Saturday, April 23, 2016

PDI Review: 'The Pillowman' by Egg Theater Company

Tomorrow, April 24 (Sunday), three shows play their final performances: Dulaang UP's "The Dressing Room"; Repertory Philippines' "Stepping Out, The Musical"; and Egg Theater Company's "The Pillowman," my review of which is in today's paper--here.

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The devil lurks in the devilishly good 'The Pillowman'

Fear--the truly hair-raising, spine-chilling sort--bears a new face in the theater these days, and his name is Renante Bustamante, who's giving a force-of-nature performance in Egg Theater Company's production of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," a tale about tales and the twists and turns they can throw at an otherwise quiet life.

As the detective Tupolski, the self-appointed "good cop" in a tandem sent to interrogate the writer Katurian (Gabs Santos) about a series of grisly murders, Bustamante hardly looks the part. But stare into his eyes a second longer and let his voice linger in your ears, and you'll be surprised at how quickly your spirit shrinks and bends to this man's will.

Magnetic figure

It may be subversive to say that Tupolski is the star of this staging of "The Pillowman," directed by George de Jesus III; that honor, at least on paper, belongs to Katurian himself. But Bustamante, with only a raised brow, a curl of the lip or the slightest shifts in a voice that seems to emanate from the bowels of the earth, cuts a magnetic, menacing figure as Tupolski, a presence looming large in a production that's often too intimate for comfort.

This is "The Pillowman" by way of De Jesus' Filipino translation, which demands more than a single listen, if only for its fine-grained linguistic switches between the pedestrian and the poetic. Crass cursing and shouting run aplenty, but so do occasions for transporting imagery and metaphor.

Katurian, you see, is the author of some 400 stories, almost all of which have to do with murdering, mangling, mutilating a child. Then a crop of kids turn up as corpses in his neighborhood, all of them dead by means creepily similar to those detailed in his stomach-churning bibliography. Thus the interrogation, which is essentially the entire play itself.

Tupolski is assisted by "bad cop" Ariel, played by Acey Aguilar, who's obviously having lots of fun with the character's temperamental, if not outright violent, nature. 

Inquisition

A second subject gets dragged into this inquisition: Katurian's brother Michal (Paul Jake Paule, alternating with Paolo O'Hara). Michal suffers from some form of developmental delay, and Paule beautifully strikes a balance between humor and pity, his wide, blank eyes and deliberately dopey delivery shaping a convincing portrait of a mind trapped in a body beyond its years.

Santos as Katurian is no slouch here, in case you're wondering; it's just that, during the quieter moments, he tends to lose grip of that burning intensity that should make Katurian a compelling protagonist throughout. (The result, perhaps, of having been away from the stage for too long?)

But throw him in the midst of a confrontation, an emotionally charged scene, and there is much truth and ardent feeling that Santos summons and sustains. Even better, his connection with Paule is genuine; the bond they form as brothers is heartfelt and heartwarming.

It is this connection that renders Katurian and Michal sympathetic characters throughout the show, their pain impossible not to be felt despite the eventual revelations. Much of this empathy is also a direct consequence of the staging. With its theater-in-the-round setup--the edges of the stage are literally next to the viewer's feet--this production ensures that the audience misses nothing, not a single punch or kick or graphic gunshot.

Yardstick

The staging is only one of the differences between this "Pillowman" and the first time the play was staged in Manila two years ago--a one-night-only reading of the original script by The Sandbox Collective during the Imaginarium festival at the Peta Theater Center.

That show, directed by Ed Lacson Jr. and starring Audie Gemora (Katurian) and Richard Cunanan (Tupolski), was "the year's most entrancing piece of theater," we wrote, and remains a yardstick for any subsequent production of the play hereabouts.

Lacson's "Pillowman" appeared to hew closer to McDonagh's original vision for the play. Never less than funny, it was black comedy from start to finish, the gripping stories within seizing the spotlight.

De Jesus' "Pillowman" feels like a whole other creature. The stories and their repugnant, comedic nature are still there, given conscientious treatment by Joee Mejias' charming video projections, but they are no longer its stars.

