Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Best of Manila Theater 2016

In the Lifestyle-Theater section of today's Philippine Daily Inquirer--here--my year-end report encapsulating 64 productions (23 musicals and 41 "straight" plays), and excluding ballets, concerts and cabarets. This post contains my own pictures, as well as hyperlinks to my reviews.

1. My Best of Manila Theater 2015
2. My Best of Manila Theater 2014
3. My Best of Manila Theater 2013
4. Compilation of links to my theater reviews

*     *     *     *     *

More Best of Theater 2016: A fine sampling

Red Turnip Theater's "Tribes."

Yearend lists, film critic Richard Bolisay wrote early this year, are only "the writer's vain idea of playing favorites and revealing his 'preferences...'" So it goes with theater.

There came a point back in September when it was no longer possible for me to see everything on offer. There was the sudden inclusion of "The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!" in Tanghalang Pilipino's season.

Also, as a livid, middle-finger response to the Duterte administration's unsurprising complicity in the Marcos burial issue, the "Never Again: Voices of Martial Law" mini-festival of one-act plays was assembled in less than two months, and ran alongside Guelan Luarca's adaptation of Lualhati Bautista's "Desaparesidos." All of which I missed.

Still, the 64 productions I saw this year--not including dances such as Ballet Philippines' "Firebird and Other Ballets" and concerts like the Triple Threats series at the Cultural Center of the Philippines--yielded a fine sampling of top-10 worthy titles.

Musical theater, in particular, enjoyed a better year compared to last, and that's not even counting the returning productions of "Mabining Mandirigma" and "Rak of Aegis" or the international tours of "Les Miserables" and "50 Shades! The Musical Parody."


A list that goes beyond 10 would automatically include, for instance, George de Jesus III's harrowing, in-your-face adaptation of "The Pillowman" for Egg Theater Company; or "The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away Ultimately Becomes Nostalgia," Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' most accomplished piece since "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" two years ago.

Or, from the Virgin Labfest, Carlo Vergara's "Mula sa Kulimliman" and Alexandra May Cardoso's "Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," adapted from Ian Rosales Casocot's short story.

Here, then, are the 10 best productions of 2016:

Repertory Philippines' "Almost, Maine."

1. "Kalantiaw" (Tanghalang Ateneo). It was a celebration of everything that theater should represent: ingenuity, imagination, panache where it matters, and that rare ability to overcome so many odds given so little. More importantly, its subject--one of the biggest hoaxes in Philippine history--could not have been timelier, what with the rising tide of historical revisionism plaguing this country. [REVIEW]

2. "Constellations" (Red Turnip Theater). A show of marked intelligence, emotional depth and humanity, this two-hander about lovers swimming through multiple possibilities in the multiverse was foremost an irresistible display of its actors' tremendous range and never once strayed into self-indulgent territory. [REVIEW]

3. "Tick, Tick... Boom!" (9 Works Theatrical). Beautiful things really do come in small packages: three highly capable actors, Robbie Guevara's understated direction, an underrated specimen of the Broadway musical, and the burning will to tell a story right.

4. "Fun Home" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). Shaped as a graphic cartoonist's attempt to fathom the tangles of her youth, "Fun Home" rendered the act of remembering with piercing clarity. No answers guaranteed, but the boulder it left on your chest by curtain call was its welcome brand of catharsis. [REVIEW]

5. "Almost, Maine" (Repertory Philippines). A thoughtfully realized, captivatingly told gem of a production, held together by Bart Guingona's restrained direction and his first-rate quartet of performers, who dove straight to the whimsical heart of John Cariani's collection of vignettes.

6. "Jersey Boys" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). A song-and-dance spectacle that fluidly transitioned from one stunningly sung number to the next, "Jersey Boys" was one of those shows that had you thinking, "Can anything go wrong with it at all?"

7. "Boy" (Tanghalang Ateneo). In telling the story of a boy who was intentionally raised as a girl, and the tragedies that followed, "Boy" captured sadness as neither exaggeration nor frailty, but simply an all-too-human attribute, making sure the viewer fully understood the consequences such great unhappiness entailed. [REVIEW]

8. "Changing Partners" (MunkeyMusic). Vincent de Jesus' gender-bending, May-December love affair--stirringly played by Agot Isidro, Jojit Lorenzo, Sandino Martin and especially Anna Luna--was the real deal: a towering musical that mangled your heart and drained your tear ducts. [REVIEW]

9. "Tribes" (Red Turnip Theater). A mesmerizing, altogether powerful play about the gravity of human bonds, touch, words and the pauses we leave in between. If you think you've seen enough variations of the family-under-fire drama, think again.

10. "Ako Si Josephine" (Cornerstone Entertainment/ABS-CBN Events). Its inherent cuteness notwithstanding, "Josephine" was a vitalizing addition to the jukebox-musical landscape, selling its transfiguration of Yeng Constantino's music with aplomb while also speaking truth--in ways rambunctious yet subtly unnerving--about the state of our nation. [REVIEW]


Expanding the slate below would include, to name a few, the unembellished lead turns of Kalil Almonte in "Tribes" and Blanche Buhia as the searing center of "Ang Sugilanon... ni Epefania."

In the case of Jonathan Tadioan and Marco Viaña, the victory was thrice as sweet: They top-billed the Labfest's "Mula sa Kulimliman" and "Daddy's Girl," respectively, and were also featured in Tanghalang Pilipino's "Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw" and a perceptively staged translation of Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya."

