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.