Friday, July 31, 2015

Review of GTF's FLORANTE AT LAURA: Throwback Theater

August 1, 2015

"Florante at Laura" by Francisco Baltazar or "Balagtas" is a required staple in Filipino high school curriculum up to the present time. Unfortunately, not everybody appreciates anymore the beauty of the archaic Filipino used in this "awit", a traditional poetic form written with four lines per stanza and twelve syllables per line. I believe one of the ways to spark students' interest in this classic of Filipino literature is to see the story effectively brought to life in a theatrical play.

Gantimpala Theater Foundation Inc. has taken on the challenge to sustaining the love of Filipino classics alive in modern students. Now on its 38th season since it was founded in 1977, they still pride themselves as the champion of educational entertainment, or as their founder Tony Espejo would put it, "edutainment." Too bad I was not exposed to their plays during my own high school days. I am not sure if the "El Filibusterismo" play I saw at the Metropolitan Theater during its brief revival in the early 1990s was by Gantimpala or not. It probably was. This is the first time I know for sure I am watching a Gantimpala production.

Florante is the son of Duke Briseo from the court of Haring Linceo of Albania. His love Laura is the daughter of the King. While Florante was fighting battles for his country abroad, the treacherous Adolfo, an old bitter rival of his, usurped power and named himself king. Adolfo had Florante tied to a tree in the jungle to be eaten by wild animals, while wanting to marry Laura for himself. 

Meanwhile in Persia,  Sultan Ali-Adab threatened to behead his own son, the warrior Aladin, all because the sultan wanted Aladin's beautiful Flerida for himself. Because of Flerida's sacrifice, Aladin was thrown into the wilderness instead. As fate would have it, Aladin rescues Florante from being eaten by the lion in the jungle, and their respective misfortunes led to a strong friendship between former enemies.

As written in play form by multi-awarded writer Bonifacio Ilagan, the story was still delivered in verse form, a "komedya", with a narrator to link the scenes together. While I was watching, I felt the students should at least have an idea of the story in order to fully appreciate it. Because of the deep flowery poetic Filipino words used, it may be difficult to follow the story if you had absolutely no idea what it was about. Fortunately, I still know the story of "Florante at Laura" by heart. This is because my son just took it up in Filipino class last year, and I got to re-read the whole awit again as his tutor.

While I was watching this play, I found the acting of the cast to be really exaggerated and florid in style. Paul Jake Paule (as Florante), Ace Urieta (as Adolfo) and Ku Aquino (as both Haring Linceo and Sultan Ali Adab) were particularly hammy in their gesticulations, facial expressions and enunciations, it was almost comical. There were amusing choreographed marching sequences set to music serving as transitions between scenes. While it was all entertaining, I did not expect to see such very old-fashioned theater styles in a play nowadays. I just rationalized that these techniques were employed to make the play more lively for its young audiences. 

Upon reading the playbill though, I learned that Director Roeder Camanag had decided to stage it in full throwback mode, employing traditional staging techniques used in "komedyas". The "ditso"(or singsong) style in declaiming the verses, the Paseo (pass-in-review of soldiers), Pingkian (religious debate) and Batalla (choreographed fighting) were all in full display. This was all very educational, even for me. I also learned that the expected acting style in a "komedya" is externalization, with stereotypical expressions of emotions. That accounted for the cheesy over-acting style seen from the actors. I hope the teachers and students take time to read the playbill for this valuable information.

The auditorium was full packed with spirited high school students, and based on their reaction, the throwback gambit by the production team worked. The students loudly screamed with delight during the romance scenes of Florante and Laura (Ellrica Laguardia), as well as Aladin (Jeff Carpio) and Flerida (Sharlene Rivera). They also had fun during the "battle" scenes, as well as scenes showing Adolfo's and Sultan Ali-Adab's lecherous villainy. During the curtain call, the students erupted into spontaneous and appreciative applause. The girls even had especially loud cheers for the young actors who played the young Florante and Adolfo during their student days at the Atena. It was a joy for me to witness the students' enthusiastic response.

Despite catching a play at 9 am on a Friday morning had not really been easy on my schedule, I was happy I got to catch this play. Even if Act I may have felt long with the introduction of characters and all the marching it had, the whole play was generally very entertaining. The complex multi-layered plot in Act II was presented very well in a manner that truly got the complex story across, especially for the hard-to-please student crowd it targets. Kudos to the whole Gantimpala cast and crew for their continued efforts to make Filipino classics relevant to the current generation of Filipino youths. 


