Saturday, July 23, 2016

PDI Review: 'Suicide, Incorporated' by Twin Bill Theater

My review of "Suicide, Inc." is in today's paper--here

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'Suicide, Inc.' is essential theater in these trying times

There's good theater, and then there's important theater. Chalk it up to the arc of this moral universe, if you so please, that most times, those two traits aren't mutually exclusive.

Twin Bill Theater's currently running production of Andrew Hinderaker's "Suicide, Incorporated" is one such walking, talking example. Just what is it exactly, this play revolving around a fictional company specializing in (surprise, surprise) suicide notes?

One can easily figure out Hinderaker's plot points blindfolded--how the story would pan out, how each character would react, what the first big "twist" at the start is. The dialogue can get overly melodramatic, yet it also has its distinct brand of macabre humor.


That doesn't sound like the perfect recipe for a show worth flocking to (and the venue--the Performing Arts and Recreation Center in San Juan City--isn't exactly the easiest to get to). Its basic conceit aside, "Suicide, Inc." could be just another soapy tearjerker grounded on the notions of redemption and forgiveness.

All it takes is a little perspective: You scan the news, engage in daily conversation and try to make sense of the change that is literally killing this country's soul little by little. A play that deals with mental health couldn't have come at a better point in history, when time demands that we look at issues like suicide and drug addiction from a more compassionate point of view.

Throughout the play, multiple characters try to take their lives (not all successful, depending on how you interpret the ending). If you really think about it, it wouldn't be that easy treating a person who's about to kill himself as a "client," going through his sentence structure, metaphors and literary references just to compose that one perfect note.

Singular idea

It's the singular idea implicit in Steven Conde's tactful direction. His characters aren't just one-dimensional figures desperate to wipe themselves off the planet. The suicide note is merely the tip of the iceberg, be it for the "clients" or for those working for the company.

We see all that in the protagonist Jason, played by Hans Eckstein with touching vulnerability; in his flamboyant officemate Perry (Chino Veguillas, who also does two other characters and easily wins the audience over with this delectable chameleonic turn); and even in Jason's brother Tommy (Bibo Reyes, his silences beautifully conveying everything that's left unsaid).

Even the demanding, seemingly cold-blooded boss of the company (cheekily named Legacy Letters) isn't written off as just another villain. Jeremy Domingo plays the part, and has the tendency to ham it up, but his portrayal makes it clear the man's more than just his words and outbursts.

Likewise, this production, which unfolds on an aptly sterile set by Ed Lacson Jr., is more than just the sum of its parts.

It has Mako Alonso's breakthrough performance, for one. As Norm, the "client" upon whom the entire story, its emotional twists and turns, hangs, Alonso masterfully fleshes out a tortured soul's history, oftentimes in so many words crammed within so little time. In the end, it's really this one character that you learn to pity, if not love, and root for, despite the depressing odds. (George Schulze alternates in the role.)


With Alonso, Twin Bill is now two-for-two in fueling excitement for this year in acting; its earlier production, the twisted Peanuts parody "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," featured Vince Lim (of the Ryan Cayabyab Singers) in his breakout turn as a similarly tormented character.

More importantly, however, "Suicide, Inc." elevates the theatrical conversation to something way beyond stagecraft. It deals with an issue that really needs to be talked about, and it does so in a manner that's refreshingly uplifting.

Twin Bill has not only given us a fine production, but one that demands to be seen not only for its artistic merits but also for the kind of discussions it's sure to generate long after the curtain has fallen.

A postshow discussion with a guest psychiatrist is held after every performance. Audiences are very much encouraged to stay for this; it's the kind of enlightening talkback that rarely happens in the theater.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

PDI Review: Virgin Labfest XII

My omnibus review of the 12th Virgin Labfest is in today's Inquirer--here. The original draft is way nastier, but I have a great editor--the Gibbs Cadiz.

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Back to storytelling basics at the Virgin Labfest 12

Revisited: "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala"

Clear, coherent and sound storytelling above all else--that's our tacit takeaway from this year's Virgin Labfest, the annual festival of "untried, untested, unstaged" plays which ends the third and final week of its 12th edition tomorrow evening at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The unspoken reminder to tell a story with three-dimensional characters, carefully constructed conflict and lucid, imaginative writing, among other virtues, resonates with even greater urgency when one considers the festival entries individually--12 new one-act plays, five staged readings and three returning plays from the previous year--and how they achieved the principal goals of storytelling to varying degrees of success.

'Mula sa Kulimliman'

Take, for example, Carlo Vergara's "Mula sa Kulimliman." In many ways, it is similar to the playwright's previous hit, "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," which, before becoming the summer musical blockbuster of last year, began as one of the one-act nonmusical entries of the 2014 Labfest.