In musical theater, there were Tanya Manalang bringing a true musical theater voice to "Rak of Aegis"; a trifecta of heart-wrenching performances by Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, Cris Villonco and Lea Salonga in "Fun Home"; and three more delectable star turns, from Via Antonio ("Ako Si Josephine"), Carla Guevara-Laforteza ("3 Stars and a Sun") and Bituin Escalante ("Stepping Out, The Musical").

In order, the year's 18 most noteworthy pieces of acting:

Resorts World Manila's "Annie."

1. Mayen Estañero ("Mula sa Kulimliman"). Her portrayal of an ordinary housewife who discovers her husband is of another world was the pinnacle of tragicomedy--an actress giving the performance of a lifetime in a play that matched the magnitude of her abilities.

2. Sheenly Vee Gener ("Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean"). As a former revolutionary coming to terms with love, loss and the demons of her past, Gener delivered a consummate portrait of womanhood devoid of glitz or vanity.

3. JC Santos and Cris Villonco ("Constellations"). In a play that bent time, space and the laws of physics, they were "a pair of stars on terra firma," I wrote back in February. Transformative, moving acting through and through.

4. Missy Maramara ("The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away..."). Hell hath no fury like an actress scorned--or threatened: That was the gist of Maramara's larger-than-life performance. Her character owned that play, and she owned that stage.

5. Renante Bustamante ("The Pillowman"). As the self-appointed "good cop" in a criminal investigation, Bustamante's was a force-of-nature performance that virtually gave fear--the truly hair-raising, spine-chilling sort--a new face.

6. Angela Padilla ("Tribes"). Amid the deafening noise and silences of that quirky household in "Tribes," she was the refreshing ray of reason and clarity, and this cerebral story's most human touch.

7. Nyoy Volante ("Jersey Boys"). The role of Frankie Valli earns the spotlight only in the show's last quarter, yet Volante had your attention from the moment he let out that pitch-perfect falsetto. By the time he finished his show-stopping rendition of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," you knew this was no mere impersonation; this was the year's finest musical theater performance.

8. Jef Flores ("Tick, Tick... Boom!"). He was a divine, charismatic Jesus in MusicArtes, Inc.'s "Godspell," but it was here, in the unglamorous part of a struggling musician, that Flores really distinguished himself as musical theater's newest leading man. Plus, anyone who can squeeze the rock out of Jonathan Larson and make it sound so effortless deserves our attention.

9. Ricci Chan ("Ako Si Josephine"). Playing the despot in "Ako Si Josephine's" dystopia, he single-handedly lifted the show to epic heights of kabaklaan and brought the house down by sheer force of taray. He was your bes, mars, mudra, gurl and frenemy all squeezed into a crowning performance worthy of the world--the universe, rather.

10. Trency Caga-anan ("Titas of Manila"). As the young-at-heart tita, the one who's had enough of cheating husbands and cheap divorces, Caga-anan was a riot, all limitless spunk and fiery sensuality.

11. Mako Alonso ("Suicide, Incorporated") and Vince Lim ("Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead). We owe Twin Bill Theater for these two breakout performances. The roles--a suicidal young man and a reclusive pianist--may be depressing as hell, but Alonso and Lim surprised us with their sharp, beguiling turns.

12. Cholo Ledesma and Camille Abaya ("Boy"). Two years ago, they already evinced much promise in "Rite of Passage." In "Boy," where they expertly juggled parts obviously way beyond their age, they proved themselves more than ready for professional theater.

13. Bodjie Pascua ("3 Stars and a Sun"). Only a true veteran of the stage such as Pascua can convincingly play a hermit who stops the show cold with a rollicking History-of-the-Philippines rap number.

14. Michael Williams ("Dirty Old Musical"). As a former boy-band member who has come to terms with his identity, Williams was a hoot. His entrance was one for the ages: red jacket, red shoes and Ryan Cayabyab's "Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika" at the ready.

15. Reb Atadero ("Almost, Maine"). His "underacting," in a production that largely eschewed acting pyrotechnics, worked wonders: His characters emerged the most tangible and believable. That's discipline.


"Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," with Blanche Buhia (3rd from left) and director Charles Yee (5th from left).

This is a pretty small circle, as one is bound to discover over the course of assiduous theatergoing.

For example, two of my picks for the year's best shows--"Constellations" and "Changing Partners"--were both directed by Rem Zamora. And probably no other director hereabouts has a better grasp of the contemporary American musical than Bobby Garcia ("Jersey Boys" and "Fun Home").

This field, however, was defined this year by a pair of young names. The first is Topper Fabregas, who, since making his directorial debut in "Rabbit Hole" two years ago, has really come into his own. In "Tribes," his finding of harmony amid the chaos allowed the work to soar and become, as my colleague Cora Llamas wrote, "compelling, consequential theater."

And the second is Charles Yee, whose enthrallingly stylized work for "Kalantiaw" and "Ang Sugilanon... ni Epefania"--both deftly marrying the mystical with plaintive ordinariness--marked him out as primed for the big leagues.

Artistic and Creative Achievements

The set of 9 Works Theatrical's "American Idiot."

1. Leslie Dailisan's choreography for Artist Playground's "Happiness Is a Pearl"--elegant, expertly calibrated movement within very limited space. At one point, I found my face within inches from an actor's stiletto.

