Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Best of Manila Theater 2017

And so we're here: my fourth year-ender. Only months ago, I'd been contemplating on not writing this, because I actually hadn't seen many of the smaller shows. Credit goes to that twister of fate that came whirling our way, of course. For the first time, I attempted to do something akin to film blogger Sasha Stone's (of "Awards Daily") regular summations of the films vying for the Oscars; hence, my departure from the previous three years' listicle format. This piece's Inquirer website version can be accessed through this link.


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2017: Faith and clarity in the theater

"Sinkwenta: PETA 50th Anniversary Concert."

Less than two years since "change" cursed and killed its way into this corner of the world, and already, the theatrical landscape betrays heavily our collective frustrations with this era of blatant deceit. Where do we put our trust when our leaders lie so brazenly to our faces?

The best productions I saw this year all have to do with that little thing called faith. If the world outside seemed bereft of clarity, one could look to the theater to provide an artistic flotsam unto which one could cling, if only for a mere couple of hours.

'Ang Pag-uusig'

"Ang Pag-uusig."

No other show came closer to approximating the culture of duplicity enabled by our present government than Tanghalang Pilipino's (TP) "Ang Pag-uusig," a force-of-nature adaptation of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," translated by Jerry Respeto and directed by Dennis Marasigan.

Here we saw a mirror of society in the Salem witch trials, where people no longer knew what or whom to believe; where the truth was sacrificed in favor of power and repute.

This was the TP Actors Company at its most blistering since 2013's "Der Kauffman" ("The Merchant of Venice" in Rolando Tinio's Filipino). The old guard, especially, were incendiary--Jonathan Tadioan as Deputy Governor Danforth, Marco Viaña as Reverend Parris, Lhorvie Nuevo as the vacillating Mary Warren, JV Ibesate as John Proctor.

Here, as well, was my choice for best performance of the year: Antonette Go's ultra-fierce take on the diabolical Abigail Williams, whom one may view as a composite of Mocha Uson, Sass Sasot, Kellyanne Conway and the other patron saints of alternative facts.

The final tableau, where a lofty wooden wall collapsed to reveal hanged bodies in the shadows, was as much a triumph of design as it was a harrowing portent of the world we seem headed for.

'My Name Is Asher Lev'

"My Name Is Asher Lev."

In that world, men are forever wrestling with their demons, their self-perceived inadequacies taking limitless form. Two productions, both starring "breakout star of the year" Nelsito Gomez, dared to capture such storms that rage within us--to splendid results.

Twin Bill Theater's "My Name Is Asher Lev" was the storm that came by surprise, not least because its concerns--a Jewish painter struggling to reconcile his sacred traditions with the profanity of his art--felt too foreign and specific.

So it proved that the subject does not a production make.

"Asher Lev's" mantra was intimacy: Steven Conde's spare, fast-paced direction, the minimalist cross-shaped set, the sliver of a venue itself. All eyes, then, were on Gomez, Robie Zialcita and Nathalie Everett, delivering a thespian trifecta of astonishing bravery and versatility, the latter two morphing into several characters with aplomb.

Unforgettable, too: Joseph Matheu's deceptively simple lighting design, advancing and literally illuminating the story through only the shifting hues slathered on the walls.

'Angry Christ'


Two months later, Gomez was back, his fictive world closer to home, his demons darker, in UP Playwrights' Theatre's "Angry Christ"--easily my pick for the year's most outstanding production. Some shows strove to untangle the present; this one, movingly directed by Dexter Santos, brought the past to transcendent life and took its audience to church.

In my review, I called "Angry Christ" "a work of such superlative, gratifying quality," and indeed it was. There was the tumultuous inner life of its subject, the painter Alfonso Ossorio (Gomez), reimagined by Floy Quintos' resplendent writing in ways that dissatisfied some literary critics, but which I found to be a richly studied portraiture for the stage. There was also the rest of this production--how it harnessed its pool of talent and let all the elements cohere into a singular, rewarding experience, capped by a perfectly rendered finale.

'Agnes of God'

"Agnes of God."

The self-questioning and maddening roving of the mind was also at the core of Repertory Philippines' "Agnes of God," directed by Bart Guingona, in which a novice nun claims she gave birth by immaculate conception. Like "Asher Lev," it was also a show of spare production values and thrilling performances, the actors framed by Joey Mendoza's hulking set of panels and John Batalla's ethereal lighting.

Chief among this highly accomplished production's pleasures: Becca Coates going head-to-head with Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (in a nonmusical role!)--and how they delivered, despite the dated script.

Lauchengco-Yulo's take on the psychiatrist sent to investigate this conventual crisis was the epitome of lucidity. And Coates--an Agnes whose angelic appearance could just be the biggest lie of all--had the audience hooked and hypnotized by her every apparition, in a smashing return to leading roles since crushing our hearts as the cancer-stricken center of "Dani Girl" three years ago.

'Vibrator Play,' 'Eurydice'


After "Agnes," Rep went old-school period drama with "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)," packed with everything the 50-year-old company does excellently and more. I had expected the usual love story, but was left enchanted and occasionally tickled by its exploration of the cracks and seams in which romances grow and wither.

In hindsight, this was an even tougher play to pull off, as what it really needed (and achieved) was a certain delicacy, most palpable in that entrancing finale, when the walls rose, the furniture moved, and the house dissolved to reveal stark darkness and snowfall, the lovers played by Giannina Ocampo and Joshua Spafford naked as cherubim. (As such, my pick for best director is Chris Millado, and for best set design, Mio Infante.)

"The Vibrator Play" was really about romantic faith in peril, though it was equally masterful in its handling of farce (with Caisa Borromeo in a hoot of a performance). Consider TP's "Eurydice," then, its sister production.

The crux of "Eurydice," directed by Loy Arcenas from Guelan Luarca's translation of Sarah Ruhl's play, is the idea of total trust: Orpheus, without glancing back, must leave the Underworld ahead of his wife, trusting only in the words of Hades that she's trailing behind. Those familiar with this Greek myth know the sad fate that followed.

I was completely smitten by this charming production, its steady grasp on the notion of tenderness its key strength. And Teresa Barrozo's sound design, emphasizing silence and eeriness, layered this otherworldly romance.

Distinctive marks


Then there were also those who left their distinctive marks in productions that weren't as impeccable: Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante's wronged-woman performance in "Blackbird"; Roselyn Perez, all acerbic wit and self-deprecation in "Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike"; the fiery Lady Macbeths--Irma Adlawan in "Makbet" and Cath Go in "M Episode"; Angeli Bayani, an emotional hurricane in "Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major"; Fitz Bitana and Anthony Falcon ("Pilipinas Kong Mahal With all the Overcoat"), Ricci Chan and John Lapus ("Hindi Ako si Darna"), and Gie Onida ("Birdcage") dispensing spots of brilliance to a dismaying Virgin Labfest.

And the musicals?

Well, 9 Works Theatrical's "Newsies" was really about PJ Rebullida's choreography--the best dancing I've seen since Dulaang UP's "Ang Nawalang Kapatid."

And there was a particularly impressive quartet of leading men: Gian Magdangal in "Newsies"; Pepe Herrera in "Sa Wakas"; and the spectacular drag queens--Nyoy Volante in "Kinky Boots" and Red Concepcion in "Care Divas."

Upstart Productions' "Monty Python's Spamalot" was a rollicking roller-coaster of absurdity with a genuine comedy troupe of an ensemble. It was for me already the best local musical, which doesn't speak well of the general scene.

Instead, it was the touring production of "The Sound of Music" that felt most worthy of a standing ovation. At The Theatre at Solaire, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical sang with an authentic, breathing heart, and showed that smallness could be your biggest asset.

An apology

"Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical."

Here, I suppose, enters my apology: Save for "Ang Pag-uusig," I missed the rest of the fourth-quarter productions, for reasons that are matters of faith as much as they are grounded in science. Call it life's unpredictability weaving into personal quarters.

