Sunday, July 31, 2022

CoverStory Feature: The return of 'Mula sa Buwan'

Second article for CoverStory PH is out today--here

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'Mula sa Buwan': In the spirit of defiance

When “Mula sa Buwan” returns on Aug. 26 at Samsung Performing Arts Theater in Circuit Makati, it will not be the same creature that played to packed houses every performance four years ago. 


In turning Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo’s Filipino translation of that play into a musical, director and co-creator Pat Valera recentered the story on college-age Filipinos whose lives are upended by World War II. But, while the pre-Covid-19 version of the show highlighted its romantic and spectacular elements, Valera says this staging will underscore the spirit of defiance coursing through the musical.


In part, Valera attributes this change in direction to what he calls the “great pains” inflicted by both the pandemic and the recent presidential election. The musical, whose score he wrote with William Elvin Manzano, will still be about “wide-eyed, idealistic misfits” who “cling to their friends and the power of stories and the theater”; this time around, however, the focus will be on how these misfits dream of a better world and fight for space for their future.


Deeper probe 


Anyone familiar with the musical or its source material will know how that future turns out to be anything but bright for its characters. Hence, Valera’s rewriting of certain lines and character motivations to be reflective of this age of disinformation: in place of mere escapist entertainment, a deeper probe into our ways of (mis)remembering the past, and, in the case of the titular character, questioning the very notion of (anti-)heroism. 


Of course, the changes may not be immediately apparent even to the most ardent fans of this musical, says Valera. Instead, for those who have seen the multiple hit iterations of this show that ran from 2016 to 2018, the most obvious change will be an old face becoming the new lead.  


From playing the handsome but vacuous Christian in the musical’s 2018 staging at Ateneo de Manila University, Myke Salomon will now assume the part of the poetry-spouting Cyrano, in addition to serving as the show’s new musical director. 


The decision did not come easy to Salomon, though. “It took me weeks to agree to play the part,” he says. “To be honest, I had lost hope. There was a point [during the last two years] when I kept asking myself whether I would still be able to do live theater. I did not want to leave the theater; theater left. That was the hardest part.”


Salomon describes the moment he agreed to do the role as a Moses-with-the-burning-bush situation: “I did not want to stay home anymore,” he says, so he decided to jump in and join the show—“atrophied” performing skills notwithstanding. 


Besides, it is an almost completely new show, says Salomon. For instance, among its cast of 27, only four performers will be tackling parts they had already played in the show’s earlier runs. Salomon also shares Valera’s recalibrated vision of the show’s characters as now fighting for their own safe spaces, and, in the case of his Cyrano, as someone fighting for the displaced artists and dreamers, arguably harking back to the earlier days of the pandemic that destabilized the entire theater community. 


1st since the pandemic 


When it opens, “Mula sa Buwan” will become the first Filipino-language musical to do so since the pandemic started. More significantly, it will be the first production to play the recently inaugurated, 1500-seat Samsung Theater. Gab Pangilinan will return to the role of Roxane, while Markki Stroem will be the new Christian.


This return engagement has been almost a year in the making, says Valera, beginning with industry and audience surveys he co-initiated with Philstage (or the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists Group, Inc.) in late 2021. It looks like it has widespread audience support going for it. As of July 8, the show had  sold almost half the seats allotted for its 13-performance run, according to Valera.


“People are definitely coming, and because of that, we are definitely pressured.” This pressure, says Valera, has become the fuel that inspires everyone involved to give performances worthy of an industry reopening.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

CoverStory Feature: Virgin Labfest 17

Hello, it's me. Good for you if you still visit this site. Some *personal* news: After 9-ish wonderful years, I have officially said goodbye to Inquirer-Lifestyle. I will now be writing theater-related articles for CoverStory PH under--surprise, surprise--dear old Gibbs. This one, on Virgin Labfest 17, was my first piece; came out two months ago. Click here for the website version. Since I have no photo to go with the piece, here, instead, is me with Art, Gibbs, Cora, and Emil--the final (and my fondest) iteration of the Inquirer theater critics team (2012-2020)--at Sentro in Greenbelt 5 last month: 


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Virgin Labfest: 'Untried, untested, unstaged' plays back on stage this June


Exactly two years and three months since Covid-19 shut down all of Manila theater, the Virgin Labfest will return on June 16–26 to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), marking the reopening of in-person theatrical performances in the capital region.


Or so the plan goes, according to the organizers of the 17th edition of this annual festival of “untried, untested, unstaged” plays. 


“Of course, if a Covid-19 surge happens in June, the plan will have to change drastically,” says playwright and festival cofounder Rody Vera. As it stands, the Labfest is gearing for a hybrid approach: two weeks of in-person shows at the CCP, followed by at least another two weeks of streaming of the plays’ recordings. 


“This year, we hope to at least restore the thrill of performing live, [but] one thing we learned [in the past two years] is the importance of making good videos of performances,” Vera says. “Filmed well, these recordings can extend the festival’s life. The online setup may not be as thrilling as live theater, but the reach is so much more, given the short time frame.”


In 2020, the festival’s 16th edition saw the first large-scale effort in the country at virtual or “Zoom” theater, in reference to the videoconferencing software that swiftly became a lifeline for theater folk worldwide. Last year, the festival showcased no new works, opting instead to stream recordings of previous Labfest plays.


12 new works


This year’s edition will feature 12 new works: 10 from 2021’s call for submissions, plus two that were unable to mount online productions in 2020 (“Bituing Marikit” by Bibeth Orteza and “‘Nay May Dala Akong Pansit” by Juan Ekis).


