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.

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'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.

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