I'm inclined to believe this is also the sort of uncertainty that constitutes part of the joy of theater. Between the rise of the curtain and the final bows rests only our faith in the prospect of success--that the excitement generated by every press launch and season announcement may translate into an abundance of stunning productions and stirring performances, hopefully too many by December to fit year-enders such as this.

Most welcome, in fact, are those blink-and-miss-them surprises, such as Jenny Jamora, fleeting but utterly fabulous, running away with Tanghalang Ateneo's "Si Janus Silang at ang Labanang Manananggal-Mambabarang" as the titular monster.

Instances such as this surely affect the viewing experience--improve it, enlighten it, or altogether change it. And it's the kind of change one welcomes and yearns for.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

'Geography' & 'Shapes'

A little background: Back in 2014, I submitted some poems to Sentinel Literary Quarterly, an online magazine based in the UK, and two of them got accepted. Part of the deal was a contributor's copy (always the best part for me, more than the pay). Then, the months started passing with no word from the pub. I emailed the editors, even contacted the literary editor through Messenger (I was seenzoned several times), until finally I decided they were probably a fly-by-night thing. Fast forward to a month ago, when on a whim, I checked to see if the pub is still up. Been running smoothly, from the looks of it, except for a blank in the timeline corresponding to that period when my poems should have appeared. I emailed the editor, this time without expecting any sort of immediate response, but the very next day, I got an answer. They told me the issue where my poems should have appeared never got published, and that they can publish my work in their next issue, if I like. So here we are. And here's the link to the issue's pdf:

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The lemon tree makes a curious shape
in the way it bends to the sky: stooped,
slight dent along the delicate stem,
as if praying to heaven or asking

what shape the rain takes as it plummets
in a raging storm. To be old and still bear
fruit--yellow, flock of children navigating
an empty museum at daytime; sour,

the aftertaste of troubled marriages--
is quite enviable. It means the capacity
to create is still intact, like looking
beyond the window and asking the glass

what shape the moon takes at midnight,
hoping to imitate its spectral glow, the curve
where darkness meets the light.
This morning, the lemon tree travelled

one inch farther from its mound of earth,
but also, nearer to when it shall finally stop
trying to outgrow the rest of the garden--
the nonstop pendulum of bamboo stalks,

the roses blossoming in summer--
and learn to let go of the one perfect fruit
hanging from the one perfect branch,
the shape of sadness trapped in the bubble

of tears, when a father's face has turned
away after his daughter's wedding.
Tonight, the lemon tree stands content
with the geometry of its place--the triangle

of leaves moist with dewdrops, the parallel
branches bearing weight of the future fruit,
the shape of the unborn seed in its watery
womb, where even strangers tend to its needs,

and an old man's need to see circles and squares
take the form of boisterous grandchildren,
like saplings breaking through the soil
for the first time.

After Larry Ypil

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Tonight, my lover promised we would go places:
edge of the sun or rim of a lunar crater,
circle the burst of stars in our patch of sky,
hitch a ride on a spinning asteroid
and feel how space invades the distance
straddling two electric bodies.

Here was our house, next to Moscow
and the frost that permeates its empty squares.
Every morning, we woke to bells ringing
from the onion domes of St. Basil's,
sounds we imagined mailed to our window
by melting snow, the hurtling wind.

My lover believed in all things real and imagined,
and I, the rest that hover in between.

In the place where they sell coffins,
I first saw her, looking from beneath the glass
reflecting the whites of her eyes, her body
a lazy shadow supine in its polished casing.
I took her, there and then, on a trip around the globe,
painting portraits of ruins and walls, hillside
trees, a field of wildflower, mountains.
She devoured the sights, the moving pictures,
down to the final shred of celluloid.

Stop--Touch this acre of soft earth.
Here was the place for the invention of promise:
bend of the harsh ray of light
and spark of the first gleam of life.
Notice how everything collapses to its core,
how nothing seems able to withstand
the pull of gravity. This is also a place
for broken things, and for things to be broken.
Shards of glass collect on the bleeding feet,
wounds refusing to close with every washing.
Here was where we landed last night:
not in Zurich or Oslo, balmy Barcelona,
the lofty heights of Denver or swampy New Orleans,
but a house of stone and fog, both solid and wisp,
like whispers inhabiting the space between our mouths.
Here, our words are nothing but air.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

'Flat Places' & 'Good Vibrations'

I'm finally--finally--in the Philippines Graphic. The day my dad died, I received the acceptance letter for two of my poems. One's inspired by Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which we briefly tackled during the IWP Workshop last April. The other's inspired by the movie "Love and Mercy," where Paul Dano does a mean Brian Wilson.

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Flat Places

Let your body fold into mine, soft
as the animal that fed on Mary Oliver's
despair and chased the wild geese
straight to an imagined moon.

It isn't real if the retina
can't remember it: A sea of lunar craters
dissolves in the chiaroscuro glow
of a dying afternoon.

You are still, and I am still
a mile and a decade away, still as a body
of water beneath the cyclone's
eye. Fly to me,

where the ocean is real,
and nothing eludes vision, for I know
how good you are. I know
what tragedy

looks like: the lambent gleam
of a nebula falling on an empty house,
watched over by a skein
fleeing the hurricane.

I know the thrill of running
away from home, thinking you will end
this running someday. But you
never will. Trust me, you

who weep over places
you believe you will never see: flat
places, torched places, torn
and toppled places,

not knowing the only places
that matter are the ones hidden
in the folds of your body.
Trust me, baby.

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Good Vibrations

--The Beach Boys, 1966.

The trick is in pretending she never really left.
After supper, two shots of gin, then a brandy

finish to start off the night. He plops himself
down on the couch, curled like a comma

a billion sizes too big. If you look
closely, you can see the hurt in him

throbbing like a thickened artery. Close my eyes,
she's somehow closer now, goes the phonograph

she bought from a yard sale next door. Cities
grow and fade, leaves turn a lush green

then the rich color of rust, but here he remains
in the crux of all this neighborly flux, gentle

as the last dream she had of him. It was Brian,
she said, on a moon-drenched beach, undulating

into the creased horizon. They looked
at each other, and that was the end,

and now her epitaph reads, When I look
in her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world.

He likes it, he thinks, likes the way
it makes him think of orchids and poppies

nestled on the sand. Somewhere, a shot
is being taken: two people, the waves,

and the smooth bend of the edgeless blue.
Nobody smiles, eyes yielding blanks

stark as black pearls on the wrong ocean.
Nobody blinks, and nobody leaves.

Friday, November 3, 2017

New river, full moon

Finally got back to walking today. Used to run the Iloilo Esplanade--twin trails on the banks of the city's river, an outdoor recreational attraction modeled after Singapore's Clarke Quay, but without the swanky lights and party vibe--until the left leg started hurting like mad months ago. That was after the Japan trip, and so had to go to rehab for a month and a half. Lumbar strain was what the doc said.  Suspend all physical exertion for best results.

Did a round this afternoon, plus a side trip to phase three of the Esplanade--a skate and bike park on what used to be a seedy, sleazy hotspot, or so memory tells. On the way back, saw that the mangrove saplings planted a year ago have significantly grown, but on their feet, garbage, probably brought in by the tide, as can't imagine how one could summon the audacity to litter on such a place. What a sorry sight. Perhaps that audacity does exist among certain people in this city, this heedlessness to cleanliness, to self-discipline.

Crossing the bridge, witnessed a bird migration, or what looked like a migration. Those specks of fluttering wings probably numbered upwards of a thousand. Impossible to arrive at an exact number, but the whole aerial parade seemed endless. They flew close to the water surface and rose along a path to reach a considerable height once above the bridge's human traffic. 