Portions of the usual side events will also be returning to in-person setups, such as the Playwrights’ Fair (with four of 10 sessions to be conducted live at the CCP) and the Writing Fellowship Program (aiming for a live presentation of the fellows’ outputs on closing day). Others, like staged readings and the Revisited set, have been scrapped for now.


Also part of the Labfest’s pandemic-related precautions is a reduced seating capacity of 60 percent, or 136 seats of the Tanghalang Huseng Batute, where all performances will transpire.


As longtime festival production manager Nikki Garde-Torres puts it: “There is a semblance of normalcy, [but] we are also in an in-between where the pandemic and the possibility of higher alert levels remain. It feels like I am relearning how to do live shows.”


“Many are still scared of performing live,” Vera says, “and many members of the public will, presumably, still be afraid of returning to the theater—and I guess we just have to accept that.”


Giddiness, excitement


Despite that fear, the CCP these days is also abuzz with a kind of “giddiness,” to quote Garde-Torres, as face-to-face rehearsals go in full swing.


In the words of Marco Viaña, incoming festival codirector (alongside Tess Jamias), it’s the excitement of “once again being in the same room as your fellow theater artists, some of whom you’ve only seen or talked to online for the last two years.”


Viaña, who was initially apprehensive about taking the position—“I’ve only ever acted for the festival; I have no experience as playwright, director, or stage manager”—also attributes that excitement to the theater artist’s need to be with an audience: “These artists simply cannot wait to once again perform live before the public. For sure, punung-puno ng puso ang mga pagtatanghal na ‘yan” (the performances will be bursting with heart).


“What remains to be seen,” says Vera, “is whether the audience will match that excitement.”

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Year in Film and TV (2021)

In 2021, given the continuation of my work-from-home situation, my self-imposed non-socialization beyond my immediate family, and the almost complete absence of local theater, I set out to watch as much as possible. According to my Letterboxd, my final tally was 384--a new personal record. That number includes not only the full-length releases of the year, but also short films, limited series or miniseries, recordings of live theatrical performances, rewatches (hello, 'Phantom Thread' and 'Moonlight'), and old work that I was seeing only for the first time (more on this in the final section). 

On the other hand, that number excludes the television that I consumed--seven seasons of 'Veep'; four seasons of 'Better Things'; three seasons of 'This Country' (plus a special); three seasons each of 'Broadchurch' and 'Sex Education'; two seasons of 'Feel Good'; the second seasons of 'Staged' and 'The Morning Show'; the second half of the final season of 'PEN15'; the final seasons of 'Insecure' and 'Pose'; and a season each of the following new and returning shows: 'Dead to Me', 'Girls5eva', 'Hacks', 'I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson', 'Loki', 'Made for Love', 'The Other Two', 'Reservation Dogs', 'The Sex Lives of College Girls', 'Schmigadoon!', 'Succession', 'What We Do in the Shadows', and 'The White Lotus'. 

Moreover, that number fails to account for the shows that, for one reason or another, I couldn't stomach or simply didn't have the drive to finish beyond an episode or two, such as 'Bridgerton', 'Euphoria', 'Mythic Quest', 'Only Murders in the Building', 'Rutherford Falls', and the new season of 'Never Have I Ever' (whose first season I loved).

The same annual disclaimer, then: This is a list of my favorite titles from this (2021) and the previous (2020) year, the latter to account for the "leftovers" that get *released* quite late in the Philippines or that I didn't get the chance to see during the previous year. If you're viewing my blog in desktop mode, the side bar on the right provides an exhaustive accounting of everything I watched in 2021. I always make a top 10, but of course it's more fun to have more than 10, and anyway, my top three, maybe four, are basically interchangeable. And one last thing: What a year for HBO!


1. 'Drive My Car' (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
A modern masterpiece: cinema as a spiritual literary experience. 

2. 'The Other Two' Season 2 (HBO Max; dirs. various)
Note-for-note and episode-by-episode a perfect season of television, its critique of gay, celebrity, and social-media cultures best epitomized by this singular, iconic passage: "I'm his son. I'm straight. And I'm from Kansas."

3. 'Bo Burnham: Inside' (dir. Bo Burnham)
In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnham gave me exactly the kind of unhinged I didn't know I needed: an existential meltdown in the form of musical comedy.

4. 'Succession' Season 3 (HBO; dirs. various)
If Shakespeare featured UTIs, dominatrix-style role play, missent dick pics, Adrien Brody in elaborate layers, and the most erotic bathroom conversation between the guy from "Weeds" and one of the kids from "Home Alone."

5. 'Collective' (dir. Alexander Nanau)/ 'Flee' (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)/ 'Procession' (dir. Robert Greene)
Three documentaries--on corruption within the Romanian health system, an Afghan refugee's arduous flight to freedom, and an art-therapy group among survivors of abuse from Catholic priests--proving how the pursuit for truth and the act of truth-telling can sometimes be the most cathartic and most frightening things.

6. 'PEN15' Season 2 Part 2 (Hulu; dirs. various)
This show starring two thirty-something women pretending to be teenagers around an ace ensemble of actual teenagers deserved to run forever. 

7. 'The White Lotus' Season 1 (HBO; dir. Mike White)
In which grandpa is a power bottom, mother is a nymphomaniac, hotel manager gets to eat, Sydney Sweeney demonstrates how scary Gen Z can be, and the one and only Jennifer Coolidge teaches the world how to pronounce "chaise."

8. 'Red Rocket' (dir. Sean Baker)'Titane' (dir. Julia Ducournau)
The closest simulations this year to being on uppers, each an absolute, exhilarating trip anchored by lead performances that would have been very worthy winners in their respective categories at Cannes 2021.

9. 'Judas and the Black Messiah' (dir. Shaka King)
Knife-sharp in its constant shifts between brash, electric psycho-thriller and states of fragility, tenderness, and loneliness. My pick for Best Picture from the contenders of the 2020-21 season. 

