Monday, April 10, 2017

The 2nd IWP Workshop ended by force majeure

 Post-earthquake with first couple Mookie and Sarge.

My old self, I suppose, would begin with an apology, an attempt to explain--yet again--my prolonged absence hereabouts, which in recent years I have come to equate not with laziness but, simply, with my presence elsewhere (in other words, the non-virtual world), and therefore something wholly excusable, if not better, entirely acceptable.

So no apology, because yes, I was indeed "out there": in a writing workshop this weekend, in the bastion of Dutertard-ism the weekend before, and the Macoy heartlands the week before that. And the preceding months, a "healthy," should I say, mix of studying for that darned exam, watching as much theater as I could given the prospect of that darned exam, and stretches of time spent trying to tame my mind and keep it from panicking and manifesting that panic externally.

That workshop was the 2nd International Writing Program (by the University of Iowa) Alumni Writers Workshop at La Salle, an excellent place to be in when an earthquake strikes. Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, workshop director, must have initially thought no one was paying particular attention to her closing remarks; minutes later, we were all hurrying down 13 flights of escalators (thank goodness this was such an embarrassingly rich school), hoping there would be no aftershocks. "Of course the workshop had to end by force majeure," posted Mookie on Facebook that afternoon.

But the workshop itself: No deep insight from me, given I'm new to all this. You can even say I applied to it on a whim--a day before the deadline, with a hurriedly, mindlessly composed synopsis that would eventually derail everybody's reading of my short story. (This was between the first and second weekends of the board exams, so you can imagine the pretty tight schedule I was contending with.) Now did I have fun, did I learn something? I can't believe I even bothered typing those clichés.

Short of fanboy-ing, that panel though. I can listen to Mookie talk all day, and there was also her husband Sarge, one of the fictionists I look up to. There was Susan Lara, whom I first encountered in high school ten years ago; Eros Atalia, who wrote "Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me"; Carlomar Daoana, behind "Crown for Maria" and "The Elegant Ghost."

My one sadness coming out of this workshop, I confided to them, is the realization that I will most likely be reduced to one meticulously written story a year when I enter residency training. That's on top of my theater viewing and reviewing, and for now I would like to just stop thinking about all this. (On that note, however, Repertory Philippines' "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)" is one of the year's best so far and will have one more weekend of performances, up to the 23rd, after Holy Week.)

I suppose it would be better to post about that Davao weekend and that week in Ilocos separately. Let me leave this here: We will always have history, and it will always be up to the individual to accept or reject history. And you would have to be a goddamned fool, so thick and full of yourself, to have the balls to reject the offensive, the unarguably evil, in the name of pride of origin.

Family and friends gawking at koi at the Davao Crocodile Park.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

PDI Review: 'Makbet' by St. Benilde Arts and Culture Cluster/TAXI Theater

My review of the Nonon Padilla-directed "Macbeth" is in today's Inquirer--here. The production has two remaining performances today.

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A mesmerizing yet confounding 'Makbet'

George de Jesus III and Irma Adlawan are an enthralling pair as the manipulative, murderous titular couple in the Filipino translation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at the St. Benilde Blackbox Theater.

Their performances alone, their effortless command of language and the unwavering dramatic heft they summon throughout this nearly three-hour production, are enough to keep viewers awake and glued to their seats.

Here are two actors who visibly listen to each other and grasp the full extent of their onstage relationship. To see them play out this twisted husband-and-wife dynamic is, in effect, to understand the origins of greed, despair and hunger for power pervading this Shakespearean tragedy.

Vivid translation

The same cannot be said of the rest of the cast, who mostly don't seem to understand their lines or have a difficult time internalizing their characters--a lamentable disservice to the script. The story of the Scottish general who, upon the prodding and scheming of his wife, goes on a killing spree to fulfill a prophecy promising him the throne is here rendered in vivid, lyrical Filipino by the late Rolando Tinio.

Tinio's translation, like his work on the other classics that recently saw life in Manila ("Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente" for "Death of a Salesman," "Tiyo Vanya" for "Uncle Vanya"), retains the play's setting, the foreign names and places unchanged.

