Saturday, September 9, 2017

Review of UPPT's MGA AMA, MGA ANAK: Painful Patrimony

September 9, 2017




I got off work a little late this afternoon. I reached the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater a little past 3 pm already, and the play had already started. I was standing at the back first, waiting for a time when I can find myself a seat. However, director Tony Mabesa noted this old man standing there sticking out among the young kids and offered me the empty seat beside him. So that was how I got to watch this play seated beside the director himself, hearing some of his directorial commentary along the way. 


Director Tony Mabesa sharing his thoughts after show,
with Paula Benitez and Issa Litton beside him.

It was a day in the mid-1970s in a suburb just outside Manila. Zacarias Monzon was a man who rose out of poverty by running a horse-drawn carriage business. From his earnings, he was able to build himself an enormous mansion. The most remarkable piece of furniture in his house was a very long dining table which can accommodate three dozen people. 

Aside from his first wife and his two surviving legitimate children Marcelo and Nena, Zacarias would go on to have many mistresses and many other children. However, when the family fortune turned to the worse and a debilitating stroke, Zacarias was left alone in his house with only Nena and his last mistress, a young prostitute named Bessie, taking care of him. His son Marcelo, now a business bigshot, never forgot nor forgave his cruel father who found pleasure in using the whip on his children.

Veteran actor Leo Rialp was playing a flawed man on the ebb of his life, yet his performance of Zacarias was vivid and strong. His naughtiness brought about by his dementia was even oddly delightful, especially in that scene when he was getting drunk with gin. There was a scene when he was repeating lines over, when you cannot tell if this was a mistake or it was in character, so realistic in his breakdown. The tattoos (henna) you see on Rialp's body was an idea of the dedicated actor himself to make him fit the look and personality of Zacarias more. (Menggie Cobarrubias alternates in this role.)

I think this is the first time I saw acclaimed playwright Rody Vera act and he was intensely passionate in his role as Marcelo. He was the character in the middle of the three generations in this play -- his father's son and his son's father -- so his was technically the central character. Reacting to the faults of his father and those of his son, this was the character who developed the most. It was his emotional explosions that ended Act I and Act II which were the most painful dramatic highlights of the whole show. (George de Jesus III and Greg de Leon alternate in this role.)

We only see the character of Sofia, Marcelo's socialite wife, in Act II, she provided that vital sparkle of humor and frankness that kept this play from wallowing in melodrama. As brilliantly played by Issa Litton with perky, almost manic, energy, she stole every scene she was in. Our attention gets drawn to her patrician beauty, her chic fashion but most importantly to her scintillating personality and shocking liberality --  a woman ahead of her time. (Adriana Agcaoili alternates in this role.)

The cheap and skanky way she was dressed, you'll think that the character of Bessie is just a comic figure at first. However, her maligned character's true heart and dignity will unfold and be revealed before the play ends. It was in these concluding scenes that Paula Benitez shone, providing the play's most tear-jerking moments. (Bessie is also played by two other young actresses Sarina Sasaki and Chloe Jenna. However the most interesting casting choice is that of Candy Pangilinan, who is more mature than her other alternates, hence will definitely give the character more depth to work with. Her age will also change the dynamics between her Bessie and the other characters.)

The dutiful sister Nena is the symbol of society's expectation of daughters -- to be the one to care for their aging parents. She never left the family home, never got married, never practiced her profession, yet to the end, she still felt like she had not offered her father her best. This self-sacrificing role was played with sincerity by Banaue Miclat-Jannsen, as her character tread the line between filial duty and personal frustration. (Stella Canete-Mendoza alternates in this role.)

Tracy Quila played the role of Chitong, the son of Marcelo and Sofia who could not make up his mind on what career he wanted to take. He quit law to become a seminarian, but the event in the play made him even more confused. (Carlo Tarobal and Mark Dalacat alternate in this role.) Olive Nieto played the humorous role of Mrs. Paulo, the nosy neighborhood nurse who had a big crush on Zacarias as she was growing up. (Belen Calingacion alternates in this role.)

The magnificent set depicting the classic all-wood interior of the Monzon mansion by Ohm David is the first thing that will strike you when you enter the theater. The lighting of Meliton Roxas Jr. provided the shadows that enhances the dramatic moods, particularly in that haunting last scene. Eric Pineda's best costumes were those stylish pieces worn by the flamboyant Sofia. Those striped bell-bottom pants worn by Chitong reminded us that this play was set in the 1970s. The sound design was done by the ever-efficient Jethro Joaquin.