Instead, this "Pillowman" is now a procedural bereft of happy endings, and one that mirrors the corrupt practices of the times. Terms like SOCO come up in the conversation, and for a moment, you wonder just exactly where we are and at what point in time--this country in a couple of years, maybe?

If Lacson's "Pillowman" left you enthralled, hungry to listen to more of these gruesome stories, this one brought about a sense of liberation. You exit the theater having seen the meltdown of goodness and the creation of dread. But you've also escaped the devil's gaze--Bustamante's eyes chillingly staring Santos' Katurian into submission--and lived to tell the tale.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

PDI Review: 'Stepping Out, The Musical' by Repertory Philippines; 'Kalantiaw' by Tanghalang Ateneo

These days, Manila theater is not just all about "Les Mis." The online link to my piece in today's paper here.

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Age-defying feats in 'Stepping Out' and 'Kalantiaw'

Tanghalang Ateneo's "Kalantiaw."

It would be gratuitous to begrudge the currently running Asian touring production of "Les MIserables" its unequivocal success at The Theatre at Solaire, where it plays to sold-out crowds eight shows a week. Its design elements alone--the ravishing incorporations to the brand-new 25th anniversary staging upon which this tour is based--make it worth the expensive look.

But if you've seen or are planning to see "Les Mis," then certainly you can spare some time to check out the two homegrown productions brave enough to run alongside this foreign juggernaut.

Even better, they can very well hold their own against Cameron Mackintosh's musical in terms of the sheer talent and imaginative caliber they showcase.

Both these shows--Repertory Philippines' "Stepping Out, The Musical" and Tanghalang Ateneo's "Kalantiaw"--opened last week to little fanfare. Yet, they make Jean Valjean's zippy (and occasionally unconvincing) excursion through the aging process look like catnip.

'Stepping Out'

A gaggle of women and one man who meet once a week at a tap-dancing class are the stars of "Stepping Out," written by Richard Harris based on his original nonmusical version of the play, with largely forgettable songs that do serve their function in character exposition and narrative propulsion (music by Denis King, lyrics by Mary Stewart-David).

Miguel Faustmann's set design literally expands the stage of Greenbelt's Onstage Theater sideways, and the deliberately low-rent furnishings effectively give this make-believe dance studio a beat-up look. (There is also a bar scene wittingly lifted straight off the pages of "Miss Saigon.")

Still, on paper, "Stepping Out" sounds like an alternating leisurely walk and trudge. There isn't anything remarkable with its story--motley crew of old and young Britons prepare for a community presentation--nor are its characters interesting or novel enough to really sustain our attention. And the conflicts do tend to feel contrived.

It's the cast assembled by director Jaime del Mundo that provides zest and zaps of energy to the otherwise middling material, and keeps the audience glued to the proceedings all the way to the slightly scintillating surprise at curtain call.

Crackling cohesion

Del Mundo, one of the few who can whip a production to opening-night perfection by its first performance, here gives us a delectable panoply of some of local musical theater's finest actresses (plus an appropriately subdued Raymund Concepcion) working in crackling cohesion as an ensemble.

Some, like Cara Barredo and Natalie Everett--reliable Rep regulars--manage to supply dimensions to their blandly written characters. Others finally get to sink their teeth into roles worth their weight, such as Angela Padilla, a last-minute addition to the cast, who plays the group's dance instructor with beautifully understated authority.

And then there are the grand dames of Philippine theater, the likes of Joy Virata, Bituin Escalante and even the comebacking EJ Villacorta, who voraciously pounce upon their parts and every so often threaten to walk away with the show.

Here they play women of a certain age who have discovered the rejuvenating powers of dance, and their performances can definitely teach the younger generation a thing or two about comedic timing, line delivery and body language.

They light up every single scene they're in, whether with just a perfectly timed retort to a harmless "hello," as in the case of Virata, who hasn't had a role this good since "Mind's Eye" a few years back; or a bombastic song number that literally screams "bootylicious," as in Escalante, who plays a vaguely Black or Caribbean woman with a winning accent.

