Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review of Twin Bill's DANCING LESSONS: Courage to Change

August 22, 2019

Twin Bill had been choosing to stage plays with dark, taboo or similarly sobering subject matter since they began as a theater production company in 2012.  "Dog Sees God" was about bullying and depression. "Suicide Incorporated" was about suicide. "My Name is Asher Lev" was about conflict between artistry and religion. "Wit" was about cancer. This new play of theirs, Mark St. Germain's "Dancing Lessons" may have lightened up a little but still tackled another serious topic -- autism. 

Ever Montgomery was a college professor previously diagnosed to have Asperger's Syndrome, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Ever since childhood, he had suffered an irrational fear of being touched, even by his own mother.  Senga Quinn was a dancer on Broadway who was sidelined by a serious knee injury that necessitated her to wear a leg brace. When Ever was invited to attend an important dinner-dance party, he decided to seek Senga's help to teach him how to dance. 

Pena and Villarama as Senga and Ever
(photo by Jaypee Maristaza, from Twin Bill FB Page)

This was a play about going outside your comfort zone and daring to face change. Ever Montgomery had been living his same humdrum day-to-day existence with zero social intimacy since his childhood. But now, forced to attend social gathering for which he could not be absent, Ever was faced with the daunting challenge of conquering his biggest fears, and since it involved social interaction, he knew he could not do it himself. 

For this lead role, Randy Villarama went over beyond all those minor roles I had seen him in before to inhabit this specially demanding role. He kept in character the whole time, from his empty gaze which looked beyond Senga, to those repetitive nervous twitches in his hand, his constant fixing of his belt buckle, to his mile-a-minute enumerations of complex statistics. His initial lousy attempts to move to a Rihanna song were hilarious. His successful attempts to break through his constricting psychiatric shackles were uplifting. 

For Senga, at first, teaching Ever to dance was just an easy way to earn a thousand dollars. She was brash and angry at the world, wallowing in her own self-pity because of her injury in one leg. She was an alcoholic and a junkie on pain meds. Later, their relationship evolved to things other than dancing. Senga essentially transitioned into becoming a therapist to draw Ever out of the fears that imprisoned him psychologically. In the same breath that she was healing him, she was being healed herself.

I had heard the name of Jill Pena in the ensemble of several plays I had watched before, but honestly this is the first time that I am solidly putting a face to her name. As Senga, Pena fluidly went through her character's arc with sensitivity and warmth, subtly breaking down the defenses she walled herself behind since her debilitation. She had to change first before Ever could change. It was her own change that led to Ever's change. Pena had us believing that her Senga could have such a significant effect on a man like Ever.

Baylocon, Villarama, Pena, Garcia at their curtain call

The set design of Kayla Teodoro was a single circular raised platform with a ramp that led to a solid door on the backdrop on which key points were being flashed. The all-wood set pieces with the lighting design of Joseph Matheu imparted a sense of warmth. The dancing of Marielle Joy Baylocon and Al Bernard Garcia, as choreographed by JM Cabling, reflected the exhilaration of Senga and Ever's spirits beyond their physical limitations. Kudos to Twin Bill co-founder and artistic director Francis Matheu for leading his team through this fulfilling emotional and psychological journey. 


DANCING LESSONS runs for only 6 shows: August 16-17, then 21-24, 2019 with only one show a day at 8 am. Show runs for only 1-1/2 hours, with no intermission. Venue is at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, Level 2 Circuit Lane, Circuit Makati. Tickets prices at P1550 and P750. Parental advisory: certain scenes touch on sexuality. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Review of Tanghalang Ateneo's DOLOROSA: Females of Fortitude

August 17, 2019

It was Holy Week 2003 and three sisters meet up in their old house in Laguna to assemble their family heirloom -- an award-winning vintage statue of Our Lady of Sorrows (whom they fondly called Dolorosa).  Before their mother Pilar went abroad and left them to fend for themselves, she left the hands with the youngest Juliana, the torso with middle child Alicia and the head and accessories with the eldest Claudia.