Full moon today, the moon already hanging on the sky long before sundown. Bright as a pearl immune to gravity. Perhaps mother will return to walking these trails again. Perhaps it won't remind her so much of father, who walked with her after work. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

In brief, a death in the family

There was hardly any time to mourn.

Preparing a funeral that fused both traditional Chinese and modern-day sensibilities was nothing if not draining. A mind-over-matter sort of thing: One must plow forward despite the tears, that others may shed them on one's behalf. 

My father would have been 64 by All Souls' Day. But when your time's up, it's just up. There's no bargaining with the fact.

I've been in Iloilo since the 7th, and will be staying here for the rest of the year. Dead-ass tired is what's become of me. Who knew it would end like this? Who knew gram-negative pneumonia would get him in the end, instead of his on-and-off bleeding problem from a liver that's screwed for life? 

So this is where I've been, and this is where I'm at. And this is where we move forward.

Monday, October 23, 2017

PDI Review: 'The Quiet Ones' by Glenn Diaz

In today's paper, my first book review! Glenn Diaz's "The Quiet Ones" will be launched on Nov. 10. Also, I'm a cover blurb! 

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In 'The Quiet Ones,' Glenn Diaz pulverizes banality to oblivion

Glenn Diaz's "The Quiet Ones," which won the biannual Palanca Award for Novel this year, begins like a thriller: a man in an airport, a suspicious black bag, the police not far behind.

The man is Alvin, whom the authorities are pursuing for a money-laundering scheme he had engineered at the company where he worked as a call center agent.

But swiftly, the pretense of a crime story is discarded. What unfolds is a tale at once intimate and sprawling, in which the minutiae matter just as much as the most prominent plot points. Whoever said writers should be foremost observers must have had Diaz in mind.

Fragmented into several chapters that could each stand on its own--the novel, after all, is largely composed of the author's earlier short stories--"The Quiet Ones" flits across the first decade of 21st-century Philippines, more interested in the portraiture of those who knew Alvin than in solving his felony.

In 2001, under the specter of the Dos Palmas kidnappings in Palawan, Spanish divorcée Carolina carries on a May-December tryst with Reynaldo, a Philippine Military Academy cadet, on the beaches of Pagudpud, where a college-aged Alvin becomes their neighbor at the transient house.

In 2005, with Jasmine Trias in "American Idol," Karen, one of Alvin's colleagues at the call center, becomes entangled in a relationship with their Texan operations manager Brock.

In 2007, Alvin returns to Pagudpud with Scott, his American anthropologist boyfriend who must have been born obnoxious. At one point, they find themselves watching a telecast of a Manny Pacquiao fight in a bus, now momentarily parked by the Ilocos countryside for the benefit of all.

And in 2009, with Hayden Kho's sex videos storming the Internet, two of Alvin's colleagues, Eric and Philip, reconnect a year after the great heist, driving to a remote Tarlac town to the wake of a stranger who happens to share Philip's name--and had fatally flung himself in front of a bus.

At its core, "The Quiet Ones" is a remarkably intelligent paean to life in sweaty, rubbish-strewn Metro Manila, something only one who has really experienced the streets of the capital city we all love to hate--who understands the frustrations of middle-class life in this urban heartland--could have written.

It is also an entertaining, highly accessible look at post-colonial Filipino identity, not so much a raised middle finger to Western imperialism as an attempt--and a successful one at that--to embody a generation still struggling with its "mixed" heritage.

The best aspects of this novel, however, are the ones that turn seemingly insignificant details into literary gold, finely balancing sass, humor and in-your-face realness.

Witness, for example, the way a phone call unfolds between Alvin and an airline ticket agent, how the author populates the latter's station with "a mangy teddy bear with an 'I'm sorry' sign" and "dog-eared post-its"; how the call-center floor rings with, among other things, "a supervisor's Mariah Carey playlist"; how a mid-afternoon deluge is summarized in a passage: "What was apocalypse to some was just Tuesday to Manileños."

And when the characters get aboard the capital's embarrassingly meager train system, the novel simply soars with Diaz's astute skill for observation, the megalopolis--its perennial floods, GI roofs and glamorous skyscrapers--unfolding with a newness both attractive and revolting.

This is Diaz pulverizing banality to oblivion--and who knew what a thrill that could be?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

PDI Review: 'A Game of Trolls' by PETA

In today's paper, my last theater review--at least, until the madness of pre-residency season subsides. #MarcosNotaHero.

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'A Game of Trolls': On the other hand, bravo for advocacy

As advocacies go, "A Game of Trolls," Philippine Educational Theater Association's (Peta) latest musical directed by Maribel Legarda and written by Liza Magtoto, is the one show you have to see this month.

For the unaware, the title is a pun on the George R. R. Martin fantasy novel that has been transformed into the phenomenal TV series. But in this musical, the realist background dwarfs the make-believe elements it anchors.

In the present, the protagonist, Hector, is part of a company of trolls who defend Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship from posts and comments that dare speak the truth about that despicable era in history. For Hector and his ilk, it's not selling your soul to the devil if it brings food to the table. "Trabaho lang," to use the expression.

Top marks for timeliness, then: Peta's newest martial law musical arrives at a crucial time, in which the revisionist movement to perfume the name of the Marcoses, an act spurred on by the Duterte administration, is in full swing. (Last week, the dead dictator's birthday was declared a holiday in his home province--Malacañang's doing, of course.)


As a reminder of our horrific past, the musical is compelling, presenting the atrocities of that time through means as simple as a mother narrating the abuses she suffered, and as novel, if not Dickensian, as the ghosts of martial law victims Dr. Bobby dela Paz and Ed Jopson literally transcending technological barriers.

But this production's branding--"a martial law musical for millennials"--is its undoing.

The attempts to "freshen up" the milieu are obvious: characters who belong to the target generation, artistic details meant to reflect the party-going and gadget-dependent lifestyle, a love story endowed with dollops of kilig, etc.

Superficial comprehension

But it all conveys a rather superficial comprehension of millennial culture, for there is so much more than just strobe lights, laptops and sappy romcoms to this generation. It's an understandable simplification that deprives the fictional world of further depth and dimension.

Even the story's emotional bulwark--a mother-and-son relationship embroiled in resentment--unravels like halfhearted melodrama.

To say that old-fashioned sensibilities run this show would be accurate; this musical, though supposedly pegged for the youth, sounds and feels like something that came from their parents' closets.

The songs (by Vincent de Jesus) don't resemble anything you'd hear in the airwaves these days; they seem to belong to an earlier era of musical theater (though as that, they are stirring).

Less certain

In fact, the only time the show thoroughly engaged the high school students who filled the theater (alongside this millennial author) was during the penultimate number: a rap battle. The rest of the time, it was like they were in history class, passively watching the lesson unfold.

The efforts to tie up the past and the present are laudable. Halfway through, a long-haired showgirl in army fatigues who may or may not remind you of Mocha Uson facilitates a dream sequence involving torture methods. And a song centered on the extrajudicial killings condoned by today's government opens Act II.

Unfortunately, this dive into current events doesn't feel fully explored. Though clearly fueled by the noblest intentions, the musical ends up way more confident when it journeys back in time than when it is making sense of the present.

The facts are irrefutable: The reign of the Marcoses was the rule of murderous despots and plunderers who don't belong in an imagined gray area of the national consciousness, but in prison. The musical trying to tell that to a new generation, however, is a less certain creature.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

PDI Review: 'Aurelio Sedisyoso' by Tanghalang Pilipino

In today's Inquirer, my second-to-the-last review for the theater section--here. That is, until I'm done with the madness that is pre-residency.

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'Aurelio Sedisyoso' is a spectacle--a loud and arduous one

The brains behind Tanghalang Pilipino's award-winning "Mabining Mandirigma" are back with a  new musical, "Aurelio Sedisyoso," a so-called "rock sarswela" dramatizing the life of playwright Aurelio Tolentino during the early years of the American Occupation.