10. 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie' (dir. Jonathan Butterell)/ 'Tick, Tick... Boom!' (dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Two movie musicals that are nothing short of sublime miracles, each managing to expand upon, make sense of, and completely transform their source materials to become heartfelt, messy, flamboyant creatures pulsing with genuine life.

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Thanks again to Letterboxd for simplifying life for me. Here are the rest of my 5-star titles for the year, in alphabetical order:

'76 Days' (dirs. Hao Wu, Wuxi Chen & Anonymous)
Some of the most harrowing, heartbreaking 90 minutes of the year, plunging the viewer back to Wuhan at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, where health workers weren't so much glorified heroes as simply bodies in desperate need of rest.  

'Ascension' (dir. Jessica Kingdon)
Capitalism and unfettered consumerism in present-day China rendered in mesmerizing, almost-wordless sequences.

'Better Things' Season 4 (FX; dir. Pamela Adlon)
Every seemingly unhappy family is actually happy in its own, secret way.

'C'mon C'mon' (dir. Mike Mills)
Either the sweetest, most incisive portrayal of modern adult-children relationships, or the most convincing ad of late for not having kids.

'The Crime of the Century' (HBO; dir. Alex Gibney)
Outstanding investigative journalism, historiography, and qualitative research rolled into one as it dives deep into the opioid epidemic, medical authoritarianism, and a very specific brand of greed endemic to the U-S of A.

'Exterminate All the Brutes' (HBO; dir. Raoul Peck)
A towering, four-hour distillation of the centuries-old White tradition of premeditated bloodshed. 

'The Father' (dir. Florian Zeller)
The most painful, truthful, and compassionate portrayal of dementia I've seen.

'Feel Good' Seasons 1-2 (Channel 4/ All 4/ Netflix; dirs. Ally Pankiw & Luke Snellin)
In which Mae Martin shows the world what genius can do with just 12 episodes.

'Girls5eva' Season 1 (Peacock; dirs. various)
These girls are on fire! 'Cause if you plan on telling a joke, why not make ten? And then a hundred?

'Hacks' Season 1 (HBO Max; dirs. Lucia Aniello, Desiree Akhavan & Paul W. Downs)
At first glance the Jean Smart show, but obviously so much more than that. The epitome of comedic spark.

'Insecure' Season 5 (HBO; dirs. various)
A balm of a show that allowed its characters to just be real people--grappling with low-stakes situations, navigating relationships, muffling their hurts, finding success.

'Mare of Easttown' (HBO; dir. Craig Zobel)
Incest, but make it an entire town. If you've seen this show and think of it as primarily a whodunit, you probably need to see it again. 

'Minari' (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)
This is how you do metaphors. This is how you do endings. 

'Nomadland' (dir. Chloé Zhao)
An evocation of loss--and the quiet, almost imperceptible sadness it engenders--that deserved every bit of attention it received last awards season.

'The Queen's Gambit' (Netflix; dir. Scott Frank)
Fairy tale, sports thriller, bildungsroman, redemption story, addiction narrative, and superhero saga whose underlying credo appears to be the subversion of expectations.

Film as hypnosis. Hypnosis as documentary. Documentary as music. Music as stand-in for the cadences of history. 

PLUS--20 more titles not to sleep on, listed alphabetically:

'Allen v. Farrow' (HBO; dirs. Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering); 'Bad Trip' (dir. Kitao Sakurai); 'City So Real' (National Geographic; dir. Steve James); 'The Green Knight' (dir. David Lowery); 'Hive' (dir. Blerta Basholli); 'Holler' (dir. Nicole Riegel); 'It's a Sin' (Channel 4; dir. Peter Hoar); 'Life' (in 'The Year of the Everlasting Storm'; dir. Jafar Panahi); 'Luca' (dir. Enrico Casarosa); 'The Power of the Dog' (dir. Jane Campion); 'Prayers for the Stolen' (dir. Tatiana Huezo); 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' (dir. Jasmila Žbanić); 'Riders of Justice' (dir. Anders Thomas Jensen); 'Romeo & Juliet' (dir. Simon Godwin); 'Schmigadoon!' Season 1 (Apple TV+; dir. Barry Sonnenfeld); 'The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 1 (HBO Max; dirs. various); 'Shiva Baby' (dir. Emma Seligman); 'This Country' Season 3 (BBC Three; dir. Tom George); 'The Underground Railroad' (Prime Video; dir. Barry Jenkins); 'Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy' (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

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My contribution to perpetuating our actor-centric film culture is this list of *45* performances that I truly enjoyed/ loved/ still can't stop thinking of (and where absence is of course not in any way a measure of *quality*):