In telling the story of an ordinary housewife who discovers her husband isn't exactly of this world, Vergara once again blurs the line between domestic reality and the realm of the fantastic. The result is this festival's funniest and, to this writer's mind, most accomplished piece of writing--crisp, emotionally resonant, unpredictable and polished down to the final punch line.

As directed by Hazel Gutierrez, "Mula sa Kulimliman" unleashes its rib-tickling surprises slowly, the laughs piling up and growing louder by the minute.

Jonathan Tadioan and Timothy Castillo are in terrific form as a father-and-son tandem sharing an unspeakable secret, but it is Mayen Estañero, as the oblivious wife and mother, who is the heart and soul of this play--an actress giving the performance of a lifetime in a play that matches the magnitude of her abilities.

'Daddy's Girl'

"Mula sa Kulimliman" isn't the smartest play in the house, however. That distinction belongs to Ricardo Novenario's "Daddy's Girl," which explores the idea of soulmates and reincarnation against the backdrop of incest.

In the afterlife, man and woman, played by Marco Viaña and Skyzx Labastilla with throbbing plausibility and sensuality, try to untangle memory, time, feeling and a myriad of other abstractions. The concept alone may prove too cerebral, and thereby unappealing, to many, but it would be a miracle if a more intelligent play were to come along in the remaining half of the year.

Novenario's language merges the tangible, metaphysical and the in-between, and how director Nicolas Pichay unravels the material's complexity to let its humanity shine through only further asserts the importance of this piece.

'Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania'

Imagination of a distinctly Filipino persuasion is the calling card of "Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," Alexandra May Cardoso's Bisaya-Tagalog adaptation of Ian Rosales Casocot's short story "The Sugilanon of Epefania's Heartbreak."

True to its title, it unspools like your grandmother's run-of-the-mill folktale, complete with the indispensable elements of magic and unrequited love.

How, then, does one conjure sorcery and the supernatural forces born of a girl's promise to win a man's heart, on a space as small as the Tanghalang Huseng Batute?

The answer, Charles Yee's masterful direction insists, is in the sheer eloquence--in the impeccable union of lights, music, costumes and choreography, and in the passionate ensemble playing (the near-flawless cast led by Blanche Buhia, searing as the heartbroken girl).

Thus, a production that is as heart-tugging as it is evocative of the infinite possibilities of love and the ordinariness of provincial life. And, also, one that furthers its young director's ascent in the industry ladder, this being Yee's second theatrical triumph for the year (after Tanghalang Ateneo's "Kalantiaw").

'Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean'

An even more evocative piece is Ma. Cecilia dela Rosa's "Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean," about a former revolutionary coming to terms with love (of course), loss and the demons of her past. It would be no spoiler to say that her conversations with said visitors occur entirely inside her head.

Dela Rosa's singular achievement is the poeticism of her play; it cascades like a river, the emotions ebbing and flowing, images from the past and present colliding in the stream of the female protagonist's consciousness. What emerges is a poignantly drawn portrait of a woman--the richest construction of a character in this festival.

Ariel Yonzon's direction may at times be confusing, but Sheenly Vee Gener's consummate, fully fleshed-out portrayal of Jean is the reason to see this--a performance that adroitly transforms the play into a compelling feminist character study (with superb support from Randy Villarama and Aldo Vencilao as her fallen comrades).


The rest of the Labfest entries aren't as spotless, sometimes for reasons that went beyond the constraints of the page.

For instance, Rick Patriarca's comedy of manners, "Hapagkainan," showcases a genuine festival virgin in his breakthrough moment. One may initially be of two minds regarding his over-reliance on cursing for comedy, but then gradually comes to admire the naturalism of his dialogue.

This is the id made manifest in a play that sounds just like your squabbling loudmouthed neighbors. Adriana Agcaoili (recalling Kris Aquino on a sugar high), Adrienne Vergara and Arnold Reyes are in fine form as a family trying (and failing) to preserve its good manners at the dinner table. Unfortunately, all it takes is Mikoy Morales to be so obviously out-of-sync with director Chris Martinez's idea of the play as a farce for the material to fall apart at the seams.

'Ang Bata sa Drum'

Dominique La Victoria's "Ang Bata sa Drum," directed by Dudz Teraña, does not rely on acting pyrotechnics or verbal jousts, only on the skill of its young pair of actors (who are in dire need of a Bisaya accent coach) to tell a story of parental abuse. After all, there's only so much one can do when a character is literally confined inside the titular drum for the entire show.