You can catch Florante at Laura at the AFP Theater on August 1, with shows at 9 am, 12nn and 3 pm. On August 7, it will play at the Star Theater,  again with three shows at 9 am, 12 nn and 3 pm. On Aug. 14 and 15, it will run at the SM Southmall with two shows, 11 am and 2 pm. For tickets, call Gantimpala Marketing Office at 9985622 and 8720261.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Recap of My WWTBAM Experience (Or How I Almost Sat on the Hotseat)

Aug 10, 2015

On May 20, 2015, there was an announcement on the Mensa Philippines FB page that the TV5 show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is on its 14th season and is looking to partner up with Mensa Philippines for a special “Genius” set of episodes. 

I had been a trivia geek all my life and I had longed to join WWTBAM ever since the Christopher de Leon days so many years ago. Never had the guts of doing it back then, or now, when it re-emerged with Vic Sotto as quizmaster. I felt this would be the best opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream.

Our only group photo on testing day

On May 31, the audition for the candidates was held at the TV5 Media Center in Mandaluyong City. The call time was 2 pm. We were about 15 or so Mensan aspirants there, many of whom I have met only for the first time, since I was not really a very active member of the organization. 

By around 3pm, we were asked to fill out a long detailed application form by hand. Later, we were given a twenty item Multiple Choice quiz about various trivial topics. Finally, they took individual video interviews of us, I guess to gauge our personalities. After this, we would just be waiting for the final announcement as to who will be chosen.


There would be no news from TV5 for a long time after that day. Until suddenly, on July 15, the fateful text message arrived! I was one of the five people chosen to play. However, it was immediately qualified that I was only in the backup slot. I was told that the crew won't be going to my house after all to shoot a VTR of me. By then, I already knew that I would be the last in line to play. 

Despite that, I was still given an outfit peg for taping day. I had to bring 4 sets of clothing that reflected "New York in Autumn" like Richard Gere in "Pretty Woman" (yeah, right!). LOL! I was even emailed a photograph of what my outfit should look like. My shirt had to be orange or fuschia. Clothes with those bright colors of course are not really found in my wardrobe. 

Our only group photo that taping day

July 20 came. Call time is 1 pm. I did not go to work anymore that Monday to make that call time. I brought my Dad with me as my in-studio companion as I knew he would also enjoy this experience. When we reached TV5 Studio along Quirino Highway in Novaliches, we parked across the street in SM Novaliches as advised. Fortunately this parking would be free for the whole day. While waiting for the actual taping, we were given videos of old WWTBAM games to watch, as well as oriented on the rules by the friendly staff.

By about 6 pm, our first contestant went on stage already with host Vic Sotto -- this was it! We were seated backstage watching the proceedings. The game with our first contestant was intensely high drama from his second question about where Tap water came from! This was really very good TV because you will want to see how what would happen in his game. The first game ended with a question about the color of Luigi's cap. 

Our second contestant went on to take her turn. But by her she fourth question, the time for episode 1 ran out. She will continue his game in the next episode which will be taped later on that same night. 

My view of Bossing from backstage

We waited for another hour or so before the taping for the next episode began. Despite the slimness of chances that I will go on, my final outfit was checked and I still had a run-through of my script with the production assistant in case I get a chance to sit and play.

Our second contestant had changed her outfit already to give the illusion that a week had passed. Her game ended with a question about the name of Wonder Woman's lasso. Our third contestant then started his turn. Again, this would be another very tense game as it transpired. His game concluded with question about the name of Ariana Grande's character in the TV show "Victorious". Our fourth contestant got to sit and play! His game was going very smoothly when the episode time eventually ran out and he would have to return another day for the taping of the next episode. 

So that was the end of the line for me. Our organization was only good for two episodes, so that was it. I was told I would have to audition all over again if I wanted to play again. I was given P500 for my transportation allowance. I immediately texted my three friends whom I had invited to be my Phone-A-Friend lifeline, all of whom had stayed awake waiting for me. We left the studio past 10:30 pm already. Too bad, we were not able to get a photo with Bossing as we were initially planning.
My one chance to sit on the Hotseat

So with that I end my account of my close brush with the hotseat that never came. I will not deny it was disappointing to come so close to fulfilling a longtime dream, yet it still did not come to pass. Oh well, that's the way life goes. I guess I will just have to earn my million pesos in other ways.


