Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review of PhilStagers' KATIPS: Resolve Against Revisionism

July 31, 2016




When I heard that the title of the PhilStagers' latest project this year is entitled "Katips", I thought it would be about the Katipuneros. However, since they had already tackled Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan back in 2013. This new show must be about something else.

Just a few days ago, I read an article in the newspaper that this play would actually be about Martial Law. Wow, that is one tough subject matter, very touchy and sensitive, especially with the election just past when "the Martial Law thingy" was again brought up. After seeing how skillful Atty. Vince Tanada was in creating full-length musicals about events like World War 2 (in "Filipinas 1941") or people like Pope Francis ("#Popepular"), I was eager to see how he would navigate this darkest time in our country's modern history. Musical direction was again by Pipo Cifra, Tanada's longtime collaborator in his shows. 


Introduction of the Premise

The play opened in 1970 on Mendiola Bridge in Manila during the so-called First Quarter Storm. Among the activists out there were Panyong (Vince Tanada), a writer for the Philippine Collegian, and Greg (Kevin Posadas), a medical student. Panyong thought of himself as Bonifacio, while he called Greg Rizal. The Metrocom came to disperse the activists in a violent manner. Some leaders, a UP professor among them, were killed.

"Katips" refers to the house of Alet (Adelle Ibarrientos-Lim), a lady who has opened her home for student activists from UP to meet and stay over in, earning her the monicker of "Tandang Sora". Lara (Maya Encila), a Fil-Am actress from New York City whose father was one of those killed in the first rally, is the newcomer at Katips. Lara will get a rough awakening from her inherent bias and apathy as she gets to learn firsthand what the Martial Law is really all about.

It won't be all serious political issues though. As before, there will also be personal love stories among the characters interwoven into this story. There was a noteworthy part where four pairs of lovers get to converse with each other in a witty interconnected manner, culminating in one big song number "Sa Gitna ng Dilim", in true Tanada style. Despite the very serious main topic, we also get moments of shallow jokes and romantic thrill moments to enliven and lighten the proceedings once in a while.


First Quarter Storm Scene

Fans of previous Stagers play will immediately recognize the energetic and youth-oriented style of song, dance and acting. Every song is given a big production number with cast members located all over the stage, singing their lines and dancing in unison, with a band playing the music live. The choreography had a rocking disco vibe but we still see those unmistakeable signature Stagers moves. Seeing those psychedelic Niknik shirts and bell bottoms onstage really evoked 70s nostalgia. 

Tanada's tried-and-true formula really gets the youth interested in and react positively to his shows. He uses no highfalutin jargon to confuse issues. There is only common street language everyone will understand, so the message will get through clearly. There are certain moments during the play which some older viewers may call corny or cheesy or over-the-top, but it has to be emphasized that the youth is the target audience and these stage techniques may be the better way to get through to them. 


Vince Tanada and the UP Oblation

As an actor, Vince Tanada can really possess the stage when he is on because of his commanding vocal power and range. The vocal demands for Panyong were really so punishing as he had to sing rock anthems like "Manhid" which can really push the voice to the breaking limit. It was incredible when he revealed that they had been playing this show up to four times a day for the past two weeks in soft-opening shows. We can hear his vocal fatigue during his talk during the curtain call. This guy really gives his all in his every show. (Alternating in the role of Panyong is Jomar Bautista, Atty. Vince's nephew.)

Adelle Ibarrientos-Lim has really risen through the ranks to now play the female lead character, Alet. Her dramatic skills shine through in both her spoken and the sung parts. Her intense portrayal of Alet in the heart-wrenching climax will definitely wring your tear ducts. You will definitely feel her pain.

Kevin Posadas played the long-haired hippie loverboy Greg. He had definitely improved a lot from previous Stagers' plays I have seen him in, especially in the field of singing. His baritone has become fuller and more solid. Acting-wise, his range is a bit limited because the character of Greg being mostly reactionary to those of Panyong or Lara, but Posadas makes the most out of his role. (Alternating in the role of Greg are Daniel Cruz and Kierwin Larena.)


Kevin Posadas and Maya Encila

Completing the lead quartet is Maya Encila as the headstrong Fil-am girl Lara. This young lady has a pretty face, a clear soprano voice and a delightful American accent. I think this play is the debut production of Encila for PhilStagers. She snagged a lead role right off. and nailed it with flying colors. Looking forward to seeing her in future Stagers productions.