1. Bob Balaban ('The Chair')
2. Murray Bartlett ('The White Lotus' Season 1)
3. Mayra Batalla ('Prayers for the Stolen')
4. Nicolas Cage ('Pig')
5. Pauline Chalamet ('The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 1)
6. Jodie Comer ('The Last Duel')
7. Jennifer Coolidge ('The White Lotus' Season 1; 'Single All the Way')
8. Penélope Cruz ('Parallel Mothers')
9. Ariana DeBose ('Schmigadoon!' Season 1)
10. Kaitlyn Dever ('Dear Evan Hansen')
11. Chase W. Dillon ('The Underground Railroad')
12. Aunjanue Ellis ('King Richard')
13. Isabelle Fuhrman ('The Novice')
14. Andrew Garfield ('Tick, Tick... Boom!'; 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye')
15. Renée Elise Goldsberry ('Girls5eva' Season 1)
16. Kathryn Hahn ('WandaVision')
17. Keeley Hawes ('It's a Sin')
18. Marielle Heller ('The Queen's Gambit')
19. Anthony Hopkins ('The Father')
20. Jayne Houdyshell ('The Humans')
21. Oscar Isaac ('Scenes from a Marriage')
22. Matthew Macfadyen ('Succession' Season 3)
23. Kych Minemoto ('Masalimuot ya Tiyagew ed Dayat')
24. Ruth Negga ('Passing')
25. Dev Patel ('The Green Knight')
26. Jesse Plemons ('The Power of the Dog'; 'Judas and the Black Messiah')
27. Simon Rex ('Red Rocket')
28. Natasha Rothwell ('The White Lotus' Season 1; 'Insecure' Season 5)
29. Molly Shannon ('The White Lotus' Season 1; 'The Other Two' Season 2)
30. Samantha Sloyan ('Midnight Mass')
31. Jean Smart ('Hacks'; 'Mare of Easttown')
32. Kodi Smit-McPhee ('The Power of the Dog')
33. Lakeith Stanfield ('Judas and the Black Messiah')
34. Dan Stevens ('I'm Your Man')
35. Jeremy Strong ('Succession' Season 3)
36. Lili Taylor ('Paper Spiders')
37. Emma Thompson ('Cruella')
38. Mia Wasikowska ('Bergman Island')
39. Aimee Lou Wood ('Sex Education' Seasons 2-3)
40. Steven Yeun ('Minari')
41. Brittany S. Hall & Will Brill ('Test Pattern')
42. Carey Mulligan & Bo Burnham ('Promising Young Woman')
43. Julianne Nicholson & Evan Peters ('Mare of Easttown')
44. Kieran Culkin, Adrien Brody, & Justin Kirk ('Succession' Season 3)
45. Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, & Woody Norman ('C'mon C'mon')

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A list of 15 where the sound, score, music, or musical rendering rocked:

1. 'The Winner Takes It All' needle drop in 'Bergman Island'
2. 'The Killing of Two Lovers', sound and music work
3. 'We Don't Talk About Bruno' in 'Encanto'
4. Jonny Greenwood's scores for 'Spencer' and 'The Power of the Dog'
5. 'Saint Maud', sound and music work
6. The use of the spiritual 'Were You There' in 'Midnight Mass'
7. Dan Romer's central motif for 'Luca', the best for a Pixar movie since 'Up'
8. 'Zola', sound and music work
9. Emilia Jones performing Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides, Now' in 'CODA'
10. 'When the Sun Goes Down' sequence in 'In the Heights'
11. 'Shiva Baby', sound and music work
12. Hans Zimmer's score for 'Dune'
13. 'Obituary' by Alexandre Desplat in 'The French Dispatch'
14. The soundscape and score for 'C'mon C'mon'

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The best use of black and white:

'Passing', dir. Rebecca Hall; cinematography by Eduard Grau

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5-Letterboxd-star, non-2020/2021 titles that I saw for the first time in 2021:

'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' (2007, dir. Cristian Mungiu)
'Asako I & II' (2018, dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
'Barking Dogs Never Bite' (2000, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
'Capote' (2005, dir. Bennett Miller)
'Farewell My Concubine' (1993, dir. Chen Kaige)
'Happy Hour' (2015, dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
'Himala' (1982, dir. Ishmael Bernal)
'How to Survive a Plague' (2012, dir. David France)
'Moral' (1982, dir. Marilou Diaz-Abaya)
'Mother' (2009, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
'Letters from Iwo Jima' (2006, dir. Clint Eastwood)
'Little Children' (2006, dir. Todd Field)
'The Lives of Others' (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
'Quiz Show' (1994, dir. Robert Redford)
'Rosemary's Baby' (1968, dir. Roman Polanski)
'Sense and Sensibility' (1995, dir. Ang Lee)
'United 93' (2006, dir. Paul Greengrass)
'Yi Yi' (2000, dir. Edward Yang)

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A link to my past lists, which are best read as time capsules of what I'd seen so far when I wrote each of them, and what I thought about the stuff I listed in those particular moments in time:

The Year in Film and TV 2020/ 2019
The Decade in Film 2010-19
The Year in Film 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014

Monday, March 1, 2021

PDI Review: 'Password: Oedipus Rex' by Tanghalang Ateneo

First review of the year (Inquirer website version here). And from the way things are happening--or not happening--in this country, it's looking more and more like another year of Zoom theater. Ugh.

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Breathing fiery life into strange, hybrid art form 
 
 
In an interview last month, actor-director Ron Capinding laid out the existential crisis that has gripped the theater industry for the past year: either go virtual—“online and recorded”—or perish. With his new adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” under Tanghalang Ateneo, Capinding more than averts this metaphorical death; he breathes fiery, forceful life into a strange, hybrid art form.
 
Sophocles’ tragedy is now “Password: Oedipus Rex,” styled “password: 03d1pu5_R3x” like a boomer reading challenge, and staged as a series of Zoom conferences unfolding in a digital, modern Philippines. What a ticket affords the viewer is an edited recording—a practical decision, given the erratic nature of internet connection in the country.
 
This “Oedipus,” however, is clear from the outset that it is foremost a creature of the stage. It embraces its theatrical roots, wasting no effort to adopt a more filmic realism and hide its desire to be mounted on an actual, physical platform. The performers act in the heightened vocabulary of stage performance, spouting the classical language of Rolando Tinio’s Filipino translation with no hint of trying to make themselves “small,” as is the norm in cinema. The result approximates the exhilarating experience of a front-row seat.
 
Retains the basics
 
Capinding’s adaptation, which he also directs, retains the basics of the Greek classic. By now there is essentially no spoiling the story. The beginning sees Oedipus as ruler of his land, husband to Jocasta, and hungry for answers to his predecessor’s murder. By the end, he would discover that his predecessor was his father, whom he had unwittingly slain, and that his wife is his own mother.
 
