.

'Uod, Butete at si Myrna'

And then, there were the plays that somehow took pleasure in their sweetly ironic treatment of "sariwa" by being about characters who are past their prime, longing for attention, unwanted, "un-fresh."

In Layeta Bucoy's "Uod, Butete at si Myrna," directed by George de Jesus III, the divine Angeli Bayani plays Myrna, a prostitute who was once her barangay's go-to whore, and her lover is the stutterer Uod (a convincing Ross Pesigan). "Konting atensyon, konting malasakit, konting drama" is what she desires, and the audience is served exactly that, in provocative, disgusting ways that make the theater reek of squalor: the couple unabashedly having sex; a grippingly detailed narration of a grisly child rape; and, in a wickedly humorous sequence, Bayani, her character now dead, getting trussed up in layers of cloth and plastic.

Unfortunately, a jarring shift in tone that occurs midway through the play reveals the narrative's shortcomings. Chief among our grievances: Characters don't exist in a vacuum as idealized caricatures unaffected by setting and context. In this play, the established scenery of a cramped railway hovel where secrets are impossible to keep, especially among people who have known each other for a lifetime, simply works against the story's supposedly shocking twist.

'Macho Dancer: A Musical'

Nicolas Pichay's "Macho Dancer: A Musical" is about five macho dancers in a washed-out club rehearsing for a final show to end all final shows. At some point during this inebriated musical, the guys start singing "Everything is beautiful at the Po-Mo" (referring to a fictional postmodern dance school), and immediately, Broadway enthusiasts are bound to think, "'A Chorus Line' Meets 'Follies.'"

While gifted with a taut ensemble led by Riki Benedicto and Paolo O'Hara, this entry, directed by Ralph Peña, is also overstuffed and strangely scatterbrained: too many storytelling devices; an almost pathological obsession with Hindu culture; and not enough time for character and scene development.

Perhaps the glow-in-the-dark elephant that appears at the end of this musical can help solve its rumbling identity crisis.

'Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA'

The estranged mother-daughter meet-up cliché is revisited in "Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA," an attempt to take us back to the degenerate Marcos regime.

Yet, as written by Mario Mendez and Genevieve Asenjo (who also wrote the novel from which this story is culled) and directed by Rody Vera, it probably would have worked better as a radio drama, or even a tell-all talk show hosted by Kris Aquino.

This exhausting production could have been a more transporting memory play with more capable actresses--one who could vividly shade the mother's meandering recollection of a fateful night during Martial Law, and another who could imbue the daughter with equal measures of tenderness and ferocity.

'An Expected'

Alvin Molina's "An Expected," directed by Roobak Valle, has "missed opportunity" written all over it in neon-pink calligraphy. What could have been an insightful two-hander about a young gay couple clashing over love and principles is reduced to shtick and whimsy with the addition of an imaginary fairy character. Serious conversation gets rudely interrupted by unnecessary comments, and too often, it's like the writer is stopping himself from going "that deep."

It is delightful to watch Gio Gahol perceptively tear through the part of the modern gay man; frustrating that Acey Aguilar, as Gahol's character's confused lover, gets all the didactic and moralizing lines; and annoying that the play expects everybody to accept unquestioningly the existence of the darned fairy.

'When Sam Met Jo'

Job Pagsibigan's sci-fi rom-com "When Sam Met Jo," directed by Ian Segarra, is another missed opportunity, and we don't even have to bring up the overabundance of nosebleed-inducing scientific jargon.

It has its laudable aspects--the time travel bits (the same scene farcically repeated four times). But it would have been better if Randy Villarama, injecting charm and savvy into the character of Sam, had a more adept scene partner (Chic San Agustin in this case) who wasn't as stiff and stilted. Someone who can deliver the line, "Ginawa mo akong renewable energy!", for instance, without making our eyes roll.

'Hintayan ng Langit'

"Hintayan ng Langit," Juan Miguel Severo's crowd-pleaser about aging ex-lovers who meet in the afterlife, directed by Raffy Tejada, proposes some novel ideas. There's purgatory as a transit sauna, for instance, and its flimsy walls as gossamer barriers between the living and the dead. Much of its floundering bulk, however, also unwittingly asks: Does "kilig" alone make a play?

Because truly, many pointless lines and weightless scenes seem to be here more to toy with the viewers' notions of romance than to meaningfully move the story along.

Watching ballet legends Edna Vida and Nonoy Froilan throw quips and witticisms at each other and dance a slow, tender number near the end may prove appealing to most. But a production that does not devote enough attention to character and scene work can only be, in the end, insincere and lightweight.

'Talo ang Walang Alam'

Finally, there's Joe Mari Sanchez's "Talo ang Walang Alam"--distressing proof that a selection committee can be given a pool of 156 newly written plays and still pick something wrong.

What was obviously meant to be yet another indictment of poverty and the ills of society comes across as desiccated, if earnestly made, poverty porn. Not only is it scientifically unsound (nobody gives birth that quick and clean!), it is also suffocating--too much dead air in a production that's already gloomy to begin with.

This production, directed by Issa Lopez, does not break new ground in either subject matter or writing (which is painfully obvious). The staged reading we saw of Ross Manicad's "The Wedding Planners," starring the wonderful Topper Fabregas and Marco Viaña as exes, and helmed by first-time director Jonathan Tadioan, was a way more stirring and emotionally authentic experience.