2. Myke Salomon's audacious, genre-spanning musical reimagination for two dystopian stories: Francis Magalona for "3 Stars and a Sun" and Yeng Constantino, largely by way of electropop dance music, for "Ako Si Josephine."

3. The dreamy, hipster look of "Josephine's" denizens, thanks to Carlo Pagunaling's red-pink-and-blue costumes and Gio Gahol's essential choreography.

4. Pagunaling's costumes, Ed Lacson Jr.'s paper-wasteland set, Meliton Roxas Jr.'s sepia-tinted lighting design and Jeff Hernandez's sound design vividly conjuring the otherworldly, old-world aesthetic of "Kalantiaw."

5. In "Tribes," the house of a family of academics believably constructed and furnished by Lacson and lit with strategically placed lamps by John Batalla.

6. "Boy" as a technical feat of small, seemingly insignificant design details cohering into a functional whole: the sound by Teresa Barrozo (her best work to date), Lacson's set (again!) and Barbara Tan-Tiongco's lights.

7. Ma. Cecilia dela Rosa's script for "Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean," a poetic cascade of past and present giving rise to a compelling feminist character study.

8. The year's finest piece of singing: "Jersey Boys."

A final plea

Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay."

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the international touring company staging of Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay," along with maybe less than 30 other audience members. That its one-weekend run was little seen is a tragedy in itself.

Despite being a tremendously paired down version of the original, this production was nevertheless a transfixing, artfully mounted piece. The cherry on top was watching the cast--a reunion of sorts of the best of the company's most recent alumni--run the show with aplomb. Rerun, please!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

PDI Review: 'Mula sa Buwan' by Black Box Productions; 'A Little Princess' by Repertory Philippines

My last review(s) for the year in today's Inquirer--here.

*     *     *     *     *

'Mula sa Buwan' sings, 'A Little Princess' sags

Opening night cast of "A Little Princess."

It's hard to resist the charms of "Mula sa Buwan," Pat Valera and William Elvin Manzano's musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac."

True, it's but another tale of broken hearts and hankering lovers, but you'd be surprised at how deep this production reaches into you. In its best moments--and that means all clichés considered--it comes off as a meandering poem you simply wouldn't mind listening to for hours.

Like the original text, Valera's Filipino translation is also in verse. Moreover, he transposes the story's 17th-century setting to pre-Second World War Philippines, to a time when sarsuwela and bodabil were staples of the stage.

That transposition is tenable, but the bigger achievement of this production is making its poetic structure sound plain, as if speaking in rhyme were part of natural pedestrian life. That authenticity is best captured by the first-rate turns of Nicco Manalo as Cyrano (a splendid balance of bluster and tenderness) and KL Dizon as Roxane.

But it's also hard not to wish "Mula sa Buwan," though cogently directed by Valera, had found a better venue.

At Ateneo's Henry Lee Irwin Theater, you are always aware of the excess, unused space in the stage's periphery. The lighting and sound designs both need retooling, and the set design should have committed to either a true bare-bones approach or full-scale grandiosity, and not the middle ground that makes the show look like a high school production.

At over two-and-a-half hours, this production could definitely use some trimming.

Still, "Mula sa Buwan" beats with a heart that's truly its own, and one it never hesitates to bare in full to the audience. It's a little show that has so much to give, one that does not shy away from vulnerability. So, before you know it, you're already in love with it.

Notable revision

Curiously enough, a beating heart is what's missing in Repertory Philippines' "A Little Princess."

The irony here is that this story should be a guaranteed click with Filipino audiences: It's Princess Sarah, for goodness' sake! At the very least, one should be familiar with either the 1995 film "Sarah... Ang Munting Prinsesa" (starring pre-teen Camille Prats and Angelica Panganiban) or the 2007 ABS-CBN TV series.

This version, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Andrew Lippa, changes Sarah's background from the English Raj to an African childhood, but that's about the only notable revision.

This African bit takes center stage as director-choreographer Dexter Santos brings his signature emphasis on movement from the Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas stage to Rep, in the process whipping up a storm of tribal masks and thrashing bodies reminiscent of "The Lion King" on an acid trip (most of the dancing occur as imagined sequences, after all).

That's as authentic as things get.

Squandered opportunity

The problem, it seems, is that this production has a dismaying lack of emotional depth, rendering the overall proceedings inauthentic. You simply don't feel for any of the actors, no matter how well they sing, never mind the inconsistent British accents.

Worse, as you watch this headstrong girl struggle against her vile, iron-fisted orphanage matron, not for a second do you root for her, her friends, or her story.

As a play aimed for children, this "Little Princess" is dispossessed of the ingenious, entertaining qualities that can sustain a kid's attention. Adult audiences, on the other hand, may see this show as a squandered opportunity for emotional resonance (which need not even be something heavy or heart-stabbing).

All technique and no heart, this production sadly leaves you cold and yearning for a return to Rep's better years--"Little Women," "Jekyll and Hyde," "The Producers," etc. Maybe next year? 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

PDI Review: 'Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig' - Set A ('Mula sa Kulimliman'; 'Malapit Man, Malayo Rin'; 'Isanlibong Taon') by Dalanghita Productions

This festival ends tomorrow. This review's online version--here--did not have the second-to-the-last paragraph when it was published this morning, but that has since been corrected. 