Gerald Magallanes played the aggressive hothead Estong who would later suffer for his boldness. (Mark Montillana alternates as Estong.) Vean Quedo was scene-stealing as Susie, the funny girl from Tacloban who was Art's girlfriend. (Rutchell Leonor alternates as Susie.) John Rey Rivas played the UP freshman and new recruit Art.  Rospel Gonzales plays Susie, Estong's girlfriend, a reluctant participant in the protest actions.  

Stagers veteran Chin Ortega played Ka Temyong, Estong's father, who worked as another iconic Martial Law denizen, the Metro Aide. (Jay Jay Andres alternates as Ka Temyong.) Playing activist nuns were Jessica Evangelio (as the fearless Sr. Claire) and Levi Bracia (as the meek Sr. Josie). Arian Golondrina played Bebang, the editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian.

JP Lopez is the friendly guy who always welcomes the audience before each show to talk about theater etiquette for the student audience. During the play though, he eerily transformed into a fearsome Metrocom police monster named Lt. Sales. His lines may have been few, but his face and actions spoke louder than words -- pure cold-blooded, chilling, brutal evil. Chris Lim and Art Andrade, who played his assisting minions Cabigao and Alagao, were also effectively ruthless and sadistic.


JP Lopez, John Rey Rivas and Adelle Lim

This show was conceptualized to educate Millennials about what really happened during the time of Martial Law. It aims to provide theatrical depictions of actual nightmarish experiences by political prisoners during that time who had survived to tell the tale. There were actual Martial Law victims who were in the audience with us yesterday afternoon, whose presence Tanada acknowledged during the curtain call. He called them his inspirations for his advocacy, and proof that he was not only making all this up. Atty. Tanada's own grandfather was none other than the illustrious Sen. Lorenzo Tanada, who also suffered imprisonment during Martial Law.

"Katips" does not sugarcoat anything in its fight against revisionism. Not only will we see rallies in Mendiola and strikes in La Todena, we will see various forms of abuse and torture so cruel and repulsive we could not help but squirm in our seats or cover our eyes. The cold graphic violence shown will certainly shock and disgust. Atty. Tanada wants Millennials to realize that Martial Law should never happen again, and he definitely gets that big message across with a big exclamation point. 


Encila, Posadas, Lim and Tanada in the Grand Finale number

"Katips: Ang Mga Bagong Katipunero (A Filipino Musical)" will run from July 2016 to March 2017 in various venues all over the country. Contact 09276006864 for bookings, venue and ticket information. 

Schedules for August 2016: August 6 SM Southmall Cinema 3 8am, 11am, 2pm; August 7 SM North EDSA Cinema 9 8am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm; August 11 Adamson University 8am, 12nn; August 12 Adamson University 4pm (World Premier); August 13 SM Centerpoint Cinema 1 8am, 11am, 2pm; August 14 Yuchengco Auditorium De La Salle University 10am 2pm 5pm; August 20 and 21 SM Centerpoint Cinema 1 8am, 11am, 2pm; August 25, 26, 27 Pampanga and Tarlac (Time and venue to be announced); August 28 SM Centerpoint Cinema 1 8am, 11am, 2pm 

Schedule for September onwards will be announced soon.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Review of VLF XII - CHANGING PARTNERS: A Scintillating Staged Reading

July 9, 2016


As introduced by VLF Festival Director Tuxqs Rutaquio, staged readings are a special venue given for some submitted plays which did not make it into the Magic 12 but are also outstanding on their own merits. One of the recent examples of a play that started as a VLF staged reading and eventually successfully produced as a full play was Kanakan Balintagos' "Mga Buhay na Apoy." These staged readings are open to the public free of charge. They were held at the Tanghalang Amado Hernandez, a big conference room somewhere deep in the belly of the CCP. 

This is the first time that I watched a VLF staged reading. "Changing Partners" was remarkable in that it was the first musical one-act play to be a staged reading. The people behind it are big names in Philippine theater. The book, music and lyrics are written by Vincent de Jesus of PETA. The director is Rem Zamora of Repertory Philippines and Red Turnip Theater. As further proof of the pedigree that precedes this staged reading, a who's who of Philippine theater was there in the audience watching. I saw Ms. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Michael Williams, Jef Flores, among many others. 

I cannot write a summary myself without spoiling the ingenious web of personalities tackled in this very well-conceived genius of a story about Cris and Alex and Cris and Alex. I better stick to its publicized synopsis to play it safe, short and symbolic: "A musical exploration of the alchemy of relationships. "Changing Partners" questions the nature of fidelity and the complex issues partners face regardless of gender. When feelings are neither right nor wrong, all you can do is sing." How the story actually unfolded on that stage was so much more magical than these words can convey.

