Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review of Dulaang UP's HAKBANG SA HAKBANG: For Life or Virtue

August 30, 2014

A Shakespeare play is always a challenge to watch because of its intricate language and plotting, but it really pays off with satisfaction after the show. I am not familiar with this play entitled "Measure for Measure," which is currently being staged by Dulaang UP. I was very curious to go see this uncommonly staged Shakespearean play.  However, because of schedule limitations I was only able to watch during the second weekend of its three week limited run. The shows shown that week had another challenge for its audience, the Shakespearean verses had been translated into Filipino!  Now that is quite a way to end Buwan ng Wika, isn't it?

From the beginning, admittedly the story of this play was not the easiest to get if you have not read any synopsis about it.  Slowly but surely though you will get into its drift.  This play was set in Vienna. Duke Vincentio leaves for abroad leaving his deputy Angelo in charge of the city. A nobleman Claudio gets his young girlfriend Julieta pregnant out of wedlock. Angelo charged them with fornication, and mercilessly metes a death sentence to Claudio for this offense. 

Claudio's friend Lucio visits Claudio's sister Isabella in the abbey where she is a novice nun and convinces her to appeal for her brother's life. Angelo is seized with lust by Isabella's wit and beauty and offers her an indecent proposal, Claudio's life for her virtue. Isabella discusses her dilemma with a mysterious hooded friar Lodowick, who was in fact Duke Vincentio in disguise.

You will really be fascinated with the way the cast delivered its kilometric lines (65% in verse!) in tongue-twisting classical Filipino, as meticulously translated by Ron CapindingThe title alone is a challenge in translation. I probably would have translated "Measure for Measure" with the more literal "Sukat sa Sukat," rather than "Hakbang sa Hakbang". This required a deeper understanding of the play's underlying message. It was funny how Capinding translated the name of the brothel manager Mistress Overdone among many other sexual double-entendres into crisp irreverent Filipino.

Mitoy Sta. Ana was practically on stage the whole time as the Duke and his alter-ego, the Monk. He may at times be fumbling with his complex long monologues or settling into a dry singsong rhythmic delivery at times, but his characterization was no less impressive for such a difficult role. I want to see theater veteran Jeremy Domingo slay this Duke Vincentio character in the English version.

As the virtuous novice Isabella, Delphine Buencamino was simply riveting. In that scene where she was lawyering for her brother in front of Angelo, she aced those difficult lines. Her monologue as she was contemplating on her dilemma was also very demading as it vacillates from wanting to save her brother to saving her virtue. Up to her last moment, which is a puzzling silent answer to a question by the Duke, Buencamino was haunting and elegant. (Cindy Lopez plays this role in the English version.)

Randy Villarama, the actor who played the hypocritical Angelo, had the requisite sleaziness in his actions and sly humor in his facial expressions. (Tarek El Tayech plays this role in the English version.)  Arkel Mendoza, the actor who played the annoyingly funny Lucio is the perfect comic relief with his excellent timing in his exuberant delivery of his jokes. (Earle Figuracion plays this role in the English version.) Jojit Lorenzo tried to be funny with his loquacious pimp character Pompey, but most of his jokes were somehow lost in translation. (Eshei Mesina plays this role in the English version.)

This is already the third Shakespearean play by Director Alexander Cortez after "Macbeth" and "Richard III". This play is traditionally called a comedy, but there is a heavy dramatic conflict that lies therein which makes the director's job of balancing these two aspects a definite challenge. Director Cortez succeeds in telling this complex story with both effectivity and artistry.

The stylized costumes of Gino Gonzales with those white and ecru overcoats and robes and wacky blond wigs and head gear. The commanding two-tiered set with imposing walls and a grand banister as well a dungeon underneath was a creation of Faust Peneyra.  Meliton Roxas, Jr. was responsible for the precise technical direction and lights. Teresa Barrozo incorporated a music design which highlighted some comic moments with silent movie-like sound effects. The talented artistic staff deserve accolades for the illusion of 15th century Viennese opulence their effects created on the limited stage space. 