*     *     *     *     *

'Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig': Hooray for love--in whatever form

From Set B: "Corazon Negro," an operetta written by Layeta Bucoy, composed by Jed Balsamo and directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio. 

Love has to be the most overused subject in the theater, and yet here's Dalanghita Productions' "Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig," an ersatz festival of six one-act plays all centered on that mother of topical clichés. 

'Mula sa Kulimliman'

Among the offerings in Set A, Carlo Vergara's "Mula sa Kulimliman," directed by Hazel Gutierrez, stands out both for its quality and its thematic dissonance. It was, to our mind, the best entry in this year's Virgin Labfest, and we're not about to take those words back.

Here, it is the only play to tackle love as the glue that holds a family together, but it remains peerless in its unraveling of that glue. The pieces seamlessly come off and reshape themselves into something altogether refreshing--and downright hilarious--as the story takes a deliberate, unexpected turn from domestic normalcy into fantastic tragicomedy.

Jonathan Tadioan, Timothy Castillo and the sublime Mayen Estañero have lost none of their inspired touch in their portrayal of a family coming under a phantasmagorical fire. The laughs still burst in all the right places, and this production flows like a freewheeling circus of crazy you just don't want to end.

'Malapit Man, Malayo Rin'

The rest of the plays are varying takes on the boy-meets-girl trope. The finest among them is Chris Martinez's "Malapit Man, Malayo Rin," which was first seen two years ago during Philippine Educational Theater Association's one-weekend showcase of new work, dubbed "Peta Lab."

The timely premise alone is a winner: Can love still conquer all if traffic comes in the way? Boy lives in Valenzuela while girl lives in Las Piñas, and those who must deal with Metro Manila's hellish roads on a daily basis can only imagine how exasperating that can be.

That exasperation is arrestingly translated by Melvin Lee's direction into a kind of theatrical urgency, as the play gradually convinces you that, yes, this quirky business of the heart must come to an end. As the fated lovers, Roi Calilong and Pat Liwanag authentically capture not only the frustrations and weariness of the Filipino everyman, but also the romantic's bullheaded conviction that things can still and will certainly get better.

'Isanlibong Taon'

Which brings us to the third play in Set A of this "festival": Pertee Briñas' "Isanlibong Taon," a musical directed by Guelan Luarca and composed by Ejay Yatco. It is the only debuting work in this set, and yet we would be remiss if we were to blame this production's shortcomings on its relative newness.

The ultimate challenge in this festival is to mount a play that sidesteps the hackneyed, one that can somehow take a fresh spin at the theme. "Isanlibong Taon," about a pair of fishermen burdened by a love that must not be named, does the complete opposite: Its script succumbs to overt triteness without really making its mind up on the kind of story it wants to tell.

Luarca and Yatco have certainly done better work in the theater, but, saddled by such a material, even they can do nothing about it. Despite its unlikely setting, this play manages to feel both stale and half-baked, and nothing in how it is told--neither the direction nor the acting--makes it remotely believable. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

2016 Cinema One Originals Film Festival

I saw nine films in this year's Cinema One Originals Film Festival, which ended yesterday. Seven of them are from the world cinema selection, which for me was the most exciting part of the fest.

The first one was this year's recipient of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, "Fire at Sea" by Gianfranco Rosi. It's a documentary on the European migrant crisis, focusing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has attracted refugees for its proximity to the African mainland. 

I'm not a particularly huge fan of documentaries, nor am I well-versed in their craft and language, the qualities and sensibilities that should make one good or bad. In "Fire at Sea," there's very little dialogue, and you wouldn't initially peg it for a docu from the way it was shot.

It follows two threads: one focusing on the refugees and another focusing on the lives of the islanders. The film attempts to weave the two stories together--the serene island life vis-à-vis the quiet horrors the refugees endure on a daily basis. I'm not quite certain the end product succeeds in reconciling the two, but I'm also pretty sure it would be less powerful if it did. To equate one with the other would be to simplify unutterable terror, and that would be nothing if not a disservice to those lives lost or ruined. 

The Palme d'Or winner in this year's Cannes Film Festival, "I, Daniel Blake" by Ken Loach, is a powerful and affecting portrait of the First World screwing its working class. It is also very timely in this age of Brexit, Duterte and Trump. 

From a Filipino perspective, of course, these characters don't really have much to complain about. They have the government providing them with unemployment benefits, housing, food stubs, etc. And really, none of this brouhaha, I think, would have happened if the protagonist had only kept his cool during his initial interview with the guys from the government.  

Still, you look at it from the point of view of those who have sweated and toiled their whole lives in a world that's supposed to be the land of promise and possibility, and you understand their anger and frustration. You realize that any point in this globe is the same dog-eat-dog world, and you stand a slim chance if those who are supposed to protect and uphold your rights are the ones out to covertly kill you.

I'm one of those who liked "Journey to the Shore" when it was shown in last year's festival, so I was surprisingly disappointed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest film "Creepy." 

Let's put it this way: the first half builds up the creepiness, then the second half ruins it. It begins as a typical detective story. A family disappeared and a pseudo-retired officer is on the case. Enter the creepy neighbor. Soon, the anomalies pop up one by one, culminating in the neighbor's daughter's proclamation: "That man is not my father. He's a complete stranger." What a fun concept, right?

Well I don't understand what makes the second act creepy. There are a multitude of corpses, and then the characters start behaving erratically, even histrionically, and I don't really see where their respective behaviors are coming from. I suppose that's the creepy element in it, but I just don't buy it, meaning the whole thing didn't really work for me. 