The play's intimacy is its best asset. It takes its time revealing its secrets, letting the audience piece together a sordid picture of a broken family. Then it ends on a note that's neither high nor loud--just small, as befits the play.

One may either find it touching, or quietly wonder whether all that meandering and narrative plodding actually went somewhere.


On the opposite end of the spectrum are two of the loudest and, by virtue of material, most relevant plays of the festival.

Kanakan Balintagos' "Loyalist," directed by Lawrence Fajardo, concerns a mother-and-son tandem in 1991, on the day of the Marcoses' return to the Philippines. It may as well be 2016, to judge solely by the mother's adoration for Imelda.

Irma Adlawan plays the mother to rollicking perfection and glowing ease; the son, a UP student with leftist leanings, is played by Abner Delina Jr., who employs his by-now familiar fidgety acting kinetics.

Up to a certain point, there's no stopping "Loyalist" from hitting the right comedic notes. Then it descends into maudlin territory, resorting to a longwinded narration of the past and the horrors of Martial Law to get its point across. Thus, its climactic memory scene becomes pointless in its staleness.


Guelan Luarca's "Bait" is even more polarizing. A Muslim kid has had his Quran desecrated, so he pushes the offender, a fellow classmate, off a building. Now the Muslim boy's father and a teacher find themselves in a heated discussion about Islam, cultural differences, respect, tolerance and forgiveness.

In the age of the Syrian refugee crisis and other horrors caused by the Islamic State, it is very easy to see how "Bait" deserves to be heard by an audience. At one point, the word "extremist" pops up in the conversation.

But Luarca appears to forget this is the theater. One does not simply string together a set of arguments, to be spoken by archetypes, and pass it off as a play. Else, you get a piece that's manipulative, exasperatingly didactic and, for a playwright of Luarca's caliber, highly disappointing.

With Mara Marasigan's unsophisticated direction, Renante Bustamante (as the father) and Kalil Almonte (miscast as the teacher) are left to their own devices, spouting rhetoric in deafening decibels.


Eliza Victoria's "Marte," directed by George de Jesus III, offers some semblance of novelty by setting the play in Mars at a time when corporations have extended their reach beyond the atmosphere. And that is about its most interesting aspect.

Featuring what is unarguably the Labfest's most intricate set (resembling a miniature Dumbledore's office from the "Harry Potter" movies), "Marte" is more than anything a statement on its first-time playwright. Victoria, one of the country's best speculative fictionists, would do well to work more on her dialogue and the subsequent theatrical realization of her make-believe world.

Even the best efforts of Martha Comia and a completely believable Stella Cañete-Mendoza aren't enough to usher this play away from dreary soap-opera territory.

'Si Jaya, si Ronda, si Barbra at ang Mahiwagang Kanta'

The Labfest entry with the longest title, "Si Jaya, si Ronda, si Barbra at ang Mahiwagang Kanta," also feels the longest.

In a karaoke bar, three women--a politician's wife, an OFW and a self-styled fortune-teller--reunite and sing their hearts out. Also, they attempt to contact the spirits and fight for a supposedly magical token.

This play (directed by Roobak Valle) is a comedy, and actresses Doreen Bernal and Dorothy Matriano make damn sure the audience gets that by visibly and self-consciously trying to land punchline after punchline. For almost an hour, playwright Oggie Arcenas laboriously builds his story on gag upon gag, and before long it reaches a tiresome point.

Then, he proceeds to write what could be the most indolent ending for a play this reviewer has seen in at least the past seven years, sucking out whatever little sense is left in the entire endeavor.

'Bahay-bahayan, Tagu-taguan'

Herlyn Alegre's "Bahay-bahayan, Tagu-taguan," directed by Ricardo Magno, isn't as disrespectful to the notion of storytelling. Here the playwright once again explores the idea of displacement (familiar ground for her), this time in a refugee camp.

The production, however, demands too much from the viewer, and gives too little in return. The notion of home is scrutinized in manifold ways, most of them echoing each other. The play fancies itself a figurative piece, but the tone and delivery are mostly literal, with even the actors appearing not too invested in what their characters are saying.

'Dahan-dahan ang Paglubog ng Araw'

As for Jose Socrates delos Reyes' "Dahan-dahan ang Paglubog ng Araw," about a teenage daughter and her cancer-stricken father (set to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel)--well, where to begin?

In brief, and going back to the festival's catchphrase, the concept is neither untried nor untested. One can only imagine how things would have turned out had director Adolf Alix somehow found a way to sprinkle a bit more virgin freshness on the tedious material.

Staged reading, revisited plays

The presence of middling material makes one wonder, really, why something like Vincent de Jesus' "Changing Partners" wasn't chosen instead for the main lineup.