"Measure for Measure"/"Hakbang sa Hakbang" will still have one final weekend before it closes on September 7, 2014. The English version will run on Sept. 3 and 5 at 7 pm, and on Sept. 6 at 10 am and 3 pm. The Filipino version will run Aug. 31 and Sept. 7 at 10 am and 3 pm, and Sept. 4 at 7 pm. 

Venue is at the Wilfrido Ms. Guerrero Theater of the Palma Hall in UP Diliman. Tickets at only P300 each. For inquiries, call Samanta Hannah Clarin or Camille Guevara 926-1349, 433-7840, 981-8500 local 2449 or email

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review of 9 Works' THE LAST 5 YEARS: Intersecting Lives

August 24, 2014

This is the first production of 9 Works Theatrical that I had seen since "Sweet Charity" back in 2011. That show starred Ms. Nikki Gil, whose verve and talent was able to transcend that musical's dated book. For this 5th anniversary presentation of this young theater company, 9 Works brings back Ms. Gil, and I wanted to see her perform on stage again. It had also been a long time since I had seen Joaquin Valdez since his excellent turns in "Into the Woods" and "Spring Awakening."

 "The Last 5 Years" is about a couple whose 5-year relationship had gone awry. However, the story was not told nor staged in a linear fashion.  In fact, if you have not read the synopsis prior to watching (like me), you may not completely get what was happening in the first half of the show.  We first see a distraught young lady (Nikki Gil) sorrowful about her lost love.  We then see an excited young man (Joaquin Valdez) meeting the ideal goddess for his life. They would alternately sing one "stream of consciousness" song after the other. We would later learn that as the young man was a writer whose name was Jamie, the young lady was an actress whose name was Cathy. 

At almost exactly the half-way point of the show, they finally sing together what would be their wedding song. Maybe then, it would dawn on you (as it did to me) that the girl's story was being told backwards, and the boy's story was being told forwards, intersecting only on their wedding day. Truth to tell, even if I already knew what was going on, it was still difficult to understand every little story they were telling.  The songs sung to tell the story were not exactly easy on the uninitiated ear because of their unusual melodies, discordant notes, and repetitive loops.

This is not an easy musical for everyone to digest or like.  I may be in the minority here, but I cannot say I enjoyed watching this play. The running time was only one and a half hours (without intermission), but it seemed to just be going on and on without making much sense, even if I already knew what was going on. The time-bending story-telling gimmick by Joseph Robert Brown was innovative, but for me, it did not really work on the stage. It did not give me a chance to get to know these two characters enough to commiserate with their predicament. 

It was only thankful that we had the likes of Nikki Gil and Joaquin Valdez playing Cathy and Jaime. Their amazing singing and sensitive acting skills were the main reasons to see this rather indulgently-written piece of theater.  These two excellent thespians will definitely be up for awards come season's end.

Their highest points were their first songs: "Still Hurting" for Nikki Gil, and "Shiksa Goddess" for Joaquin Valdez.  That is what made this musical so frustrating for me. Despite the all the exhaustingly intense, deeply emotive singing by Gil and Valdez, every other song could not compare anymore to those excellent first songs. 

I thought this would be a musical composed of duets. I could not have been more off with this assumption. The wedding song "The Next Ten Minutes" was a highlight of sorts since this was the ONLY time they actually sang together. The final songs was staged beautifully with the two actors singing "Goodbye" in different senses and different time frames. They end up on the same bed, but they were not really together. Too bad that was already the final moment of the whole show, but what an ending! 

I am not in any way discouraging you from watching this musical.  The performances of Gil and Valdez are already worth the price of admission. It could be that I may not really be the target demography of this play that is why I did not like the show too much as a whole.  The odd eclectic songs may resonate better with the younger hipper yuppie set better than they did with me. Congratulations to Director Robbie Guevara and the crew of 9 Works for taking on this very challenging project.

