Saturday, October 26, 2013

Relaunch of Lito Casaje's MGA PREMYADONG DULA

The Philippine Center of the International PEN (Poets & Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) held a book-club discussion on writer-director Lito Casaje’s collection of stage plays, “Mga Premyadong Dula,” yesterday, October 26, 2013, at 5 p.m.  This was held in the Solidaridad Bookstore, along Padre Faura St. in Ermita, Manila. It was also a re-launching of sorts for this award-winning book of award-winning scripts for the theater.

“Mga Premyadong Dula” was first published by De La Salle University Press back in 2006.  Five of Casaje’s award-winning plays are featured in this book.  These are:

1.  “Juan de la Cruz, New York” - This play is about Filipino living in New York, amid the HIV-AIDS outbreak and rallies against Marcos in 1984.  This play won Second Prize in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1986. This is first play Casaje wrote.

2. “Editoryal” - This play is set in Tagum, Davao in 1985. It dealt with crusading journalists and their fate during the Martial Law era. It also won Second Prize in the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Playwriting Contest in 1986.

3. “Separasyon” - This is a feminist play.  Its original production starred Eugene Domingo. It won First Prize in the  Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1993.

4.  “Matrimonyal” - This play is about an estranged married couple. This also won the First Prize in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1995.

5. “Padre de Familia” - This was an experimental play within a play.  This won the Third Prize in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1998.

This published anthology itself won the National Book Award in 2007.  This award is given every year by the National Book Development Board (NBDB) and the Manila Critics Circle (MCC) to the best books written, designed, and published in the Philippines.

This is the first time I have attended an event like this. I have been inside the Solidaridad Bookstore before, but I never knew that they had a meeting room on the third floor where the country's premiere organization of writers, the Philippine PEN meets regularly.  This group was born in 1958, founded by F. Sionil Jose, who later became a National Artist for Literature. Other PEN members who also became National artists were Francisco Arcellana, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Bienvenido Lumbera, Alejandro Roces and Edith Tiempo. It was heartening to be in the same room with Sionil Jose and Lumbera, who were actually in attendance at the event yesterday.

During the event, Lito Casaje talked about himself and his brush with Stage 4 Burkitt's Lymphoma this year, recently just receiving his last dose of chemotherapy.  He looked very good yesterday, his body not showing evidence of his ordeal, except maybe for the bald pate. He talked about his fascination about the relationships between men and women.  He talked about his favorite playwrights, especially Strindberg.  He talked about his forte, that of writing realistic dialogues.

Of course, he talked about his book and the plays therein.  He invited some young actor friends and students to read selected excerpts from these plays.  Here are a couple of readings which I was able to record:

This is a monologue from "Juan de la Cruz: New York":

This is an impromptu reading of a scene from "Matrimonyal":

This was a new experience for me, to be watching actors read plays and listening to the playwright himself discuss his work.  I was also happy to be seated with Lito Casaje's father, Dr. Louie Casaje, during this occasion.  

Listening to the plays yesterday, they are as vital and pertinent now as they were back when they were first staged.  I think it is high time for the new generation to rediscover the work of Mr. Lito Casaje.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Review of Red Turnip's CLOSER: Love in the Form of a Square

October 7, 2013

I had seen a stage production of "Closer" (I actually found the ticket!) back  in December 1, 2001, staged by the Actor's Actors, Inc. at the Republic of Malate.  I do not recall who were the actors anymore ( I hope someone can remind me) but I recall that it had an innovative presentation.  There was a square stage in the middle of the room.  At each corner stood the four actors, delivering their lines facing outwards towards the audience, even if they were talking to one another. 

There was also a movie version of "Closer" shown in 2004 with a stellar cast which includes Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman.  This was directed by no less than Mike Nichols, who won the Oscar for Best Director for "The Graduate".  He was also nominated by the Academy for his direction of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "Silkwood," and "Working Girl". His direction of "Closer" was nominated by the Golden Globes. I have not yet seen this film version of "Closer" yet, but it does have a creditable rating according to critics and fans.  