So you have to wonder why the only touch of genius in this show comes in the form of spectacle.

The venue, the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Little Theater, which happens to be formally named after the musical's protagonist, has been upended. Viewers now occupy the stage, most of them on the least ergonomic bleachers, while the set has been erected atop the theater seats.

It's a daring, against-the-norm layout. But now the challenge for sound designer TJ Ramos is projecting the sound into the stage, and for lighting designer Katsch Catoy, aiming the lights away from it. The result is a production that sounds rugged--in many instances, tone-deaf and deafening--and literally looks dark, obscuring, if not distorting, GA Fallarme's projections.

These sensory impairments are complemented by Toym Imao's set: a sprawling, cross-shaped ramp surrounded on all sides by statues on plinths. Is this a Christian grotto? Most likely not, judging by how the whole display is used--or left underused--throughout the show (begging the more basic question: What exactly is all this supposed to be?)

Urgent problems

The more urgent problems of this musical, however, go beyond incoherent design elements.

Short of calling it a narrative mess, "Aurelio" is an arduous thing to follow. In its laborious, nearly three-hour running time, metaphors are littered; incidents are crammed between jarring transitions; and various tropes--a scene playing out like a silent film on fast-forward, a rap battle, etc.--are utilized to tell a story that races through its plot points like a horse on steroids.

As it is, the production directed by Chris Millado and written by Nicanor Tiongson feels like a raw first draft in serious need of major whittling.

In fact, the only character that jumps off the page and strikes you as fully flesh and blood is Aurelio himself, played magnificently by David Ezra as an embodiment of the largeness and loudness of this musical's soul.

Everybody else feels like half-baked portraits--though, yes, Phi Palmos and Kakki Teodoro, as two women who figure prominently in the story, are more corporeal than the rest.

Rock component

With Joed Balsamo's music, one needs to return to the branding: "rock sarswela." And "Aurelio" is definitely more successful, if not more comfortable, with sarswela.

One may even argue that the rock component is lacking, never mind that the musical highlight turns out to be a rap number, ironically; and that the antagonist Tikbalang, a shape-shifting incarnation of Uncle Sam, is visibly ill-fitting in his rock numbers--or at least, as played by the usually excellent Jonathan Tadioan (alternating with screen actor Baron Geisler).

That Balsamo seems to take after Stephen Sondheim in his score's generous use of dissonance is impressive. But that dissonance as a musical aesthetic is something the cast hasn't quite grasped yet. And that scattering of bum notes and harmonies is also accompanied by a rather wan interpretation of Denisa Reyes' choreography.

Brevity and clarity

Many times, one is reminded of "Mabining Mandirigma," as shades of its success find their way into "Aurelio's" songs and dances, its orchestrations, and even the basic structure.

But unlike "Mabini," whose ambitious pageantry was well-matched by an introspective streak, "Aurelio" appears to be all flash and bang, with an inchoate interior.

James Reyes' costumes, mostly blacks and whites, do wonders in advancing the metaphors, but the instances that work in this production are far outnumbered by the ones that glaringly don't.

An act of sedition may be the only recourse: a second life for "Aurelio," perhaps, one that places brevity and clarity above all else? 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

PDI Review: 'West Side Story' - The Centennial World Tour in Manila

My review of the "West Side Story" Centennial World Tour is in today's paper--here. The production runs for a very limited time--until August 27, next Sunday--before flying off to Singapore.

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Silence and shadow and smallness in a stunning 'West Side Story'

Finally, a well-written musical!

That is not a judgment on the overall quality of the musical theater productions of the past seven months. But take away the performances and the myriad of design elements, and what's left are stories that could use some more pruning and polish, if not a major makeover--a sentiment that applies across the board, from "Care Divas" to "Sa Wakas," "Kinky Boots" to "Newsies."

It goes without saying that this (so far) less-than-outstanding year in musical theater is a product of the material companies choose, and not necessarily a reflection of how plays are written nowadays.

"West Side Story" at The Theatre at Solaire should be an opportune reminder of how they used to make 'em. Granted, the musical is basically Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" transposed to the Manhattan ganglands of old. But here is a world crafted conscientiously, the ups and downs of the plot grounded on reason, a story that does not rely on lazy narration, illogical shortcuts or easy doses of fantasy to move it along.

That this staging of the Bernstein-Sondheim classic is terrifically mounted is all the more reason to pay this touring production a visit.

Watching this "West Side Story" actually sometimes feels like watching an art film (and no, we're not talking about the 1961 adaptation that, in retrospect, deprived the "Somewhere" ballet sequence of its true magic and profundity, watering it down into a simple-minded duet).

Sense of brevity

In this production, nothing--not even the grandest dance numbers--comes across as existing solely for  surface entertainment. There is a palpable invitation to look further and probe deeper into the line readings, the blocking and choreography, the set and lights and costumes.

What is most striking is the emphasis on silence and shadow and smallness--elements that, curiously enough, amplify the emotional aspects of the show.

Aided by the venue's topnotch acoustics, the dialogue acquires a sense of brevity. The orchestrations, conducted by Donald Chan, are tight and disciplined, not one note prolonged needlessly.

The silences that follow the nonmusical scenes only amplify the young characters' feeling of being adrift in an adult world they can hardly navigate. This smallness is further highlighted as they are framed against the hulking set of posts and balconies, metal rails and pull-down stairs.

And the lights--and the silhouettes they create--play a major role in pushing a raft of emotional buttons. You feel the apprehension of the characters as the spotlights turn into crimson circles, and understand the internal journeys these kids undertake just by looking at the backdrop subtly shifting across its sunset palette. 

Not faultless

This "West Side Story" is not faultless. Its blunders are particularly jarring in some crucial scenes in the second act, which Jenna Burns (as Maria) mishandles, coming across as an overeager imitation of the naïve Lea Michele in the first season of "Glee."

But what are a few misses compared to the visually stunning whole? Here, members of the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, each feel organic without hamming it up. Here, Maria's lover Tony takes the form of Kevin Hack, singing marvelously while imbuing the role with a precise mixture of youthful verve, romanticism and authority.

And, to put it mildly: The dancing--Joey McKneely's superlative recreation of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, now brought to thrilling life by a cast of triple threats--deserves every bit of the stage time it gets, if not more.

Considering the brief life of the modern musical, 1957--the year "West Side Story" had its first audiences--should feel like eons ago already. Yet, this production never feels stale or irrelevant; it moves with fiery urgency, each dip and spin and pirouette ensuring the final picture is awash in the kind of literary and artistic merits that timeless pieces of theater are made of.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Seven months gone

 Himeji Castle, 2017-06-09.

Seven months gone. Already.

I finished "The Leftovers" the other day. I don't know that I can actually summon the right word to encapsulate the magnificent, almost spiritual experience of watching this. Makes you see just how truly awful the Philippine television industry is, if only to base on the output. Now I've started on the second season of "Fargo," alongside the new "Game of Thrones" on Mondays.

Last night, I saw "Miss Sloane"--the stupidest movie of 2016. In an alternate universe, Jessica Chastain would have won her second Oscar (the first for "Zero Dark Thirty"), but this steaming pile of shit simply does not deserve her. 

I'm at the airport again, this time with family. Japan seems like a long time ago already. More so the Bicol trip with the girls. I've yet to blog about either, so I'll just leave you some pictures. Heck, I haven't even finished the Taipei travelogue; don't know if I will.

The past few days here in Iloilo have been pretty wet. How's your side of the world?

The approach to Legazpi City. May 2017.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

PDI Review: 'Newsies' by 9 Works Theatrical

My review of 9 Works' "Newsies" at that outdoor theater in BGC is in today's paper--here. Will now go on a reviewing hiatus; see you at "West Side Story." "Newsies" runs until next weekend; "Kinky Boots" closes tomorrow.

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Forget the story--'Newsies' is superb acrobatic pageantry

Who needs a good story, or at least a well-written book, when you can have the riveting spectacle of dancing men?