The cast members answer questions from the audience after the show.

"Fathers and Sons" was written in English by Nick Joaquin based on his own short story "Three Generations." This was in 1976, exactly the year when he was declared National Artist for Literature.  Its Filipino version "Mga Ama, Mga Anak" was translated by National Artist Virgilio Almario (Rio Alma) and Jose F. Lacaba for the PETA production in 1977 directed by National Artist Lino Brocka.

Just three years ago in February 2014, Tanghalang Pilipino restaged "Mga Ama, Mga Anak" directed by Joel Lamangan and starring Robert Arevalo as Zacarias. There was nostalgia in that TP show as Lamangan and Arevalo were in the cast of that original 1977 PETA production. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch it then. So I was glad that to learn that UPPT is going to restage it this year to mark Joaquin's birth centenary. Nick Joaquin was born Sept. 15, 1917. 

Director Tony Mabesa shared he decided to complete the translation of the last few pages of Joaquin's English script (skipped in previous productions) because he wanted to clearly deliver what he thought was the essential message of the play. The political undertones of the play (remember that this was originally staged in 1977) became crystal clear and undeniable because of that fiery final scene. 


***********

"Fathers and Sons"/"Mga Ama, Mga Anak" opened last Sept. 6 and will play up to Sept. 24, at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall of UP Diliman. English shows are scheduled on Sept. 6,7,15,19 & 21 (7pm), 10,16,23 &24 (10am) and 10 & 23 (3pm). Filipino shows are scheduled on Sept. 8,13,14,20 & 22 (7pm), 9 & 17 (10am) and 9,16,17 & 24 (3pm).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Review of The Necessary Theater's BLACKBIRD: Payback for a Predator

September 3, 2017




Founded in September 1992, Actor's Actors Inc. (a local theater company born out of the combined talents of Roselyn Perez, Dodo Lim, Jaime del Mundo, Cita Astals, Bart Guingona, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Wylin Gervacio) now prefers to be called The Necessary Theater. Their last show "The Normal Heart" staged in 2015 was great critical hit first, then a bonafide box-office hit on its re-staging last year.

This year The Necessary Theater has chosen to stage a critically-acclaimed harrowing two-hander play written by Scottish playwright David Harrower back in 2005. It had won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. When it was revived in Broadway in 2016, it garnered  Tony Award nominations for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor Jeff Daniels) and Best Actress (Michelle Williams). This local staging will have the dynamic Topper Fabregas at the helm. 

One day, a 55-year old office employee Peter Trivinian unexpectedly gets a visit at work from a pretty 27 year old young woman named Una. He led her into a room to talk in private. It turns out that 15 years ago, 40-year old Peter (then called Ray) carried on an illicit sexual affair with 12-year old Una which eventually wound up in a nasty trial for statutory rape and incarceration for Ray, and cruel social ostracism for Una.


Una confronts Ray
(publicity photo from TNT)

The set was a typical multipurpose room in an office where employees would eat their meals during break time. Set designer Joey Mendoza made it feel very cold in there because of those silvery gray metallic wall paneling, which later turned out to be translucent blinds through which you can see the blurry bustle of activity outside. Prominently placed in the foreground on the right is a big trash bin overflowing with garbage. There were lockers at the back, and a water cooler that does not work. On the left side are random piles of storage boxes full of paper. 

Eight white fluorescent lamps ominously hang overhead. As designed by John Batalla, these lights were made to turn off one at a time to slowly dim the room during key moments of the play to heighten the brewing mood of tension inside. During an intense flashback monologue by Una, all eight of these white lights were off and a warm yellow spotlight was focused only on her. The power outage scene felt very real when there were emergency lights that automatically turn on.

And then there were just these two people talking on and on about an affair between them that happened 15 years ago. At the start, the man was obviously flustered, speaking nervously in fragments; while the girl was composed and confident, knowing she had the upper hand. The moods of the conversation will then switch up and down, shifting from one character to the other, mesmerizing the audience as they hear a mystery unfold. The topic is not easy to listen to. The language use is blunt, frank and direct. It was a very unsettling 90 minutes for an audience, but we are riveted.


A harassed Ray
(publicity photo from TNT)

Bart Guingona plays Ray, a man trying desperately to move on after a major failure of judgement in his past. He thought he had already done so, reestablishing himself as Peter, a respectable employee at this medical equipment firm. But then that evening, his nightmare came visiting in a cute floral mini-dress. Guingona, as always, was very natural in his acting. His distress and panic and loneliness all felt very real.

