Saturday, February 27, 2016

PDI Review: 'Constellations' by Red Turnip Theater

This production is now on its second to the last weekend. You, my friend, should be scrambling to get hold of a ticket. Take my word for it. The online version here.  

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In 'Constellations,' a pair of stars on terra firma


Nick Payne's "Constellations" is not in any way about stars, those distant specks draped across the night sky. But in Red Turnip Theater's mesmerizing, flawlessly executed production of this play, they are front and center of it, and in glorious human form.

Their names: JC Santos and Cris Villonco, who play Roland the beekeeper and Marianne the physicist, respectively, in Payne's two-hander about love and loss in the multiverse.

Trying to capture in precise words their performances, one realizes it is an almost futile exercise in reaching for new superlatives; but really, it's never too early to dish hosannas out in generous dollops when the acting is as transformative and moving as the kind Santos and Villonco are turning in in this Red Turnip season closer.

In fact, consider yourself (hashtag) blessed if, by year's end, you've encountered a more spectacular pair of career-defining performances onstage.

Higher physics

In "Constellations," Payne has woven the potentially alienating mumbo-jumbo of higher physics into a love story, exploring the idea of multiple universes, of multiple possibilities and outcomes existing simultaneously, against the backdrop of the commonplace boy-meets-girl setup.

The idea it posits is that anything--from the weather down to one's choice of clothes and words--can, may and will affect any given situation.

The play illustrates this theory by telling the grand romance of Roland and Marianne in linear fashion, but with scenes repeated or told from various perspectives.

Thus, for example, Roland's wedding proposal to Marianne, a speech involving honeybees--something I suspect married nerds would wish they'd have written--unfold in several versions, set apart only by how he actually delivers it (in one scenario, he even forgets the script at home and decides to just wing it).

A confession of betrayal halfway through is explored in varying degrees of fear, anger and dejection. At one point, the playwright even imagines them as a mute couple, conversing through sign language, and the effect is magical. 

Acting acrobatics

In a way, then, what Santos and Villonco are doing here is something akin to a higher form of acting acrobatics. They're each not playing multiple characters, but variations of a single character--which, if you really think about it, is an even more grueling, mind-numbing ordeal.

That their efforts emerge as consummate unions of nuance, subtlety, tone and body language, never overdone or once straying into self-indulgent territory, is this production's most important triumph.

The director is one of Red Turnip's founders, Rem Zamora, and it is thanks to him this "Constellations" remains, as the text necessitates, a show of marked intelligence, emotional depth and humanity. At 70 minutes, it may seem a breeze, and its cerebral specifics may be off-putting to some, but one would do well not to underestimate the irresistible qualities of this production.

No false notes

On Ed Lacson Jr.'s set, Zamora choreographs a thespian dance of the highest order, in which the actors shift from emotion to emotion, scene to scene, in rapid succession as the script demands--no false notes dropped, and not a hint of strain or struggle. 

Villonco's is the showier role, and is a stunning display of her tremendous range. 

Santos' requires more understatement, but it is the maturity he endows the character little by little as the hour passes that's most noteworthy. 

Lacson's design is itself a vision of imagination. What may at first seem like a bland installation of carpeted polygonal boards on bases painted black conjures an illusion of infinity once the metaphorical curtains go up. In the darkness, the carpets absorb all the light, the illumination provided by the ever-reliable John Batalla, and suddenly the boards become terra firma floating in the limitless expanse of space. 

On these islands, in the midst of the universe, Villonco and Santos are just two people fallin in and out and in and out of love. If you look just a little bit closer, you can even swear they emanate a glow of their own: two of our finest actors absolutely slaying it, to use the millennial expression, in a production that's second to none. 

If there's any doubt before, there shouldn't be any now: genuine stars, both of them are. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

PDI Review: '3 Stars and a Sun' by PETA

My review of "3 Stars and a Sun" in today's paper--here. Saw it twice already, for the alternates. Contemplating a third visit. I liked it way better the second time around; it grows on you, it really does.

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'3 Stars and a Sun': predictable--but also ambitious and compelling


Futuristic dystopia by itself is a closed, predictable circuit. What books and films seem to tell us is that it is a land of few surprises.

It's all a matter of setting: the numberless train carriages of Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," adapted from the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige"; the childless Britain of Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men," based on the P.D. James novel; the glamorous, celebrity-fueled neo-America of "The Hunger Games." They're all bound by recurring narrative elements--widespread discontent, glaring class divide, an uprising and the fall of the powerful, to name a few.

No different

"3 Stars and a Sun," a brand-new musical that opens the year for Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), is no different.

Jointly written by Mixkaela Villalon and Rody Vera, it imagines the Philippines in 2096 as literally a world of light and dark, the little that survived the near-apocalypse of 70 years ago now divided into spanking-white Lumino City and scrap-metal wasteland Diliman, both existing in disharmony under a protective, supposedly indestructible steel encapsulation known as the Stormdome. 