Also, I think part of the creepiness relied on the gruesome killings, and that doesn't really work if you're used to seeing dead bodies on a daily basis. That's just me, of course. 

François Ozon's "Frantz" is a game of subverting expectations. There are heavy homosexual undertones in the beginning, until the story tells you, "Look, that's not it, this is what it's about, you've been fooled." It is a gorgeous (and gorgeously shot) film, relying on understatement to carry its emotions through, and stars a divine Paula Beer (who won the breakthrough performance award in Venice this year).

Something like this could work, I think, in a Philippine setting. In place of post-war French-German tensions, we can have Marcos loyalists and apologists. 

By now, any film by Asghar Farhadi should be an event, and "The Salesman" is no exception. Personally, I still think "A Separation" is his best work, but his latest is quite the experience as well. 

It's about an Iranian couple, both theater actors, whose house gets broken in, the repercussions of which echoes throughout the film. Once again, Farhadi grounds his story on seemingly small concepts of morality and plays with cultural norms. From there, he inflates his story, letting his scenes breathe and expand, until everything and everyone, including the viewer, is entangled in the conflict. 

There's never room for unshakable right or wrong in Farhadi's films. And the title? The couple is performing in a production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"--a plot point that may seem initially irrelevant but actually makes so much sense by the end.

I didn't like Xavier Dolan's "It's Only the End of the World," the Grand Prix winner in Cannes this year. It's based on a play, but the theatricality doesn't translate well onscreen. We get a lot of closeups (does Dolan think he is the next Tom Hooper?), as well as color saturation. The whole thing works like an alienating fever dream: You don't empathize with the characters, but feel annoyed by them. The whole film is irritating, actually, like it's desperately trying to stuff all conceivable emotions down the viewer's throat. At least I finished this one; I didn't last 15 minutes during "Laurence Anyways."

"Graduation" by Cristian Mungiu was the perfect film to watch after the Dolan. It is sober, tells its story in a straightforward manner, and doesn't rely on gimmickry to get its point across. It is a very powerful film in the sense that it completely draws you into its make-believe world: a small Romanian town that still bears the remains of communism, where everybody knows everybody and where success largely depends on whom, and not what, you know.  

I feel obliged to disclose that I have a soft spot for small-town stories, as I grew up in one, but I don't think that has any bearing on the capacity of this film to affect you. Its bigger point seems to be: Parents always want the best for their children, that much is clear, but what of their means to attain that "best"? Raising a child is no child's play, after all.

The ticket queue at Cinematheque Manila a good two hours before its last screening of "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten."

I only saw two of the main competition films. "Lily" by Keith Deligero is about a woman who's purported to be an "aswang." It's not really her story, but that of the father of her child. Exiting the cinema, I got the impression that this was made by someone who was high. No kidding: The story, while pretty straightforward in itself (the revenge of the wronged woman, or something like that), is literally filmed with twists and turns. The plot doesn't care for a linear timeline, nor does the editing care for simplistic clarity. There are cuts, jarring edits, interspersed dialogue, and juxtaposed and repeated scenes. It's a maddening experience, and I guess that's what's beautiful--and refreshing--about it.

I do think Petersen Vargas' "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten" is a deserving Best Picture winner (I don't have the same sentiment for last year's). The first thing that came to mind was actually "The Perks of Being a Wallflower": a loner befriended by two curious figures--in this case, Khalil Ramos (who deserved the Best Actor trophy way more than "Lily's" Rocky Salumbides) and the Snyder Brothers. 

Despite its flaws, the film works on so many levels. It draws on the power of nostalgia, on sadness and isolation, on that all-too-Filipino hope to go somewhere where the grass is greener. It tells a millennial story and really knows its way around that narrative. Then, what could have been just a coming-of-age/friendship-brotherhood story takes a turn toward darkness, and though you may not find it a convincing turn, you will be drawn into it all the same. The film sucks you in, and with its immense capacity to make you remember, you end up understanding--and not necessarily feeling for--these characters. 

A shoutout to the theater people in this movie: Peewee O'Hara as the English police, Joel Saracho as the sly gay teacher, Meann Espinosa as the slutty teacher.

There were also four other films in the world cinema section that I had already seen.

"Goodnight Mommy" by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is another case of misleading the audience. Once you get what it's really about, though, the party begins. 

"Ang Babaeng Humayo" by Lav Diaz might just be the saddest film this year (though I do prefer "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" over it). This has to be Diaz's most approachable work to date, but if you're worried this film scrimped on his genius, don't you fret.   

"Swiss Army Man" by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan is so absurd and builds up to a make-or-break sequence that you either buy or don't. 

Finally, "Elle" by Paul Verhoeven stars Isabelle Huppert--and this should be reason enough to make you want to see it. But Huppert is magnificent in this movie; she wins you over and makes you root for her all the way to the end. 

**Screenshots taken from various sites through Google Images.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

PDI Review: 'Fun Home' by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group

My review of Atlantis' "Fun Home" is in today's paper--here. At the theater lobby after the show, one of the sponsors was handing "free-taste" cups of milk. They should be giving out alcohol by the glass. This show is that heavy.

*     *     *     *     *

'Fun Home': Piercing clarity in haunting ambiguity

My sister the fangirl.

