Friday, October 13, 2017

Review of Art Theater Manila's SAKUNTALA: Fierce, Flashy and Fervent

October 13, 2017

I did not hear anything about this new theater company nor their maiden production at all, by any media. Then suddenly last week, there came the rave reviews from those who saw the play in its first week which were posted on social media with some very attractive photos from the production. Lucky for me, they had afternoon shows so I could go see it for myself. 

The story is based on a Sanskrit legend as written by Kalidasa in his epic masterpiece, the Mahabharata. However, in this Filipino translation by Allan Palileo, the setting was shifted to a futuristic dystopic society in the year 2080. King Dusyanta was hunting in the forest one day when he stumbled into a peaceful community of hermits. There he was smitten by the beauty of the hermit's adopted daughter, Sakuntala. When the two lovers decide to get married though, the demon Durvasas casts a curse which tore them apart.

The Main Stage

The technical aspects of this production were impeccable. The vibrant lighting design of Meliton Roxas added so much to the drama and dimension of the basic scenography by Ohm David. There was an interesting scene featuring puppetry of an illuminated fish set to swim in the green-lit abyss. The costumes and make-up by Raqs Regalado and Jody Carig were imaginatively dystopian yet distinctly Asian.  

As the play began, the exotic tribal music by Gian Gianan filled the room. The acoustics were perfect in the warehouse-like venue, making the music heady and even intoxicating to the senses. When the lovers were dancing together to the sensual choreography of JM Cabling, the music took on a life of its own creating a raw erotic wall of sound all around the audience. The final group dance for joy had such an ebullience and infectious energy.

Sakuntala and Dushyanta share an intimate moment, 
with Bharata looking on.

The title character may have been Sakuntala, but the more challenging role was that of the king Dushyanta. Vincent Kevin Pajara was magnetic in his portrayal of this regal character with his strong stage presence and smart carriage. No matter how cheesy his pickup lines were in the name of love-at-first-sight, Pajara pulled them off with charm and charisma. His delivery of his kilometric lines was solid. His dancing skills also did the choreography good. His character also had to sing, and this triple threat delivered well on that as well. (Paul Cedrick Juan alternates in this role.)

As the titular fair maiden Sakuntala, Ms. Chase Salazar could have played her to be the weak pathetic victim Kalidasa may have written her to be. Instead, the confidently modern Salazar gives her unfortunate character spunk and spirit. She was the first to declare her feelings for the man she admired. She did not shirk to express her anger and indignation when she was denied her rights. Salazar dramatic singing voice was showcased when she sang her Dushyanta a robust love ballad. Her chemistry with Pajara was so rich and palpable in those intimately choreographed pas de deux their characters shared. They definitely made a beautiful pair together. (Matel Patayon alternates in this role.)

Vincent Pajara, Chase Salazar and Paul Santiago
at their curtain call

Sakuntala's two loyal but naughty ladies-in-waiting Anusuya and Priyamvada were delightfully played by Lei Ann Quinquileria and Sarina Sasaki respectively. Dushyanta's best friend Madhavya was played by Al Angcoy, who also had to deliver lengthy complex lines as the play's narrator. The main antagonist Durvasas was played with flashy  fuchsia flamboyance by Paul Santiago

The most elaborate costume of the show, a truly cyberpunk outfit with a metallic stylized helmet, rose cape, chains and tubes, was worn by Jacques Borlaza as Sakuntala's adoptive father, the hermit Canwa. Ronnie Martinez played the serious Lead Hermit with the long white hair. Diane Formoso showed fortitude of will as Sakuntala's mother Gautami. Fritz Esase portrayed Bharata with youthful playfulness

Ronnie Martinez and Jacques Borlaza at the curtain call.

Congratulations to director Joey Ting for his grand vision had been fulfilled so cleanly with admirable polish. Despite being a new company in a new venue, there was nary any technical glitch noticeable as everything went on without a hitch. The sound quality, a problematic matter even the most experienced theater groups have issues with, was so remarkably crisp and clear despite all the movements the actors were doing. 

There may have been only a handful of people watching when I went to watch a Thursday matinee show. However, the level of energy in the actors' performances remained at full blast! With such an auspicious and audacious maiden production, we wish for nothing but the best, artistically and financially, for this fledgling theater company, Art Theater Manila. 


"Sakuntala" runs from September 27 to October 21, 2017. They have two shows, 3 pm and 8 pm, per day, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The venue is at Studio 72 Black Box Theater, #72 Kalayaan Avenue, Diliman, Quezon City, a white building right beside Verjandel Hotel. Tickets are available at the gate, at the following prices: P 1,000 for VIP A (150 seats), P 800 for VIP B (150 seats) and P 500 for Regular (300 seats).

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review of Artist Playground's FLY ME TO THE MOON: Dark, Downbeat and Daring

October 8, 2017

Last year, Artist Playground presented Rody Vera's "Happiness is a Pearl" (MY REVIEW) at their Little Room Upstairs. This was a Japanese-themed play about what a person would do for love. This play was re-staged just this August to September, this time at a bigger venue in Arts Above on West Avenue. It turns out this re-staging was to prepare the audience for yet another Japanese-themed play by Rody Vera, also about love. But this time, "Fly Me to the Moon" would be about what love can do to a person.

