Saturday, March 19, 2016

PDI Review: Fringe Manila 2016 ('Schism'; 'Titas of Manila'; 'We Choose to Go to the Moon')

Still haven't figured out what exactly happened to Fringe Manila this year, and don't care to find out anymore. But there wasn't a bad egg among the four shows I saw, which included Twin Bill Productions' "Dog Sees God" (the marvelous surprise of which was Vince Lim). My reviews of the three others are in today's paper - here.

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Gossipmongers, spunky 'titas' and emotional wrecks at Fringe Manila

Trency Caga-anan during curtain call of "Titas of Manila."

The urge to take a bath after watching "Schism" was strong. It's a dirty play littered with disgusting people, though you wouldn't know it if they only kept quiet. Get one foot out the door and chances are, they're probably stabbing you in the back already.

It's another swarm of odd theatrical creatures George de Jesus III has created for "Schism," his second play under Egg Theater Company to premiere at Fringe Manila. But while his first, "Maniacal," featured characters that more strongly adhered to stereotypes--the temperamental diva, the famous film import, the delusional actress--those distinctions were no longer as vital in "Schism."

Dropped to a minimum, too, was the name-dropping that made "Maniacal" a laugh-your-heart-out, leave-no-prisoner-alive satire of the current theater industry. Instead, the people in "Schism" lived in a nest of gossip and lies, like serpents slithering between truth and untruth, the spoken and unspoken.

It's still effective, compellingly written backstage drama, but this time everything felt more organic, in-your-skin, real, the characters seemingly plucked from the same rotten branch.

Maybe it's because we've grown accustomed to a world where it is easier to pretend, to be dishonest, to be "kind"; where shoving aside hard truths in favor of artifice is considered socially normative; where being nice is what everyone expects from everybody else.

Only the character of the playwright Alex, embodied with moving vulnerability and transparency by Tuxqs Rutaquio, begged to differ. And because he actually had the balls to do so, the whole universe, as it were, conspired against him.

Everybody else around him--a first-rate ensemble that featured such fine turns by Angeli Bayani, Chinie Concepcion and Jojo Riguerra--dared not speak or walk the truth.

And when the dust had finally settled, the question De Jesus had been asking throughout those 90 minutes of tantalizing tittle-tattle rang even louder: Is it all worth it--standing up for what's morally right and turning oneself into a social pariah, isolated on the other side of this "schism"?

'Titas of Manila'

Two other works made their respective marks in this year's Fringe Manila, which, it must be said, arrived in a package so thin, transient and truncated, it hardly registered on the cultural barometer.

ADHD Productions' "Titas of Manila" called to mind their previous entry, "Kwentong Komyut": Both utilized the five-short-plays-in-a-play format to flesh out a singular theme.

"Titas of Manila," which enjoyed a sold-out run, obviously took inspiration from the Twitter account of the same name, itself a parody of that middle-aged female relative who thrives in pointing out how fat you've become, or that you're still single after all this time.

We can do without delving into the finer points of the word "tita," its regional and social contextual implications. "Titas of Manila" was, on the whole, a fresh, insightful piece from a refreshingly new player in the theater scene.

Sure, some segments were better written, and better acted, than others. And Jethro Tenorio's direction didn't exactly manage to fine-tune all five sketches into the same plane. 

Yet, it gave us "Forever Young" by Dolly Dulu (who also penned the best chunk of "Kwentong Komyut," about a quirky pair of ex-gay-lovers on their way to a Halloween party).

True to its title, "Forever Young" was about the young-at-heart tita, the one who's taking the world by storm through Zumba and her choice of boys, the one who's had enough of dreary marriages and cheating husbands and cheap divorces.

More than anything, however, this segment was a pleasant reminder of why theater festivals such as Fringe and the Virgin Labfest are vital to the industry, if only because they serve as launching pads for raw, untainted talent.

In the case of "Forever Young," it was the potent combination of Dulu's snappy, unpretentious writing, and a blazing performance by Trency Caga-anan, she of limitless spunk and fiery sensuality, that all but assured her a spot in our theatergoing maps.

'We Choose to Go to the Moon'

There were no standout performers in Vlademeir Gonzales' "We Choose to Go to the Moon," produced by Project Mayheim Productions, and that could only be because its cast cohered so seamlessly to produce a work that tickled the mind and never really left it.