The very situation of seeing an older man talking to a younger girl in a two-hander play brought back memories of David Mamet's "Oleanna"  which I watched when New Voice Company of Monique Wilson staged it maybe 10 years ago or so. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was actually Bart Guingona also who played the role of the older man in that play! Guingona's character then was a professor accused by his female student of sexual harassment. No wonder the performance felt familiar in its feeling of helpless despair and emotional breakdown.


A playful Una
(publicity photo from TNT)

Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante plays Una, a girl trying desperately to move on after a man took advantage of her innocent pre-teen crush.  The first time I saw Mikkie Bradshaw on stage was in a dark production "Carrie" by Atlantis four years ago. Even if she was still a newcomer at that time, she held her own ground opposite Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo who played her dominating mother. It was only this time that I had seen her in another lead role, and she has certainly grown more more mature as an actress. 

Una is such a complex character for any actress to play. What was she really hoping to achieve with this visit? Was this for revenge? Or was this for reconnection? Was this visit one of hate? Or was it one of love? Una is the one driving the story forward, with Ray merely reacting to her every word. Bradshaw-Volante's portrayal captured this vagueness with all her little character quirks and nuances. This performance of hers as Una is certainly of Best Actress caliber. 

Congratulations to Director Topper Fabregas and the rest of Necessary Theater's cast and crew for their excellent work on this controversial material. Admittedly, this topic is not audience-friendly at all, being the stuff people would rather not talk about, stuff people subsume in their subconsciousness. Nevertheless, this staging of "Blackbird" is still an immersive theater experience that deserves to be seen, if only for its two powerful acting performances alone. 

**********

BLACKBIRD opened last September 1, 2017 and will run for only 6 performances up to Sept. 10. Showtime is 8 pm for Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm on Sundays. Venue is at the Carlos P, Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza in Makati. Ticket price at P1200 for Orchestra Center, P1000 for Orchestra Sides and Back, P800 for Loge, and P500 for Balcony. Show is for mature audiences only because of its sensitive nature. It runs for 90 minutes straight with no intermission.

*********

P.S. I really hope RCBC Plaza would be able to adjust its parking rates for the sake of theater viewers. The new rate is P60 for first 2 hours, and P25 for every hour or fraction thereof after that. I was given an extra card at the theater door to prove that I watched a show in the Auditorium. I thought that would limit the parking rates. However when I went to pay however, I still racked up a parking bill of P110.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Review of TP's AURELIO SEDISYOSO: Parsing a Patriotic Playwright

September 1, 2017




This new musical play from Tanghalang Pilipino "Aurelio Sedisyoso" (literally, "Aurelio the Seditionist") is dubbed a "rock sarswela" about a heroic intellectual artist whom not everyone knew -- Aurelio Tolentino. I confess I knew next to nothing about his life even if I knew his name because the CCP Little Theater is formally called Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, coincidentally the venue of this very show about him. 

The musical begins at the turn of the 20th century when the Philippines was newly under the control of the American colonials. By then the revolutionary forces for Philippine Independence was being conducted in three key fronts. The military was under Gen. Macario Sakay, The labor sector was under Dominador Gomez. The theater artists were under Aurelio Tolentino, whose forte was the symbolic drama. 

In 1903, Tolentino wrote and produced his play entitled "Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas" ("Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow") which directly enjoined the audience to join the revolution against the Americans. His repeated arrests and incarcerations from that time on adversely affected his family life, as well as his friendship with his lawyer, future president Manuel Quezon. 

**********

This is the first time I saw David Ezra perform and he is indeed impressive with his vocal gifts as Aurelio Tolentino. His tenor can definitely soar but his lower registers are likewise solid. There was one song when he hit a perfect Ted Neeley-like rock wail which caused the audience to spontaneously erupt with applause. He was the most consistent vocal performer of the whole show, though the demands of his final song seemed to take its toll on his voice last night. A small drawback was that he seemed to be too young-looking to play Tolentino, whom his actors called Tatay.

The role of Tolentino's symbolic antagonist Tikbalang representing the American Government. Playing this role last night was Jonathan Tadioan in another one of his richly nuanced, scene-stealing performances. There must have been some microphone issues because I could not tell at times if Tadioan was speaking in English or Filipino (and he is definitely known to speak clearly). It was much hyped that this role was to be played by movie bad boy Baron Geisler in his first theater role. I'm sure people were expecting him for Opening Night, but that did not come to pass.


