Friday, September 23, 2016

My friends are licensed, I'm so damn proud

Next week, my sister and I are off to Taipei for six days, and right now it seems like a good idea to start offering eggs to Santa Clara, because if it rains like shit, that would mean no more Yangmingshan and photo shoot atop Elephant Mountain with Taipei 101 in the background and bicycling at sunset in Danshui and hanging out in Jiufen till evening to see how the whole hillside setting lights up.

Tomorrow, my grandmother celebrates her 81st birthday. Last year, when she turned 80, I came home for less than 24 hours--the day of the party, I was post-duty. Left the hospital at seven, had breakfast with the team, took a bath, headed straight to the airport (good thing Uber makes it possible to sleep soundly on public transportation), arrived in Iloilo around noon, went to the party in the evening, then took the first flight out in the morning and I was back in the hospital for pre-duty by eight.

Two days ago, the PLE results came out, and all of my friends who took the exam passed, and I was so damn proud, it sure felt like a sane idea to fly back to Manila and give each of them a hug, and I couldn't even concentrate on writing my review for "Ako Si Josephine." It's an achievement made all the more remarkable when you consider how messed up our lives had been during the last month or so of internship, and how they only had two months (in contrast to the four months all other schools got) to prepare for 12 exams that each had no guarantee of fairness. 

I'm now three hundred pages into Hanya Yanagihara's "A Little Life," and OMFG WHAT IS THIS BOOK IT IS VERY SAD.

Happier times. (c) Vistal.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

PDI Review: 'Koro/Nasyon' by the Triple Threats concert series

The series' final show for the year, "Koro Koro Boom," will be on Oct. 20. The version of this review here.

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In 'Koro/Nasyon,' the ensemble as theater royalty for an evening

When the Triple Threats series at Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) first announced this year's theme--"The Ensemble"--this author was among those who wondered how that would work, if it could even work.

"Koro/Nasyon," the series' second show for the season, was a regal answer to that burning question. True to its playful title, it was a coronation of both "koro" and "nasyon," a celebration of the ensemble as the lifeblood of any production, and of musical theater as cultural patrimony. 

It really makes a world of difference to have the concept, writing and direction for a show merge so seamlessly. The product, as it were, was an organic execution of the theme and an intelligent showcase of musicality.

Rich history

The script by Katrina Stuart Santiago (with additional material by Rody Vera) magnified the life of the ensemble member without unnecessary sanctification. It was the unglamorous life told conscientiously--that of trooping to audition after audition, and memorizing multiple tracks, and hitting the perfect balance of blending in and standing out in a given scene.

And the song selection, which clocked at a concise one-and-a-half hours, spanned the rich history of local musical theater, from contemporary original pop ("Kayumanggilas" from "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady") and the jukebox musical ("Salamat" from "EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay ni Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson," borrowing from The Dawn songbook) to those that bear the touch of artistic royalty such as Ryan Cayabyab (music for "Katy"), Severino Reyes (libretto for "Walang Sugat") and Bienvenido Lumbera (libretto for "Banaag at Sikat").

This potent fusion of text and music unsurprisingly mined every ounce of its cast's capabilities. The list of performers comprised of names regular theatergoers would have repeatedly encountered in programs: Diana Alferez, Mia Bolaños, Bong Cabrera, Mayen Estañero, Al Gatmaitan, Cheeno Macaraig, Hazel Maranan, Noe Morgado, Wenah Nogales, Onyl Torres.

And each of them did seize that proverbial moment in the spotlight, even as some of them struggled with the demands of unamplified performance.

The absence of microphones was but one of the ways both director Tuxqs Rutaquio and musical director and arranger Joed Balsamo deliberately did away with fluorish.

Compelling arc

With the least embellishment, Rutaquio took his cast of mostly Tanghalang Pilipino alumni on a compelling narrative arc. Opening with a subdued version of "Mundo ay Entablado" from "Katy" established the evening's spare tone; and the protracted "audition" segment, where snippets of songs were entertainingly performed with an additional directive (sing as Sisa from "Noli Me Tangere," etc.) provided a glimpse of how the rest of the evening would pan out.

By the time the cast banded together for a frisky a capella rendition of "Chili con Carne" by Swedish artist Anders Edenroth, the exact magnitude of talent on display was already within grasp.