 "Closer" is the story of four people. Danny is a frustrated novelist, now wallowing as a writer of obituaries. Alice is a young free-spirited stripper. Anna is a successful professional photographer. Larry is a lonely dermatologist who visits sex sites on the Internet. Their lives are intertwined in this story of love and deception, told in two acts by playwright Patrick Marber.  

The set in this current Red Turnip production is quite spare, just a rectangular floor with a map of the London subway system, as the audience is close by, around the stage on three sides. The backdrop is a white wall where photos were projected to suggest the setting, like an emergency room or the aquarium.

The play started with light and funny "getting to know you" scenarios. There was even a whole silent scene that simulated a chat session on a sex website, with the hilarious conversation flashed on the wall, as the actors were typing on their laptops.

But of course, it would not all be about the pleasantries of romance. In fact, Act 1 ended with major explosive scenes occurring alternating with each other. Act 2 is a series of big confrontation scenes after the other involving one character individually with each other.

Heavily loaded words are dropped every so often by all four characters as they discuss and argue about their relationships with each other: jealousy, boredom, disappointment, mercy, selfishness, revenge, guilt, compromise, cowardice, etc.

The four actors did their best to flesh out their characters.

Bart Guingona is perfectly cast as Larry, the doctor. You can really see that he is the veteran player in this quartet. His character had the wittiest lines in the play and Bart's delivery was so good. He manages to be likable and sympathetic despite the sleazy nature of his character.

Angel Aquino was gorgeous as Anna. She was simply a riveting presence every time she was on stage. She embodied this perfect specimen of womanhood most irresistible to men. I can totally see how and why men fall obsessively in love with her. Angel in that black and white long gown during Anna's photo exhibit was an angelic vision. She was truly mesmerizing.

Cris Villonco is quite a revelation as the frank and daring stripper Alice. We know her more for her wholesome roles in various musicals, but here she had had no qualms baring some skin and spouting foul language. For sure this was the ingenue role of this show which Cris is expected to play.  But this Alice was definitely no typical ingenue, and Cris nails it nevertheless.

Now about Marc Abaya in the central role of Dan. It was this character that messed up the lives of the other three, but as embodied by Abaya, his Dan was not convincing as a jerk who could literally sweep girls off their feet. Abaya did not have the right look and swagger for the part, and his benign performance could not completely overcome that deficiency.  In this film, this role was played by Jude Law, so you can imagine how that would look.  The performance was not bad, it just felt lacking.

Overall though, "Closer" remains to be an excellent intimate theater experience.  The script by Patrick Marber is crisp and frank, with words as real as it could sound when such situations occur in actuality. The talented Filipino cast as usual transcends the cultural context of the play, and they thankfully do not need to affect fake British accents.

Kudos to director Ana Abad Santos and the rest of Red Turnip Theater crew for this brave debut production.  The meet and greet after the show is also a nice touch.  I must say though that the venue Whitespace is not exactly the easiest place to reach and find.  I hope they can find a more accessible theater for their future productions which promise to be avant garde and edgy.   I am definitely looking forward to watching more of this progressive theater group.


"Closer" runs on October 4 to 27.  Fridays at 9 pm,  Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm [except for October 12 - no shows], and Sundays at 3 pm, with 8 pm shows for the last 2 Sundays

Whitespace is located at 2314 Chino Roces Ave. Extension, Makati.

Tickets are available at TicketWorld [891-9999 or] and also at 215-0788 / 0917-537-8313.


Epilogue: Oct. 9, 2013

I have just finished watching the 2004 film version of "Closer" now.  Since the screenplay was also written by Patrick Marber, it pretty much follows the play, almost word for word.  I still freshly remember the words I just heard last Sunday in Whitespace as I was watching the video. Words do take on another meaning when someone else delivers them in their own way.  It was fascinating to compare.  A main difference only lay in the ending.  The epilogue sequence in the play was rendered as a dramatic montage of scenes in the film, which I thought was neater. While I thought Jude Law was a better Dan than Mark Abaya, Bart Guingona was actually a better Larry than Clive Owen. Natalie Portman stood out in her role as Alice, but Cris Villonco gives the role an extra dose of vulnerability.  Angel Aquino is more beautiful than Julia Roberts.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review of Atlantis' CARRIE: Poignant Nightmare