Jo, a Japanese prostitute (or karayuki-san), and Melanie (a.k.a. Manuel), an aspiring Filipina transgender entertainer, meet onboard a dingy sea vessel en route to Japan. Jo told about why she was sent abroad to do her dirty job and her tragic forbidden affair with Muslim islander Ibrahim. Melanie told about her. Melanie told about how her dream to become a full-fledged woman drove her to ditch safety and stowaway on this ship.

Xosh Ardio and Dea Formacil 
as Melanie and Jo


From the get-go, you will note a puzzling temporal disconnect between the two main characters. Jo is demure and formal, dressed up in a kimono, humming standards like "Fly Me to the Moon". A karayuki-san was a Japanese woman from very poor families who were sold abroad to work as prostitutes in the first half of the 20th century. Melanie is clearly from a more recent time, a loud Japayuki-wannabe dressed in garish robe of silver lamé, singing gay anthems like "I Am What I Am".  This anachronistic contrast is not accidental and is essential to the story of Vera's play. 

The historical background behind the character of Jo is interesting. I never knew about karayuki-san before and was surprised to learn that international sex-trafficking happened even in those early days. In Jo's case, she was sent to a brothel in Southeast Asia (Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia) to earn the price for his brother's "becoming a man," hence we see men dressed in tribal costumes as her customers and her true love Ibrahim. 

We can imagine how Melanie may have snuck up into the boat, but how did Jo get up there? Did she just board the boat with her Cat at the same time with Melanie? Or had she been in the boat the whole time? If it is the former, what made her decide to board the boat at that time after all those years? Did she see Melanie as kindred spirit? If it is the latter, how can a small boat remain seaworthy enough for fifty or more years to make the long sea voyage from the Philippines to Japan? Then again, maybe we do not really have to think too much about this issue.


Dea Formacil, who was just fresh from playing Maria Clara in "Kanser," now makes a complete turnaround to play the jaded karayuki-san Jo. Her acting style is appropriately subtle given the historical context of her character. Her delivery of lines was clear in her delightful Japanese-inflected English. Formacil had to portray her own flashback scenes so it must have been exhausting for her to move from one stage to another. (Fatima Cadiz alternates as Karayuki.)

Xosh Ardio is raw, "out-there" and over-the-top as Melanie, providing the energy to counter the oppressive darkness. It must have been difficult for this her to spend the whole time on stage topless (I guess this was a metaphor for his openness) or holding up a loose-fitting bra (should be fixed in the regular run). Melanie had another actor playing his flashback scenes, so Ardio is spared from costume change problems, but this may be confusing for the audience at first. I know Melanie was supposed to be a lousy singer, but I wish she could try to sing "Fly Me to the Moon" better. That was such a emotionally-charged scene, but its effect is hampered by the tuneless singing. (A.I. Hose Ki and Aldy Cadupay alternates as Melanie). 

Clifford Gonzales played Ibrahim, Jo's lover. He also doubles as the cat that accompanied Jo on the boat. The symbolism is apparent, and actually rather cute, given the dire circumstance they were in. (Ar Ar Ramilo and BJ Ocampo alternate as Ibrahim.) Manu Gallardo, who played Japanese officer Hirohito in another Artist Playground play "Lagablab" (MY REVIEW), again plays a Japanese baddie here, as the Captain of the ship the two main characters were on. (Jun Nayra alternates as the Captain.)

Gonzales, Formacil, Ardio and Gallardo after the show


"Fly" is more daring and more downbeat than "Happiness" was, as it dealt with brothels and deaths. The mood is persistently dark and gloomy throughout and the dim lighting design made sure we felt it. There was just a shrill panel of silly judges at an audition of gay singers that provided the only scene with laughter.  There are multiple scenes that dealt with illicit and forced sex which makes this play for mature audiences only. 

There is one main stage in the center where Jo and Melanie were talking, while their flashbacks were happening in two other smaller stages on either side. One limitation of the stage design was that it failed to consider that the seats of the audience were at the same floor level. People who sat on the third row already cannot see what was going on on the foreground so we had to stand up to see some scenes better. I hope this problem can be rectified during the regular run. This was not a problem in Little Room Upstairs because the bleachers were elevated.

Being still the press preview a week prior to opening day, there were still some problems in the sound department. Sometimes the background music would be too loud or tinny, tending to drown out the dialogue on stage. There was a very ingeniously staged scene where the Captain was speaking to Melanie in Japanese (how accurate, I would not know), and in the background Jo and the Cat were translating was he was saying real time. The idea was great, but the execution still needs polishing since the overlapping lines were difficult to understand at times. 