That number, by the way, felt closest to capturing the spirit of everyday ensemble work, the performers singing multiple harmonies while dealing with choreography and acting--and obviously having a blast juggling all that.

They were evidently breathless by the end of that song, but there they stood on the stage of the CCP Little Theater, the house tragically flecked with many empty seats. For an evening, they were kings and queens of an industry they have so been devoted to for the longest time.   

Friday, September 16, 2016

I'm in Maximum Volume 2!

It's the second edition of an anthology of short stories by Filipino writers under 45 years old, edited by literary royalty Dean Alfar and Sarge Lacuesta. My story, "The Woman of Sta. Barbara," is partly inspired by "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Roman Holiday," and incorporates some of my greatest passions: theater, film and histrionic women. (Only kidding on that third one, you.) Also, it's my first published piece of fiction. The anthology is now available in major bookstores, so go buy your copy!

Here's an excerpt:
     Some nights, Mother would join me in the living room with a half-filled wine glass in hand and the lingering stench of alcohol in her breath. The glass, a fountain of scotch that never quite ran out, had long been a fixture of her sultry frame, as if over time it had sprouted roots that dug deep to join the joints of her spindly fingers. She would tipsily catwalk across the living room and slither beside me on the couch, putting her free arm around my shoulders, leaning her head against mine, playfully planting wet kisses on my temple all the way down my neck. I'd gradually come to memorize the musty, smoky smell of Johnnie Walker wafting through her nostrils and clouding her breath. In the darkness breached only by moving colors from the television, we might have made an iconic portrait of sweetness--mother and son proverbially joined at the hip by unadulterated love. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

While my friends took the PLE

I went to Mystery Manila with D, who is now based in Las Vegas but has come home for a couple of weeks. I attended a wedding. I saw two performances of "Ako Si Josephine," which I will be reviewing for the paper. I saw "Koro/Nasyon" at the CCP. In short, I enjoyed the weekend on my friends' behalf.

The kaharutan we did.

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Somewhere past the halfway mark of "Pamilya Ordinaryo," there's a scene where the camera lingers on the bottom half of a character's body, with only her voice to clue the audience in on her possible identity. It's the film's cleverest shot, in my opinion, because it feels so attuned to the world beyond its fiction. Eventually, the camera rises to show us Maria Isabel Lopez, but those who have at least seen "Ma'Rosa" or glimpses of her current primetime soap in ABS-CBN would have already figured that out. It's the scenery-chewing voice that gives her away early on, and what the camera does is a nod towards its, well, stature. And as in "Ma'Rosa," Lopez gets her brief scene and runs away with it.

I saw "Pamilya Ordinaryo" with my mother the day it opened in Iloilo cinemas. She was unexpectedly pretty excited to see it, the film hailing from Cinemalaya and all. It's rare for movies like this--movies that aren't rom-coms or half-baked comedies or dumb fantasies or of the formulaic Star Cinema mold, which can be any of the previously mentioned--to reach Iloilo. So we saw it late afternoon, along with six other people.

It got pulled out the next day. I felt awful on behalf of the film, and embarrassed on behalf of my city. "Most Ilonggo moviegoers can't appreciate this kind of movie," my mother said, "but you really can't blame them." I wish she weren't so right. 

Four days later, when I'd returned (briefly) to Manila, she called to say she still couldn't stop thinking about the movie, especially the part where Moira Lang swindles Hasmine Killip and snatches her baby away. How Killip goes out of the grocery store and starts asking people if they've seen a bakla in red carrying a baby. Her face in that entire sequence, my mother said, was award-winning.

I love that sequence--the quiet of it, the deliberate turning away from madcap hysterics. More things I love about the movie: the idea that the city giveth, and the city taketh away; the vicious cycle of thievery ending, in the timeline of the movie at least, with unexpected redemption for Killip's character; Lang's use of "beh" to entice potential victims; Metropolitan Theater as setting.

Mother certainly didn't expect to see some sidewalk fucking, but she managed.