On watching the episodes on TV aired on August 2 and August 8, it would be noted that the editing done on each episode was so seamlessly good. You will barely detect that any time lapsed between question and answer. Even when in the studio, the contestants were taking their time thinking and deciding on their final answer, you cannot see that on TV. That is indeed the magic of television. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of Artist Playground's THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX: Short But Savvy

July 12, 2015

When I received the invitation to go see "The Riddle of the Sphinx", I noted that the company was not familiar to me and the actors nor the director were not familiar to me. The venue itself was not a formal theater, but the address indicated a condo. However, when I read further to see Roeder Camanag's name involved in the project, I decided this would be worth checking out.

Looking for the venue was not too easy. I knew Mother Ignacia Ave. and St. Paul the Apostle Church. Landsdale Tower was supposed to be across the church. I missed it the first time I passed by. On more careful looking on my second round, I saw it. Landsdale Tower is an old-looking building painted dark mossy green. There was no poster about the play in the lobby, but the guard at the info desk was aware about it and that reassured me. 

After registering at the guard, I went up to the 17th floor, and looked for 1701. Again there was no poster outside the door, so I just knocked and looked inside. It was dark inside with red lights. I was met warmly by the fledgling company's artistic director, veteran performer Mr. Roeder Camanag himself, and his friendliness put me at ease. There was a small performance space and three-tiered bleacher benches which would fit only around 15 people or so. 


The performance area had a couple of stepladders. Two actors, a man and a woman, who were only in black underwear, were seated on the floor under the ladders. A voiceover solemnly intoned William Shakespeare's words in Act II, Scene VII of "As You Like It" -- "All the world's a stage..." The actors did interpretative movements on and around the ladders, with only an occasional grunt and moan to be heard from them.

At the end of the poem, the red lights were turned off and the actors donned their clothes. Observed that the man took a little longer to dress up than the lady. When they were ready, the lights came back on and the play proper began. A girl was waiting for a bus to come. A boy joins her to wait for his own bus. They strike up an animated conversation that begins with getting to know each other, getting married, having kids, growing older and finally ending with someone dying. The whole presentation was only about 30 minutes long.


So that was what the title meant. "The Riddle of Sphinx" refers to the Greek myth where the Sphinx was a monster who killed those who could not answer its riddle which went: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" Only Oedipus answered correctly,"Man." Though it did skip infancy and childhood, this play summarized the life events that happen between a typical man and woman.

This performance piece for two was originally written in English sometime in the 1980s by Ilonggo writer Eugenio Deriada. It was translated into Filipino by Jim Bergado. In its synopsis, "The Riddle of the Sphinx" was about two strangers exploring the "relationship dynamics of a man and a woman through a game they played" while waiting for their bus to arrive. It is a piece that fit right down the alley of Artist Playground, with its aim to be a laboratory for experimental works of art. This show was directed by Paul Jake Paule.

That afternoon I watched, the roles of the Young Woman and the Young Man were both played by senior college students majoring in Theater Arts from the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Valenzuela. They were Shiela Espina and Jerome Rosalin. Their curriculum vitae are not lengthy, so they are still really very new actors. However, they did very well considering the difficult demands of their roles with their sincere, raw and natural performances. In other performance dates, the role of the Young Man would be played by a more experienced actor, Ace Urieta.

It is a challenge for any pair of actors to perform this piece because of the strong chemistry it demands between them. The very intimate venue in 1701 The Little Room Upstairs also does not give them any leeway to hide any mistakes. Every little thing they do can be seen. On the other hand, the audience also may feel uncomfortable sitting so proximate to the actors, seeing everything they do in close up, and probably vice versa. This is indeed a very unique theater experience, for both the actors as well as the audience.


If you are interested to watch this type of experimental performance piece, you can call the number of Artist Playground at 09158153716 for inquiries on ticket prices. Look for Ms. Rojean. "The Riddle of the Sphinx" will run for two more Saturdays, with performances scheduled at 3 pm, 5 pm and 7 pm.

Rosalin and Espina, along with Director Paul Jake Paule (in white), AP Artistic Director Roeder Camanag (in black) and other crew members take their bow.