"The Last 5 Years" will run only up to next weekend. There will be one show today August 24 at 4 pm. Then next week, on August 29, 8 pm, August 30 at 3:30 pm and 8 pm, and finally on August 31, 4 pm. The venue is at the RCBC Plaza in Makati.

Review of Red Turnip's RABBIT HOLE: Difficulty Moving On

August 23, 2014

"Rabbit Hole" is a straight play written by David Lindsay-Abaire, the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It tells about how a young couple, Becca and Howie, struggles to deal with the loss of their five-year old son Danny, who died in a car accident eight months ago. The drama intensifies as Becca's irresponsible younger sister Izzy gets pregnant. Furthermore, Becca's mother Nat could not stop talking about her own son Arthur, a heroin addict who committed suicide at the age of 30 several years ago. Also, Jason, the teenager who drove the car that killed her son, dedicated a sci-fi short story he wrote about parallel universes and "rabbit holes" to Danny's memory.

The script of the play was written with much sensitivity to express those persistently negative emotions felt by people who cannot get over their grieving. It is a very sad play from beginning to end. The general tone of the play is quiet with simmering tension.  There was no big explosive hysterical scene that blows up at the end.  There were occasional arguments which make the characters flare up with pain and bitterness they have pent up inside.  Admittedly, this can be a difficult topic to sit through for two hours.

Agot Isidro was very restrained in her portrayal of Becca, the mother who wanted to erase every trace of her dead son in her house.  The script gives her character several dramatic highlights and she nails all those complex emotions.  Never mind that this was her first dramatic straight play she had ever done in her long showbiz career. That fact certainly did not show in her vivid performance. Cynthia Nixon won the 2006 Tony for Best Actress in a Play when she originated this role in Broadway. Nicole Kidman earned an Oscar nomination in the 2011 movie version of this play. Ms Isidro will definitely be cited as well.

Michael Williams plays Becca's husband Howie who, despite being seemingly composed, also cannot deal well with Danny's death.  Of course, Williams was as solid as ever, but there was something about the performance that did not come across as realistic for me. Perhaps there was little chemistry between him and Agot? I do not know. Or maybe I was expecting more? The role of Howie had a lot of intense moments in the film version. I even felt Aaron Eckhart acted so much better than Nicole Kidman, who had all the citations.

Che Ramos-Cosio plays Izzy.  With her zinging one-liners, she plays the comic relief in this otherwise relentlessly morose play. Ms. Ramos was very effective in her role.  She certainly proved her range as an actress to me, as she looked and acted nothing like how I first saw her in the indie film "Mariquina."

Ross Pesigan plays Jason.  He only had three scenes which were all terribly uncomfortable to watch given the role of his character.  Thankfully, Mr. Pesigan possessed that youthful charm which this character needed to gain the audience's sympathy to his situation.

Sheila Francisco shines in another rather dysfunctional maternal role as Nat.  Dianne Wiest played this role in the movie version, and was so warm in her portrayal. Ms. Francisco gives her Nat a sassy charm. I was very impressed with her "mom-from-hell" Violet in Rep's "August Osage Country" earlier this year. Ms. Francisco also owned that role even though she was "only" the alternate of Ms. Baby Barredo. Ms. Francisco just had her solo "Triple Threat" concert at the CCP two nights ago within this play's run, a feat that deserves big applause.

After "Closer" and "Cock" last year, Red Turnip continues in its quest to stage plays with the most challenging, non-mainstream themes with "Rabbit Hole." Unlike their first two plays with bare sets, this play had a complex beautiful set depicting a well-furnished suburban house. There were a lot of delicious-looking food items being served and eaten by the cast in the course of the play. I was hoping I would get a taste of the birthday cake, the lemon squares, and the zucchini bread as well after the show. But of course, that was only wishful thinking.

Congratulations to Mr. Topper Fabregas on his directorial debut. He had led the cast and the rest of his crew in successfully bringing this heavy play to a more accessible life.