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I'm certainly part of the minority that thinks "World War Z" is far superior compared to "Train to Busan." I hate the abundance of dramatic clutter in the latter; what is this, "Stairway to Heaven"? The drama is supposed to be its humanizing element, something that "World War Z" (supposedly) lacked, but whatever, I rewatched "Z" and still found myself curled up in my seat, teeth biting nails, spooked during all the right moments. And a note to the Koreans: That pregnant woman sure can run, huh.

After rewatching "Z," I rewatched "Summer Hours." Still beautiful. What I love about it is that everybody in the movie acts like adults. No excessive shouting or hysterical wailing: They converse and behave like normal people. It is an intelligent depiction of death, its eventuality and aftermath; the way people deal with loss, which is to move forward and keep on living. I love how it uses the house as a stand-in for time, its passage, its shifts, its unpredictability. And that score is just gorgeous.

I imagine how the three protagonists could be me and my siblings, except, of course, that they're French and relatively rich and living in the comforts of the First World. There's a fine life, I think, surrounded by sculptures and paintings, museums and gardens and peaceful rustic villages.

B and G forever.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

PDI Review: 'Ang Katatawanan ng Kalituhan' by Dulaang UP; 'Dirty Old Musical' by Spotlight Artists Centre

Both shows are closing this weekend. The version of the review here.

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Comedy tonight: 'Ang Katatawanan ng Kalituhan' and 'Dirty Old Musical'

Curtain call of "Dirty Old Musical."

In his program notes for Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' (DUP) "Ang Katatawanan ng Kalituhan," translator Guelan Luarca makes a distinction between two forms of comedy: one in which the viewer only ends up thinking a piece is funny, and one that leaves the audience in stitches, an experience best captured by the Filipino word "halakhak."

It is "halakhak," Luarca asserts, that is the intended effect of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," an absurd yarn about two sets of twins separated during infancy who, thirty-something years later, unwittingly find themselves in the same city and wearing the same clothes.

Such moments of rambunctious laughter exist in DUP's current staging of this comedy, directed by Alexander Cortez. An extended sequence that involves fruits, vegetables and dining implements--all deliberately large and fake--being hurled back and forth from a terrace to the floor below feels like the perfect snapshot of the slapstick spirit of the play.

More often than not, however, "Katatawanan" settles between amusing and agreeable, that state where laughter, as Luarca writes, rings in the mind but never makes it past the mouth. It is a pleasurable enough production to keep viewers glued to their seats with a half-smile on their faces.

Certainly it is not in the technical aspects where "Katatawanan" falls short. Ohm David's set and Gino Gonzales' costumes are a visually sumptuous combination, transporting Shakespeare to an Arabian-tavern setting with a gingerbread-house twist.

And PJ Rebullida's choreography, in the instances when it does not feel expendable, evokes the bustling market life a Mediterranean seaport such as Ephesus, where the play is set, must have had.


It is in the distillation of farce as performance where "Katatawanan" is found wanting. And that is ironic: To have the brothers, both named Antipholus, and their servants, both named Dromios, inadvertently mix their lives up for a day is already a recipe for all-out hilarity.

But though Cortez's directorial emphasis on physical comedy is evident--there is rather an abundance of jumping around throughout the show--this does not translate well with many of his actors, who seem to have difficulty locating their comic veins; who, for whatever reason, just can't seem to squeeze the right juices out of a line, an exchange, a scene.

The few who succeed include Gel Basa as Adriana, the hysterical wife of one of the Antipholus twins; Gabo Tolentino as the Dromios who also doubles as everybody's punching bag; and Bunny Cadag, the bushy-haired quack doctor who makes quite an entrance toward the end.

And when they, along with the rest of this production, hit their stride, the laughs pile on. Alas, such instances are few and far between.

As the saying goes, "dying is easy, but comedy is hard."

Middle ground

It is an aphorism that also strikes a chord--though for vastly different reasons--in Spotlight Artists Centre's "Dirty Old Musical," wittily shortened to "DOM," which makes use of Filipino pop ditties of the '70s and '80s to tell the story of five fictional ex-boy band members who meet for a fund-raising reunion concert.

One may look at the "dying" part as pertaining only to the character of Ricky Davao, appearing only in video as the band's musical director of sorts who is now gravely ill. But "dying" is also speckled across the band members, these middle-aged men grappling with hair loss, erectile dysfunction and even gender identity.