Main Cast Tadioan, Teodoro, Ezra, Maranan, Villanueva, Palmos, Ibesate
at the curtain call. with some of the company behind them


The role of rich and well-connected Dominador Gomez was played by JV Ibesate. By the end of the first act, I understood why probably I had never heard the name of this person before. The role of Macario Sakay was played by Remus Villanueva. I expected the part to be longer than it was, though he did figure in a "gory" tableau. Villanueva also ditched the long wig and hoodie to play Andres Bonifacio in other parts. The frills-free performance of Rivermaya vocalist Norby David as clean-cut Manuel Quezon stood out for me. 

Tolentino had two wives, one wife for each act of the show. His first wife Saling was played by Hazel Maranan. His second wife (after a whirlwind courtship it seems) Natividad was played by Kakki Teodoro. Both ladies were in good soprano voice last night, always crystal clear in their song delivery, overcoming any microphone issues. 

Tolentino and Saling had two children, Crising (a girl, but played coyly by Phi Palmos) and Didoy (played by Paw Castillo). They both have their respective featured songs. The scene and song where Celing was introducing a strapping new actor Dodong (Aldo Vencilao) to her father was the scene that finally broke the ice with the audience. Didoy had his big moment in Act 2 when the girl he fancied named Diday (Blanche Buhia) broke off with him. A third child Corazon was introduced in Act 2 when she was fined in school by her Marilyn Monroe-wannabe teacher Ms. Diwata (Sasa Cabalquinto) for speaking in Tagalog.

**********

The playwright and librettist is Nicanor Tiongson, the same genius behind the last TP hit "Mabining Mandirigma." This new play continues to explore the issues of American colonization from 1902 to 1907, including the pushing of English in schools and organization of the National Assembly. The musical director and composer is Joed Balsamo. I get vibes of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "A Chorus Line" in his musical score here mixed in with the classical sarswela, with touches of hiphop. The arrangements were done by Francis De Veyra of Radioactive Sago Project under Balsamo's supervision.  

The best production number in the show for me was the fliptop rap battle between Jonathan Tadioan and David Ezra during the trial scene. The rapping of these two guys was so crisply enunciated to the beat of the driving Another remarkable number was the duet number of Ezra with Norby David with both of them playing acoustic guitars. The musical talent levels here were really off the charts. 

The multi-level, multi-stage set designed by Toym Imao was huge as it sprawled across the entire audience area of the the Little Theater. The first act ended with a carnival spectacle featuring one gigantic equine set piece with lights. The lighting design of Katsch Katoy along with the graphic projections of GA Fallarme gave this already expansive set more depth and color. 


Grand Set, Grand Props

I may be too traditional in my preferences, but there are times when I felt that the anachronistic choreography by Denisa Reyes would confuse rather than enhance the story being told. James Reyes's costumes (with all the skirts and tulle overskirts) did not work too well for me in this production, especially when compared to his amazingly innovative work in "Mabining Mandirigma". 

There were still a lot of sound glitches that hounded the show throughout, understandable for opening night. The live band (the 3-piece Radioactive Sago Project Rhythm Section with Balsamo on the keyboard) would oftentimes compete with the singing with their inordinately loud, occasionally off-key instrumentals. Even the violin of the soloist sounded twangy. Because of this, I could not understand many of the lyrics being sung, a lot of times I just relied on context. I am sure adjustments would be made to correct these sound issues.


The cast are all known to be triple threats, but there are times when the singing harmonies among the company members also sounded off-key. One particularly awkward sounding number was when a Filipino song was sung in counterpoint with "God Bless America." That combination did not blend smoothly last night. I am sure adjustments would be made to improve these arrangement issues. 

I commend and congratulate director Chris Millado for taking on this massively ambitious project full on. There was really a lot of material to show and tell that the show lasted almost three hours (with a 15-minute intermission). There may still be room for streamlining the telling of the story, especially in Act I which may feel long for some viewers. Act II picked up some pace but the ending felt like it came on too suddenly. Anyhow, while this story may have happened at the turn of the previous century, we can still feel its pertinence during our present time when love of country is very much an issue of importance.

**********

"Aurelio Sedisyoso, A Rock Sarswela" runs from September 1 to September 17 at the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (CCP Little Theater). There is an 8 pm show on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 pm shows on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets at P1,500 and P1,000.