Memory is not to be relied upon. It is a tricky realm, where figures fade and recollections of the past change over time.

That appears to be the gist of "Fun Home," a musical that will leave you with a boulder on your chest. The show has its light moments, but much of it is a melancholy spell that sears the soul.

This is the story of the Bechdel family--or rather, the family as eldest child Alison, now a middle-aged cartoonist working on her memoir, remembers it.

Set to exquisite music by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron (who also wrote the book), it unfolds as a two-pronged bildungsroman: There's Alison at age 10, in a seemingly polished home with her parents and siblings; then there's Alison in college, a bundle of uncertainty.

Everything is seen through Alison's present-day perspective, and the answers never come easy, if at all. There was a time when her burgeoning attraction toward women still baffled her. And that even more jarring swath of the past when she didn't know her father was gay--and then one day he killed himself.

That question--"Why did you kill yourself, Dad?"--is a specter that haunts both narrator and audience throughout the show.

One soon realizes it is the very act of remembering that is the point and the puzzle. The viewer watches alongside Alison as she mines her memories for clues, even if these memories don't promise closure or concrete answers.

On point

It is this act of remembering that is rendered with piercing clarity by director Bobby Garcia for Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's "Fun Home." In brief, everything in this production is on point.

That includes Adam Honoré's lighting, which fills the stage with spotlights and shadows, incisively illustrating the capricious mind; and Faust Peneyra's scenery, his decorative minutiae and soaring arches of jumbled furniture summoning the veneer of a home more than they do the warm, authentic thing.

What emerges from this show is a life in varying shades of sadness, where questions always loom bigger than answers.

This life is embodied by three terrific actresses. Katie Bradshaw (alternating with Andee Achacoso) is the spunky, innocent kid Alison, and Cris Villonco subtly rends your heart as present-day Alison, who grounds the entire story even as she spends most of it in the background.

In between is teenaged Alison, who must face her parents' disintegrating marriage and her father's eventual suicide as she grapples with sexual confusion and the many other plagues of coming-of-age. All of that is captured with aching precision by the underrated Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, who threatens to run away with the show the same way she did with Atlantis' "Carrie" three years ago.

Incomparable Salonga

Alison's parents are portrayed by Lea Salonga and Eric Kunze. The latter successfully fleshes out the ambivalence of the man, a figure both intimate and distant in his daughter's recollections.

Salonga, who appears in very few scenes here, gives you something else. She gets the 11 o'clock number, "Days and Days," and in those three or so minutes, she puts the full range of her capabilities as a musical theater actress on display, reminding theatergoers just how incomparable she is in the right parts.

By the end, many things in this musical remain opaque. The catharsis, then, must lie in never truly knowing.

You exit the theater having witnessed the collective anguish of a family that could never really figure itself out. Those who live in "Fun Home" aren't likely to resemble the people you grew up or lived with, but all the same, their tragedy becomes a powerful memory that stays with you. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

An awful week, to put it mildly

This has been an awful week.

The Devil will be buried on ground supposedly designated for this country's heroes. Ferdinand Marcos, the closest thing the Filipino people have to Adolf Hitler, has been granted access to the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the national heroes' cemetery. 

Many people think that's justifiable; many others think we ought not to be so emotional about it. Now I don't know how else to phrase this, but that is just fucked up. The sight of Imee Marcos on television, telling everyone that we should all "move on," was ulcer-inducing. 

This burial issue shouldn't even be an issue in the first place: That body should have been blasted to smithereens a long time ago. It's disgusting how people forget so easily, or how they can remain apathetic, or how they can be so ignorant of history. It's disgusting how more people aren't angered by this shitty revisionist move. 

And when you consider that the President has the final say on the matter--and worse, that this was his own filthy idea from the beginning--it just makes you want to give up on this country.

The day after that Supreme Court ruling, Americans affirmed the stereotype that they are a stupid people. I know the explanation isn't as simple as that, but that really was my initial gut reaction. Now they have a guy with Erap's brains and Duterte's foul, misogynistic mouth as their leader. Good luck with that.

To say that one shouldn't even be affected by Trump's victory because one isn't American in the first place would only be an admission of one's ignorance and myopic worldview. For the longest time, America has made it its business to be included in everything that happens in the world, and if you think this won't affect the Philippines, then nobody can really help you with that.

This is gonna be fun. Mea culpa. And no, don't give up on the Philippines. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

PDI Review: 'Koro Koro Boom' by the Triple Threats concert series

Completed the Triple Threats series this year! My piece on the last show is in today's paper--the online version here.

*     *     *     *     *

No 'boom'--but something better--in 'Koro Koro Boom'

Among the three evenings of this year's Triple Threats concert series at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), "Koro Koro Boom," directed by Melvin Lee, felt the most relaxed--more a convivial gathering of like minds than an all-stops-out song-and-dance extravaganza.

The concert was assembled in just eight days, according to musical director and ensemble member Vince de Jesus, and it showed: The result wasn't polished to a perfect shine, and the singing wasn't always spic and span.

And yet, technical perfection seemed beside the point.

This was, after all, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) Kalinangan Ensemble on the CCP stage. And if there's anything to be said of Peta, it's that it always brings more than mere performance to the table.

The notion of theater as advocacy, and not just surface entertainment, has always informed every Peta production. It is theater as a movement, as a reminder to never cease learning from the past, and as a daily invocation of a nationalistic spirit aptly captured by a lyric from "Artista ng Bayan" (sung at the concert's end): "Lumilikha tayo ng bagong kasaysayan."