That seems to be the idea implicit in "Newsies," 9 Works Theatrical's latest venture at the Globe Iconic Amphitheater in Bonifacio Global City. The musical, adapted from the 1992 Disney musical of the same name, is a woefully distended creature, taking longer than it should to tell its tale of underdogs battling money-grabbing masters.

The story: In turn-of-the-century New York, Jack Kelly and his fellow newsies stand up to the powers that be and win the day. But Harvey Fierstein's book is so bloated, it would float straight to the stratosphere were it made of helium.

The score by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) is an uneven mix, with only a few songs, like the wistful opening "Santa Fe," latching onto the brain.

Wholly original

It's the dancing that pumps life into this musical. And in this 9 Works production directed by Robbie Guevara, the choreography is a wholly original invention by PJ Rebullida.

It's not every day that dance takes center stage in musical theater. But what a fortuitous month this has been, with "Newsies" running alongside another production that flaunts all-stops-out dancing--Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's "Kinky Boots," with its bevy of high-heeled, hysterically flexible drag queens.

In "Newsies," it's the sight of balletic man-boys, tumbling and pirouetting every so often, that seizes the viewer's attention. This acrobatic pageantry becomes even more impressive when one considers the fact that not all of them are seasoned dancers.

Rebullida's work really perks this production up; some of the numbers, like the tap-dancing congregation of "King of New York," would ring callow without his choreography.

Leading-man aplomb

The other reason to see this "Newsies" is Gian Magdangal, who returns to local stages after a few years of performing abroad. As Jack Kelly, Magdangal is a vision of leading-man aplomb, launching himself into the heart of the character without exaggeration.

It's this sort of unembellished acting and charismatic self-assurance that sets him and Jef Flores (as Davie, who acts as Kelly's right-hand man) apart from the ensemble. The two of them stand out without blatantly meaning to, while behind them, various accents, sometimes unintelligible dialogue and unnecessary physical gestures are thrown everywhere.

Not that the ensemble is wholly at fault here: "Newsies" is a story populated by a magnitude of one-note roles, just a few of which become credible characters in more experienced hands--say, Greg Dulcie as the antagonistic publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer and Pinky Marquez, in the dispensable part of the actress Medda Larkin.

This unrealistic quality also haunts Ed Lacson's set--impressive in scale, but lacking in texture--and Martin Esteva's disconcertingly aimless lighting design.

One may argue that the point here is not realism; this is, after all, a "kiddie" musical, constructed with topnotch entertainment values and convenient happy endings in mind. But as kiddie musicals go, the world, to play on a lyric, has certainly known better.

Where 9 Works' "Newsies" succeeds, then, is in diminishing the scale of its source's flaws. Here, the spotlight burns brightest on a pair of engaging lead performances and some of the finest dancing local musical theater has seen this decade. Now there's a worthy headline.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

PDI Review: Virgin Labfest XIII

My omnibus review of the 13th Virgin Labfest, which ends tomorrow (Jul. 16), is in today's paper--here. This is the third year I'm doing this; the next will probably be after residency already. 

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Virgin Labfest 13: A 'wagas' (all out) but mixed bag

"Hindi Ako si Darna."

Culled from a record of 192 submissions, the 12 new plays presented at the ongoing 13th Virgin Labfest (themed "Wagas") at the Cultural Center of the Philippines is quite a mixed bunch--none of them as drop-dead terrific as, say, "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala." Some even glaringly violate the timeworn literary mantra "kill your darlings"--that calls against self-indulgence, in favor of of brevity and purposefulness.


An example is Rick Patriarca's "Birdcage"--a simple conversation between two long-time employees of a BPO company, but through poignant use of details and subtext, unveils this festival's most convincing realist writing.

Here, Patriarca displays a deft hand at naturalistic, observant dialogue--the antithesis to his louder-than-loud "Hapagkainan" from last year. And Aldo Vencilao and Gie Onida (in one of the year's most compelling performances) fully embody the millennial struggle between passion and practicality, cynicism and optimism.

The final scene, however, is a stumble: Vencilao's character launching into a long-winded memory monologue that merely reiterates previously presented ideas. Absent this portion, the play would be tighter, if not more powerful.

'Sincerity Bikers' Club'

Adrian Ho's "Sincerity Bikers' Club" tackles the government's war on drugs from a small town perspective, examining how a local biking club is torn apart by fear and paranoia upon knowing its newest member is the widow of an alleged addict. 

But the play deliberately invents its own conflict, its characters seemingly existing in a vacuum. If the club is really as tight as the play makes it out, shouldn't there have been a discussion on this issue beforehand? And though it digs deep in portraying herd mentality, the play eventually settles for the platitudinous and predictable.

Still, it is easy to be swept away by the fine dramatic tension produced by Jenny Jamora's incisive direction, and an ensemble that really knows each other's rhythms.

'Boses ng Masa'

The same can't be said of Joshua Lim So's "Boses ng Masa," directed by Guelan Luarca. The whole play is about Chris and Hector, employees of a political campaign, arguing whether or not to publicize a sex scandal that will damage their rival.

What damages this play, though, is the character of Chris (played by Jerome Dawis)--so thinly written and thinly acted that Renante Bustamante as Hector simply swallows him whole. Its question-and-answer format used to better effect in "Sincerity Bikers' Club," the play is only topically engaging and its ending, obviously intended for shock value, only cheapens this laborious, drawn-out affair.

'Love Team'

In Oggie Arcenas' "Love Team," directed by Michael Williams, a debuting artist and a washed-up artista reunite long after the demise of their onscreen love team. The conversation here is two-pronged: one arm on celebrity status and the price of fame, the other on modern-day gay romances.

But what to make of a play that not only repeats itself, but repeats itself twice? Wrap it up 20 minutes earlier and nothing vital would have been subtracted from its message. One suspects its undisciplined length only serves to delay the eventual crowd-pleasing, kilig-producing kiss between its actors.

'Ang Mga Puyong'

Ryan Machado's "Ang Mga Puyong," directed by Ricardo Magno, is also a curious selection: It is inherently Jerome Ignacio's "Kublihan" from two years ago, sans the nimble handle on subtlety and character shading.

Two boys coming of age in a relatively isolated place, who may or may not have feelings for each other--a premise neither untried nor untested. In fact, it is so formulaic, one can already intuit where the story is heading, despite the loquacious dilly-dallying and the play's attempts at slowly overwhelming the viewer with one scandalous revelation after another.

'Si Dr. Dolly Dalisay at ang Mga Ladybugs'

The dilly-dallying is even less tolerable in Layeta Bucoy's "Si Dr. Dolly Dalisay at ang Mga Ladybugs," which tries to merge the alienating world of scientific research with the maudlin universe of TV soaps.

And like a soap, the play, directed by Jonathan Tadioan, force-feeds its audience with careless dialogue and conspicuously inserted dramatic moments, its idea of humor a scenery-chewing Celeste Legaspi playing trashy cruel mother to Dolly de Leon's smug scientist, who harps on and on about her "PhD in Entomology."

'Ang Bata sa Bus Stop'

Conversely, Sari Saysay's "Ang Bata sa Bus Stop," directed with an eye for tenderness by Topper Fabregas, is a play that doesn't aim for literal largeness so much as the metaphorical kind, concerning itself with a priest about to leave the monastic life behind.

At the titular bus stop, the priest encounters a rather precocious boy who asks him questions he isn't ready to answer. Then, distinctions are blurred, as the viewer finally realizes who the boy is.

But by the dawning of that revelation, what this play has become is one very long homily. It tells and tells instead of showing, and hardly takes chances, barely exploring the sociorealistic points it throws up in the air.

