Monday, August 27, 2012

PETA's Bona: A Study on Devotion

Some twelve kilometers northeast of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera will be haunting audiences with a falling chandelier for the next seven weeks, a scaled-down yet more corporeal horror is taking place.

That horror involves only a man stripped to his underwear, the woman whom he treats as his maid, and a boiling kettle of water. "Sige, paliguan mo na ako," the man says to her. Bathe me. And so she does, dousing his bare skin with the water in two splashes. The effect is instantly chilling: He falls to the ground writhing in a most visible form of excruciation, she bathes him with pent-up anger and all the cuss words her lips can muster. "Hayop ka!" Animal!

Whether the man ends up as disfigured as Lord Webber's masked phantom is left to the imagination. But the woman, it must be stressed, is neither musical genius nor malevolent phantasm.

She is Bona, the titular character in Philippine Educational Theater Association's (PETA) 45th Season opener, a modernized take on the Lino Brocka film that brought the venerable actress Nora Aunor, then in her late twenties, all the way to the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. But whereas Brocka's Bona is a student hailing from a middle-class family, in this stage adaptation by Layeta Bucoy (with additional scenes by Phil Noble), she has transformed into a single, middle-aged call-center agent. The slums have given way to an ordinary household and a condo unit with an elaborately tiled bathtub equipped with a functioning faucet. 

Eugene Domingo as "Bona." 

That said, perhaps the best way to approach PETA's "Bona" (directed by Soxie Topacio) is to have no background whatsoever on the film. At the very least, forget everything one has heard or seen of Aunor's incomparable acting prowess or Brocka's indelible directorial imprint on the local film industry. Call centers weren't so popular in the Philippines back then, to begin with.

The play opens with Bona, devotee of Quiapo's Black Nazarene, praying to a miniature version of the image on a homemade altar whose drawer doubles as a piggy bank. This is a woman who prays with the untainted sincerity of a child. But she also runs an online fortune-telling business, which is ironic, and teaches English to Koreans via her computer. She is the breadwinner - her nephew Bingo depends on her, but also the child's mother (her sister) Binky, who flits from one boyfriend to another. Her best friend Baldy runs to her in times of financial shortage, but at least his neediness is outweighed by more genuine traits such as honesty (as every best friend is wont to possess). Such is Bona's colorful life.

Along comes Gino, contestant of TV talent search "Star of Tomorrow." He promised his dying mother he would become an artista. Bona, introduced to the show by Baldy and his boyfriend Raf, becomes inexplicably drawn to him. She spearheads his fan club "Gino's Angels," and when he gets eliminated from the show and beaten up in a bar, brings him home out of pity. Just a helpful adoring fan playing hero of a lifetime. The natural thing to do, if there's such a thing, is to have Gino wake up in the morning sober and less bruised, get an autograph and perhaps a photo, then say farewell, 'til we meet again.

But what transpires is a story that so absurdly portrays human downfall and destruction, it's quite tempting to label it 'Shakespearean'. In retrospect, "Bona" feels like two polar halves joined together by one woman's tragic fall in life. Act I ends with Bona, internally swelling with love for the man, finishing off Gino's drunken, dissonant take on "The Greatest Love of All"; Act II ends with the boiling water scene. The first act, chock-full of laughs and romances; the second, a darker, grittier depiction of what comes after.

Joey Paras as "Baldy" (left) and Domingo.

Bona is played by Eugene Domingo - and potential viewers, be warned: This is hardly usual Eugene fare. Last year, in "Ang Babae sa Septic Tank," the Cinemalaya film that won her the festival's Best Actress award, Domingo also took a turn for the unexpected, playing a hard-to-reach diva version of herself. This is also not the work that's most likely to propel her to immortality - that would be "Kimmy Dora."

But fear not, Domingo delivers by all means. Again, the temptation is there - to use 'tour de force' in this sentence - but hers really is a carefully constructed performance, that no trace of celebrity remains once she commands the stage. Here, she becomes the character - not a Go Donghae twin, but pure and palpable Bona. She's hilarious (her comedic skills should be unquestionable), but with every laugh comes the strain of a bored, fragile middle-class life. In the pivotal Act II climax, even as she boils the water with her back turned to the audience, we feel a kind of repressed evil slowly clouding the air. It's a rare skill in the theater nowadays - the ability to build up terror through silence without falling flat midway and settling for the expected.

Domingo, however, is only one half of the pair that sustains the play's trajectory. Enter Edgar Allan Guzman, who won last year's Cinemalaya Best Actor trophy for "Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me." Here and now, he should be awarded 'best fit for a role'. How he effortlessly conveys celebrity search contestant and user/know-nothing/desperate second-rate actor without contorting his face and throwing his arms to the air to make himself 'big' must be a heaven-sent skill.  

In truth, without Guzman, Domingo wouldn't be as successful in her role. Guzman feeds Domingo with the kind of awkwardness needed to highlight the age gap, the kind of frustration to trigger her climactic act of fury, the kind of helplessness that her Bona chooses to turn a blind eye to whenever his Gino rats on about Gino and Gino alone. Mutualism, it's called in science, a give-and-take relationship which is also evidently at work between Domingo and the rest of the supporting cast. 