Upcoming Artist Playground projects at 1701 The Little Room Upstairs in the coming months include: “Tag-ani” by Amelia LapeƱa-Bonifacio (Aug. 22-23, 29-30) and “We Hear But Do We Actually Listen?” a one-woman show by Angelina Kanapi (September). Aside from theater, AP also supports the visual arts with “Jaded-Miniature Series,” a solo mixmedia exhibit by AP board member Nasser Lubay in November.

A project that first originated and explored in 1701 is already going to be seen at the CCP. “Ginugunita Kita,” a concert featuring the poetry of Maningning Miclat and the music of AP co-founder Jesse Lucas, will be performed at the Little Theater of the CCP on Sept. 3, 7 p.m. This show had also been successfully performed in Aldaba Hall in UP Diliman last May.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XI - SET E: Excellent Ensembles

July 9, 2015

Every year, the Virgin Labfest names three of the best plays to be restaged in the Revisited set the next year. It is interesting to note that #2 and #3 were both in the same set, Set C, last year in Virgin Labfest X. #1 is from Set B. 


Playwright: Raymund P. Reyes
Director: Dennis N. Marasigan

Intoy suddenly suffers a stroke and needs P300,000 for brain surgery to drain the hemorrhage.  Being an ice cream seller who was just recently laid off from work, they do not have the money for this. Intoy's wife Felisa seeks the help of Intoy's three elder siblings, Guido, Doreen and Ate Linda. As Intoy lies critically in the ICU, his three siblings end up squabbling over past family issues instead of coming up with the cash.

Of these three Set E plays, this is the only one I actually caught. I loved it. One of my favorite plays last year because it was so funny. Because of my background, I enjoyed the medical aspects of the play and how lay people misinterpret what the doctors tell them, and the common beliefs about strokes and aneurysms. Those absurd medical hypotheses on how the stroke probably happened certainly kept me in stitches.  Reyes also found a trove of rib-tickling comedy from the many sub-issues this play tackles, like public school teachers, drinking sessions of men, the nouveau riche, marrying older foreigners, among others.  

Dolly de Leon is still so potent as the flamboyant well-to-do eldest sister Linda, who recognizes no one when it comes to her loan sharking business. While he was generally OK, I thought that Russell Legaspi did not completely come up to par when it comes to the hilariously over-the-top performance of Bong Cabrera last year as the second eldest sibling Guido. No matter though, this little observation does not significantly detract in my overall enjoyment of this play a second time around . I laughed just as much as I did last year.


Playwright: Kevin Tabora
Director: Melvin Lee

Jimmy Pineda was a movie stuntman who spent several years in jail for murdering his starlet girlfriend. After his release from prison, he takes up a vocational course in butchering with the hope of getting a job in such capacity in Canada. Needing help with his overseas job application papers which included a personal statement, Jimmy seeks the help of his estranged eldest daughter Jeanette, a PhD candidate, creative writing professor and film/TV scriptwriter. Their awkward meeting opens up old wounds and reveals previously unexpressed frustrations and pent-up emotions.

Of the three plays in Set E, this was the heavy drama. There were only two characters -- a father and his daughter. He is humble, contrite and repentant. She is bitter, angry and defiant. Both have unresolved issues in their past they need to get off their chests. A harrowing script like this definitely demands the best and most talented actors to bring it to life.

The elegant Dido dela Paz was not the original Jimmy when the play was first staged in last year's VLF. Physically, he may not really look like an illiterate ex-con tricycle driver who gets into brawls with beer bottles. But with his masterful acting and delivery of lines, we are convinced he is one. He even manages to gain our sympathy despite the despicableness of his damaged character.

I knew Meann Espinosa more as a marketing manager of PETA than as an actress. I have only seen her act once, and that is the innovative school teacher in PETA's original musical entitled "William", a role which won her an award citation. This role in "Haplos" was such a most intense and serious role and Meann completely nailed it. Her final scene was devastating drama that it would be impossible to hold back tears. (Too bad I missed Ms. Espinosa's new play "Dalawang Gabi" in Set A.)