It’s a tale as morbid as it is delirious. By twisting it just enough, tinkering with narrative bits and pieces, Capinding has made an adaptation that perfectly fits the Philippines we now know. He and his cast commit entirely to the transposition—and therefore make it wholly believable, even as seers turn up and ancient gods are invoked.
 
Oedipus is now president, hotheaded goon and self-confessed murderer, whose erratic behavior throughout the play is the very definition of small-dick energy. He hears what he wants to hear and does what he wants to do. In an ingenious piece of casting, his second-in-command, Kreon, is now a woman—whom he vilifies throughout the course of the story and blames for his predecessor’s murder. Around him—this play’s point of view—are adorers who will blindly support him to his very end. After the story has wrapped up, and Oedipus’ rule has ended, you suspect they might call for his reinstatement as ruler, even his eventual burial as a hero.
 
The Zoom format
 
The Zoom format makes the play even more disorienting. Parts of it unfold as media interviews, some as press briefings, complete with introductions from a sort of press secretary. In these briefings, Oedipus rambles like a mad man, hurling accusations and curses left and right. You wonder at some point if he might start talking about drugs.
 
It’s not a perfect format, however. In one scene, for example, Oedipus screams at a seer who has appeared alongside him in a media interview: “Lumayas ka sa paningin ko!” Then the scene continues; nobody has left. Are we to believe that this impetuous Oedipus wouldn’t have just tossed his device to the floor and stormed off?
 
Another weakness of the Zoom format: You actually feel the script’s verbosity. Anyone who spent the past year working from home would be familiar with Zoom fatigue.
 
In an actual theater, we’d take in not just the performer delivering a monologue, but everyone and everything else around this performer. The Zoom play, on the other hand, almost demands that you glue your eyes to the screen, hyper-focused only on that one face speaking at length within that one box—and in this specific case, made no easier by the challenging baroque Filipino of Tinio’s script.
 
But somehow you don’t mind these weaknesses, which sound like nitpicks in the bigger scheme of things. Capinding and his creative team have more than surmounted the challenge of applying their skills for the theater to this so-called virtual stage. “Password: Oedipus Rex” not only sustains your attention; it grabs you by the neck, pulls you into its world—which you willingly enter.
 
Mesmerizing
 
How can you not, with Yan Yuzon’s Oedipus at the helm? Yuzon is a hurricane in the role, as mesmerizing as he is frightening. Even his vilest words mean something, that you understand how he could amass such a following. Opposite him, as Jocasta, Miren Alvarez-Fabregas is the epitome of regal calm. Their scenes together, particularly the revelatory act-one ender, make you long for the day when we can finally return to the theaters—and hopefully watch these two titanic actors revisit these roles.
 
Speaking of performance, how is film and TV star Marian Rivera-Dantes—easily the main draw of the production—as Kreon? There’s a palpable reverence to the material that Rivera-Dantes somehow doesn’t completely lose, which can make her come across as tonally insipid at times and sets her apart from the other performers who attack their roles with unrestrained playfulness. Nonetheless, it’s a capable performance that makes you hungry to see what Rivera-Dantes would be like on the physical stage.  
 
At the end of play, Rivera-Dantes’ female vice president, owning the moment completely, tells the ruined Oedipus: “Sumunod ka na lamang. Tapos na ang iyong kapangyarihan.”
 
The original play carries in that scene heavy sadness—it's Oedipus himself, after all, who begs Kreon to have him exiled. Watching it now, however, in this specific point in contemporary Philippine history, with our specific set of leaders, this scene rings quite differently: In the current scheme of things, it's a vision of a kinder future.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Year in Philippine Theater (2020)

The annual theater yearender published in the January 4, 2021 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, also accessible through my TinyLetter and the paper's website.

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10 plays of remembrance and thanksgiving


This is not a best-of list of the kind we annually publish in these pages. Ten months into the pandemic, our stages remain hopelessly shuttered. The arts, from the looks of it, are barely on government’s main agenda.

So I write this as both remembrance and thanksgiving: a last glance at that seemingly alien time when we could still sit side by side in a darkened house; and a gesture of gratitude to how theater and its tireless makers have found ways to reach us, the audience, even in the midst of our social isolation.

Much of my “theatergoing” in 2020 was in the form of streamed theater—either archival recordings or altogether new pieces tailored to the virtual platform—and not just limited to Filipino works. Among others, I saw a modern-day adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” from New Zealand; three new plays by Richard Nelson from New York’s The Public Theater; past London stagings of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (with Gillian Anderson) and “Red” (with Alfred Molina); and—what would have otherwise been an impossibility—Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday concert as it unfolded in real time.

This list is devoted to the Filipino landscape. Back in January of last year, I wrote about “10 things to look forward to” in Philippine theater. Now, taking stock of this annus horribilis for live entertainment, I leave you with 11 that made 2020 a little more bearable.


A university company tackling a rock musical about a family grappling with its matriarch’s bipolar disorder? In an ordinary year, this Ateneo Blue Repertory production would be topping yearend lists—and would have run longer. Directed by Missy Maramara, this was “Next to Normal” with its insides fully exposed— emotionally lacerating, deeply moving, with Cris Villonco and Jef Flores in career-best performances. It was the real deal.

2. Jaime del Mundo and Reb Atadero in ‘Amadeus’

Taal Volcano’s January 2020 eruption feels like a lifetime ago already. That Sunday, as ashfall slowly peppered the roofs and streets of Metro Manila, Del Mundo and Atadero delivered the year’s first great performances as Antonio Salieri and Mozart, respectively, in Company of Actors in Streamlined Theatre’s two-show-only staged reading of this Peter Shaffer play. 