Directed with flair by Fitz Edward Bitana, "We Choose to Go to the Moon" was a searching, intelligent piece on sexual and emotional connection told through the (interconnected) lives of strangers.

It wasn't always an easy watch: Particularly during the first act, the feeling that one was inside someone else's mind on a burnout daze was hard to shake off. But whoever said connecting to another person on any level is a walk in the park?

What gratification is there to be had in paying for sex? How far can one stretch the heart before a long-distance relationship starts tearing it up? What has become of this generation, where smart phones are now metallic extensions of our limbs?

The questions and ideas ran aplenty across the sprawling fabric of modern-day ennui wrapped around "We Choose to Go to the Moon," and that the answers did not always arrive immediately could only be reason for this production to experience a rebirth. This show, as it was, deserved it.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

PDI Review: 'Dear Walt' by the One Night Stand cabaret series

I'm still on a Disney high. My short piece on that awesome One Night Stand cabaret is in today's paper--here. "What I love most about rivers is/you can't step in the same river twice..."

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'Dear Walt' was shining, shimmering, splendid

It was nearly midnight by the time the latest One Night Stand cabaret--"Dear Walt," featuring the songs of those beloved Disney movies--wrapped up. By then, most of our throats were parched from cheering and screaming, a motley crew of kids-at-heart exhausted for all the happy reasons after a helluva party.

For those of us who either spent our childhoods or came of age during the so-called Disney Renaissance, an era best-defined as "The Little Mermaid" to "Tarzan," "Dear Walt" was an enchanting night of nostalgia, of reliving the songs that, once upon a time, taught us love, hope, humanity, the world.

Next to the "Rent" original Manila cast reunion concert last December, this edition of the cabaret undoubtedly had the most devoted, if not rabid, fans, who greeted every song, every unmistakable opening chord, with roars of joy.

The moment Pinky Marquez belted out the Zulu opening chant of "Circle of Life," we were hooked. And with every iconic song, the signature moving image flashed in our mind's eye: Ariel, wistful, sun-drenched on the ocean floor ("Part of Your World," from "The Little Mermaid"); Simba and Nala, appearing and disappearing in the mist and waterfalls ("Can You Hear the Love Tonight," from "The Lion King"); Mulan's face, half-white, a portrait of sadness ("Reflection," from "Mulan").

First-rate vocalists

If this evening was, to borrow the oft-quoted lyric, "shining, shimmering, splendid," it was all thanks to its cast of first-rate vocalists composed of Marquez, Reb Atadero, Kakai Bautista, Micaela Pineda and former Disneyland performers Noel Rayos and Gian Magdangal.

The director was One Night Stand cofounder Joaquin Valdes, while Ceejay Javier played the keys.

Almost two weeks since, the memories refused to lose form and clarity: Bautista leaving the audience in stitches with a long-winded account of her "rise to stardom," of her early days as Lea Salonga's wardrobe assistant ("Naghubad siya sa harap ko"), and then blasting the roof off of Twelve Monkeys Music Hall and Pub with her take on "Let It Go" that made the "Frozen" anthem seem as easy as a nursery rhyme.

Or Marquez intelligently digging into a pair of contrasting numbers--"Colors of the Wind" from "Pocahontas" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from "The Little Mermaid"--as only a true-blue tita of the theater could.

Pineda, Magdangal and Atadero capped off Act I with the night's most inspired medley, starting out with Pineda's spirited "Just Around the Riverbend" ("Pocahontas"), followed by Magdangal's "Go the Distance" ("Hercules"), and finally, Atadero joining in with "Out There" ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame") for a thunderous three-part harmony.

Walking attraction

Speaking of which, if there's a takeaway message from this cabaret, it's that Atadero could pass for a walking Disneyland attraction; he was its MVP and runaway star.

To once more borrow from "Aladdin," Atadero was the embodiment of the evening's "soaring, tumbling, freewheeling" spirit--whether he was gender-bending as the sassy Black Greek chorus of muses in "I Won't Say I'm in Love" ("Hercules"); doing backup vocals as the school of fish in "Kiss the Girl" ("The Little Mermaid"); or stepping to the foreground with a ravishing, stripped-down rendition of "A Change in Me" (from the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast").

One cheered for this generous cast as they took their final bows, but cheered even louder for this wonder of a man. And as midnight chimed, one couldn't help but cast that singular wish: May Atadero finally get his solo concert, and get it soon.