Playwright: Eljay Castro Deldoc
Director:Roobak Valle

In Paciano Rizal Agricultural High School, three freshmen students were under investigation for allegedly killing the goldfish (lovingly named Dedels) owned by their terror science teacher, Ms. Dimaandal. The parents of two of the kids, Vannie (mother of Jarrod) and Renz (father of Madjam), were alumni of the school, and apparently had an unresolved romantic past behind them. They meet in principal Ms. Caracol's office to discuss the issue together with the class adviser of the boys, the young Mr Tugbo. This meeting with the incensed Ms. Dimaandal escalates into a full-scale madcap scientific method type investigation.

This is a very popular play because we totally remember our own high school days and our favorite teachers when we watch this play. Don't we all have our own brushes with pranks-gone-wrong and discipline issues in school? Don't we all have that unreasonable terror teacher? Don't we all have that teacher who constantly pronounces her words with the p-f syndrome and other odd accents? Audiences identify with these crazy characters and find the humor very entertaining and nostalgic at the same time.

The cast does excellent ensemble work. The mother and son team of Peewee and Paolo  O'Hara play Prof. Dimaandal and Renz respectively. The O'Haras were also in two other plays in Set B, Ms. Peewee in "Huling Huli" and Paolo in "Macho Dancer." I just saw Ms. Wenah Nagales as ditzy and dowdy Doreen in the first play of this set, and here she was again in the third pay, but this time totally transformed into a glamorous and fine Vannie -- so versatile. And talking about versatility, I was also impressed with Ms. Sherry Lara when I realized that last year, she was playing the hilarious Ms. Caracol in this play, at the same time she was playing the lead in a very dramatic play "Betang" in another set. 

Playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc is on a roll. "Goldfish" made it to the Revisited list this year. Most likely his present entry "Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala" will also make the Revisited list next year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XI - SET D: Destitution, Doubt and Delight

July 8, 2015

Last week at a press preview of another show, I overheard a man behind me saying that he had already watched all 12 new plays in the current Virgin Labfest. According to him, the best set of all is Set D. He and others I saw on social media were all praises for one particular play in Set D, "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala". Honestly, I actually had no more plans to watch any other VLF set this week. However, because of these rave reviews, I felt I should make a special trip (typhoon signals notwithstanding) just to catch that one very special play everyone is talking about.


Playwright: Jom Sanchez
Director: Issa Manalo Lopez

Set in a seedy area along the sea wall of Manila Bay on Roxas Boulevard, a pregnant homeless woman named Myrna lived in her cart, gathering junk to sell. Her husband is in jail. Her brother-in-law Ramon is a drug pusher under the payroll of a bad cop. 

A woman named Grace had her precious handbag with all her money snatched by thieves. Grace was forced to help Myrna give birth, but will Grace get her money back?

Ina Azarcon-Bolivar and Io Balanon were made up so dirty, disheveled and destitute as Myrna and Ramon, making them look like real street people. Azarcon-Bolivar's raw childbirth scene was definitely a highlight. Edwin Serrano was so sinister as a corrupt cop. Nikki Pastor was convincing as a poor waitress who just lost her life savings.

Everything in this play was as grimy and as dirty as the stage with all the trash strewn all over it. The actors in this play were very realistic so that the whole play felt uncomfortable to watch. We are brought into the underbelly of the city we do not want to see. We are forced to face the dregs of our society, whose existence we would rather ignore. This is one painfully frank script by Jom Sanchez (the first script he ever submitted to a competition) we would expect to see as an indie movie. Staging it as a play gave it a more visceral punch especially with the heavy musical score and dramatic light direction.


Playwright: Alvin Molina
Director: Roobak Valle

Set in bench inside an amusement park, a gay couple Jake and Victor were discussing about their relationship. Since he never had a girlfriend before, Victor seemed to be having doubts whether he may be straight or not. As their argument reaches an impasse, a gregarious fairy with a blonde braid named Mathilda appears, offering her one last wish that she can grant to either one of them. Jake yields the wish to Victor. What will Victor wish for? Will it really come to pass?

Gio Gahol and Acey Aguilar were very good as Jake and Victor respectively. The girls in the audience were all a-titter with giggles because of all the cheesy romantic lines the two dashing guys were throwing at each other. Perhaps these ladies wish Victor will choose them to be the girlfriend who will turn him straight, I don't know.  Initially, I thought the Fairy would be a corny character based on the photo in the playbill. But Chunchi Cabasaan played her smart and hilarious. The way she burst into song at one point, it was obvious he watched the Idina Menzel concert. Haha!