It's a technicality that should affect director Nonon Padilla's "Asian-ification" of the material, but actually doesn't. Reuniting with designer Gino Gonzales, with whom he previously collaborated with on "Haring Lear" (Shakespeare's "King Lear" as translated by Bienvenido Lumbera), Padilla's "Makbet," on occasion, even calls to mind Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood."

Figurative approach

The characters are dressed in flowing black robes, their faces splattered mask-like in red and white, even as they talk of England and Scotland, thanes and kings. During the pivotal feast scene, everybody sits cross-legged on the floor drinking from traditional teacups. In battle, some of the warriors wield katana.

While Kurosawa's film was a complete transposition of Shakespeare into a feudal Japanese milieu, Padilla's "Makbet" is a more placeless, figurative approach--a "reenactment of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden," as he writes in his program notes.

And this so-called reenactment has no shortage of ravishing moments. Especially in a couple of crucial scenes when Gonzales' scaffolding set, dominated by lines of paper, looms toward the audience, "Makbet" can be a feast for the senses.

Visceral sheen

Too often, though, Padilla's method is blurred by his excesses, and the effect is a production that is curiously so many things at the same time.

A video camera manually handled by an ensemble member is used to project certain scenes onto several monitors. When this theatrical device succeeds, the viewing experience acquires a more visceral punch, like being privy to a crime being committed. Such moments are hard to come by, though.

An extended epilogue attempting to establish a Catholic connection with the play simply falls flat and comes across as dispensable, if not overindulgent.

Then, there's the use of the entire theater as set: Sometimes it elevates the immersive viewing experience; other times it becomes a literal application of the phrase "all over the place."

As a thesis production in technical theater, "Makbet" should earn top marks for those involved; in the larger scheme of things, however, even the Asian influence starts feeling unnecessary, as if just another (exquisitely rendered) piece in this gimmicky puzzle. The connection to Eden, meanwhile, is all but forgotten.

In those moments, one can't help returning to De Jesus and Adlawan's performances--twin examples of focus and truthfulness in the face of all that artistic razzmatazz.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Passing the boards and other matters

So this is what the morning after feels like. Oscars speeches are made of mornings like this. I feel new, reborn.

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I'm the least thing from an exemplary Catholic. So believe me when I say everything I'd prayed for has come true. Better: You know what they say about Simbang Gabi, the nine morning masses preceding Christmas Day, that when you attend all nine mornings, things will happen for you? Again, I'm no exemplary Catholic, but.

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The Physicians Licensure Exam is a game of chance. It's not standardized. It hardly measures anything as far as being a competent doctor is concerned. Questions are repeated, sometimes more than once. Some are lifted off review books. Some are lifted out of certain institutions' review materials. Typographical errors abound. I wish the examiners would take it more seriously. But I bet all they'd tell me is, "Who are you to complain?"

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I was in Robinsons Magnolia yesterday when the results were released. Some friends and I were watching "Care Divas" at the nearby Peta Theater, and that was where we had agreed to meet. The signal in the area was atrocious: Thirty minutes of refreshing my phone, and then when it finally came out, it was almost ten more minutes of loading that page. Those ten minutes felt like a day. The calls and texts soon followed. I was half-running inside the mall, but I didn't care. 

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My grandfather--my father's father--would have been 95 the day before yesterday. Picture this: At four years old, going up the stage with him to receive my very first gold medal in school; at five, me and my siblings standing in a corner of our roof deck back home, punished for some trivial misdeed, while he stood somewhere off-center, barking orders at the house help; me at six, just arrived home from school and greeted by his reedy frame, that distinct smell of last night's alcohol sticking to his shirt, his veiny hands brought close to my forehead; me at seven, and him in and out of hospital, until one day lung cancer got the better of him. 

I try my best to remember: me, whom they say looks very much like him. I find my memories of him grow fewer by the day, and sometimes I'm no longer certain about the details. Do I have the shape of his face right? The sound of his voice, the way he walked? I wish to remember, and to remember more.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

PDI Review: 'Wicked' - The 2016 International Tour in Manila

My review of the British "Wicked" playing The Theatre at Solaire is in today's Inquirer. And here is the link to my review of the Asia-Pacific tour of 2014. I would also like to take this opportunity to say that Madame Morrible reminds me so much of Kellyanne Conway.