It is this middle ground of denial between the midlife crisis and full-fledged "senior-hood," librettist Rody Vera writes in his program notes, that is the concern of "DOM," as conceptualized by musical director Myke Salomon and producer and actor Robert Seña.

Often, though, it all feels like a case of the idea sounding better on paper than it looks fleshed out onstage. The story is spread too thin, and the jokes fall flat. And it is not a good sign when the first act's dramatic ending is anchored on priapism (Google that), even worse when that is intended as a comedic highlight.


It is when the dialogue ends and the music begins that the show as a whole feels richer in both its storytelling and characterization. In fact, it is sad that the Music Museum, where "DOM" closes tonight, has such inadequate acoustics for musical theater, because the music-making at play is just terrific.

It is not just the singing--for example, Fred Lo's gorgeous take on Florante de Leon's "Sana." It is also Salomon's orchestrations, the way he refashions Gary Granada's "Kaibigang Tapat" into a thrilling a capella number, or spins radio hits like Ryan Cayabyab's "Nais Ko" and "Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika" into integral parts of the narrative.

The music finds its match in Dexter Santos' direction, his emphasis on movement well-suited to this production. His choreography effectively aids in the suspension of disbelief, the limber dancing among these men starkly contrasted with their bodily woes once the singing ends.

Effortless portrayal

Among the cast, Nonie Buencamino delivers the truest, most effortless portrayal of a DOM, or dirty old man, as Filipino slang goes.

John Arcilla, now quite famous as the temperamental titular character in Jerrold Tarog's "Heneral Luna," brings a similar dramatic intensity to the show, and unveils a soaring singing voice that is unfortunately rarely heard nowadays.

His duet with Buencamino on Jim Paredes' "Nakapagtataka" is a genuine musical theater moment, its smooth unfolding of emotional layers at once propelling and deepening the story.

Two numbers before that, however, is when the musical really lights up and hits its stride. Probably nobody else this year could make an entrance quite like Michael Williams--red jacket, red shoes and "Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika" at the ready. The laughter that greets the sight of him is unmistakably one thunderous "halakhak." 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

PDI Review: 'Rak of Aegis' by PETA

Confession: I have seen the show six times (would have been seven, if I didn't have to go home for a family emergency last week). This "revisited" review was in part made possible by our PETA contact, Leloi Arcete, who was a dear through and through. Trivia: The New York Times files repeat reviews such as this under "Checking Back." The version here.

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'Rak of Aegis': Down to the last show, 'Sing-tamis ng wine, sin-tatag ng sunshine

"Fitful narrative, heart-rending music" was the title of Walter Ang's review for Inquirer Theater of the original run of Philippine Educational Theater Association's (Peta) "Rak of Aegis" back in February 2014.

Two years and more than two hundred shows later, Ang's general sentiments still held true. "Rak," which concluded its fifth run at Peta Theater Center last Aug. 28, retained much of Liza Magtoto's libretto--and that included the occasional didactic line and contrived character conflict. Some scenes still felt repetitive, if not unnecessary. And the oversimplified ending remained this musical's weakest point.

Obviously, these shortcomings in storytelling never deterred audiences: This latest run played a total of 82 performances on an eight-show-a-week schedule and almost always to sold-out crowds.

Hottest ticket in town

It's the closest local theater in recent years has had to a hottest-ticket-in-town phenomenon, a kind of "Hamilton" or "Book of Mormon" in a city where the curtains usually rise and fall only on weekends

Whatever faults in the writing, there was certainly none to be seen in the music. Aegis was this show's foremost selling point, but what it gave the viewer in return was more than just three hours of the band's signature eardrum-bashing vocal acrobatics.

"Epic, glorious music-making" was how Inquirer Theater editor Gibbs Cadiz astutely phrased it in his yearend roundup two years ago. And that's thanks in large part to Myke Salomon, who essentially picked apart the best of Aegis and came up with a score that not only feels refreshingly devoid of its chart-topping origins, but actually makes perfect sense once fused into the entirety of the musical.

(Salomon would prove this was no fluke with "3 Stars and a Sun," premiered earlier this year by Peta, where he transposed the rap music of the late Francis Magalona to a dystopian setting, to engaging effect; his next project, another jukebox musical titled "Ako Si Josephine," borrows from the Yeng Constantino songbook and opens next week.)