Their characters may be well past their prime, but look how they're claiming this newfound youth with aplomb. Truly, the body may wither, but the spirit remains a child, and talent, their storied theatrical arsenal, is ageless.

'Kalantiaw'

The reverse takes place in "Kalantiaw": a scrappy band of university students aging themselves so convincingly, in a play that grabs at you in unexpected ways.

If we're being clear-eyed about it, it wouldn't be baseless to proclaim this production Tanghalang Ateneo's best since its electrifying take on Han Ong's "Middle Finger" two years ago.

But really, it's amazing what wonders a small student-run show can achieve with so little, and in a span of just over an hour. In fact, "Kalantiaw," a 1994 Palanca winner by Rene Villanueva, owes much of its dramatic heft and potency to its brevity.

The topic: a famous hoax that marred our history books for some time, the infamous Code of Kalantiaw, which was passed off by one José E. Marco as a landmark anthropological discovery akin to that of the Code of Hammurabi. It has since been proven fake, and "Kalantiaw" imagines an unnamed young historian unearthing the truth through a mesmerizing blend of history and drama, past and present, fact and fiction.

What the play asks its audience are questions that still pound the heart with burning relevance, especially now with the coming national elections. Historical revisionism and the shameless vandalizing of our past, for example--as well as notions of history as the product of a people's choices, as the version of the mighty, or as an ongoing story reflecting a way of life--ring with clarity here, as if they're being proposed for the first time.

Celebration

It's one of the many pleasurable achievements provided by Charles Yee's direction that "Kalantiaw" literally screams "Theater!"--this enthrallingly stylized production marking out its young director as primed for the big leagues.

The set designer is Ed Lacson Jr., who, with just tons of paper, transforms the stage of the Ateneo's Rizal Mini-Theater into a wasteland where falsehood and confusion loom high. (The lampposts, he reportedly built out of illustration boards--school materials for this quick history lesson?)

Together with choreographer Gio Gahol, lighting designer Meliton Roxas Jr. (his brown and sepia tones adding years to this show's look), costume designer Carlo Pagunaling (history personified as a woman wrapped in a papery gown, anyone?) and sound designer Jeff Hernandez, Yee and Lacson craft spellbinding tableaus out of crumpled paper and bodies floundering and falling.

The cast thankfully live up to the challenges imposed by this slyly cerebral production. In particular, John Sanchez and Brian Ramos are completely believable as José E. Marco and the young historian, respectively, each one an equally commanding presence onstage. And Yvonne Ricaro (as Marco's wife) and Jonnel Inojosa (as the old historian) raise the bar even further in this age-defying act.

It goes without saying, then, that "Kalantiaw" is a celebration of everything that theater represents: ingenuity, imagination, panache where it matters, and that rare ability to overcome so many odds (foremost of which is a script swirling in lyrical, formalistic Filipino)--compelling reason, really, why local theater deserves as big an audience as those visiting denizens of the barricades at Solaire.

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"Stepping Out" runs until April 24 at Onstage Greenbelt Theater in Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Performances on Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 3:30PM and 8PM and Sunday at 3:30PM. Call 843-3570.

"Kalantiaw" runs until April 16 at Rizal Mini-Theater in the Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City. Performances from Tuesday to Saturday at 7PM, with 2PM shows on Saturday. Call 0917-926-8196.

Two other shows opened this week:

Dulaang UP's "The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away Ultimately Becomes Nostalgia" by Shimizu Kunio, presented in both English (all-female cast) and Filipino (all-male cast). Performances at the Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall, UP Diliman from Wednesday to Friday at 7PM and Saturday and Sunday at 10AM and 3PM.

Egg Theater Company's "The Pillowman," with a Filipino translation by George de Jesus III. Performances at Pineapple Lab near Powerplant Mall, Rockwell, Makati City on April 8-10 and 22-24 at 8PM.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

PDI Review: 'Tiyo Vanya' by Tanghalang Pilipino

In today's paper, my review of "Tiyo Vanya," a "recital" by the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors' Company last March 18--the online version here. I also talk about Rolando Tinio here, a day after that freakin' fire at the UP Diliman Faculty Center, where his original manuscripts were supposedly kept. Shit.