3. Rody Vera’s script for ‘Under My Skin

Premiered by Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), Vera’s new play was more than just a Filipino face for the HIV-AIDS epidemic. It was also a breathtaking translation of complex science into dramatic language at once illustrative and accessible—suggesting how much better off we’d be if only our best scientists were also potent communicators.

4. ‘Joseph the Dreamer’

Trumpets’ revival of its musical take on the titular Bible story was a literal party. Fueled by Myke Salomon’s musical direction and MJ Arda’s choreography, this was RuPaul’s Drag Race meets dance concert meets Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’,” a church for the zany and unabashedly gay, with the divine Alys Serdenia presiding.

5. The theatricality of ‘Batang Mujahideen

What stayed with you was the sheer theatrical vision of this Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) play about the unending violence in Mindanao: the actors shifting characters and timelines in seconds; D Cortezano’s lights and Arvy Dimaculangan’s soundscape evoking the fever of war; the unnerving quiet of Lhorvie Nuevo’s turn as an extremist leader; bullets climactically raining down on the stage—all woven together by Guelan Luarca’s direction.

6. Open House roundtables

Part of Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists Group’s (Philstage) fundraising campaign for theater workers sidelined by quarantine measures was a series of roundtables streamed via Facebook. Beyond intimate peeks into the very craft of theater—the sessions gathered directors, sound designers, even critics (for which I was a discussant)—these roundtables were also early coping mechanisms, an admirable attempt at bringing together a newly splintered community.   

7. ‘Pilot Episode’ and ‘Wanted: Male Boarders, Vidjokol Edition’

At last year’s Virgin Labfest, the annual festival of one-act plays that marked the first major, collective effort in the country at “Zoom theater,” the best entries were the ones that figured out how to transpose to the screen a script that was originally intended for the stage. Part of what made “Pilot Episode” a brilliant visual explication of mental illness was its manipulation of multiple frames and cameras; “Boarders,” on the other hand, employed its ribald themes to its advantage, committing to the idea of the smartphone as stage (and arena for phone sex), in the process ruffling certain feathers and raising discussions on what constitutes “tasteful art.”

8. ‘The Price of Redemption’

In just 20 minutes, TP’s amalgamation of excerpts from this Anton Juan play, available on YouTube, is at once a perceptive deconstruction of “Zoom theater,” a (meta-)commentary on our lives in quarantine, and a fervid reminder that the Filipino’s fight for social justice is far from over.

9. 12th Gawad Buhay Awards

Disclaimer: I’m a jury member for these awards, which some amusingly compare to the Tonys. Let me say, then, that last year’s ceremonies, broadcast via Facebook and YouTube, were the most efficient of late (Tonys, take note)—showing how such events can be (relatively) concise yet also highly entertaining. Two of many highlights: Kakki Teodoro’s acceptance speech (I’m not crying, you’re crying!); and, halfway through, music icon Gary Valenciano’s soul-cleansing rendition of “Could You Be Messiah?”   


That Resorts World Manila’s jukebox musical “Ang Huling El Bimbo” reached seven million views and raised over 12 million pesos when it streamed for 48 hours last May was no mean feat. Now, as Manila-based companies release recordings of past shows online, either for free (as in the case of Tanghalang Ateneo on YouTube) or for a fee (like Peta’s “Care Divas” on KTX.ph), one implication is that, for the first time, these homegrown productions can be viewed by anyone anywhere in the country, even abroad. It’s a system that’s still figuring itself out, but it’s also one that points to a progressive way forward—a step toward a more democratic Filipino theater.


My personal temporal marker between the pre- and post-COVID days: As government announced the first lockdown measures in March, I was literally watching a preview of this Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group production, the cast giving what felt like the performances of their lives knowing full well they would no longer officially open. How ironic that this Broadway musical, about a troop of musicians arriving in the wrong town, depicted the beauty of human connection—that which the pandemic soon made us learn to fear. The production itself was first-rate, from Bobby Garcia’s direction, the design elements, to the pitch-perfect ensemble led by Vera and an incandescent Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Year in Film and TV (2020)

Here we are again, at the end of another year of relentless downloading and watching. I'll skip the requisite intro on how it's been a particularly awful year, since I have that for my theater year-in-review coming out on Monday. 

I started a Letterboxd, finally, and according to my log I saw 285 films between January 1 to December 31, 2020, and I know that count's off by at least one or two shorts that aren't in the site yet. That number also doesn't include the TV series I consumed, including six seasons of "The Americans" (nothing compares!) and "Schitt's Creek"; four seasons of "Insecure"; two seasons of "Ramy," "What We Do in the Shadows," and the horrible "The Kominsky Method"; the disappointing "Lovecraft Country"; the mixed-bag "Little America"; the not-quite-there-yet "P-Valley"; and the lazy fourth season of "Fargo." 

The same annual disclaimer: This is a list of my favorite titles from this (2020) and the previous (2019) year, the latter to account for the "leftovers" that get screened quite late in the Philippines (such as Gerwig's "Little Women" and Mendes' "1917") or not at all. This is NOT a best-of-2020 list--but you may as well read it as such. If you're viewing this piece on desktop or mobile, there's a side bar to the right that lists everything I watched in the last 366 days. And if you're wondering why I've combined film and TV--which I started doing only last year--well, why not.