The cast of talented actors exceeded all my expectations. Their delivery of all those angst-filled lines and singing those painfully sad songs were sounded so perfect, I could not imagine them done any better. Sandino Martin may have had the shortest time on stage but he makes the most of it with a deeply emotional performance that left him in tears after the final song. Giannina Ocampo, with that disaffected look on her face, was a big puzzle for her onstage partner (and us) to figure out. Patricia Ismael came on very strong in her dominating and controlling character, yet you can feel the palpable bitterness in her words.  Ricky Ibe impressively worked magic with his subtle change of vocal inflections totally and convincingly changing his character as the script required.

Vincent de Jesus has truly produced a masterpiece here. He was right there playing the accompanying music live for us as he was hearing his amazing script come to life. I am sure he was very proud of how this staged reading turned out. The way Rem Zamora staged this reading today was practically as good as it gets already. Those blocking switches during the rendition of the final quartet was just so good. If not for those scripts held in the hands of the actors (which I honestly did not think they really needed anyway), this felt like the actual full production already.  Geraldine Young, the girl narrating the stage directions, had such a beautifully modulated voice, contributing so much to the effective dramatic staging of this reading.

I honestly cannot believe this very ingenious script did not make it into the Magic 12 of this year's VLF. For a script in progress, it looked and sounded complete already even within its compact one hour running time. In that case, I cannot wait for this to metamorphose into its full form in the future, as de Jesus himself teasingly promised us at the end of this scintillating show. 

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XII - SET D: Outrageous Oeuvres

July 8, 2016

1. MARTE

Written by: Eliza Victoria
Directed by: George de Jesus

The setting is Mars. People from Earth can go there to work and get higher wages than if they work on their home planet. However working for the Promethei Industries on Mars is proving to be very dangerous for the health of its employees. Veteran worker Tina tells newbie companion Lorie about an unfortunate incident where a co-worker Mylene had a chemical splash on her face which caused critical injuries. 

Of all the plays I had seen in this year's VLF, this one had the most outrageously imaginative set and production design. The crew really had to think outside the box here to create a futuristic set that would look convincing as Mars. They even thought of a "robot" campaigner for the gubernatorial candidate. They had hand-held "hologram players" and "remote control" video screens (which also showed a pre-recorded message from festival director Tuxs Rutaquio to introduce the whole set, something he would usually do live in person for the other sets). 

The basic premise of the story though is very familiar. It sort of reminded me about the film "Imbisibol" (itself a VLF play three seasons back) which was about the travails of Filipino workers in Japan. This time, just replace Japan with Mars, but the OFW issues tackled (problems about working away from home, the over-dependency of the family back home, the conflicts between two co-workers) remain the basically the same. Stella Canete-Mendoza and Martha Comia give very effective performances, as the disgruntled Tina and the troubled Lorie respectively.


2. DADDY'S GIRL

Written by: Ricardo Novenario
Directed by: Nicolas Pichay

A young woman finds herself in another dimension, and there she meets her father. An unfortunate incident of a forbidden nature that occurred between father and daughter when she was 16 caused their estrangement. Its vivid memory still haunted their reunion. Now that they were both dead, could they now fulfill their destinies as romantic soul mates?

Based on the synopsis alone, you can imagine how much discomfort this play can cause in the audience watching. This play tackles outrageously scandalous stuff -- rape and incest between a father and his daughter. No matter how much comedic diversion the writer injects to lighten up the proceedings (that sequence when the two of them reenact classic love scenes was very funny and well-executed), the unsettling nature of underlying premise still cannot be so easily alleviated. The practically bare set design worked well with the bizarre story.

Marco Viana and Skyzx Labastilla were definitely very energetic in their passionate portrayal of these two star-crossed soul mates. They did not necessarily have convincing romantic chemistry together though.


3. HAPAGKAINAN

Written by: Rick Patriarca
Directed by: Chris Martinez 

A seemingly ideal family of four sits together at their dining table for a delicious dinner of tinola prepared by their mother. However, it did not take long until their picture-perfect smiles and polite manners turn into bitter, expletive-laden, madcap tirades about parental ineptitude, illicit affairs, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse.

The play opens with the strains of "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music" and a smiling formal family portrait hanging in the background. Little do we know that we are going to see probably one of the most outrageous plays of this year's VLF in terms of language. The profanity index of this script literally shoots off the charts as every known curse and cuss words known in the Filipino language crisply emanate from every character's mouths.