The main cast at the curtain call


There is however a major error of anachronism in the main song hummed by Jo in the play, which is fact also the very title of the play (making it difficult to rectify). "Fly Me to the Moon" was written by Bart Howard and  released as a recording (by Kaye Ballard) in 1954. The most popular version by Frank Sinatra was released in 1964. Karayuki-san like Jo were supposed to have existed before World War II, in the 1930s. I am sure playwright Vera had any compelling reasons for choosing this particular song for this play. 

Congratulations to director Paul Jake Paule for the imaginative direction of the complex script by Rody Vera that involved a lot of scene changes and flashbacks, which could have been more confusing in lesser hands. The transitions between those flashback scenes (especially those scenes not directly involving the main characters) could still need some smoothing out and streamlining for better understanding of the story.


"Fly Me to the Moon" runs from October 13 to 22, 2017 at ARTS ABOVE Artist Playground II, West Venue Building, 112 West Ave., QC (beside McDonald's). Play dates are as follows: October 13 & 20 (Fridays) 8pm, October 14 & 21 (Saturdays) 4pm & 8pm and October 15 & 22 (Sundays) 4pm & 8pm. Tickets are at P600, free seating, so if you want to get those front seats for unobstructed view, come early. Tickets available at Ticketworld and at the gate.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Warm, Winning and Worthy

October 5, 2017

I first knew of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. I believe it is the first live-action movie I had ever seen as a child, not sure if it was on the television or on videotape. We had a long playing vinyl record of the original soundtrack which was played on repeat. I guess it is safe to say that it was "The Sound of Music" that set me on my road to enjoying musicals on film as well as on stage.

There had been several productions of "The Sound of Music" by local theater companies over the years. 

There was the seminal 1980 production by Repertory Philippines directed by Zeneida Amador, with Baby Barredo as Maria, Chito Ponce Enrile as Captain Von Trapp and Celia Diaz-Laurel as the Baroness. That show gave us eventual theater stars Menchu Lauchengco, Monique Wilson and Lea Salonga who made their theater debuts as Von Trapp children, and Audie Gemora as Rolf. 

In 2006, Rep restaged the show directed by Barredo. It had Lauchengco and Wilson (with Liesl Batucan) alternating as Maria and Gemora (alternating with Michael Williams) as the Captain, with Cherie Gil (alternating with Rina Reyes) as the Baroness. Liesl was played by Vanessa Paoleli, Criselda Consunji or Menchu's daughter Nicole Yulo. Rolf Gruber was played by Topper Fabregas JM Rodriguez, Irra Cenina or Jaime BarcelonThis show was the only stage version that I got to watch. 

In 2011, the Resorts World produced its own version of the show directed by Roxanne Lapus. This starred Joanna Ampil or Cris Villonco as Maria and Audie Gemora, Ed Feist or Jon Joven as the Captain, and Pinky Amador or Lynn Sherman as the Baroness. Liesl was played by Tanya Manalang or Rachel Coates, while Rolf was played by Marvin Ong or Bryan Homecillo.


This September-October 2017, Concertus Manila (after successful runs of "Wicked" and "West Side Story" also this year) brings us the London West End Production of "The Sound of Music" at the Theater at Solaire.  This touring production was met with much excitement earlier this year when it auditioned local kids to be cast as the younger Von Trapp children last May, the list of which was announced last July. 

As expected it was certainly nostalgic to listen all these classic songs performed live on stage. These are songs whose lyrics I've known by heart since childhood, so the temptation to sing along audibly really took a lot of self-control to repress. It felt unusual to hear some songs in different parts of the play than it was in the film. "My Favorite Things" was sung in the abbey by the Abbess and Maria. In place of that song in the thunderstorm scene, Maria and the kids sang "The Lonely Goatherd" instead. "Edelweiss" was only sung once by the Captain, and that was at the concert. 

There were also two songs by Max (Jonathan Taylor) and the Baroness (Haylea Heins) that I first heard now. The satirical "How Can Love Survive" in Act I, the two sing about love among the rich and famous. The political "No Way to Stop It" in Act II was about convincing the Captain to accept the inevitability of the Anschluss (occupation of Austria by Nazi Germany). While they were catchy ditties in their own way, with their mature themes, it was clear why they did not make it into the movie version.

With the film so iconic, it was really very difficult to imagine anybody else as Maria and the Captain other than Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. At first, Carmen Pretorius looked too thin to be the gamine Maria, and Nicholas Maude not dashing enough to be the heroic Captain. but after a few songs all these little details fly out the window. Though the chemistry was not automatically apparent, by the time the Ländler dance scene came along, the audience did feel that romantic spark. When the first kiss came, there was an audible thrill and even applause!

The only first impression that stuck the whole show was that Zoe Beavon was too tall and too mature-looking to be sweet Liesl. As far as the other kids were concerned, aside from that night's Friedrich being shorter than Kurt, their being Filipino never really got in the way. In fact, Rayne Cortez, the girl playing the observant Brigitta and Tory Cortez, who sang some short solos as Kurt, gave standout performances. The touching reunion scene after the Captain joins them to sing the first time was wrought with sincere emotion. Tears will be difficult to rein in. 