October 7, 2013

The Atlantis production of "Carrie" opened to great acclaim on September 20, 2013.  However, the very next day, the four shows that weekend were cancelled due to "an illness in the company."  I was one of those who had tickets to that unprecedented "postponement" (which also had an unprecedented sudden change in the lead role).  Being in conflict with previous travel plans, I had no choice but to reserve tickets for the very last show, an additional 8 pm show on October 6.  

Carrie White is a bullied high school girl who was over-protected by her religious zealot mother. When Carrie discovers that she has telekinetic powers, she defies her mother and goes with popular jock Tommy Ross to the prom. I think most of us have already read Stephen King's book or watched the 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek to have an idea of how that prom went.

Mikkie Bradshaw is such a precious discovery as Carrie White. Her voice is very strong with great range. Her acting is also quite impressive as the timid, tormented and eventually very angry young girl. It was revealed tonight that it was Mikkie who fell ill after her triumphant opening night.  But what started with Mikkie ended with Mikkie again tonight, who again had a phenomenal performance on this final show.  K-La Rivera learned the role and songs in an incredible six days in order to fill in for the succeeding play dates. We were lucky to witness and hear the two Carries sing a duet version of "You Shine" after the curtain call in this final show.

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as expected delivers with all her heart, soul and misguided religious fanaticism as Carrie's mother, Margaret White.  Her range is really pushed to its upper limits with her punishing songs she had to sing, especially "And Eve Was Weak" and ""I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance".  She never fails to enthrall her audience even with the most off-beat of roles, and this certainly counts as one of her strangest roles (after Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd").

Sue Snell, the popular classmate who was stricken with guilt, was played by the pretty Yanah Laurel.  I have only seen her perform previously in a minor role in "Nine," but this show showed us more of what she is capable of doing.  She had her own featured moments in songs like "Once You See" and "You Shine." Markki Stroem played Sue's sensitive jock boyfriend Tommy Ross like it was written for him. He had his moment to shine in his solo "Tommy's Song" and his duet with Sue in "You Shine". 

Jill Pena was amazingly effective in her major antagonistic role of the hateful Chris Hargensen.  The degree by which we sympathize with Carrie's plight depended so much on how cruel Chris was, and Ms. Pena certainly played the perfect bully we all want to turn the tables on.  Mako Alonzo was also seethed with evil intentions in his role of Billy Nolan, Chris' brutish boyfriend and accomplice in her terrible prom prank.

Sheila Valderrama-Martinez does well in her role as the supportive gym teacher Ms. Gardner.  Her duet with Carrie on the song "Unsuspecting Hearts" was magical.  Jamie Wilson had smaller role as another teacher Mr. Stephens, but he also took on the role of Rev. Bliss, the host of a gospel radio show Margaret listens to.  His was the welcome humor midst the maudlin plot.

The set design and lighting design were very effective to create that creepy horrific atmosphere in which this musical thrives.  The special telekinetic effects were amazing.  That scene where Menchu levitates in her chair is a must-see. I thought the climactic conflagration scene could have used more orange light and better fire effects than what they used now. 

The book written by Lawrence D. Cohen had many uncomfortable scenes which may not be for everyone. The excessive religious zealotry and the relentless abuse and bullying were very difficult to watch.  However, the songs written by Dean Pitchford (lyrics) and Michael Gore (music) were unexpectedly very good with that gritty rock edge in a lot of them.  

However, once again, Filipino artistic talent is the main reason to watch this production.  The performers, veteran and new alike, nailed each and every one of those challenging songs to bring to life this unconventional musical.  The enthusiastic audience response after each emotionally and vocally brutal song number was a testament to this tremendous trove of talent.

Congratulations to Director Bobby Garcia and the rest of the Atlantis cast and crew of Carrie for its memorably dramatic and courageous run.  A future re-run will be very welcome!