'Ang Bahay sa Gitna ng Kawalan'

Eliza Victoria's "Ang Bahay sa Gitna ng Kawalan" uses the playwright's expertise in speculative fiction to bring horror into the theater. One can imagine how successful this story might be on the page, where transcendence of consciousness and rationality can be elucidated in more precise detail.

Onstage, however, those fantastical elements don't translate well, given the constraints of linear storytelling. The production is a bamboozling mess, the actors playing on different registers of horror and George de Jesus' direction barely able to splice them together. This is psychological horror meets the supernatural meets campy "Shake, Rattle & Roll," and being everything at once isn't always a good thing.

'Dear and Unhappy'

In Carlo Vergara's "Dear and Unhappy," only Cris Villonco, as a neurotic, disoriented Josephine Bracken, seems to be in on the joke.

Vergara writes fully realized female roles, from "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," "Mula sa Kulimliman" and now here. But this production, directed by Ricky Villabona, isn't as assured as his previous work. The play already loses itself in the first half, striving to include as many points of discussion as possible--American colonialism, feminism in the prefeminist age and even the humanization of our most revered heroes. The resulting production feels inchoate, the magical character played by Bernardo Bernardo functioning as a mere device.

'Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat'

In the end, three comedies prevail. Eljay Castro Deldoc's "Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat," directed by Roobak Valle and Tuxqs Rutaquio, can use some trimming but it proves to be a highly ambitious and imaginative piece in tackling the advent of fake news.

Ambet (Paul Jake Paule, making the most out of a redundant character) and Nato (Fitz Bitana, electrifying) are the brains behind a website that peddles untruths. On the verge of greater recognition, Ambet has a change of heart, putting him at odds with Nato, who sees the site as nothing more than a cash cow.

All things considered, this is the most successful among the entries that deal with current events. This is Deldoc as master of farce: Look no further than the supporting turns of Chunchi Cabasaan (as the emissary of a certain despotic family from Ilocos) and Anthony Falcon (a riot as a fundamentalist minister).

'Nothing but Dreams'

Dingdong Novenario's "Nothing but Dreams" is a pitch-perfect amalgam of black comedy and realist drama. Transposing the Tracy-Hepburn classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" into a Filipino setting, Novenario's script is both urgent and realistic, given the casual racism in present society.

Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna, with a strong ensemble led by Audie Gemora and Madeleine Nicolas, "Nothing but Dreams" is proof that theater can be both polarizing yet downright convincing. To paraphrase a cliché, it hurts because its true.

'Hindi Ako si Darna'

Finally, this Labfest's most satisfying entry is Maynard Manansala and U.Z. Eliserio's "Hindi Ako si Darna," which is basically a study of the superhero in a postsuperhero age.

Although bloated in parts and rather slow at the start, the play is still a rollicking laugh trip--intelligent without being pompous, hilarious without being excessive. The first-rate ensemble, which includes Tetchie Agbayani as a now grandmotherly Darna, Ricci Chan as a bitter, faux-British Ding and John Lapus as an out-of-shape Valentina, confidently heave this play to comedic heights.

"Hindi Ako si Darna," directed by Andoy Ranay, doesn't pretend to be anything other than the all-stops-out entertainment it is. And in the modesty of that ambition, it proves to be a bigger, more resonant piece than many other entries. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

PDI Review: 'Sister Act' - The 2017 Asian Tour in Manila

My review of "Sister Act," Ovation Productions' second theatrical venture in the country, is in today's paper--here. Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's "Kinky Boots" at the RCBC Theater, meanwhile, is just fantastic.

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'Sister Act'--where the convent is now a sorority house

Midway through the second act of "Sister Act," its protagonist, down-on-her-luck club singer Deloris Van Cartier, sings: "I'll have my sisters with me still/I'll have my sisters, always will," and one can't help wondering whether or not she's still talking about the same sisters of the immaculate frock and immaculate voice bopping all around her.

Deloris, one should recall, is on witness protection after walking in on her gangster boyfriend shooting a henchman dead. Now she's hiding out in a convent, in the process resurrecting the once-hopeless choir while clashing with the traditional Mother Superior.

When Deloris breaks into the title song, however, it's the ultimate cue for the audience to finally accept the fact that "Sister Act" the movie and the musical are only half-sisters at most.

Though it basically follows the movie's plot, this stage version has lost much of the whimsy, that slightly out-of-your-mind quality, that made the iconic 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg such a trip. The nuns, for instance, no longer blackmail a helicopter pilot to fly them to Vegas, where they'd scurry through the slot machines to save Deloris.

Girl power generation

In place of flat-out zaniness, we now have a "Sister Act" for the girl power generation, if your sisters were chaste and ardently Catholic. The nuns as Deloris' sorority sisses, anyone?

There is now also a dispensable love story on the side, plus one too many song-and-dance numbers and a glittery bear hug at the end to pummel the message that, hey, sometimes the people we least want to accept end up changing us for the better. Who knew?

This stage version also has a totally original score (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater) and though some of the numbers do raise the rafters during the show, none of the songs really cling to your brain the way, say, "I Will Follow Him" unfailingly follows you around.

The production at The Theatre at Solaire, an international tour that ends its two-week run tomorrow (July 9), is a model of efficiency. It shares the direction, choreography and almost the same design team with the original Broadway production.

Without a hitch

Like a well-orchestrated mass, this touring production moves fluidly, singing and dancing and transitioning from scene to scene without a hitch. So fluidly, in fact, that it all feels perfunctory.

Dené Hill as Deloris, for example, is all surefire spunk and feisty confidence--a one-note performance that's as predictable as the plot. When she leads the nuns in prayer for the first time, she's like an overconfident girl scout cluelessly bungling an oath.

And she never fully sheds that skin of overflowing enthusiasm to reveal a more vulnerable, conflicted interior--the kind that made Goldberg's portrayal worth rooting for.

Hill and Rebecca Mason-Wygal (as Mother Superior) do manage to evince the bullhead-against-bullhead dynamic that Goldberg and Dame Maggie Smith did so well in the movie. But they never feel like equals--more like a school principal contending with her childish ward, which makes their eventual reconciliation less satisfying.

It's the less glitzy parts that allow room for surprise--that of Deloris' boyfriend Curtis, for example, whose one song number doesn't feel expendable courtesy of Brandon Godfrey's sinister stylings.

Alas, the rest of this "Sister Act" settles for the unsurprising. Thus, while performed with a surplus of smiles, it can get monotonous pretty quick, like a sorority party running dry on booze and crazy.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

PDI Review: '50 Years of Telling Stories' - The Repertory Philippines 50th Anniversary Concert

My review of the Rep@50 concert last Sunday is in today's paper--here. Shoutout to the best editor in the world, Gibbs Cadiz, who used to be huge in Blogger.

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Rep's '50 Years of Telling Stories' an evening poignantly told

Eighty seasons and 443 productions are a lot to cover in two hours.

That was what Repertory Philippines attempted to do during its star-studded 50th anniversary concert, "50 Years of Telling Stories," at The Theatre at Solaire last June 11. The result was an evening that will be remembered more for the magnitude of talent on display than for the way such talent was put to use.

Best moments

Spanning nine segments, each directed by a distinguished Rep alumnus (with overall direction by Bart Guingona), the concert highlighted in its best moments one of the things this company does well: triple threats in sweeping ensemble numbers.

Never mind polish or perfection of technique. Occasionally, "50 Years of Telling Stories" felt like it could have done with a bit more rehearsal time.

Not that the entire affair, buoyed by Ejay Yatco's splendid musical direction and orchestrations, was a shallow celebration--far from it. But if we're talking of concerts to end all concerts to mark such a landmark event as Rep's golden year, as this evening ought to have been, then two examples come to mind.

The first is the Stephen Sondheim birthday tribute at New York City's Lincoln Center seven years ago. That evening, filmed live for a global audience (and, if we may add, posterity), was performed tightly and flawlessly, and never removed the genius and spirit of Sondheim centerstage.