Joey Paras as Baldy is especially winning (his joy over discovering that there exists a sleeveless version of the Gino's Angels shirt is priceless). Applause must more so be accorded to Juliene Mendoza, who, as the condo landlord infatuated with Bona, delivers all the cheesy pick-up lines with a most natural flair, he makes cheese seem the best weapon to wooing a woman. Gabs Santos is a very believable straight-acting gay, BJ Forbes surprises with a nuanced, toned-down turn as Bingo, and Olive Nieto voraciously attacks Binky as if the role were Blanche DuBois (it's not). "Tingnan mo nga ang sarili mo ate, may pinagkaiba pa ba tayo?" she tearfully spits at an equally tearful Bona, bereft of everything late in the second act.

 Domingo and Edgar Allan Guzman as "Gino" (right).

At the end of this two-and-a-half-hour play, one leaves the theater with a heavy, prodding feeling, as if the hilarity of the first act had entirely dissipated. That's because "Bona" fearlessly asks more questions from its audience than it allows its audience to do unto it.

Consider, for example, how the mother figure is here dissected three-ways. First, in the form of Gino's mother, whose death (involving the ensaymada that would later become staple Gino's Angels giveaway) leaves him hungry for fame and celebrity. Second, as a martyr - Bona serving Gino his breakfast, preparing his baths, scavenging for money while her 'son' gambles and sleeps with a childhood sweetheart (Anna Luna, strikingly naive). And just before the lights dim at the end of the play, a twisted take on Michelangelo's Pieta - Gino, burnt and unconscious on the floor; Bona, standing over him. "P*tang ina mo!" she screams at his body.

Now what does that make of the caring and loving mother? She does have cougarly sex with him (to fireworks and blooming roses projected on the overhead screen - excellent technical decision, by the way, if not somewhat stereotypical).

Which begs an even bigger question: Is Bona ever truly in love with Gino? What, for instance, is the mysterious force that leads the woman to surrender P15,000 just so a press conference can be staged for him, care of his talent managerial team (a trio portrayed with much welcome, if sometimes uneven camp by Jef-Henson Dee, Dudz Terana, and Juvenir Tabor, who manages to turn a stumble with his lines into cause for laughter)?

It starts off as pity, that much is clear, but just how far can pity go before it unknowingly transcends boundaries and turns to obsession? For sure, it's no longer pity that drives Bona to mortgage the family home just so she can finance Gino's launching film (or "lunching" as the boy would have it, to comedic effect). And even that is not spared an inquisition: Why on earth would she, the breadwinner and lone stronghold of sanity in her family, do that? Pretend it's not a plot hole, a directorial or actorly misstep, and it proves a fairly difficult thought to wrap one's head around.

In "Devotion," the 2004 Palanca Award winner for Essay in English by Wilfredo Pascual, Jr., the author tackles one man's fascination with Nora Aunor and the times he met her in person. Backstage, after a concert, he recalls, Aunor was surrounded by adoring fans, as if she had become the image of a saint enshrined in a grotto by her cult. In "Bona," Domingo plays an Aunor role, but this time, she is the devotee. It must be safe to assume that at any point in Act II preceding its climax, the temptation for Bona to replace the Black Nazarene with a framed photograph of Gino must have been laborious to resist. 

So perhaps devotion is the answer to everything. That in this age where celebrities sometimes find themselves elevated to the level of saints, the lines between fandom and obsession, and obsession and devotion, can just so easily be blurred. Here in the world of PETA's "Bona," even the sanest, most rational person can fall victim to this kind of societal blindness and inflict upon oneself not just corporeal damage, but tears and wounds of the soul.    

The final scene plays out Bona's "interview" with celebrity host Boy Abunda. How surreal it must be for the woman to finally be the star herself. Boy asks her the difference between alipin, servant, and fan. "A servant is paid with money; a fan is paid with a photo, an autograph, a smile," she says. Only, she certainly gets paid more than just that.

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Bona runs at the PETA Theater, off E. Rodriguez Avenue, Quezon City until September 23. Visit PETA's website and for show dates and tickets. This review is based on the matinee performance of August 25. All photos in this post were taken by Jory Rivera for - Philippines. 


Onay said...

Pa-advertise lang po :)

Catch BONA on its closing weekend run! September 22 (Saturday), 3PM @ PETA.

For tickets, contact Onay Sales (0917.908.0565) or visit

Ticket Prices: 1000, 800 and 600

Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

We've seen Bona last August 25 at 8pm show. I was expecting a melo-dramatic play based on the Lino Brocka movie but i turned out to be hilarious especially in the first part.
While I commend the whole cast and the people behind it, I felt really "bitin" in spite of its more than 2-hour long play. Maybe because I was looking for some scenes based on the movie. After all, this modern day Bona is really about the Bona of Ms. Nora Aunor.
Acting wise, Edgar Allan Guzman was pretty good and the land lord, I forgot his name.
Over-all, from scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, I would rate it at 7.5. Not bad.

Anonymous said...

Got to see it last week. The set was cool. Loved how the perspective of the backdrop looked. Nice din yung video wall device.

True! the actor who played Gino Sanchez, was awesome. Bagay siya. The Landlord was charming.
Eugene was as her usual kimmydora role as Bona. But unfortunately some of the audience still see her in her kimmydora character. In some of the serious scenes, hecklers would ruin scenes with pa witty side comments - yes, they say things out loud, epic fail. I hope this wont be a missed opportunity for Eugene to show what great actress she is.

I felt show was shallow. Not like the other PETA shows, were you'll go home in deep thought or enlightened about life. This was just, plain. I guess i had high expectations because it was from PETA.

I would rate it at 6