For me, the best vocalist of the ensemble would have to be Janelle Visagie who played the wise Mother Abbess. Although she did look too young and pretty (with cute dimples) to be the most senior nun, her full soprano was very powerful. The Abbess' centerpiece song "Climb Every Mountain" ends both Act I and Act II, it was a sure showstopper both times, thanks to Visagie's commanding yet warm-hearted rendition of the classic anthem.

I have to mention the presence of actual Aryans in the cast made the ball scene and the concert scene uncomfortably chilling. The political tension of the musical festival scene was very palpable the way it was executed on the stage with that huge red flag with the eagle insignia. That actor playing Herr Zeller (the Nazi regional officer) can really make a chill run up and down your spine with his hateful character.

The set design and lighting design were beautifully rendered, faultless already in the timing, as it is expected from a touring production. The abbey backdrops give such cavernous depth on that small stage. The wedding scene with those metal gates and the glorious Madonna and Child sunburst sculpture hanging overhead was grandiose despite its short length. If there was any debit, it is probably the "I Have Confidence" scene that felt bare because did not have anything showing in the backdrop at all. Other than that, everything else brought us right into Salzburg in the late 1930s, and back to our own warm childhood memories of the classic film.


"The Sound of Music" runs from September 27 to October 22, 2017 at the Theater at Solaire.  Showtimes every Tuesday - 8:00PM, Wednesday - 8:00PM, Thursday - 8:00PM, Friday - 8:00PM, Saturday - 3:00PM and 8:00PM and Sunday - 3:00PM and 8:00PM.  

Ticket prices: P7,000 for VIP Orchestra Center; P5,800 for A Reserve Orchestra Premium Gold: P4,500 for B Reserve Orchestra, Premium Gold, P3,500 for C Reserve
Balcony Front and P1,500 for D Reserve Balcony Back.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Review of TP's ANG PAG-UUSIG: Persecutory Paranoia

September 30, 2017

"Ang Pag-uusig" is the Filipino translation of the classic 1953 Arthur Miller play entitled "The Crucible." We usually know the word "crucible" to mean a vessel used in conditions of extreme heat. In the context of the play's title, "crucible" also means an extremely trying test or experience. This is the same meaning expressed in the Filipino word "pag-uusig" meaning a trial, but it is more usually used to refer to a legal trial. 

It was 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. A girl named Abigail Williams and her posse of suggestible girls accused several townsfolk, in particular Mrs. Elizabeth Proctor, of being witches. It turned out that this was a personal vendetta against Mrs. Proctor, who fired Abigail from being their maid because of her loose morals.

John Proctor fought for his wife's innocence by convincing their new maid Mary Warren to testify in her favor. However in front of the Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hathorne in the courthouse, Abigail and her friends resume their false demonic possession act to turn the judges against Mary Warren and the Proctors. 

The Men of Salem 
(TP Publicity Photo)

The Filipino translation done by Ateneo Philippine Literature and Theater professor Jerry Respeto is easy to understand yet powerfully eloquent despite the alien situations and names to which the language applied. There were some surprising seemingly modern-sounding Filipino words used which drew audible reactions from the audience. It was just too bad that some of these words could hardly be heard clearly as delivered by some actors. 

The stage designed by Ohm David was basically an imposing wall made of dark-colored wooden panels serving as the backdrop. This was converted by the Parris residence to the Proctor residence to the Salem Courthouse by spare and simple set pieces. This wall will reveal an eerie scene behind it by the end of Act IV.

The costumes were designed by James Reyes. These were mostly in drab colors -- blacks, whites and browns of Puritan America. The only color onstage are worn by the trouble-making Abigail and her friends, who had bright colored accents in their dresses. Weird though why the character of Judge Hathorne was wearing a working barong Tagalog, further emphasizing the awkward portrayal by Daniel Gregorio.

The Women of Salem 
(TP Publicity Photo)

The cast is composed of the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company. 

As the man in the middle of all the intrigue, JV Ibesate was intense as the disgraced and desperate John Proctor. I think this was the best performance I had ever seen him in with the TP crew. The scene when he publicly admitted his greatest sin in Act III, and his passionate scene with his wife in Act IV were so well-played.  

Jonathan Tadioan looked quite at home playing the despotically authoritative Danforth. He had deluded himself to be absolute correct, unable to go back anymore on any of his past actions. Marco Viana played the hypocritical Rev. Parris. His best scene was that revealing his all-too selfish reasons like a frayed bundle of nerves in Act IV. 

Joshua Tayco was really trying his best to project maturity as witch-hunter Reverend John Hale but his young age gets in his way. This was the same limitation with Aldo Vencilao as Giles Corey, an elderly man whose curiosity about the book his wife was reading led to her being arrested as a witch. Ybes Bagadiong played the greedy Thomas Putnam, a casting choice that did not seem too fit.