In order--though except for numbers one to four, the ranking barely matters, I think--my top 10 films and TV of 2020:


1. 'So Long, My Son' (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)'A Sun' (dir. Chung Mong-hong)
A tie between these two Chinese-language masterworks, because why not? Both films are basically redemption stories, about sons clashing with their fathers, about parents struggling and failing to understand their children. If there's anything you need to know about Chinese culture, it's that family is everything--salve and source of scorn, beginning and end of the stories that matter--and both films get that with penetrative accuracy. "So Long, My Son" is almost a history of the Mainland writ small, from the Boluan Fanzheng era up to the 21st century, as seen through the eyes of two families; "A Sun" is a genre-bending stunner from Taiwan, following the lives of one family in the aftermath of a grisly crime. Each left my Asian heart full; each, despite running over two-and-a-half hours, left me wanting more.

2. 'I May Destroy You' (BBC/HBO; dirs. Sam Miller & Michaela Coel)
The best shows don't only make you laugh, or cry, or laugh and cry; they also offer illumination, a new way of seeing things--and if you're lucky, a whole enough glimpse into another, better path forward. This is one such show.

3. 'Little Women' (dir. Greta Gerwig)
Pinnacle of literary adaptation. In the immortal words of one Saoirse Ronan, "Women!" Still can't believe this lost the Oscar, BAFTA, and WGA for Adapted Screenplay to, um, "Jojo Rabbit"! 

4. 'PEN15' Seasons 1-2a (Hulu; dirs. Dan Longino, Andrew DeYoung & Sam Zvibleman)
Seasons 1 to 2a, that's right, because all 17 episodes so far have been nothing short of great. Coming of age has never been this fun, or funny. And also sad. And absorbing to witness.

5. 'Aswang' (dir. Alyx Ayn Arumpac)
This is not a movie. This is our lives now. #WhenWillDaddyDigzDie?

6. 'First Cow' (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Reichardt really said, No to lazy viewers! Best Picture 2020, yes please.

7. 'Insecure' Season 4 (HBO; dirs. various)
Exceptional in the way it captures the tenor of real, functional-dysfunctional, mature-immature adult relationships. Shoutout to Natasha Rothwell's Kelly, MVP supporting character. 

8. 'Spontaneous' (dir. Brian Duffield)
Perhaps the most precise approximation of young love and/or falling in love in 2020. The teen rom-com, macabre humor, the apocalypse and post-apocalypse rolled into one. 

9. 'Mank' (dir. David Fincher)
The year's most clear-eyed, crushing yet compassionate depiction of the creative process. Vision! Talent! Commitment!

10. 'The Vast of Night' (dir. Andrew Patterson)
If the sensations of Shelley's "Ozymandias" were distilled into a thrilling gabfest of a movie. 

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Thanks to Letterboxd for simplifying life for me. Here are the rest of my 5-star titles for the year, in alphabetical order:

'The Crown' Season 4 (Netflix; dirs. various)
Best season yet, largely because the series finally realized how it works best when it treats the Windsors for what they really are: spoiled brats who have no place in this world, except as fodder for gossip. And not one less-than-excellently written episode here!

'Driveways' (dir. Andrew Ahn)
Perfect little gem of a film. RIP Brian Dennehy.

'Fan Girl' (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)
A pleasurable, moths-drawn-to-the-flame electrocution. I love mess!

'For Sama' (dir. Waad Al-Kateab & Edward Watts)
My pick for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Oscars. Maybe doctor biases at play here.

'The Forty-Year-Old Version' (dir. Radha Blank)
I couldn't stop laughing, 1.

'Honey Boy' (dir. Alma Har'el)
Ninety-minute father-and-son emotional roller coaster. Excellent cardio substitute.

'Kalel, 15' (dir. Jun Robles Lana)
This greatly offended my devout Catholic mother, which is maybe the best endorsement for this all-around incredible film.

'Never Have I Ever' Season 1 (Netflix; dirs. various)
Pinnacle of wholesome teenage comedy-drama. (Is there such a thing?)

'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' (dir. Eliza Hittman)
Gut-wrenching parable of our times, and a masterpiece of a fuck-you to all the male garbage of the world.

'Overseas' (dir. Yoon Sung-a)
That this documentary about Filipino women training to become OFWs is set in my hometown, the subjects speaking my local tongue, only made it cut even deeper.

'Rewind' (dir. Sasha Joseph Neulinger)
Best non-Filipino horror film of the year. Also my pick for best non-Filipino documentary of the year. 

'Schitt's Creek' Season 6 (CBC/Pop TV; dirs. various)
Peak "Schitt's Creek," as it completely let go of being just superb sitcom (a transition that began mid-Season 4) to become something more poignant.

'Sorry We Missed You' (dir. Ken Loach)
Chekhov's piss bottle. If this is really Ken Loach's farewell at Cannes, what a way to go! 

'Unbelievable' (Netflix; dirs. Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner & Susannah Grant)
Pinnacle of the police procedural. Merritt Wever: robbed of an Emmy!

'Watchmen' (HBO; dirs. various)
Pinnacle of superhero comic adaptation. Jean Smart: robbed of an Emmy!

'What We Do in the Shadows' Season 2 (FX; dirs. various)
I couldn't stop laughing, 2.