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'Wicked' now more than just a spectacle

It should come as no surprise that "Wicked," which debuted in Manila three years ago and is now back via a brand-new international tour that started in Britain last year, still delivers.

This is, after all, a replica of the Broadway and West End productions, give or take a few alterations. To buy a ticket would be to see essentially the same song-and-dance spectacular that made Idina Menzel a household name and "Defying Gravity" a go-to anthem for those with lungs of brass.

At this point, it seems almost superfluous to extol the individual virtues of this show. Put it this way: You definitely get your money's worth, as far as entertainment value is concerned.

The sound is especially excellent in this production, and that has a lot to do with the top-notch acoustics of The Theatre at Solaire, where the musical plays until March 19. The voices don't strike you as amplified, and the dynamic mix of the orchestrations allows individual instruments to come to life without distracting from the totality of the music.

Everything else--from the gargantuan scaffold-and-cogwheel set and the rapturous dancing, to the cast of triple threats who amusingly speak and sing in the Queen's English--helps drive home the notion that it's the audiences, in the long run, who determine the success or failure of a show.

But there's also the notion that theater should be a mirror of society. And who would have thought that "Wicked" would turn out to be such a resonant show in the post-2016 era?

A good-hearted witch outcast for her green skin, a vapid blonde beloved for her beauty, an autocratic but fraudulent political leader, the eventual rule of the misinformed mob--suddenly, the musical's broad (and sometimes broadly illustrated) thematic points cease to be just fodder for the plot.

Time capsule

To see "Wicked" today is to see the year that was--one marked by divisiveness and fear-mongering--unfold as a time capsule in unending shades of green.

That may just be reading too much into a musical that's meant to be wish fulfillment for teenage girls the world over, of course. But, midway through the first act, seeing that sign that says, "Animals should be seen and not heard," lets you realize just how closely hewn to real life this revisionist take on "The Wizard of Oz" has unintentionally become.

This production of "Wicked," led by the winning pair of Jacqueline Hughes (Elphaba) and Carly Anderson (Glinda), with Kim Ismay as a wickedly funny Madame Morrible, may remain a perfectly satisfying sensory assault. The show itself, though, has become so much more than that. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

PDI Review: 'Sa Wakas' by Culture Shock Productions/Fringe Manila

My review of the restaging of "Sa Wakas," which ends a sold-out, five-week run at The Circuit Makati, is in today's paper--here.

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'Sa Wakas': The sleeper hit is now hit-or-miss

It's definitely a hit if there's even a Facebook page pleading for your show's return.

Nearly four years later, "Sa Wakas," the jukebox musical that spins a love triangle around the songs of defunct rock band Sugarfree, is back. And the beauty of time is that it brings perspective.

Effective structure

"Sa Wakas" of 2013 was a beautiful surprise, not only for the effectiveness of its inverted-time structure, but also for its clear-eyed and lived-in depiction of middle-class millennial life in Manila. It captured not just a youthful belief in dreams and possibility, but also the gritty push-and-pull of romantic entanglements.

This time, Andrei Pamintuan still directs. Ejay Yatco, whose revitalizing rearrangements of the Sugarfree songbook are one of the best things about this musical, now helms a seven-piece band. The design elements more or less retain the original look.

But Pamintuan has admittedly tinkered with and expanded the original script (which he co-wrote with Ina Abuan). If anything, this "Sa Wakas" now feels uncomfortably long (three hours with intermission).

Edited lines such as "Wala nang James Reid sa iyong Nadine" in the song "Wala" serve their purpose in updating the play's milieu, but the bigger picture is now a wordier one. More talk may mean more complex, fleshed-out characters, but it also runs the risk of these people falling into stereotype.

There are three new leads--Pepe Herrera as photographer Topper, Cara Barredo as neurosurgeon Lexi and Maronne Cruz as magazine editor Gabbi--alternating with original cast members Victor Robinson III, Caisa Borromeo and Justine Peña, respectively.

Ideal match

The truth is, the success of each performance of "Sa Wakas" is heavily dependent upon the combination of actors one gets to see.