Before Pilar arrived home in Act 3, we are taken on two trips to the past. In Act 1, we go the the year 1883 and meet the girls' great grandfather Mariano Madrillano, as well as his dutiful wife Elena. In Act 2, we go to the year 1943 and meet Pilar as a young girl who just experienced her menarche. In both of these episodes, we were introduced to these headstrong women who were unafraid to stand for what they wanted for themselves in a world so much against their favor. 

Teenage Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo) and Elderly Pilar (Bibeth Orteza)

While Act 1 was a rather straightforward historical period piece about the creation of the Dolorosa alongside the birth of the revolution, Act 2 tackled a myriad of different issues and took a radical turn into the bizarre. From beliefs and superstitions about a girl's first menstrual period, the script turned to sexual behavior of young girls in the 1940s; from physical abuse to sexual abuse, all at the hands of men. Then it went to more eccentric, even outlandish topics from Good Friday public crucifixion rites, to simultaneous visions of multiple Virgin Marys, to astral projections to a limbo called "The Neither". The characters broke the fourth wall and critiqued the male playwright himself for daring to write about the struggle of women in a male-dominated world.

Act 3 tied all these past stories with the present situation of elderly Pilar and her three adult children. Pilar's sudden abandonment of her children to go live abroad after her husband's death created a strained relationship between her and her daughters. The tension of this sudden reunion after 15 years of separation made for a lively and brutal family bull session when all the daughters' pressing questions were finally out in the open and answered by their mother (or did she?). The tradition of headstrong women in this family was in full display here, and the fireworks were both noisy and brilliant. 

Elena (Claudia Enriquez) and Mariano (Capinding)

Aside from veterans Bibeth Orteza (as elderly Pilar) and Ron Capinding (as Mariano), all the other actresses in the cast had two or more roles to play, each with distinctive personalities. Claudia Enriquez played both self-deprecating eldest daughter Claudia and her defiant great-grandmother Elena. Bowie Gutierrez played both the angry middle daughter Alicia and her subservient grandmother Victoria. Zoe de Ocampo played both butch youngest daughter Juliana and her abused mother Pilar as a teenager. All these main actors were impressive, always fully in character with perfect line deliveries. This was the first time I saw Orteza as an actress onstage, and she captured the character of elderly Pilar quite well, both her strong and strange aspects. 

The girls (Dani Capinding, Francesca dela Cruz, Kat Dizon, Kim Donato) and one guy (Shaun Ervin Ocrisma, in a case of gender twist casting) who played Pilar's friends (all named after visionaries, real and reel) were also playing the various personas of Mother Mary in the Litany (Mystical Rose, Star of the Sea, Seat of Wisdom, Mirror of Justice and Tower of Ivory). Sabrina Basilio played Chedeng, (Elena's activist friend) and Mitring (Victoria's favored fish vendor). In another gender twist, female AJ Umali played three male roles, namely Mariano's patron Padre Galliano, Pilar's father Pablo, and faith healer Tasyo. 

Teenage Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo) and her mother Victoria (Bowie Gutierrez)

Act 3 of this play was first performed as a staged reading at the Virgin Labfest last year, and now it has expanded into this present form with three acts. This was an audacious piece of theater lasting all of three hours, one hour per act (with two 10-minute intermissions). It is in English with occasional interjections in Filipino, Spanish and Japanese. It is not easy to hold the audience's attention that long unless the material was compelling and the director was able to mount and pace the story well. I felt it succeeded in both points. Playwright Peter Mayshle came up with an epic story and script involving three generations of women and director Jenny Jamora expertly guided us through with her vision. 

The lighting design of D Cortezano was so important in a play like this. The Doreen Black Box theater of the Arete was really pitch black inside when all the lights were turned off. The sound design of Arvy Dimaculangan was rich and atmospheric, without being obtrusive. Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tajibe created a set design with two stages at opposite ends of the performance area, and an open space in between them. Because of this, there were limitations in what a viewer can see depending on where he was sitting. 