PLUS--22 more titles not to sleep on, listed alphabetically:

'And Then We Danced' (dir. Levan Akin); 'Babyteeth' (dir. Shannon Murphy); 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' (dir. Jason Woliner); 'Cheer' Season 1 (Netflix; dirs. Greg Whiteley, Chelsea Yarnell & Arielle Kilker);  'City Hall' (dir. Frederick Wiseman); 'Dark Waters' (dir. Todd Haynes); 'Elehiya sa Paglimot' (dir. Kristoffer Brugada); 'End of the Century' (dir. Lucio Castro); 'Fourteen' (dir. Dan Sallitt); 'Gulis' (dir. Kyle Jumayne Francisco); 'How To with John Wilson' Season 1 (HBO; dir. John Wilson); 'I Hate Suzie' (Sky Atlantic/HBO Max; dirs. Georgi Banks-Davies & Anthony Nielson); 'Normal People' (BBC Three/RTÉ One/Hulu; dirs. Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald); 'Saint Frances' (dir. Alex Thompson); 'Schitt's Creek' Season 5 (CBC/Pop TV; dirs. various); 'Sound of Metal' (dir. Darius Marder); 'Unorthodox' (Netflix; dir. Maria Schrader); 'Waves' (dir. Trey Edward Shults); 'We Are Who We Are' (HBO/Sky Atlantic; dir. Luca Guadagnino); 'Welcome to Chechnya' (dir. David France); 'What We Do in the Shadows' Season 1 (FX; dirs. various); 'The Wild Goose Lake' (dir. Diao Yinan)

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I don't have a performance of the year for 2020--because a case can be made for each of these 25, in alphabetical order:

1. Riz Ahmed ('Sound of Metal')
2. Jennifer Aniston ('The Morning Show' Season 1)
3. Maria Bakalova ('Borat Subsequent Moviefilm')
4. Rose Byrne ('Mrs. America')
5. Elijah Canlas ('Kalel, 15' & 'Babae at Baril')
6. Viola Davis ('Ma Rainey's Black Bottom')
7. Brian Dennehy ('Driveways')
8. Charlie Dizon ('Fan Girl')
9. Julia Garner ('The Assistant')
10. Jack Dylan Grazer ('We Are Who We Are')
11. Zoe Kazan ('The Plot Against America')
12. Paul Mescal ('Normal People')
13. Cristin Milioti ('Palm Springs')
14. Elisabeth Moss ('The Invisible Man')
15. Josh O'Connor ('The Crown' Season 4)
16. Catherine O'Hara ('Schitt's Creek' Seasons 5-6)
17. Billie Piper ('I Hate Suzie')
18. Aubrey Plaza ('Black Bear' & 'Happiest Season')
19. Florence Pugh ('Little Women')
20. Gina Rodriguez ('Kajillionaire')
21. Amanda Seyfried ('Mank')
22. Jean Smart ('Watchmen')
23. Meryl Streep ('Let Them All Talk')
24. Merritt Wever ('Unbelievable')
25. Yong Mei ('So Long, My Son')

PLUS--25 more performers whose works I wholly recommend:

Ben Affleck ('The Way Back'); Paulo Avelino ('Fan Girl'); Antonio Banderas ('Pain and Glory'); Elizabeth Banks & Ari Graynor ('Mrs. America'); Reed Birney ('The Forty-Year-Old Version'); Hong Chau ('Driveways'); Olivia Colman ('The Crown' Season 4); Carrie Coon ('The Nest'); Paul Walter Hauser ('Richard Jewell'); Ethan Hawke ('The Good Lord Bird' & 'Tesla'); Lucas Hedges ('Let Them All Talk' & 'Waves'); Nicole Kidman ('The Undoing'); Shia LaBeouf & Noah Jupe ('Honey Boy'); Phi Palmos ('Kintsugi'); Charlie Plummer ('Spontaneous'); Jeremy Pope ('Hollywood'); Amit Rahav ('Unorthodox'); Saoirse Ronan & Timothée Chalamet ('Little Women'); Wu Chien-ho & Liu Kuan-ting ('A Sun'); Ramy Youssef ('Ramy' Season 2); Renée Zellweger ('Judy')

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5-Letterboxd-star, non-2019/2020 titles that I saw for the first time in 2020: 

'All About Eve' (1950, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
'Batch '81' (1982, dir. Mike de Leon)
'The Big Lebowski' (1998, dir. Joel Coen)
'Kisapmata' (1981, dir. Mike de Leon)
'One Cut of the Dead' (2017, dir. Shinichiro Ueda)
'A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution' (1988, dir. Nettie Wild)

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FILMED THEATER

With live theater shut down, avid theatergoers like myself had to content ourselves mostly with filmed recordings of past shows. Here are the 5-star productions I recommend you run after, if you've yet to catch them (years indicate the cinema release or streaming premiere):

'Act One' (2015, Broadway premiere, Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center)
Loved this play and loved this production, but I loved the physical casting most of all. Tony Shalhoub as Older Moss Hart, Santino Fontana as Younger Moss Hart, and that kid as Kid Moss Hart is the definition of 'family resemblance'.

'All My Sons' (2011, West End revival, Apollo Theatre)
One of those casts you wish you could have seen live, with Daniel Lapaine's George Deever as the standout.

'Company' (2008, Broadway revival, Ethel Barrymore Theater)
My definitive "Company." 11/10 would recommend to anyone who wants to get into Sondheim, or musical theater, or both.

'Coriolanus' (2014, London revival, Donmar Warehouse)
Talk about sense of fcking space.

'Falsettos' (2017, Broadway revival, Walter Kerr Theater)
Stephanie J. Block losing the Tony for Featured Actress in a Musical is what? Homophobic.

'Hamilton' (2020, Broadway premiere, Richard Rogers Theater)
My hot take: It's pretty good. 

'She Loves Me' (2016, Broadway revival, Studio 54)
Shallow and pretty and intent on having an all-around old-fashioned good time. Come for Laura Benanti, stay for Zachary Levi. The Tony for Scenic Design (beating "Hamilton") was the definition of justice.

'South Pacific' (2010, Broadway revival, Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center)
Revelatory revival of an old dame, thanks to Bartlett Sher. And Kelli O'Hara--a goddess on earth.

'A Streetcar Named Desire' (2014, London revival, Young Vic)
Tennessee Williams for the #MeToo era.

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A link to my past lists. Interesting time capsules, these lists, as I don't necessarily agree with some of my choices anymore.

The Year in Film 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014