The rich and mighty, represented by Vidame Inky and her family, live comfortably in Lumino; the poor, exemplified by the renegade Tropang Gising, struggle in Diliman.

You don't have to be a science fiction fan to know what happens next; it's a story--and an ending--that's visible from miles away. In fact, one gets the gnawing feeling that, on the page or onscreen, the story would have no doubt benefited from a more elaborate exploration of the alternate realities it presents. 

Still, there's no denying that the musical's book brims with wit and distinctly Pinoy humor, with pop-culture references cleverly thrown in the mix. Vidame Inky alone has two lines that unabashedly borrow from Adele and the Spice Girls.

First-rate

Which brings us to the question of the hour: How does "3 Stars and a Sun" fare as a jukebox musical using the songbook of the late rap and rock artist Francis Magalona?

Groundbreaking it isn't. Tanghalang Pilipino preceded it by two years with its original rap musical "Kleptomaniacs." And that's not even dragging Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights," "Hamilton") into the conversation.

Ambitious? Yes. It's no walk in the park to merge rap, dystopian sci-fi and Filipino nationalism and social commentary into a singular coherent show. And, for that, the writers should certainly be lauded.

This reach-for-the-heavens attitude pervading "3 Stars" is even more visible in Gino Gonzales' set design--a somber matrix of metal bars and scaffolding that, while heavily resembling his work for Peta's Filipino adaptation of "King Lear," directed by Nonon Padilla, is nevertheless a stylish evocation of the Stormdome's all-imposing nature. (Gonzales is also "3 Stars'" costume designer.)

But what's truly first-rate about it is in a name: Myke Salomon.

Granted, two pieces of work are barely an adequate gauge of skill, but to judge Salomon by what he did with the songs of Aegis in Peta's runaway megahit "Rak of Aegis," and now with the Francis M songbook in "3 Stars," it's safe to say that the man is the most essential musical director around today.

In Salomon's hands, "Mga Kababayan Ko," which serves as the opening number, now acquires a sheen of power-hungry deceit as sung by Vidame Inky. The kundiman-like "Bahala Na" is now a tango, the crafty accompaniment to the demo sequence of the musical's concept of "reconditioning," which is how Lumino unwittingly wipes the citizens of Diliman clean of their memories. 

"Kaleidoscope World" has become a haunting lullaby, while "Cold Summer Nights" is reimagined as an anguished cry of heartbreak rendered through a fresh Filipino translation.

Consummate

Thanks to Salomon and his reinvention of the music of Francis M, "3 Stars" actually makes sense as a musical. It's an even greater feat when one considers how the songs are almost thematically similar (Magalona, after all, used his music as a platform for social activism), and yet, once settled within the mold of the show, they start to sound and mean different.

Too often, "3 Stars" teeters on the brink of narrative repetitiveness--you hear yourself thinking, didn't we just see this sequence?--but is salvaged by the performances at hand.

It is through Nicco Manalo, as Tropang Gising leader Sol, that Magalona's words and Salomon's musical alterations find their most consummate vessel. Rap requires rhythm and enunciation, the beat following a lyrical bent, the consonants clear and hard. Manalo's singing has all that, but watch, too, how this diminutive figure commands the stage, his presence as effortless and forceful as his rapping.

Madcap fun

Thank heavens, too, this production has Bodjie Pascua, who plays the hermit Mang Okik (the stock old-man-of-wisdom character). Look at him gaze into the night sky, and in his eyes you see eons, those lost and wasted years. Then, he slays a rollicking, show-stopping History-of-the-Philippines rap number. Clearly, Pascua is having madcap fun, and it's infectious.

There's also Carla Guevara-Laforteza as Vidame Inky--not a regular mom, but a cool mom, and also a devilish snake in angel's clothing (seriously, even her hair's dyed white). Giannina Ocampo as Inky's daughter Diane is the most convincing "conyo" of Lumino, while Gio Gahol as son Chino marvelously evinces his character's transformation from uncaring, spoiled brat to cruel leader. And Nar Cabico, as the rebel Poy, showcases some of the production's most solid singing.

The alternates for the roles include: Che Ramos-Cosio (Vidame Inky), Raffy Tejada (Mang Okik), Gold Villar (Sol), Justine Peña (Diane), Paolo Valenciano (Chino) and John Moran (Poy).

But now to get around to answering that "other" question: No, "3 Stars" is not the new "Rak of Aegis," not in terms of artistry or consistency of performance. Nor Domingo's direction is seemingly hit-and-miss, and the lackluster ending is more confusing than clarifying. 

What "3 Stars" is, however, is a new piece of theater propelled by ambition, blazing with admirable confidence and purposefulness. And though its telling is imperfect, it is still, in the end, compelling--and thus worth a second, even third, look.

Runs until Feb 6 at the Peta Theater Center, with shows Tuesdays to Sundays.