This was a smartly-written and very witty script by Alvin Molina, very entertaining. There are some things I do not really understand though. I do not know what the title meant in relation to the story of play. I am not really sure why an amusement park was chosen as a setting. I am guessing it is for the sense of wonder and whimsy? I honestly did not understand what the whole epilogue part really meant. Was that about how the wish was fulfilled? Was it a flashback to or a reboot of the past? 


Playwright: Eljay Castro Deldoc
Director: Ed Lacson, Jr.

Maria Isabella is an idealistic 16-year old girl who fell in love with a young man named Lorenzo Salvatore, whose life she claimed she saved. However, Lorenzo keeps his eyes always closed, and only opened them when he was looking at the stars in the sky. 

Maria Isabella asks the kite master Sr. Melchor Antebades to make her a kite which could bring her up among the stars, so Lorenzo would see her. Sr. Melchor gave her an incredible list of materials she needed to collect all from all over in order to make this kite. Maria Isabella asks her younger friend, a boy who was a butcher's apprentice, to accompany her on her trip. They never thought that their quest for these materials would take them 60 years!

Before the play began, it was announced that the original lead actress of this play (Krystle Valentino) was stricken with chicken pox. Maria Isabella is going to be a totally new actress in this play named Ness Roque-Lumbres, who apparently just learned the script the night before. It was distracting at first Ms. Roque-Lumbres had to read from the script she carried with her onstage, but eventually her infectious charisma as the spirited heroine completely won us over. Petite and pretty, Ms. Roque was simply a delight to watch. Rafael Tibayan was very winning as well with his own dorky charm as the butcher boy whose name we never even learn.

This script was written by Eljay Castro Deldoc based a book by Dean Francis Alfar entitled "A Kite of Stars" (I have to look for this book!). This was unlike any other play I had seen in the Virgin Labfest before, because of it was a whimsically romantic play for children. It was imaginative the way the fantastic tale was told with puppets and shadowplay. It sort of reminded me of the Tanghalang Pilipino production of "Ang Munting Prinsipe" which also used similar devices to tell its story. I can totally imagine TP or PETA picking this timeless one-act play up and developing it into a gorgeous full-length production which can run forever to entertain generations of kids for years to come. 

The positive word of mouth has been proven true. I have watched 9 out of the 12 one-act plays of this year's VLF (I was not able to catch Set A). This play is definitely among the Top 3 in this year's Labfest. 

From 2nd on Left going Right: Rafael Tibayan, Ness Roque-Lumbres, Eljay Castro Deldoc, 
Ed Lacson Jr. and their "guryon" in the background.

There is one more schedule of Set D left on July 12, 8 pm, the last show on the last day of this year's Virgin Labfest.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review of TP's MABINING MANDIRIGMA: "Steampunked" History Lesson

July 4, 2015

I love the title of this play -- "Mabining Mandirigma". Literally, it means "The Gentle Warrior" and this is the formal English translation of the title. But it also means "Mabini, the Warrior,' referring to Gat. Apolinario Mabini, the central character this play is all about. Aside from that smart title though, there is so much more to love about this play from the story, the music, the performances to the technical aspects I do not know where to begin. 

Written by Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson in rich Filipino, the story followed of the political career of Apolinario Mabini during the Philippine Revolution after the declaration of independence in Kawit, Cavite on June 12, 1898. Respected for his legal and nationalistic wisdom, Mabini is a trusted confidante, adviser and Cabinet member of President Emilio Aguinaldo. 

Buencamino and Ferrer as Mabini and Aguinaldo

When the revolutionary government was forced to move the capital to Malolos, a Congress was formed under the leadership of turncoat illustrados like Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino, who were only too willing to kowtow to the Americans. Outvoted, Mabini was exiled to Guam. Shortly after his return home and resignedly signing allegiance to the US, Mabini succumbed to cholera in May 1903.

Mabini and the Illustrado villains

The Mabini story is still rather familiar to me, especially since I recently watched another musical about Mabini entitled "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" staged by Dulaang UP just last October 2014. The former play (written by Floy Quintos, starring Roeder Camanag) used Mabini's exile in Guam as take off point, an event which only had brief mention here. While that one had a more reverent traditional telling of Mabini's story, I felt we got more details of the political intrigues experienced by Mabini in this production.