Robinson and Borromeo, for example, are an ideal match. Their equally self-possessed takes on their characters make for a level playing field, and when they engage in the modern-day game of love and loss, the stakes feel so much higher and more exciting to witness.

Robinson's singing voice remains a wonder, while Borromeo is a perfect fit for this pragmatic, Philistine-doctor-with-a-heart version of Lexi. Their portrayals make you understand how they could have fallen for each other, how they could feed off each other's energies, and how their love could eventually go up in flames.

Herrera provides a more grounded approach to Topper, and his particular brand of self-deprecating humor opens more emotional channels for the character. But pairing him with Barredo makes you question how Topper and Gabbi could have even worked in the first place.

Lost battle

Barredo's take on Lexi is more cute and charming than confident, which doesn't do anything to make her believable as a neurosurgeon. Paired with Herrera, the battle is just about lost from the start: There's no way the passionate, strong-willed Topper could not have overwhelmed this rather simplistic Lexi. You see why he would actually tire of her and set her gaze elsewhere.

It's also worth noting that Herrera looks absolutely nothing like Hans Dimayuga, who plays Topper's brother. With Robinson in the lead, the number "Dear Kuya" not only becomes a thrilling vocal showdown between brothers, but also a case of convincing casting.

Cruz and Peña, both tracing their roots back to Ateneo Blue Repertory, each elegantly fills the part of the self-assured, liberated Gabbi (though Peña's weaker singing voice falls victim to the atrocious sound design plaguing this production at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater).

The perfect trio of actors can summon the very qualities that made audiences fall in love with "Sa Wakas" back then. Absent that, this musical can end up evoking the treacly "kabit" movie or teleserye one of its characters scoffs at.

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ERRATUM: Paragraph five of the version of this review published in today's Philippine Daily Inquirer cites Pamintuan and Abuan as being both responsible for the rewrites in this production. But Abuan was not involved with this year's production. This version reflects that correction. Apologies.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

PDI Review: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' by Repertory Philippines

First review of the year is in today's paper--the online version here! The show runs until Feb. 12 at Onstage Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Buy tickets here.

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'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' is a winsome foursome

Mica Pineda (left) and Joaquin Valdes.

A working knowledge of Anton Chekov's oeuvre is not a prerequisite for having a ball at Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which opens Repertory Philippines' 50th anniversary.

Theatergoers who know their stuff may have the added benefit of getting the references to "Uncle Vanya" or "The Cherry Orchard" or "The Seagull," but Durang's transposition alone of some of Chekov's best-known characters into 21st-century America proves to be sufficient comedic fodder.

The siblings Vanya and Sonia are now middle-aged, jobless and have spent their whole lives in the family home sustained financially by their Hollywood-elite sister Masha. When Masha arrives one weekend with her latest boy toy Spike, old wounds are reopened alongside new ones, and insecurities reexamined.

The play's very DNA is obviously the domestic drama: the absurd and the real meeting in a house in the country (a setup itself very Chekovian). But in its best moments, "Vanya and Sonia..." plays out like a writer's dare gone nuts, a small joke that's allowed to go on and on and expand and soar to hysterical heights.

In on the joke

And, anyway, the characters themselves make darn sure everyone in the audience is always in on the joke. Many times, though, this self-conscious loquaciousness only undermines the play's status as a winner of the Tony Award for Best Play.

When Vanya, for example, points out that Sonia's attraction to him "comes from our living together, [because] there's no one else in the house ever since mother and father died...," one is made aware of an ungraceful quality haunting the expository parts of the writing. 

It speaks much of a production's virtues, then, when even the speechifying parts become less annoying and more, well, funny. This Rep staging, which unfolds on Miguel Faustmann's ornately designed sitting-room set (with convincing rustic exteriors), strikes a fine balance between pathos and all-stops-out comedy.

More than anything, it's the casting that does wonders to this production.

Everybody fits his or her role to a tee: Cherie Gil, who effortlessly supplies a surplus of glamour to Masha while capturing her fame- and age-driven anxieties; Michael Williams as Vanya, always vaguely aware of the things he could have but have not done; even Natalie Everett as the maid Cassandra, who, like her mythological namesake, has the tendency to spout seemingly nonsensical prophecies.