Claudia Enriquez, Zoe De Ocampo and Bowie Gutierrez during the curtain call

While I liked it as a whole, I feel this play may not for everybody. Aside from grappling with its length, some viewers may either be overwhelmed with its scope, misunderstand its messages or perceive it to be feeling self-important about its feminist agenda. With all of its complexities, the experimental Act 2 is most difficult to take in and can be polarizing. It is this act which will make or break the play for the individual viewer. I applaud the ambition and effort to craft a challenging and provocative project this complex and epic for the local stage, tackling Filipina womanhood in spheres of history, religion, politics and society.  It is an apt choice to be the maiden offering of Tanghalang Ateneo's Season 41 dubbed "The Women's Season" dedicated to championing the female spirit.


DOLOROSA runs from August 16- 31, 2019 at the Doreen Black Box Theater at the third floor of the Arts Wing of the Arete in Ateneo de Manila campus in Quezon City. Showtime is at 7:30 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays  with 2:30 pm matinees on Saturdays. Tickets are at P450 for Ateneo students and P500 for the general public.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review of PhilStagers' SINDAK 1941: Harrowing Hostilities

August 15, 2019

Like how last year's "Supremo Redux" was a reworking of "Bonifacio: Isang Sarsuwela," this 18th season production of the Philippine Stagers Foundation entitled "Sindak 1941" is a reworking of their 2014 musical "Filipinas 1941". The basic outline of the plot about two Filipino brothers during World War II remained intact but with some notable revisions. 

Important details like the Death March, comfort women and the Hukbalahap movement were still integrated in the story. However, some historical figures who were characters in the original play like Manuel L. Quezon and Jose P. Laurel were not anymore included in this new version. Instead focus was trained only on ordinary Filipinos, their travails and their grassroots heroism to overcome adversities. 

There was also a shocking major revelation of an erstwhile unknown information about US Gen. Douglas McArthur which would give his celebrated "I shall return!" promise a controversial asterisk. This critical detail was unearthed while writer Atty. Vince Tanada was doing further research into World War II topics in Japan. 

The story was the two Dimaculangan brothers, Felipe and Nestor. Felipe sacrificed his own education and worked as a school janitor to send his kid brother to school. Nestor was a brilliant student who went into the shoe-making business after graduation. When Japan attacked the country in 1941, the paths of the two brothers parted ways. While one went up the mountains to become a guerrilla warrior, the other collaborated with the Japanese in order to get into their good favor. 

Like in all the other major Stagers plays I had seen before, founder and moving spirit Atty. Vince Tanada was director and directed as well as lead actor. Tanada attacked the role of Felipe with his signature flamboyance and theatricality that his millennial fans eat up and love. His tenor singing voice was stronger than ever as the notes he was singing soared way above everyone else onstage. (Patrick Libao and Jomar Bautista alternate as Felipe.)

Johnrey Rivas played the rich and cocky younger brother Nestor whose efforts to keep his own family secure took him down an unpopular path. Rivas had risen up the ranks of the Stagers to lead roles as his acting and singing improved with each play and musical he joined. (Patrick Libao also alternates as Nestor.)

Vean Olmedo played Sofia, the school teacher who was Felipe's inspiration. This was a harrowing role to play, as Sophia's beauty attracted the lustful attention of a cruel Japanese officer and she was held captive and suffered much from this monstrous slavery. (Yesh Anne Burce and Kath Medina alternate as Sofia.) 

Rachel Penaflor played Emilia, Nestor's classmate, who became his doctor, then his wife. Penaflor just joined the Stagers Summer Workshop a couple of years back, and now she is playing second lead. Her beautiful classically-trained soprano voice, sparkling and solid, definitely shone here. (Cherry Bagtas alternates as Emilia.)

Kuya Manzano played Gen. MacArthur. This was his first project with the Stagers and my first time seeing him in a role that was not a Spanish soldier or friar. (Frannie Zamora, Joel Molina and Chris Lim alternate as MacArthur. This was the role that earned Lim an Aliw Award for Best Featured Actor.) Bea Martin played the role of MacArthur's sexy blonde girl-Friday Col. Cromwell. 