Little details

Certain sectors may frown upon the jukebox musical for charges of unoriginality, if not laziness. But combine Salomon's peerless overhauling of Aegis with the many clever ways the scenes were staged (by director Maribel Legarda) and how the jaw-dropping set (by Mio Infante) was utilized, and one would be surprised at how "Rak" sidestepped the predictable.

It all held true even after several viewings: the two versions of "Sinta," one involving bubbles and a gaggle of "labanderas," the other a "doble-kara" rendition that never failed to bring the house down; the surreal silliness of the "Christmas Bonus" segment, featuring a trio of shrill, cackling Christmas tree-looking creatures; even the extended sequence in Act II where the citizens of the fictional Barangay Venezia exhibit the tricks they've come up with in an effort to turn the flood-stricken community into a local attraction.

One also acquired an increased appreciation for the many little details that held up this production: the peculiar type of garbage floating in the make-believe flood; the calculated manner in which rain was produced, such that water landed exactly where it's supposed to land on the dry set; Gio Gahol's choreography, transforming the set into a hamster maze for the performers, to name a few.

Distinct spins

Cast members, too, came and went, and put their various spins on the idiosyncratic, distinctly Filipino characters. In fact, it isn't farfetched to think that "Rak" became a pilgrimage site of sorts for performers: The formidable history of cast replacements boasts such names as Sheila Valderrama-Martinez, Lorenz Martinez, Sweet Plantado-Tiongson, Jon Santos and even Renz Verano, who lent a genuine shade of rock stardom to his first stage role.

Those who had been with "Rak" since the beginning had it even easier, their lengthy residence translating to an authentic familiarity with their roles, a kind of second skin beneath which they traversed the stage, belted their songs and scoured the emotional terrain all at once.

It's the case, for example, with Aicelle Santos as Aileen, the poor girl with big dreams and an even bigger voice; or Phi Palmos, the best to have essayed the part of shoe-designer wannabe Jewel; or three of Aileen's suitors--Salomon as Kenny, and Jerald Napoles and Pepe Herrera, who were both sensational as the jologs boatman Tolits (and whom TV and film have certainly taken notice of).

In this year's run, the standout was undoubtedly Tanya Manalang (of the London revival of "Miss Saigon"), who brought a true musical theater voice to the role of Aileen and enthrallingly gave Santos and Kim Molina--who won the Gawad Buhay! Award for Leading Actress in a Musical for her turn here--a run for their money.

And Carla Guevara-Laforteza, as tough-talking barangay captain Mary Jane, surprised with her breathtaking riffs and growls.

No small part

It is unfair, however, to think of "Rak" only in terms of individual performances, when the next best thing about it (after the score) was its ensemble. Even better than the magnificent singing that made each "Rak" performance such as auditory pleasure was how the bit roles were handled and expanded.

Here was the very example of a no-small-part brand of theater. The multiple "taong-bayan" tracks were assigned to only six performers per show, yet one never got the feeling that there existed a throwaway part in this production.

Many times, these bits of acting on the peripheries turned out to be the ones that really stuck to memory. This author's personal favorites: Carlon Matobato's booty-jiggling store manager; Via Antonio's Dora the Explorer interviewing the newly famous Aileen; and "Jissica," the Bisaya-accented free spirit who hits on Kenny.


By now, "Rak" was virtually critic-proof; say what you will about it, and people still flocked to see it. It's a life granted only to the biggest of marquee names, the likes of "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Wicked" (a touring production of which "Rak" directly competed against for the crowds back in the first quarter of 2014).

One may even view this enormous success as a vehicle for a more admirable cause: opening the doors of theater even wider and reaching out to more varied audiences.

After all, having the cast and fans of a hit television soap swarm the Peta Theater Center, as ABS-CBN's "On the Wings of Love" informally did, certainly bears an impact on future sales, and word-of-mouth, and even the way non-theatergoers look at the art form.

Think of it as a responsibility born of a well-deserved longevity. Two years, five runs and thousands of repeat fans later, it remained this wildly entertaining piece of theater--how it aged, as it happens, best captured by an Aegis lyric: "Sing-tamis ng wine, sin-tatag ng sunshine."