Cast during the Curtain Call

Since there were only 12 of them, some ladies are playing two roles, which can be a little confusing since they play contrasting characters. Doray Dayao played both upright Elizabeth Proctor (in a show of remarkable quiet strength) and the slave Tituba, who knew black magic. Lhorvie Nuevo played both the flighty Mary Warren (a character who perfectly fit her quirky personality) and the saintly old Rebecca Nurse (a role where she felt miscast). 

Antonette Go revealed more of her acting range as the wickedly manipulative Abigail Williams. Go's powerful performance boils up so much feeling of hate for this shameless, remorseless character. That moment in Act III where the despicable Abigail conjures up an imaginary yellow bird representing Mary Warren's spirit possessing her and her girls (Eunice Pacia as Mercy Lewis, Monique Nellas as Susana Walcott and Blanche Buhia as Betty Parris) was a memorable highlight of female group hysteria, and Go was the charismatically malevolent spirit in the midst of it all. 

Kudos to director Dennis Marasigan and the rest of the Tanghalang Pilipino cast and crew. Being presented by TP, you cannot help but feel an undeniable political undercurrent throughout the witch-hunt scenes and how it mirrored the current situation in the country these days. As Arthur Miller used this play to comment on McCarthyism and the communist scare, TP is using this play now to comment on the drug war and EJKs. Such is the compelling timelessness of well-written theater. 


"Ang Pag-Uusig" will run from Sept. 29 to Oct. 22, 2017, with 8pm shows every Friday and Saturday, and 3pm matinees every Saturday and Sunday. The venue is in the intimate Tanghalang Huseng Batute at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Tickets are selling at the CCP Box Office and via TicketWorld at PHP 1000 (VIP), PHP 800 (Bleachers). There is  50% off for students. Play is rated PG for its mature elements. Play runs for 2 and a half hours with a 10 minute intermission.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Review of Grand Leisure Corp.'s MAYNILA SA MGA KUKO NG LIWANAG: THE MUSICAL: Soaring Songs, Sublime Singing

September 30, 2017

I had seen the classic Lino Brocka film of the same title before, which was based on a novel by Edgardo Reyes. I recall it to be a bleak and gritty drama starring Bembol Roco and Hilda Koronel who turned in memorable performances as the star-crossed lovers Julio and Ligaya, who fell into the inescapable claws of the city. I was very surprised when word surfaced just a couple of months ago that there would be a new original musical based on this film. It did not seem possible, but knowing Filipino artistic ingenuity, no idea was impossible.

Julio Madiaga went to Manila to look for his girlfriend Ligaya Paraiso who had been recruited to work by a certain Mrs. Cruz. To make ends meet during his quest, his friend Pol pointed him to the construction site run by the ruthless foreman Mr. Balajadia. Julio's co-workers welcomed him warmly, especially his new friend Atong. When Julio finally found Ligaya, circumstances simply would not allow them to get back together again.

Ligaya and Julio Share a Romantic Moment

The best thing about this musical is its dynamic music and its soaring songs, perfectly rendered by its triple threat cast. From the very first song number, I was enthralled by the huge number of performers on the stage, probably reaching 40, all singing and dancing together. The first song told about how there was no room for a weak constitution in the city, or your life will just go to waste. The choreography was frenetic with jerky movements to match the energy of the catchy song itself. 

There next song number ("Basta't Ikaw ay May Diskarte") was a jazzy one performed by the construction workers about the Filipino virtue of "diskarte" (roughly translated to "resourcefulness"). This was a fun number that even ended in an improbable chorus line. This segued to another upbeat and happy song "Kung Maka-Jackpot Lang Ako", about getting lucky in life, led by working student Imo (played by Rafa Siguion-Reyna, with Joseph Puducay as alternate), which even featured a surprise song and dance solo by Mr. Balajadia (played by Jim Pebanco, with Joseph Billeza as alternate).

Rafa Siguion-Reyna, Jim Pebanco and Noel Rayos take their bows

The next song was a yearning ballad about what ifs ("Minsan May Isang Panahon") sung by Julio, later joined in by Ligaya as a duet, even if they do not actually see each other. There would be another song later ("Kailan Ba?") about misfortune in love, also blocked separately onstage, featuring Pol and Atong's sister Perla. Still later, there would be a quartet arrangement of "Bawa't Oras Bawa't Sandali" -- a song about how time passes in Manila with all four of them (Julio, Ligaya, Pol and Perla) in  four different parts of the stage.

The most show-stopping number of the whole show was the closing number of Act 1. While this featured a funeral march, the execution was far from being funereal. It was done with the most bombastic combination of electric choreography and dramatically red lighting. The final tableau about the "Sigaw ng Manggagawa" ("Shout of the Workers") was a very strong moving image that will haunt you long after you've seen the show. 

In an effort to lighten up the mood of this drama, the villains in the story were mainly made out to be the comic relief. First is the unscrupulous recruiter Mrs. Cruz (played tonight by Dulce, with Ima Castro as alternate). Second is the sadistic Chinese businessman Ah Tek (Joseph Billeza). Their delightful sarcastic song together that opens Act 2 "Teka Teka" was about how we should not judge immoral employers like them because they do help many people out with their businesses anyway. It was a lot of fun seeing them do their dance moves. 