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'Tiyo Vanya' ought to visit again--and stay longer

Tanghalang Pilipino's (TP) two-performances-only staging of the Anton Chekov classic "Uncle Vanya"--now "Tiyo Vanya" with a Filipino translation by the peerless Rolando Tinio--was billed as a "recital" by the TP Actors' Company, a culminating activity of sorts for their script analysis class under Dennis Marasigan.

Well, then, if only recitals were always as movingly acted and perceptively staged as this undeservedly short-lived production. As the theater calendar heads into the lull of summer workshop season, the sensible next move for TP would actually be to take a long second look at its next season's lineup and ensure this "Tiyo Vanya" gets its glowing spot in there. 

After all, how often do we see Chekov on our stages? Early last year, we had Philippine Educational Theater Association's "Arbol de Fuego," Rody Vera's superb adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard," directed by Loy Arcenas and starring Cherie Gil as a Negrense plantation heiress on the brink of bankruptcy. 

But then you'd have to go back almost three years to find another major Chekov: Dulaang UP's "The Seagull," which was presented in both English (with the sublime Ana Abad Santos taking charge as the faded actress Arkadina) and Filipino (utilizing another of Tinio's indispensable translations).

Visits by the Russian playwright on our shores ought to be moments of celebration then, especially when done right--the tragicomic elements that mark his works thoughtfully and thoroughly fleshed out.

Random flow of life

Charles Spencer, who for the longest time served as chief drama critic of the London-based The Daily Telegraph, often wrote that in the best productions of "Uncle Vanya," "you seem to be watching the apparent random flow of life itself rather than a carefully meditated work of art."

One could say this about the best moments in TP's "Tiyo Vanya," whose focus seemed shafted toward tragedy. The dacha where Chekov's Russian aristocrats roamed now seemed a ruthlessly sunless place, a remote, rundown estate where the hopeless gather to rue the day.

The sense of ennui and regret hung thick in the air: These people were either so bored with their lives, or sick and tired of living. It's an illness that affected everybody, but more prominently the men--Jonathan Tadioan's brutish, blundering Vanya; Marco Viaña's charismatic but cynical Doctor Astrov; and JV Ibesate's egotistical Serebryakov.

Their women, in turn, bore the brunt of their blistering behavior: Antonette Go, steely in her silence as Yelena, the subject of both Vanya and Astrov's maddening affections; and Doray Dayao as the homely Sonya, whose love for Astrov goes unrequited.

That is to say, the world conjured in this "Tiyo Vanya" is a product of superb ensemble-playing, almost every performer finely attuned to the movements and language of the rest (the unfortunate glaring exception being guest artist Christine Penserga as Vanya's mother; she seemed to inhabit a world of her own).

Piercing quiet

An even bigger reason, then, why this "Vanya" deserves a longer life: How often do we get to see a so-called Actors' Company actually become a genuine "actors' company"?

Those of us who've tirelessly followed the theater scene for at least the past four years have seen these actors in a myriad of shows and roles, all the way to TP's latest hit, the splashy historical romp "Mabining Mandirigma."

Two Tinio translations figure prominently in our memories: 2013's "Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia" (Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," but reworked by Vera) and 2014's "Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente (Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman").

Both had Tadioan and Viaña splendidly essaying major parts--Shylock and Antonio in "Der Kaufmann"; Willy and Biff Loman in "Pahimakas," respectively--with Go, Ibesate, Dayao, Aldo Vencilao and Lhorvie Nuevo in various supporting roles.

The stripped-down setting of "Tiyo Vanya" marvelously magnified these actors' beautiful onstage harmony.

In the piercing quiet of this production, it was as if each one now lived under each other's skin--acting as a whole, their rhythms familiar, their presence no longer discrete or disparate. They've come a long way, this actors' company, and it showed in "Tiyo Vanya."

However, that it ran for only a day meant very few people saw it--and isn't that a great tragedy?