The most unlikely actors play the four foul-mouthed family members. The glamorous Adriana Agcaoili portrays the mother while the dapper Arnold Reyes plays the father. Innocent-looking Mikoy Morales and sweet Adrienne Vergara play the two teenage kids. Despite the potentially offensive continual barrage of dirty language, Rick Patriarca's witty script, Chris Martinez's mastery of satirical dark comedy, and the fluid ensemble work and precise comic timing of the cast succeed to make the whole audience roar in lustful laughter the whole time.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XII - SET C: Excellence in Extremes

July 7, 2016

The emotions on this extraordinary Virgin Labfest XII set went to extremes: from romantic regrets to fundamentalist fear to exhilarating fun. Amazing writing, directing and acting talent all around, a consistently excellent set.


1. ANG MGA BISITA NI JEAN

Written by: Ma. Cecilia "Maki" dela Rosa
Directed by: Ariel Yonzon

Jean receives a phone call while watching a war film. Suddenly she was visited by Cage, her superior while she was a member of the armed resistance. Cage and his wife Lara officiated Jean's wedding to Brad. Much later, Jean also receives a visit from Ted, her closest friend among her rebel colleagues. While Jean talked about her current time apart from her husband, secrets from the past are revealed. 

This is yet another VLF play with characters who were armed rebels (or used to be). I note that this is a popular theme among VLF entries. However, in this play, this occupation did not seem entirely necessary for the main plot, which was a frustrated love story, except perhaps to break the stereotype that these female warriors were man-hating amazons. What is not to love about Sheenly Vee Gener's emotionally-rich, very natural performance? Aldo Vencilao may not immediately strike you as the typical leading man, but he certainly had an electric chemistry with Gener that generated a unique romantic thrill with the audience. The Cynthia Alexander song they sang together as a duet in perfect harmony could melt hearts.


2. BAIT

Written by: Guelan Luarca
Directed by: Mara Paulina Marasigan

Two 12-year old boys had a big fight. John Paul took the Koran of his Muslim classmate Ahmad and desecrated it by throwing it on the floor, spitting on it and tearing out the pages. Incensed, Ahmad pushes the errant boy too strongly causing a freak injury that lands the John Paul in critical condition. The boys' adviser Mr. Arevalo met with Ahmad's father, Mr. Sampurnay, about this accident and its repercussions. However, the father remained adamant about his religious convictions about the case.

This was a play that was so difficult to watch because of the intense conflict it presented to us. Luarca was very brave to take on such a sensitive and potentially incendiary topic around which to base his one-act play. The performance of Renante Bustamante as the Ahmad's father was so chillingly realistic that I could hardly bear to look at his face during the play. Kalil Almonte portrayed the nervous confusion any teacher would feel when engaged in an emotionally-charged conversation such as this with a headstrong parent. The tension developed by director Mara Marasigan was so thick. The ending was such a powerful shock. The whole theater suddenly fell silent at that moment.



3. MULA SA KULIMLIMAN

Written by: Carlo Vergara
Directed by: Hazel Gutierrez

Gorio and Lilia had been married for a long time. Their son Jerome is already 15 years old. However lately, Gorio had been spending weeks on end out of town, such that Lilia had to practically raise Jerome on her own. One day, mysterious events forced Gorio to confess his real nature and what he had been doing all along. Even Jerome knew about it. What Gorio tells Lilia was so preposterous, she simply could not believe a word he was saying.

Count on Carlo Vergara to submit the wackiest comedy in this year's VLF batch. The writer of "Zsazsa Zaturnnah" also gave us "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady" before. He revisits the same genre with this one, again with his trademark skills in madcap comedy. Director Gutierrez decided to use shadow play techniques to portray the supernatural aspects of the story, which added another dimension to her storytelling. 

Mayen Estanero was amazingly winning in her portrayal of the vivacious and gregarious mother, Lilia. She was such a warm presence onstage, we will all wish she was our own mother. Timothy Castillo was a natural comedian, unafraid to make fun of himself in his portrayal of the smart-aleck son Jerome, who loved his comic books more than homework. Tad Tadioan was a total fun riot as Gorio, a husband who had been keeping major secrets from his wife all these years. The actors played as one smooth seamless comic ensemble and the audience had a rollicking good time. 


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review of Twin Bill Theater's SUICIDE INCORPORATED: Tackling Taboos

July 6, 2016




Talking about death is uncomfortable enough, but more so if that death was a suicide. Family and friends of a suicide victim would almost always suffer severe guilt feelings about why they were not able to see it coming, and no one wants to talk about it. It is this taboo topic of suicide gets a tragicomic treatment in this maiden production of a brand new theater company, Twin Bill Theater, as it audaciously stages Andrew Hinderaker's 2010 Off-Broadway play “SUICIDE INCORPORATED.”