I realized that watching this play on the Fourth of July was so ironic. We see American icons like Mark Twain, Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty on the stage. We hear Mabini converse with American authorities like William Howard Taft, Gen. Franklin Bell and Gen. Arthur McArthur, with their Western-twanged English. While staged with humor, these imaginatively out-of-the-box scenes so bluntly explained Mabini's anti-American sentiments.

QueenMia as Anti-Imperialist Mark Twain 
singing her version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

The first thing you notice when you enter the Little Theater of the CCP is the awesome design of the stage. This classic-looking yet very contemporary set was designed by acclaimed multimedia visual artist Toym ImaoMarked by huge gears of an industrial machine, they made the whole stage feel like the inside of a clock for me. The set pieces were oddly charming, like the backrest of Aguinaldo's chair that looked like the front of a jeepney.  The edgy costume designs of James Reyes and the video projections of GA Fallarme worked very well with this set. The lighting design of Katsch Catoy made the gears of time and drama come alive.

The Striking Stage Design by Toym Imao

The musical themes for this play by the award-winning musical director Joed Balsamo was generally audacious and bold. The core rock opera-style score was admixed with various other musical styles. There were some variations of American songs to accompany anti-Imperialist sentiments. There was also a sweet gentle lullaby in the mix, reminiscent of Balsamo's work in "Sandosenang Sapatos," another TP production. One of the magical production numbers was a song sung in total darkness, with the stage only lit by flashlights held and danced around by the cast, which I guess was inspired by "Pitch Perfect 2".

Delphine Buencamino and Marco Viana in an intense scene

Remarkably, the lead role of Apolinario Mabini is being played by a woman, Ms. Delphine Buencamino. According to the production notes, this gender-bending casting was borne out of musical necessity, to set Mabini's voice apart from the dominantly male voices in the cast. Yet, secondarily, this casting choice also emphasized Mabini being the ostracized odd-man out. I had seen Buencamino act last year in UP and in Virgin Labfest X. Her role and performance here in "Mabini" should by far be her most challenging and her most memorable. She totally captured Mabini's intellectual brilliance, principled conviction and later, his bitter disillusionment. Beyond the initial adjustment about her feminine and youthful festures, Delphine Buencamino became Mabini. (Coincidentally, Ms. Delphine's celebrated mother Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino also did a gender-bending role in Dulaang UP's "Ang Misis Kong Promdi" last year, but only in a supporting role. Daughter trumps mom in this regard.)

Arman Ferrer in the Flashlight number

Arman Ferrer continues to impress his audience with his vocal agility. His Aguinaldo was commanding both in physical bearing and in vocal timber, standing out from the rest of the cast. Carol Bello gave an emotionally-rich performance as Dionisia, Mabini's mother. The Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company members, Jonathan Tadioan (as Buencamino), JV Ibesate (as Paterno), Aldo Vencilao (as Mabini's loyal caretaker and ward Pepe) and Marco Viana (as young and still able Pule Mabini) also give outstanding acting and singing performances.

Carol Bello sings a lullaby for her son

The direction of Chris Millado is very vibrant. The history tale never becomes stale, with anachronistic details which were either delightful (like cellphone selfies) or jarring (like punk hair and fashion). He calls this style of making the stories of the past become relevant to the viewers of today "Steampunk." This "steampunk" spirit is heard in the music and seen in the sets, costumes, makeup and choreography (by Denisa Reyes). The repurposing of the Mabini story to apply to modern societal and political issues was also spelled out for us at the end, the scathing message reminiscent of TP's own "Kleptomaniacs" from last year.

The Company

This technically elegant production is obviously the fruit of a lot of hard work. More people should know and watch this beautiful and very polished show. Not only is it very entertaining, it is also very enlightening, with a noble purpose and message. This is a visual and aural spectacle that should not be missed. Kudos to the cast and crew of Tanghalang Pilipino for another first class original Filipino theater production!

"Mabining Mandirigma" runs at the CCP Little Theater from July 3 to 19, Fridays (8 pm), Saturdays (3 and 8 pm) and Sundays (3 pm). Tickets at P1000, P800 and P600 at the CCP Box Office or via TicketWorld.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XI - SET C: Crucial Conversations

July 3, 2015

Yesterday was the second Thursday of of this year's Virgin Labfest XI, and I was able to catch Set C during the 3 pm matinee slot.  What is striking about these three one-act plays in this set is that all of them involve only two characters and we witness a particularly crucial conversation between them. 