Gag pieces

But in terms of bringing something new to the table, this show belongs to Roselyn Perez, who lands punch line after punch line as the self-pitying Sonia while still giving us a woman who is more than just her frustrations or inferior self-image; and Joaquin Valdes, clearly having a delightful time playing Spike as an all-abs-and-pecs male bimbo.

Directed by Bart Guingona, this production unfolds like a series of gag pieces that aim to elicit not so much sustained guffaws as bursts of laughter. It knows when to hold back, and when to give its all.

And when Maggie Smith and Snow White finally enter the mix (in ways that must be seen to be understood), it's the absurd and the real becoming one, and you stop thinking of the hows and whys. You simply surrender to the charm and skill of this terrific ensemble and proceed to have a ball at the theater.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I'm going to Silliman!

I'm over the moon! This is like the Tony Awards of writing workshops in the country. You can't claim to be a serious Filipino writer if you haven't once thought about applying here. My first try was three years ago, and that was for poetry, which is like the most random field there is. (Obviously I didn't get in.) So now you guys know where to find me in May.

Still have six weeks left before the board exams, but right now it feels like I've already passed.

"In time, we might learn that any gesture
is a kind of displacement, that geography
is as near and small as our birthmarks. If you happen
to remember anything at all, that is because it is hard
to forgive the world's loveliness--the quick shape
of movement, repetition, each fierce

--from Allan Pastrana's "Geography," from the anthology "The Dumaguete We Know" (edited by Merlie Alunan), which I bought in Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio City three Decembers ago.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Year in Film (2016)

Same personal system as the previous years: My longlist included films from this and last year that I saw this year (oh hello there, "Apocalypse Child"). So here's me once more playing favorites.

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1. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
This is why journalism--the truth and its telling--matters.

2. The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
Seals the case, once and for all, for Farhadi as one of our modern masters.

3. Apocalypse Child (dir. Mario Cornejo)
Drama with a capital D. Drama that actually makes sense and moves with a believably human brain and knows which wounds to poke and sores to reopen on your puny mortal soul.

4. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (dir. Lav Diaz)
In a year partly defined by the devil's conscious effort to revise our nation's history, this eight-hour Lav Diaz could not have been timelier.

5. Pamilya Ordinaryo (dir. Eduardo Roy Jr.)
Richard Bolisay for CNN Philippines: "Poverty always needs to be told, especially if it's as effectively worrying as this."

6. Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley)
Just plain saksak-puso beautiful.

7. Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
"Would that it were so simple."

8. Your Name (dir. Makoto Shinkai)
Once, you were young, and love could bend time and space and the laws of nature.

9. Oro (dir. Alvin Yapan)
If everybody who's outraged by that scene with the dog were as outraged by the murder of those four miners, I suspect we'd be a much better country.

10. Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Small-town dynamics compellingly brought to life.

And ten more titles that genuinely made my year at the movies, in alphabetical order: Ang Babaeng Humayo (dir. Lav Diaz); Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven); Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater); Ma' Rosa (dir. Brillante Mendoza); Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols); Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach); A Monster Calls (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona); The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black); Sing Street (dir. John Carney); Sunday Beauty Queen (dir. Baby Ruth Villarama). 

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No shit: My favorite piece of acting in 2016 is MOIRA LANG as Ertha a.k.a. Baby Arjan's abductor in "Pamilya Ordinaryo." Here are 19 more noteworthy performances:
  • Irma Adlawan (Oro)
  • Paolo Ballesteros (Die Beautiful)
  • Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship)
  • Paula Beer (Frantz)
  • Emory Cohen (Brooklyn)
  • Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)
  • Barbie Forteza (Tuos)
  • Joshua Garcia (Vince & Kath & James)
  • Tom Hanks (Sully)
  • Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
  • Jaclyn Jose (Ma' Rosa)
  • Hasmine Kilip (Pamilya Ordinaryo)
  • Rooney Mara (Carol)
  • Khalil Ramos (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
  • Charo Santos-Concio (Ang Babaeng Humayo)
  • Kristen Stewart (Café Society)
  • Laila Ulao (Women of the Weeping River)
And the pitch-perfect ensemble of "Apocalypse Child."

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