Ferrer, Valderama-Martinez lead the ensemble in the finale

All the main singers were in top form tonight, which made all of their songs sound so good. 

Arman Ferrer's singing voice as Julio was so solid and clearly enunciated, with an incredible falsetto and at one point, even a rocker's wail. It is hard to pick one song where he did best, because every song he sang sounded so good, be it soft and sweet, or full and loud. What made the flawless voice quality more impressive was that he mostly had to sing these songs after exhausting scenes where he had to run and jump around the stage.

I had never seen Shiela Valderama-Martinez in a Filipino language play before. I had also never heard her attack such sadistically high notes so powerfully before. Her best solo vocal singing performance was with "Awit ni Ligaya", her song of lamentation about being eaten up by the monster that is Manila. While her portrayal of Princess Fiona remains her best performance in English, this one as Ligaya is easily her best performance in Filipino. (Lara Maigue alternates in this role.)

Floyd Tena and Aicelle Santos take their bows

We loved Aicelle Santos as Aileen in "Rak of Aegis" and we know she can belt with seemingly unlimited range. Her voice here as Perla was all so crystal clear and clearly rose above the rest of the ensemble she sings with. Her best song was "Nasaan ang Hustisiya?", a desperate plea for justice which she sang in the wake of a man who died under suspicious circumstances. She hit that money note at one point so perfectly everybody erupted into wild appreciative applause, even it was really the end of the song yet. (Rita Daniela alternates in this role.)

Floyd Tena had a lighter, more pop-sounding tenor tone as Pol, which he showed off in a dramatic solo number singing about life in Manila ("Laking Maynila"). Not to throw any shade on Tena's winning performance, but if the production wanted to streamline the show further (it lasted a long three hours with a 15 minute in between the two acts), maybe they can trim down some of Pol's scenes talking with Julio because they tend to slow down the momentum of the storytelling.

Noel Rayos may have had only a couple of solo vocals heard but his singing voice was strikingly strong as Atong. The rest of the cast include: Khalil Kaimo (Gido), Jeffrey Camanag (Omeng), Romcel Binquis (Benny), Randy Rey (Frank), and many more talented actors, singers and dancers in the ensemble.

The Cast at the Curtain Call

Big kudos to Director Joel Lamangan and the entire artistic team behind the show namely: , Von de Guzman (Musical Director), Jose Victor Torres and Em Mendez (Libretto), Joey Nombres (Lights Designer), Douglas Nierras (Choreographer), and Jun Flavier Pablo (Production Design). The direction, acting, original song compositions and choreography of this show were outstanding and, for me, are clearly on their way to year-end awards. I want to own a CD of the songs -- I surely hope they would release an original cast recording!


The schedule of performances are: September 30, 3 pm and 8 pm (Gala), October 1, 2017, 3 pm and 8 pm, October 4, 2017 8 pm, October 5, 2017 8 pm, October 6, 2017 3 pm and 8 pm. Venue is at the KIA Theater in Araneta Center, Cubao, Quezon City. 

Tickets can be bought via Ticketnet at the following prices: PHP 3710 (VIP center and sides rows 1-8), PHP 3180 (orchestra center and sides rows 9-18), PHP 2650 (orchestra back rows 19-35 center and sides)PHP 2120 (loge center rows 1-5, balcony center rows 1-4)PHP 1590 (loge sides rows 1-5, balcony center rows 5-13, balcony sides rows 1-13)

The proceeds of this show go to Gantimpala Theater Foundation, the company that spearheads the National Artist Production Series in which short stories and plays written by National Artists for Literature and Theater are produced for the stage for people to enjoy and appreciate.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Review of UPPT's MGA AMA, MGA ANAK: Painful Patrimony

September 9, 2017

I got off work a little late this afternoon. I reached the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater a little past 3 pm already, and the play had already started. I was standing at the back first, waiting for a time when I can find myself a seat. However, director Tony Mabesa noted this old man standing there sticking out among the young kids and offered me the empty seat beside him. So that was how I got to watch this play seated beside the director himself, hearing some of his directorial commentary along the way. 

Director Tony Mabesa sharing his thoughts after show,
with Paula Benitez and Issa Litton beside him.

It was a day in the mid-1970s in a suburb just outside Manila. Zacarias Monzon was a man who rose out of poverty by running a horse-drawn carriage business. From his earnings, he was able to build himself an enormous mansion. The most remarkable piece of furniture in his house was a very long dining table which can accommodate three dozen people. 

Aside from his first wife and his two surviving legitimate children Marcelo and Nena, Zacarias would go on to have many mistresses and many other children. However, when the family fortune turned to the worse and a debilitating stroke, Zacarias was left alone in his house with only Nena and his last mistress, a young prostitute named Bessie, taking care of him. His son Marcelo, now a business bigshot, never forgot nor forgave his cruel father who found pleasure in using the whip on his children.