For this production, we get introduced to a new theater venue in San Juan City. It is along Lt. Artiaga St., which can be accessed either from N. Domingo or from Bonny Serrano Ave. You can see the name and logo of the place PARC (Performing Arts and Recreation Center) right there on the gate of #494. The play venue itself is an intimate room where the audience can sit on either of two sides of the stage. The backdrop is glass, stylishly decorated with names and quotes from noted people who had committed suicide. There is a TV screen to serve as an indicator where the scene was set.

Perry and Jason

Legacy Letters is a company whose macabre business was to help people planning to commit suicide to write and edit their suicide notes. This was owned by a brash and ruthless businessman, Scott Daniel Johnson (Jeremy Domingo) who relished to profit from the agony of his depressed clientele. His staff writer Perry (Chino Veguillas) was ultra-loyal and devoted to his boss and his job, despite being constantly on the receiving end of Scott's insulting remarks. 

A former writer of Hallmark cards, Jason (Hans Eckstein) was just newly hired. He was immediately assigned to take on the case of Norm (Mako Alonso), a distraught young man who was planning to commit suicide because could not move on from his failed marriage which ended in annulment. Meanwhile at home, Jason also had to deal with the issues of his younger brother Tommy (Bibo Garcia) who cannot seem to cope with college.

The script of Hinderaker was very well-written with a very fast tempo in its storytelling. However, while it was a dark comedy at heart, it was still very sensitive about the psychology of suicides, specifically among males. The direction of Steven Conde is very classy and smooth. There was no indication whatsoever that this was the press preview of a debut production. Everything went on so fluidly, from the flawless ensemble acting of its all-male cast to the faultless technical work of the crew (which includes Ed Lacson for the set, Jay Pangilinan for sound, and Joseph Matheu for the evocative lighting).

Jason speaks with Norm, as Scott looks on

This role of Jason was the most intensely dramatic role that I have seen Hans Eckstein attack. He really was able to convey the pressures and conflicts that his complex character experienced in both his new job and more so in his personal life, particularly his strained relationship with his brother Tommy.   

Bibo Reyes, who looks very different from how I saw him first in "In the Heights" where he stole scenes as the smart-ass Sonny. His performance here as Tommy was more quiet and pained. He shone especially in that confrontation scene with Jason that brimmed with so much palpable bitterness. 

Jeremy Domingo felt really at home and was clearly enjoying his role of Scott. This foul-mouthed alpha-male jerk of a character seemed to have been written with Domingo in mind, as he gleefully fit the role like a glove with a wry and dark comic sense that seemed second nature to this veteran actor. 

Chino Veguillas played the nerdy effeminate Perry. His insecure jealousy about Jason and his obsession for Scott's attention and approval was just the comic relief needed to keep this serious script from totally wallowing in its misery. Veguillas would also take on the more minor roles of a policeman and a waiter in other parts of the play. 

At first you think that the role of the customer Norm would just be a small one for Mako Alonso. However, the role expanded with every subsequent scene. By the final scene, Norm would have a lengthy soliloquy which would truly test any actor's acting (and memory) skills. Alonso rose to the occasion and nailed that challenging monologue infused with unbearable regret and guilt. (George Schultze will be alternating for this role).

Tommy, Jason and Norm in an intense scene

The purpose of the producers Joseph and Francis Matheu for staging this show was not only for entertainment, but more importantly, they wanted to shed light and raise awareness on mental health issues regarding suicide. A doctor (probably a psychiatrist) will be present for every show to facilitate the talkback sessions they intend after each show in order to allow audiences to ask questions and even share their own experiences about the topic.

I would say that "Suicide Incorporated" is for suicide, as "The Normal Heart" was for AIDS. These prickly topics need to be addressed in public more to create more awareness for their prevention and management. A suicide occurs every 40 seconds somewhere around the globe. While the Philippines is said to have the lowest incidence of suicides in this side of Asia, this rate is steadily increasing in recent years. 

This show would be good therapy for those who may be contemplating suicide because it gives vent to their frustrations and pent up emotions, and perhaps clear up their confusion. Furthermore, it is also good education for everyone else, to make us sensitive to possible signals potential victims  may be sending. Men, in particular, are addressed here because they generally do not talk about their feelings nor ask for help. Collapse in communication should be curbed as this is the big antagonist of all. Because of the acute awareness this play creates, it is hoped that a suicide or two could actually be prevented.

The cast Veguillas, Domingo, Eckstein, Alonso and Reyes


“Suicide Incorporated” will run from July 15-31, 2016. It will have shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, on Sundays at 3 pm. There will be an additional 3 pm show on Saturday July 30. Tickets are available on Ticketworld.