One need only look at its more recent works such as "William" (Shakespeare in Pinoy street slang), "FnL" ("Florante at Laura" made jologs) or even the phenomenal "Rak of Aegis" to realize that it is the Filipino experience--the past, present and conceivable future--that is unveiled with every rise and fall of the curtain.

Now consider: Next year marks Peta's 50th anniversary. Viewed in that context, "Koro Koro Boom" became a fitting opening act to that approaching milestone.

The concert was well-paced at around 100 minutes, with musical numbers from landmark Peta productions through the years such as "Canuplin," "Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas," "Ang Mahabang Pagdadalawang Isip sa Buhay ng Isang Peti-Burgis," "Batang Rizal" and "1896"--and even an excerpt from its Filipino adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle."

The survey, as it were, plunged the audience headfirst into theater history so rich and storied, those who earlier knew Peta only through "Rak of Aegis" would've surely emerged with altered perceptions.

It's ironic that the promised "boom" was nowhere to be found that evening, but one quickly realized it wasn't meant to be there in the first place.

To have gazed briefly at the past 49 years--at a life onstage that is, hereabouts, peerless in its breadth and depth--was enough. The musical pageantry can have its turn next year.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

PDI Review: 'Distrito de Molo' by UP Playwrights' Theatre; 'Boy' by Tanghalang Ateneo

By all means, go catch "Boy" at the Ateneo. Performances until Nov. 10, Tue-Sat at 7:30PM with Saturday matinees at 2:30PM. My review of this beautiful show, along with "Distrito de Molo"--by far the most disappointing thing I've seen in UP Diliman's Guerrero Theater--is in today's paper.

*     *     *     *     *

'Distrito de Molo' and 'Boy': Why it all starts with the material

"Boy" (L-R): Mayen Estañero, Guelan Luarca, Glenn Mas, Teroy Guzman, Cholo Ledesma, Camille Abaya, Juliene Mendoza, Ed Lacson Jr.

Trust between an author and his potential audience is paramount.

Consider UP Playwrights' Theatre's "Distrito de Molo," composed of three vignettes, all set in the Molo district of Iloilo City but in different time periods. The first story sounds like your typical period piece, while the other two merge the real with the mythical.

On paper, this production reads like a team made in heaven. It is written by Palanca Hall of Famer Leoncio Deriada, with a Filipino translation by Allan Palileo. The director is Tony Mabesa, and the cast includes some of the most reliable names in the industry: Frances Makil-Ignacio, Adriana Agcaoili, Dolly de Leon, Neil Ryan Sese, Missy Maramara, to name a few.

Not up to scratch

But what happens when the material is not up to scratch to begin with?

Throughout this play, one gets the impression of a writer who does not trust his audience enough to be able to get his story's milieu. Place names are repeated again and again; the dialogue becomes lectures; and the characters, instead of showing, tell and tell and tell their histories and situations.

It's hard to acquire some semblance of dramatic traction when even the characters' emotions are spelled out down to the final teardrop, when whichever direction the plot might be headed is verbalized instead of illustrated.

Is it any wonder, then, that the direction seems unable to find its footing? What is this play going for exactly: Period drama? Farce? Light comedy? This confusion also trickles down to the actors. And, heck, even the set and costumes seem undecided on the look they are meant to achieve.

Prevailing desire

Across the street, in Tanghalang Ateneo's "Boy," there is none of that doubt--whether about what the author is going for, or, soon enough into the play, whether the viewer is game enough to go along for the ride.

Guelan Luarca translates Anna Ziegler's play based on a real-life case of a Canadian boy whose penis was mutilated as a baby and, under a psychologist's watch, was raised as a girl. But Luarca knows better than to make the foreign setting consequential, a sentiment obviously shared by director Ed Lacson Jr.

The prevailing desire here is to tell a story regardless of origin: to tell it right, in a way that hits the heart in all the right spots.

And that, this small production does quite astoundingly.

There is Teresa Barrozo's topnotch sound design. There is Lacson's set and Barbie Tan-Tiongco's lights cohering into a functional whole in such a small space.

There are the actors, especially Cholo Ledesma, as the titular boy, and Camille Abaya, as the girl he falls for, turning in performances of astonishing maturity; and Mayen Estañero, who, as the boy's mother, simply grabs your soul out of nowhere.

Great unhappiness

In fact, one wouldn't be faulted for thinking this business of grabbing the soul is what this production is really after.

Sadness, after all, is a difficult thing to get right onstage. The temptation towards hysterics is strong, but the pull towards cold-heartedness is just as tough. That point in between--the one that renders sadness as neither exaggeration nor frailty, but simply an all too human attribute--is the hardest to get to.

"Boy" effortlessly eases the viewers into that spot, and before long, the audience no longer just sees the play, but understands the great unhappiness pervading it. It's the audience trusting the play, and the play giving generously in return.

Friday, October 28, 2016

One Week in Taipei, 2016, DIY, Day 1

1. Introduction
2. Itinerary
3. Departure
4. Day 1 (current post)

*     *     *     *     *

We landed on Runway 5 at 5:59AM. As an aviation enthusiast, our landing route was perfect for me. Most of EVA Air's flights use Concourse C, which was on the other side of the airport, meaning we had to make a U-turn and pass all four aprons.