Veteran actor Leo Rialp was playing a flawed man on the ebb of his life, yet his performance of Zacarias was vivid and strong. His naughtiness brought about by his dementia was even oddly delightful, especially in that scene when he was getting drunk with gin. There was a scene when he was repeating lines over, when you cannot tell if this was a mistake or it was in character, so realistic in his breakdown. The tattoos (henna) you see on Rialp's body was an idea of the dedicated actor himself to make him fit the look and personality of Zacarias more. (Menggie Cobarrubias alternates in this role.)

I think this is the first time I saw acclaimed playwright Rody Vera act and he was intensely passionate in his role as Marcelo. He was the character in the middle of the three generations in this play -- his father's son and his son's father -- so his was technically the central character. Reacting to the faults of his father and those of his son, this was the character who developed the most. It was his emotional explosions that ended Act I and Act II which were the most painful dramatic highlights of the whole show. (George de Jesus III and Greg de Leon alternate in this role.)

We only see the character of Sofia, Marcelo's socialite wife, in Act II, she provided that vital sparkle of humor and frankness that kept this play from wallowing in melodrama. As brilliantly played by Issa Litton with perky, almost manic, energy, she stole every scene she was in. Our attention gets drawn to her patrician beauty, her chic fashion but most importantly to her scintillating personality and shocking liberality --  a woman ahead of her time. (Adriana Agcaoili alternates in this role.)

The cheap and skanky way she was dressed, you'll think that the character of Bessie is just a comic figure at first. However, her maligned character's true heart and dignity will unfold and be revealed before the play ends. It was in these concluding scenes that Paula Benitez shone, providing the play's most tear-jerking moments. (Bessie is also played by two other young actresses Sarina Sasaki and Chloe Jenna. However the most interesting casting choice is that of Candy Pangilinan, who is more mature than her other alternates, hence will definitely give the character more depth to work with. Her age will also change the dynamics between her Bessie and the other characters.)

The dutiful sister Nena is the symbol of society's expectation of daughters -- to be the one to care for their aging parents. She never left the family home, never got married, never practiced her profession, yet to the end, she still felt like she had not offered her father her best. This self-sacrificing role was played with sincerity by Banaue Miclat-Jannsen, as her character tread the line between filial duty and personal frustration. (Stella Canete-Mendoza alternates in this role.)

Tracy Quila played the role of Chitong, the son of Marcelo and Sofia who could not make up his mind on what career he wanted to take. He quit law to become a seminarian, but the event in the play made him even more confused. (Carlo Tarobal and Mark Dalacat alternate in this role.) Olive Nieto played the humorous role of Mrs. Paulo, the nosy neighborhood nurse who had a big crush on Zacarias as she was growing up. (Belen Calingacion alternates in this role.)

The magnificent set depicting the classic all-wood interior of the Monzon mansion by Ohm David is the first thing that will strike you when you enter the theater. The lighting of Meliton Roxas Jr. provided the shadows that enhances the dramatic moods, particularly in that haunting last scene. Eric Pineda's best costumes were those stylish pieces worn by the flamboyant Sofia. Those striped bell-bottom pants worn by Chitong reminded us that this play was set in the 1970s. The sound design was done by the ever-efficient Jethro Joaquin.

The cast members answer questions from the audience after the show.

"Fathers and Sons" was written in English by Nick Joaquin based on his own short story "Three Generations." This was in 1976, exactly the year when he was declared National Artist for Literature.  Its Filipino version "Mga Ama, Mga Anak" was translated by National Artist Virgilio Almario (Rio Alma) and Jose F. Lacaba for the PETA production in 1977 directed by National Artist Lino Brocka.

Just three years ago in February 2014, Tanghalang Pilipino restaged "Mga Ama, Mga Anak" directed by Joel Lamangan and starring Robert Arevalo as Zacarias. There was nostalgia in that TP show as Lamangan and Arevalo were in the cast of that original 1977 PETA production. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch it then. So I was glad that to learn that UPPT is going to restage it this year to mark Joaquin's birth centenary. Nick Joaquin was born Sept. 15, 1917. 

Director Tony Mabesa shared he decided to complete the translation of the last few pages of Joaquin's English script (skipped in previous productions) because he wanted to clearly deliver what he thought was the essential message of the play. The political undertones of the play (remember that this was originally staged in 1977) became crystal clear and undeniable because of that fiery final scene. 


"Fathers and Sons"/"Mga Ama, Mga Anak" opened last Sept. 6 and will play up to Sept. 24, at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall of UP Diliman. English shows are scheduled on Sept. 6,7,15,19 & 21 (7pm), 10,16,23 &24 (10am) and 10 & 23 (3pm). Filipino shows are scheduled on Sept. 8,13,14,20 & 22 (7pm), 9 & 17 (10am) and 9,16,17 & 24 (3pm).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Review of The Necessary Theater's BLACKBIRD: Payback for a Predator

September 3, 2017

Founded in September 1992, Actor's Actors Inc. (a local theater company born out of the combined talents of Roselyn Perez, Dodo Lim, Jaime del Mundo, Cita Astals, Bart Guingona, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Wylin Gervacio) now prefers to be called The Necessary Theater. Their last show "The Normal Heart" staged in 2015 was great critical hit first, then a bonafide box-office hit on its re-staging last year.