"Rabbit Hole" plays only up to next weekend. Remaining shows are on August 24 at 4 pm, August 29 at 9 pm, August 30 at 4 pm and 8 pm, August 31 at 4 pm and 8 pm. The play is being staged at Whitespace 2314 Chino Roces Ext., Makati City.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review of Tanghalang Ateneo's MIDDLE FINGER: Vital Rebel

August 10, 2014

For this their 36th season, Tanghalang Ateneo will be presenting three plays with the theme "Navigating Identities" about the struggle of people to discover who they really are and the purpose of their lives. The first in the series of three is this play written by Fil-Am playwright Han Ong.  For this staging, TA has decided on a bilingual script, with the translations done by Ronan B.Capinding.

"Middle Finger" follows a familiar story.  An adolescent boy could not handle the pressures of school and commits suicide.  This was seen before in other plays like "Spring Awakening" (on which this play was loosely based) and films like "Dead Poets Society". Here the characters are Fil-Ams in the US who are having a hard time in adapting to the strict rules of the Catholic school they attend.

Jakob Rodriguez (Guelan Luarca) is the school delinquent and bully. His best friend is Benjamin Lunga (Joe-Nel Garcia) strives hard to do well in school.  They have other classmates who represent a cross section of boys we meet in school. Yachin (Brian Ramos) is the nerd. Wallace (Gab Tibayan) is the eccentric guy with the big wild hair. Michael (Avie Alcantara) is the straight-laced new student.  

As for the adults in school, their perversely strict teacher is played by David Bianco, while the sly inflexible school counselor is played by Richard Cunanan. We also meet parents of the two main characters. Mrs. Lunga (Dolly de Leon) is a battered wife. Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez (Joseph de la Cruz and Marj Lorica) are proud achievers who are looked up in society.  The relationship of Mrs. Lunga and Benjamin would seem to be one of genuine affection. While in the Rodriguez household, it is one of intimidation and fear.

I admit the beginning of this play was hard to get into with all the wordy lines and the unfamiliar situations.  I was tuning out most of Act 1 and had to force myself to concentrate. However as the story was building up towards a big eerie climax, the haunting musical score you hear and the intensity of the acting you see will draw you in and leave you breathless at the end of the first act. 

By the second act, you already know the characters more so you can identify with them and follow the story better. However, there were certain scenes that felt more distracting than contributory to the story progression. The very last line got a huge positive reaction from the audience. But after some thought, doesn't it rob the thunder from the very important lines said right before it?

The star of this show was really Guelan Luarca whose Jakob was the life of the whole play. He has the most vibrant and interesting character of all and he runs with it passionately. His highlight was that long monologue he delivered while battling and eventually succumbing to temptations of the flesh. Devastating and daring performance right there! Joe-Nel Garcia does not really look like the Benjamin Lunga I hear in his words. He was also giving his all for sure, but there is some disconnect with actor and character that did not feel right for me. The other three boys fit their roles better.

Richard Cunanan is so good in another one of these sleazy characters which really fit him well, like I first knew him from "Duchess of Malfi". David Bianco effectively radiated a sinister sanctimonious vibe that was scary despite the minimal words he said. Dolly de Leon proves her versatility, tackling a role so radically different from her last outing in "Ang Naghihingalo" just last June at the Virgin Labfest, and she was quietly moving in her gentle role here.

While the story is familiar and the original script somewhat difficult at certain parts, the storytelling of Director Ed Lacson, Jr. is well done. The high points had been very well built up for maximal climactic effect. The lighting (Meliton Roxas Jr.) and the music (Teresa Barrozo) were highly effective in creating the tense atmosphere that makes this tale of harsh reality mixed with adolescent fantasy and conscience work. And for the most part, it does hit home and gets its vital rebellious message across.


"Middle Finger" runs at the Fine Arts Black Box Studio of the Ateneo de Manila University. Aug 4-9, 11-16, 18-22; 3 pm (Sat & Sun) & 7 pm. Tickets are Php 300 for outsiders and Php 250 for Ateneo students. Limited seats only. Contact Hannah Tolentino on 0917-576-0806 for more details.