Closer to home, the Philippine Educational Theater Association's 50th anniversary concert two months ago was, from start to end, a moving salute to true-blue Filipino theater.

Most inspired

Still, whenever the concert found its footing, it delivered--poignantly, sometimes powerfully.

The most inspired and most entrancingly performed segment, directed by Michael Williams and dedicated to the directors, had Guingona singing Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat" (an apt choice!), while three pairs of women harmonized with him to different tunes: Pinky Amador and Morissette Amon ("This Is the Moment" from "Jekyll and Hyde"), Sheila Francisco and Cathy Azanza-Dy ("I Can See It" from "The Fantasticks"), and Caisa Borromeo and Carla Guevara-Laforteza ("I Wanna Make Magic" from "Fame").

For the "In Memoriam" segment, Becca Coates and Liesl Batucan sang "Some Things Are Meant to Be" from "Little Women" (one of Rep's best musicals in recent years), and the downtempo arrangement only made this song about letting go and moving on all the more heartrending.

'One Day More' finale

The cherry on top, of course, was the finale: "One Day More" from "Les Miserables," which opened with the original cast of Rep's landmark 1993 production, who then literally handed over the microphones mid-song to a next-generation lineup, in a kind of symbolic turnover that saw Williams giving Marius to Joaquin Valdes, Monique Wilson passing over Eponine to Borromeo, and Karla Gutierrez, Cosette to Coates.

As finales go, that was pretty much the real deal.

When all is said and done, 80 seasons and 443 productions is still a feat unlikely to find parallels anywhere. It's this tradition of telling stories--or staging them, as Freddie Santos puts it--and telling them well that Rep has more or less sustained, creating for itself a brand that's now equated with excellence in English-language theater.

That, in the face of a 50-year history, is what truly matters.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The 56th Silliman Writers Workshop in retrospect, now that my emotions have settled

For Tiff and Catherine and Tanya; for Jam and George, Jake and Baby H, Miggy and Arlene; for JMax and Renz and Lendz and Gillian; for Parts and Mo; for Jimmy and Gimmy and Sawi and Krip and Wendell and Neil; for Susan and Grace and DM and Ian—the first of many pieces sure to come. I have nothing but immense gratitude.

I write this now that I am two islands, three provinces, and hundreds of miles away from Dumaguete. It’s been three days since Miggy and I left on that early morning plane. The weather had been balmy—a far cry from the stifling humidity plaguing where I am now—and as I made my way across the ramp to the parked turboprop, the Cuernos de Negros had at last unveiled itself, those olive-green peaks stripped of the cloud cover that had concealed them for the past two weeks. The only clear thought I remember having at that time—for I had admittedly been worn out by the previous night’s game of beer pong (my first time, and our team lost twice!)—was how perfect, how right, that the mountains should finally reveal themselves during my last few precious minutes in the city. I was in the right place at the right time.

I write this now that I have taken the time to sit back and take in the breadth and depth of the past two weeks. Had I tried writing this much earlier, the result would have undoubtedly been a sort of incoherent wreck, for a part of me had wished, right there on that tarmac, that I never had to leave; just the thought of this whole workshop experience wrapping up was enough to get me teary-eyed (and those who know me well enough know I don’t tear up easily, but let’s not dwell on this).

This was, in a manner of speaking, my final shot at getting into the workshop. And I almost didn’t get to submit my application—so thank you, I suppose, to the screening committee for extending the deadline, for giving me ample time to spruce up “In Teresa” and finish the first draft of “Manchester Boys”; for the time to get myself lost in the glass-and-metal heartland of Ortigas on a wet November day in search of the office of Dean Alfar, who had obligingly agreed to write my recommendation. Were I a more fatalistic person, I’d go as far as to proclaim that deadline extension the sign that jumpstarted my way to Dumaguete.

And there I finally was, one late Sunday afternoon: the last fellow to arrive for the 56th Silliman University National Writers Workshop, after two delayed flights and almost four hours in the sweltering marketplace that was Mactan Airport. There I finally was, in the right place at the right time, almost a decade since I first heard of this workshop’s existence.

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I had planned to blog about the workshop on a day-to-day basis, but this was the only thing I came up with.

“Second night in the Writers Village in Valencia. The signal here is basically next to nothing. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Messenger—which does not bode well for my obsessive-compulsive nature. So this is why the workshop is called a retreat. Evenings here are gorgeously chilly in the way evenings never were back in Iloilo. This morning I awoke to find my glasses all fogged up. I’d been having a weird dream about some malevolent force my cousins and I had to escape from (spoiler: one of them didn’t make it) when this rhythmic knocking slowly drew me back to the mundane. Turned out to be a hen and her chicks outside my window, which reminded me of that rooster that never failed to wake Justin and I up during our time in Bailen last year. Jam and George, my cottage-mates, had declared the previous night their unwillingness to sleep alone, so I have a room to myself. Our cottage is supposed to be the “Tikbalang” cottage, but by now I’m pretty sure I have no third eye. Also, I sleep in complete darkness.”

Mornings in the Writers Village quickly acquired a semblance of routine. George would be the first to wake up, and the flushing and splashing from the bathroom would be my alarm clock. Est. 6-6:30 for five consecutive mornings—a record of sorts for my post-med school self. I’d be bathed and clothed by 7-ish and would head to the common hall for breakfast, where some of the fellows would already be gathered ‘round the table on the terrace. Every now and then, a cacophony of crickets (or were they some sort of bird?) would break the hilltop silence; the mountain breeze would descend upon the village and rustle every leaf, bush and stem to life. Sirius Black and the other dogs would start the day’s loitering. Between the pine trees, we’d spy the urban plains in the distance, and across the bluish blur of the sea, Cebu and Siquijor.

On our last morning, I was awakened by the mooing of the village cow on its way to pasture. On our last evening, we discovered the gems behind the portrait (of a plant? a vase of flowers? I can’t remember now) in the common hall: a pair of huge-ass tokay geckos straight out of my childhood nightmares.

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Before joining the theater section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I had already been dabbling in poetry, having had a few pieces published abroad (but, ironically, never hereabouts). In a way, I view this workshop as a warm welcome back to literary writing, though I found fiction a more accessible, if not easier, means of return.

Certainly, one of the highlights of the first week was the Dorina-Laviña tag team of Sir J. Neil and Wendell, except one never splashed the other’s face with a glass of something. (I suspect, had we gotten the two of them drunk enough, they would have hurled literary theory and vocabulary words at each other instead.) Sir Jimmy and Sir Gimmy instantly came across as mild-mannered grandfathers you’d want to adopt. Sir Sawi was ever the poet, at times seemingly lost in some landscape only he had access to.

My notes in the manuscripts, in fact, contain mostly quotable quotes that would probably make for flavorful dialogue in a play—from the unwarranted inclusion of certain panelists’ mothers in the conversation to the labeling of an essay’s narrator as ‘spoiled,’ ‘condescending,’ ‘judgmental’ and ‘Messianic.’

The second week’s sessions exuded a different energy. Now, we had the feminist eye of Ma’am Grace and Sir DM’s uwian-na summation of every piece, among others. Now, we had panelists who would jam, mid-session, to “The Age of Aquarius” from “Hair” without batting an eyelash. Now, as well, we were more confident in diving straight into the heart of the piece, and more comfortable in articulating our thoughts without fear of hurting the author.  

I’d spent the past four-and-a-half years reviewing other people’s works; now it was my turn to be “reviewed.”

*     *     *     *     *

How many times can a band of writers be almost left behind by a ferry in a single day?

9:15 on Saturday morning. While Jake and Kuya Mo—the oracle of Silliman—stayed behind to purchase their tickets for the next ferry, the rest of us languidly made our way to the Dumaguete passenger port terminal. The woman behind the terminal fee counter was moving at the speed of a snail on its way to lunch. If ever there were a competition on who could count bills the slowest, she’d be a sure win.