Playwright: Jose T. Garcia
Director: Audie Gemora

A nameless 29 year old man and a nameless 18 year old lady have been engaged in a texting relationship for nine months. For their "monthsary," they decided to meet up at the foodcourt of a mall. However, they were not honest about how they described themselves, a game of evasion ensues. Will their relationship go on to the next stage?

The conceit of this play is that majority of the conversation is in the form of text messages projected on TV screens onstage.  Thanks to the charm of Ron Capinding (as Lalake) and J-mee Katanyag (as Babae), they were able to catch the audience sympathy with their largely silent performances. Capinding I have seen before in a markedly different light, as the director and as Uncle Berning in "Rite of Passage" in Ateneo. Katanyag I have seen in PETA's musical "William" and as playwright of "Betang" in the VLF last year.

The timing of the two guys on the side manning the laptops where the text messages came from was crucial and they pulled their critical parts off, fully deserving the ovation accorded them come curtain call. It must have been quite a challenge for Director Audie Gemora how to keep audiences interested in what's going on. It was obviously a formidable task to to sustain the audience's attention for the full 50 or so minutes of the play's running time just reading off the monitors.

Admittedly, there were some moments when the text messages were getting redundant, only to be saved by the antics of the actors. Yet those antics would also feel repetitive after a while as well. The idea of writer Jose T. Garcia felt like it would work better as a short film than a play, but the production efforts displayed in staging this play were very much commendable.


Playwright: Jerome Ignacio
Director: Guelan Luarca

Two high school boys talk about various things when they met in a secluded bench on a hill overlooking Marikina. One of them Julio (Abner Delina Jr.) was graduating already while the other one Mike (Joshua Tayco) is only a freshman. 

A purely conversational play like this is fully dependent on the cast, and this cast of two really delivers. The chemistry between Delina and Tayco was undeniable. I have seen Delina before playing characters younger than his real age in PETA and Ateneo, and he can really pull this off credibly with his boyish countenance and energy.

However, for me, I confess I could not seem to get the drift of the stream-of-consciousness, flight-of-ideas type of conversation these two guys were having. Sorry but I don't really get what the dinosaur was all about. It relied much on bad language to liven things up and jolt audience attention. To their credit, those profanities did work to help keep me awake during this play. 

Despite my opinion, the audience reaction after the play seemed positive as the cast was met with rousing applause. The young lady seated beside me was actually wiping off tears (though I cannot be sure they were because of the play). So maybe It is just me. Maybe it is an age thing. I could not relate to the teen angst in this play.


Playwright: Juan Miguel Severo
Director: Raffy Tejada

This play is set in purgatory where souls get prepared to go to heaven. Lisang has been here for two years because of her bad temper and quarrelsome ways. Even her husband Nestor had gone ahead to heaven and was waiting for her to join him there. One day, a new soul and old friend, the tall and handsome Manolo, joins Lisang in the waiting room. They catch up on things which had transpired since they last met.

Now, talk about saving the best for last. This one act play by Juan Miguel Severo is a beautiful theater experience -- funny, insightful, moving. I did not want the banter between real life husband and wife -- the ever-elegant first couple of Philippine ballet, Nonoy Froilan and Edna Vida Froilan -- to end. When he was called up on stage during the curtain call, I was so surprised to see Severo so young, when he so effectively captured the essence of senior citizens in his script. 

I am sure there is no dry eye in the theater when Lisang delivered her climactic line, and then Manolo countered with one of his own. Their timing was so exquisitely perfect. I have never seen the Froilans act on stage before, so I was really pleasantly surprised at their acting performances. I even caught director Raffy Tejada wiping his eyes in this scene, and he must have seen and heard this scene countless times already. 

In last year's VLF X, there was another play entitled "Betang" (written by J-mee Katanyag) which was also about senior citizens waiting to be called to heaven, and pining for their one great love. I also loved that play. In that play, the nostalgic "I Wanna Be Loved by You" sung by Marilyn Monroe had a major role. In "Hintayan", there was also a song that played an important part -- "Am I That Easy to Forget" by Engelbert Humperdinck. The two stories may share similarities, but the execution is very different, both very special in their own ways.

"Hintayan sa Langit" is the definitely among the Top 3 best plays in this year's Virgin Labfest.


There are two more schedules of Set C left: July 11 at 8 pm and July 12 at 3 pm.