As a staged reading directed by Rem Zamora, this one-act musical is already a fully realized show, featuring heartrending turns from Sandino Martin and Giannina Ocampo, and providing a home for one of de Jesus' best songs, "Ang Maamong Mukha ng Pag-ibig Mong Sinungaling."

As for the Revisited set, Juan Miguel Severo's "Hintayan ng Langit" remains the same lightweight, "kilig"-driven crowdpleaser; while Maynard Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi" becomes a misfire with its new lead actress, Candy Pangilinan, who spouts the best of the playwright's deliberately written lines with not much thought.

Eljay Deldoc Castro's "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala," however, has only grown more beautiful in stature. The young cast assembled by Ed Lacson Jr. are now clearly more comfortable with their roles, able to let more of the story's comedy surface.

At one "Guryon" performance, a gaffe with the prop kite was quickly salvaged by the cast and turned into an opportunity for ad-libbing, to the audience's delight. Now that's how you tell a winning story.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

PDI Review: 'American Idiot' by 9 Works Theatrical

In which I call "American Idiot" one of the essential rock albums of the new millennium. The online version of my review here.

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Out of rage and love--a rousing 'American Idiot'

This is how you watch the show for free.

You don't have to buy a ticket to see 9 Works Theatrical's production of the jukebox musical "American Idiot," now playing at the newly erected Bonifacio High Street Amphitheater until July 10.

Pay a couple thousand pesos and you get a seat in the covered "amphitheater" (really a makeshift stage like the ones built for outdoor raves and concerts). Otherwise, you can easily claim your spot beyond the perimeter railing and watch for free, weather permitting.

"Accidental theater" is what the producers are supposedly aiming for, a chance for those who can't afford a ticket to still be able to experience this form of live entertainment. It's an idea that may not sit comfortably with some, but you have to give it to the producers for not giving a (expletive) about what highbrow, elitist theater may have to say.

Sensory overload

Still, here's some sage advice: Buy a ticket. It's not enough to just "see" this "American Idiot"; one must "experience" it.

This is what it truly looks and feels like to have rock music make its way onstage and just smash all the rules of traditional theater to smithereens: dazzling neon lights, abstract video projections, the sound blaring overhead, bodies running up and down and back and forth a skeletal set. At some point, you find yourself at a loss as to where to look or what to listen to.

This is theater as sensory overload, a consummate marriage of topnotch production values--which includes Martin Esteva's lights, Mio Infante's scenography and GA Fallarme's projections--and Robbie Guevara's perceptive directorial choices. After all, one does not simply dive into the heart of a punk-rock musical without a brain and an eye for the proper aesthetic.

Charles Isherwood of The New York Times, in his review of the musical's Broadway premiere back in 2010, called "American Idiot" "a true rock opera." It's not entirely clear what he meant by that phrase, but Guevara's production, on account of its scope of feeling and thrilling musicality alone, sure feels like an opera.


There's not much in the way of a story here--three disillusioned suburban American youths dealing with sex, drugs, impending adulthood and Bush Jr.'s warmongering. But my, how astutely it captures the swirling confusion and electric charge that define this slice of a young man's life. 

It's the need to satisfy one's desires and establish one's place in society that every production of "American Idiot" needs to illustrate to its viewers, and which this one fleshes out in more arresting ways than one.

That's not to say this "American Idiot" is without its imperfections. But for every Miggy Chavez (of the band Chicosci), who looks and sounds woefully out of place, or Rivermaya's Jason Fernandez, who sings alluringly but needs to get rid of his one-note speaking style, there's Basti Artadi, roaring his way through the role of St. Jimmy, a figment of the lead character Johnny's imagination now made throughly corporeal with this roof-blasting interpretation.

If anything, Guevara's cast, which also includes Yanah Laurel and Nel Gomez in standout supporting turns, powerfully makes the case for "American Idiot," the Green Day album that makes up the core of the musical's score, as one of the new millennium's essential rock albums.


Under Guevara's ministrations, plus PJ Rebullida's hyperkinetic choreography, the likes of "21 Guns" are transformed into genuine showstoppers, while "Holiday," staged with confetti and balletic rolls of tissue, has become the perfect snapshot of this musical's wet-and-wild spirit.

"I'm the son of rage and love" goes one lyric early in the show. "I don't care if you don't care" goes another, rhythmically repeated.

If only living were that easy, where words and actions exist in a vacuum, and other lives don't matter. It's a primal desire of the spirit, one that's barely spoken of because deemed unacceptable by the norms of society.

It's also this very desire, this rage and storm of untempered emotions, that pervades this "American Idiot" and makes it worth the price of admission.