What we didn’t expect was that we also had to line up for seat numbers at a different counter inside the terminal. We ended up literally running all the way to the ferry.

In a café across the main plaza of Siquijor, Kuya Mo told us about the time Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, then a fellow herself, visited the island with her batchmates and returned to Dumaguete with extra baggage. She had fallen ill—a man in dark clothes was supposedly following her around—and she was told by one of the healers to go to a body of water in order to “release” the spirit. I spent much of the first leg of the jeepney ride just conceptualizing a specfic piece out of that anecdote.

At the oldest convent in Asia, Kuya Mo pretended he couldn’t understand Bisaya and led our party into the building, which was closed for restoration. The second floor was a dusty open space with wooden floors punctuated by wide, unsightly posts.  

Ganito kasi ang kuwento,” Kuya Mo said, referring to the posts.

Then he proceeded to grope his way around the post like a virginal damsel in distress, all the while delivering the day’s most hilarious piece of dialogue: “Father huwag po, Father huwag po.” I stubbed my thumb on one of the walls, by the way, so the blasphemy’s been paid for.

We crossed the street to the church, where a funeral was taking place. Kuya Mo insisted on having a photo shoot involving the confessionals.

Later in the day, after we’d left Salagdoong Beach Resort to catch the 5:15 ferry, only to return in a state of mild panic to retrieve Baby H’s mobile phone, and then head back to the port (on the other side of the island) with only 45 minutes to spare, Kuya Mo was the perfect example of joie de vivre, as Jam called it: on the back of the jeepney, singing at the top of his lungs.

We ran, once again, all the way to the ferry. At the crucial last minute, Jake couldn’t find his ticket, so we had to pay the officer on the spot to issue him a new one. (We later found his ticket inside his bag.)

We arrived in Dumaguete on a drizzly evening, the whole batch complete—and without extra baggage.

*     *     *     *     *

Dumaguete reminded me of the Iloilo of my childhood, back when things were still slow and simple. Sunday mornings were spent in the public park by the port, where my brother and I would gaze at the majestic ships tethered to their docks, and watch the smaller motorized pump boats make their way across the Guimaras Strait. Some afternoons were spent at the airport, in a park—it would be hyperbolic to even call it that, for it was no more than a small patch of concrete opened to the public—beside the control tower, where we would wait for the planes to land or take off. Else, we passed the hours on our rooftop; our house was right along the path of the planes, and those stately kings of the skies never failed to leave us wonderstruck as they made their way closer to land.   

On our second (and last Tuesday), I decided to take a solitary walk. My inner Catholic voice had been reprimanding me for not having paid a visit to the cathedral since my arrival. I began at the Silliman Church, where the lawn seemingly stretched all the way to the sea, this unobstructed view framed by towering acacias on both sides. Along Hibbard Avenue, tricycles plied their routes beside shiny private vehicles, but even their chaotic crisscrossing exuded the kind of gentleness the city is known for. Ahead of me, a bunch of Caucasian tourists wearing almost nothing stopped every now and then to check out the wares being sold by the stores lining the street.

After the cathedral, I briefly walked around Quezon Park, before deciding to hail a trike back to campus. There was none available, however, so I decided to walk further east. The Boulevard was lit with a faint afternoon glow, the waters calm, the air a tender mixture of salt and smoke. Two kids no older than five made their way across the waters, and for a moment I could almost see their sweet innocence drip off their tiny bodies into the ripples of their trail. The acacias hardly moved; age, after all, eventually strips us of the capacity for wonderment.  

*     *     *     *     *

I write this now that I have allowed my emotions to settle. But every now and then, the thought of Dumaguete, of the Silliman Writers Workshop, bursts into my consciousness, and so I do nothing else but remember.

I remember my roommates, the boys of 314: George, both genius and gentleness, the Christine to my Phantom, a fount of endless jokes ranging from downright unexpectedly funny to downright pun-ny; and Jam, rock star, who always took the quickest baths, whose poems glimmered with measured musicality and demanded to be spoken. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to have shared my first time living in a dorm with these men.

I remember the boys of the other room: Jake, whose geekiness could match my own, whose expansive knowledge of space and spacecraft could fill a conversation alongside my love for the Boeing 787 and the A350; Baby H, whose writing reminded me of my own when I was his age, who was the first to dare break our batch’s goody-two-shoes image one Sunday night in Hayahay, who assumed the role of icon of devotion during the impromptu procession up four flights of stairs in Vernon Hall; and Miggy, one of the coolest dads I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, period.

I remember Tanya’s elegant silences, how it all translated into this workshop’s most elegant writing; Tiff’s self-professed love for bread, and all those moments spent talking about the theater, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, Repertory Philippines and Tanghalang Ateneo; Catherine’s self-professed dipsomania. I remember Tiff and Catherine and our AA meetings at Ciao Bella and Hayahay and Allegre. I remember Arlene, “oh yes, absolutely,” and wonder how she must be doing right now, an ocean and thousands of miles away.

I remember Parts and her serenity of speech; JMax, her unparalleled coolness, and our covenant to fill the world with our spawn, and the moments spent trying to outgross the other (she always won!); Lendz and how what I initially perceived to be shyness turned out to be something entirely opposite; Renz and his peerless fabulousness.

I remember those games of Resistance, where we tried to out-Oscars each other while doing our best not to replicate that time I oversold my innocence. I remember that final night in the Village, how the aftertaste of tubà resembled fresh oysters.

I remember Monday night watching Nana perform, her distinctly breathy sound something I could listen to over and over again; Melody Enero and her soaring, altogether lovely rendition of “La Vie en Rose” and “Falling in Love with Love” during our closing ceremonies.

I remember the Acacia Picnic, how George and Ian turned into a tree, how we all passed the afternoon on mats on the grass, listening to music and poetry, while the sea ebbed and flowed behind us, the sun neither too warm nor absent.

I remember all of these people, with whom I could watch “Alien: Covenant” on a Sunday afternoon and emerge from the cinema ready to launch into a discussion of its merits; with whom I could talk about Steve McQueen’s “Shame” at length; with whom I could fanboy over Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton; with whom I could debate, late at night, whether “Arrival” or “Interstellar” is the better film (the answer is “Arrival”). 

And in my head, I hear Sir Sawi’s voice chiding me from the dreamscape, “Now you’re just making a list!”

But what was the workshop, after all, if not an idyll, a place where time and the life beyond stopped; where nothing else mattered but the literary work at hand and the literary work demanding to be put into page; where I could take stock of the passing of the minutes and of people, could make a list of the fortune, both tangible and intangible, that had landed on my lap, and say to myself, yes, I am happy—here, as I was before I came here.

I remember these two beautiful weeks in Dumaguete and can only consider myself the rarest form of lucky for deciding, all those months ago, to give this workshop one last try. I came to Dumaguete with three pieces of fiction, and left with a thousand more stories to write, most of them made with the most gracious people, all of them memory of the purest, most priceless form.  

*     *     *     *     *

P.S. I don't think this piece is very coherent, but I do hope it contains saysáy, soul, and datìng. [Exit with Sir Gimmy’s signature, smiling “Aha!” pose with pointed thumbs and index fingers. Mic drop.]

P.P.S. “I have now become Wendellian and very anecdotal.” –JNG

P.P.P.S. “You horrid crook! Let me speak!” –GA

P.P.P.P.S. "I love germane!" –Anonymous

Plus 10 more photos:

Pre-morning session at Writers Village. 

Krip Yuson cutting up a pig alongside other literary luminaries. 

Chin-Chin, Tiff and Tanya at Lab-as. 

On the jeepney in Siquijor. 

Hezron at Scooby's. 

Chin-Chin and her idol somewhere in Looc. 

At the Beyonce room in Top Hits. 

Tiff at Cana's Retreat in Amlan. 

Lendz, JMax, Jake and Renz on the final night. 

Room 314.