This year The Necessary Theater has chosen to stage a critically-acclaimed harrowing two-hander play written by Scottish playwright David Harrower back in 2005. It had won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. When it was revived in Broadway in 2016, it garnered  Tony Award nominations for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor Jeff Daniels) and Best Actress (Michelle Williams). This local staging will have the dynamic Topper Fabregas at the helm. 

One day, a 55-year old office employee Peter Trivinian unexpectedly gets a visit at work from a pretty 27 year old young woman named Una. He led her into a room to talk in private. It turns out that 15 years ago, 40-year old Peter (then called Ray) carried on an illicit sexual affair with 12-year old Una which eventually wound up in a nasty trial for statutory rape and incarceration for Ray, and cruel social ostracism for Una.

Una confronts Ray
(publicity photo from TNT)

The set was a typical multipurpose room in an office where employees would eat their meals during break time. Set designer Joey Mendoza made it feel very cold in there because of those silvery gray metallic wall paneling, which later turned out to be translucent blinds through which you can see the blurry bustle of activity outside. Prominently placed in the foreground on the right is a big trash bin overflowing with garbage. There were lockers at the back, and a water cooler that does not work. On the left side are random piles of storage boxes full of paper. 

Eight white fluorescent lamps ominously hang overhead. As designed by John Batalla, these lights were made to turn off one at a time to slowly dim the room during key moments of the play to heighten the brewing mood of tension inside. During an intense flashback monologue by Una, all eight of these white lights were off and a warm yellow spotlight was focused only on her. The power outage scene felt very real when there were emergency lights that automatically turn on.

And then there were just these two people talking on and on about an affair between them that happened 15 years ago. At the start, the man was obviously flustered, speaking nervously in fragments; while the girl was composed and confident, knowing she had the upper hand. The moods of the conversation will then switch up and down, shifting from one character to the other, mesmerizing the audience as they hear a mystery unfold. The topic is not easy to listen to. The language use is blunt, frank and direct. It was a very unsettling 90 minutes for an audience, but we are riveted.

A harassed Ray
(publicity photo from TNT)

Bart Guingona plays Ray, a man trying desperately to move on after a major failure of judgement in his past. He thought he had already done so, reestablishing himself as Peter, a respectable employee at this medical equipment firm. But then that evening, his nightmare came visiting in a cute floral mini-dress. Guingona, as always, was very natural in his acting. His distress and panic and loneliness all felt very real.

The very situation of seeing an older man talking to a younger girl in a two-hander play brought back memories of David Mamet's "Oleanna"  which I watched when New Voice Company of Monique Wilson staged it maybe 10 years ago or so. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was actually Bart Guingona also who played the role of the older man in that play! Guingona's character then was a professor accused by his female student of sexual harassment. No wonder the performance felt familiar in its feeling of helpless despair and emotional breakdown.

A playful Una
(publicity photo from TNT)

Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante plays Una, a girl trying desperately to move on after a man took advantage of her innocent pre-teen crush.  The first time I saw Mikkie Bradshaw on stage was in a dark production "Carrie" by Atlantis four years ago. Even if she was still a newcomer at that time, she held her own ground opposite Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo who played her dominating mother. It was only this time that I had seen her in another lead role, and she has certainly grown more more mature as an actress. 

Una is such a complex character for any actress to play. What was she really hoping to achieve with this visit? Was this for revenge? Or was this for reconnection? Was this visit one of hate? Or was it one of love? Una is the one driving the story forward, with Ray merely reacting to her every word. Bradshaw-Volante's portrayal captured this vagueness with all her little character quirks and nuances. This performance of hers as Una is certainly of Best Actress caliber. 

Congratulations to Director Topper Fabregas and the rest of Necessary Theater's cast and crew for their excellent work on this controversial material. Admittedly, this topic is not audience-friendly at all, being the stuff people would rather not talk about, stuff people subsume in their subconsciousness. Nevertheless, this staging of "Blackbird" is still an immersive theater experience that deserves to be seen, if only for its two powerful acting performances alone. 


BLACKBIRD opened last September 1, 2017 and will run for only 6 performances up to Sept. 10. Showtime is 8 pm for Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm on Sundays. Venue is at the Carlos P, Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza in Makati. Ticket price at P1200 for Orchestra Center, P1000 for Orchestra Sides and Back, P800 for Loge, and P500 for Balcony. Show is for mature audiences only because of its sensitive nature. It runs for 90 minutes straight with no intermission.


P.S. I really hope RCBC Plaza would be able to adjust its parking rates for the sake of theater viewers. The new rate is P60 for first 2 hours, and P25 for every hour or fraction thereof after that. I was given an extra card at the theater door to prove that I watched a show in the Auditorium. I thought that would limit the parking rates. However when I went to pay however, I still racked up a parking bill of P110.