Terminal 1's iconic wave-shaped roof, plus a flock of China Airlines.

The north side of the airport consists of aprons A and D, and is dominated by China Airlines.

A pair of Vietnam Airlines A321.

Our plane used a remote parking stand, so we had to take a bus to get to the terminal. Immigration took almost an hour, as there were a lot of early morning arrivals. By 7:30AM, we had retrieved our luggage and were headed for the buses.

Terminal 2 arrivals immigration.

Terminal 2 arrivals hall.

Now getting to the city center is the tricky part. There are several options, and it all really depends on your schedule and budget. (Note as well that from a Filipino's perspective, Taipei's transportation system is already heaven.) 

The cheapest option is to take a regular bus. Both terminals of Taoyuan Airport have mini-bus stations, so it's all really convenient. The journey from Taoyuan Airport to Taipei Main Station, which is the de facto transportation hub of Taipei, supposedly takes around an hour and costs a little over 100NTD. 

The most convenient option, of course, is to take a taxi. The trip supposedly takes around 40-50 minutes and the fare costs around 1000NTD. 

The third option, which was the one we took, is the high speed rail (HSR). From the airport, there is a shuttle bus (the one we took was U-Bus) that costs 30NTD and takes you to Taoyuan Station in 10 minutes. At Taoyuan Station, the HSR to Taipei Main Station costs 160 NTD and the trip takes just under thirty minutes.

So if you're on a budget and have ample time to spare, take the regular bus. if there are four of you traveling together, it would probably be more convenient to take a taxi than the HSR. (It would be more or less the same price individually.) As for us, we took the HSR for the novelty of it. 

Terminal 1 exterior.

China Airlines B747-400 from the U-Bus.

We arrived in Taipei Main Station at 8:29AM, and that was where we got our Easy Card, which is basically the one must-have for getting around Taipei. It is the equivalent to Hong Kong's Octopus, or Manila's Beep Card (though I feel the latter is a bit too stretched an analogy). The Easy Card can be used for the Taipei MRT, TRA (the national trains), buses and convenience stores like 7-11, among others. We would have bought our Easy Cards at the airport, but the counter was still closed at 7:30AM.

Taipei Main Station can be disorienting. It's massive. It has several entrances, has its own food court, is connected to a bus station and several malls, and has separate areas for the MRT, TRA and HSR (this is very important to note).

In all honesty, Taipei's MRT is very efficient. Taipei itself is a very walkable city, with its wide sidewalks and tree-lined avenues. A ride on the MRT starts at 16NTD, if I'm not mistaken, and that is already considerably cheap. The MRT website is pretty helpful in planning your trip ahead of time.

Taipei Main Station atrium.

Since our check-in time at the AirBnB unit wasn't until 3PM, we had to proceed to our first destination, so as animal lovers, we decided to pay Taipei Zoo a visit. (This was also the week that a typhoon threatened to wreck Taiwan for the second time in a matter of weeks, but instead went to the Philippines; nevertheless, we had to take advantage of the good weather.) The train ride took around 30 minutes, and we were at the zoo by 10AM. 

Both Singapore and Taipei claim to have the largest zoos in Asia. Now I don't know who's telling the truth here, but Taipei Zoo is massive. The attractions are spaced far apart, and the enclosures themselves are pretty spacious. The main attraction for the hordes of Chinese tourists, of course, was the pandas. 

It took us 3 hours to cover the zoo, and the only disappointment was the lack of crocodiles. (There's a gharial exhibit, plus the Chinese alligator, but whatever.) On the plus side, however, there were a lot of White Rhinoceroses and Nile hippos, and I couldn't have been happier.

I also have to mention that they have a pair of malnourished-looking African elephants, so maybe somebody should look into this.

Also, the entrance fee is only 60NTD!!! (And if you have your luggage with you, you can store them in lockers at 50NTD for an unlimited time.)

Taipei Zoo exterior.



Nile hippos.

White rhinos.

African elephant.

This disgusting excuse of a waffle in the zoo was the worst thing I ate in Taipei.

We left the zoo at 1PM and rode all the way to Ximen station, where we had lunch at this ramen place along Chengdu Street. (Hey, we were already a bit tired--we'd been up since 1AM, remember?--and it was the first appetizing shop to come our way.)

Taipei MRT life at 2PM.

Ramen lunch. Pretty okay.

After a bit of miscommunication with the landlord, we finally checked in at a little past 3PM. For 2400PHP a night, this place was a pretty great find. It is located along Kunming Street, a couple of blocks away from the Ximen Pedestrian Area (where it all happens in the evening). The only cons were probably the railless stairs (definitely not for the elderly) that led to the low-ceilinged loft, where I bumped my head once. Also, the instruction manual provided by the host was all in Chinese, as was the remote control to the air conditioner. (And Jacky the landlord had this habit of replying to my English messages in Chinese.)

After a late-afternoon nap, we headed for Gongguan Night Market near Taipei University. Gongguan is definitely one of the lesser known night markets, to judge by the crowd and the number of food stalls. However, the shoe stores there have unwittingly prepared quite a bargain for someone from the Philippines.

Ximending, night.

Ximending crossing.

Gongguan Night Market.

What we had for dinner (L-R): some kind of chicken sausage, goat meat xiaolongbao, some sort of seafood gratin in a shell.

Ximending crossing at 11PM on a Saturday night.