Saturday, August 5, 2017

Review of PhilStagers' OBRA NI JUAN: Perturbed Patriotic Prodigy

August 5, 2017

The PhilStagers newest musical play once again returns to the late 19th century to tell the story of the Philippine Revolution from the point of view of another one of its heroic protagonists -- the celebrated painter Juan Luna. Most of us know Juan Luna only for his spectacular 4.2 m x 7.6 m masterpiece -- the "Spoliarium" -- which is now hanging in its own special hall inside the National Museum. We frankly know nothing much more about him other than that beautiful gold medal-winning painting. It is time we knew more.

In an inventive and bold twist of storytelling genius, Atty. Vince Tanada brings us inside the disturbed psyche of Juan Luna as he argued within himself about key decisions and events of his life, both celebratory and tragic.  While this potentially controversial two-in-one characterization style (the genteel artist vs. the volatile cad) can cause confusion for the viewers at first, this novel approach also made us gain a unique understanding of the artist and his state of mind. I marveled at how Atty. Tanada was able to create such an imaginative manner of telling what could have been a straightforward dry history lesson.

Vince Tanada, Cindy Liper and Patrick Libao

The two stalwart lead star actors of the PhilStagers, Patrick Libao and Vince Tanada himself, portray these two disparate personalities within Juan Luna, known here as Juan Luna 1 and Juan Luna 2. Libao is making a comeback of sorts since he took a year-long leave from the company. It was as if he never left at all as everything he did was on point. Tanada is consistent with his signature acting and singing style that earned him a lot of devoted young fans over the years. His singing vocal range seems to be expanding with his every show -- impressive. (Kenneth Sadsad and Chin Ortega alternate as JL1 and 2.)

Juan Luna's story could not be told without including his group of friends in Spain with him -- namely, best friend Jose Rizal (Johnrey Rivas), propagandist Marcelo H. del Pilar (JP Lopez), brother-in-law Trinidad Pardo de Tavera (Kenneth Sadsad), and his hot-headed younger brother Antonio Luna (Jomar Bautista). The story of brotherhood of these Filipino illustrado indio intelligensia in Spain had never been told in a more vibrant way. Their boyish antics together played well to thrill the ladies in the audience. 

Trinidad Pardo de Tavera (Kenneth Sadsad), Antonio Luna (Jomar Bautista), and MH del Pilar (JP Lopez) talk about Jose Rizal  (Johnrey Rivas in background)

While all four of them had their own moments to shine, an inordinate amount of time was given to Jose Rizal, his despair about Leonor Rivera (Judyy Tolentino) and his love triangle with Antonio Luna and Nellie Boustead, even his incarceration and execution. These side stories did take the play on a significant detour away from the main Juan Luna thread. However, I did not mind the side trip because it featured the ballad "Ako na Lang," which I thought was the best and most memorable song of the whole show. 

Johnrey Rivas had a strong stage presence as Rizal, and he also gets to sing his own arias. His strong singing voice is a pleasant surprise. Jomar Bautista, who looked like a heftier Enrique Gil from afar, was an excellent Antonio Luna, both as youth and as general. Rutchel Leonor plays the girl which came between their friendship, Nellie, and she certainly projected so well why the two heroes are crazy about her. Her crystalline singing voice is certainly another one of her virtues. 

Liper, Adele Ibarrientos and Sadsad
as the Pardo de Tavera family in happier times

One of the best-executed scenes as staged was that about the biggest scandal attached to Juan Luna's name -- the murder case involving his wife Paz Pardo de Tavera and his mother-in-law Juliana. The two stalwart lead actresses of the PhilStagers, Cindy Liper and Adele Ibarrientos, portray these two ill-fated women. Director Tanada again stages this sensational episode with the characters involved with only a stand-alone door and doorway prop between them. The dark and loud musical score in this scene certainly gave this outstanding scene a heart-pounding air of insanity, tension and violence. (Vean Olmedo and Rutchel Leonor alternate as Paz and Juliana.)

Juan Luna's artistic oeuvre not only served as the backdrop of the stage, but also played important roles within the story being told. The "Spoliarium" had a whole production number on its own, with the ensemble portraying the gladiators and the townspeople gathered around them as depicted in the painting. There was another nice scene where four ladies behind colorful frames told the story behind four other Luna works ("Las Damas Romanas," "Despues del Baile," the sublime "Tampuhan" (a personal favorite painting of mine) and "La Muerte de Cleopatra"). The subjects behind his "Mi Hijo Andres" and "The Parisian Life" came to life on stage.

A moment of restful calm with Ina (Vean Olmedo) and the 2 Juans (Libao and Tanada)

"Obra ni Juan" is a 2 hour show without an intermission. Unlike most previous PhilStagers plays which were more immediately accessible, it took time for me to get into the groove of this given the more challenging novel approach it took in telling its story. (No wonder they told the audience to "open your mind" during the opening remarks.) However, once I got on, the rest of the ride was engaging and entertaining. A lot of the tried-and-true signature PhilStagers gimmicks in acting, choreography and humor were still very much there to effectively capture the attention of their youthful audience. Passion overflows in all scenes.

Kudos to director-writer-lyricist Atty. Vince Tanada, musical director-composer Pipo Cifra and the rest of the cast and crew! Special mentions go to Jeff Ambrosio (Production Manager and Set Designer), Art Gabrentina (Technical Director), Gerald Magallanes (Choreographer), Emy Tanada (Costume Designer), and John Paul Santos (Stage Manager).for their valuable behind the scenes work.

Johnrey Rivas, Libao, Tanada and Bautista take their bows

After a month's worth of soft opening shows, tonight's Grand Opening of "Obra ni Juan" was held in Cinema 9 of SM North EDSA, 6pm. Tickets cost P300 for regular patrons. This show will be touring in various Metro Manila and provincial venues. Check out the PhilStagers FB page (LINK) for more details about future shows.

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