Adelle Ibarrientos and OJ Bacor played the whorehouse madams Mauricia and Salvacion. Chin Ortega played the demented mute street wanderer Tata Edong, who spoke clearly to us as narrator of events. The role of the child Pancho used to be the grandson of Tata Edong in the original play, but this time Pancho was the son of a guerrilla fighter Gorio. Dean Rafols played Pancho and Jomar Bautista played Gorio. Chris Lim played the sadistic Japanese officer Masanobu. 

Penaflor, Rivas, Tanada and Olmedo lead the cast at the curtain call.

Like all Stagers play before this, Tanada knowingly uses an energetic and youth-oriented uniquely style of performance to drive his message home to his hard-to-please young audience who had probably never seen a play before. Every song is a big production number with cast members singing and dancing in unison in all parts of the stage. There were some jokes for comic relief and romantic scenes for "kilig" thrills. The finale is a strong patriotic statement, complete with the red, white and blue colors, yellow stars and a sun formed in the background. 

The Stagers are an untiring and dedicated group of theater artists. They have been playing "Sindak" with all its difficult songs (music by Pipo Cifra and lyrics by Vince Tanada) and gut-wrenching emotions four full shows a day (a punishing 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm and 5 pm schedule) for five or more consecutive days a week. No other local theater company can boast of such a schedule. 

While others may call their style unsophisticated and low-brow, this signature popular style of telling stories from history was what endeared the Stagers and their plays to the college students for whom they perform. These shows inculcate in the young audience love and loyalty for the motherland and hopefully, also ignite in them an interest in watching or even performing in theater. 


"Sindak 1941" is being shown in SM North EDSA and other venues all over Metro Manila and key cities all over the country since July 2019, and will run up to March 2020. These shows can fill up the whole theater, mostly with students from an entire school. For schedule of performances. check out the Phil. Stagers website, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review of Sandbox / 9Works' DANI GIRL (2019): Oncologic Odyssey

August 11, 2019

Cancer is a devastating disease to have. At any age, when you hear this diagnosis from your doctor, your world just crumbles down around you.  When a child gets cancer, the sense of tragedy is doubled. This little one had just begun his life and now he has to fight so hard and endure a lot of pain just to keep alive. As parents of a child with cancer, you'd want to do anything just to make your baby recover, even if it meant trading places with him.

Americans Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond wrote a music, book and lyrics of this musical about a child Dani Lyons who had a relapse of her leukemia after a remission of three years. Much to the chagrin of her harried mother Katherine, Dani used her fertile imagination a lot to keep her spirits up during her hospitalization for chemotherapy. At first, she only had her stuffed toys and guardian angel Raph to play games with. Later, she would have a boy roommate, a fellow cancer patient named Marty to play even more games with. 

The play is a very vivid peek into the inner workings of a child cancer patient's mind -- asking all the troubling questions that are bothering her. Foremost of these questions was "Why is Cancer?" -- a question no one seemed to have the answer for. This was the impossible question that triggered Dani to go on her odyssey to reach Heaven in order for God Himself to give her pressing answers she sought. 


The performance of 21 year-old Rebecca Coates as 9 year-old Dani was fascinating to watch. She really seemed like a child, scared, lost and confused over what was happening to her. Her singing was pure and crystalline in songs like "Invocation," "My Hair" and "Requiem for a Bear" (my personal favorite song of the show). Coates already played this role five years ago when Sandbox first staged this show to much acclaim (which I missed). This time, she still owned this challenging role, shifting from frenetically energetic one scene to sickly weak the next. 

Luigi Quesada played Marty, the boy who shared Dani's adventures of discovery. His best song was "Why I Loved the Movies" which talked about his obsession about his movie heroes Indiana Jones and Clark Kent, and how they don't live in fear. His chemistry with Coates was best seen in "Going to Heaven," a spectacular number with all its fun Star Wars references, complete with a light saber battle. 

Their alternates as Dani and Marty are actual child singer-actors Felicity Kyle Napuli (debuted 2016 Rep's "A Little Princess", played lead 2017 in Atlantis' "Matilda", then went international 2018 in "The Lion King") and Daniel Drilon (debuted 2014 as lead in Rep's "Pinocchio"). Their shows promise a totally different, probably more heartbreaking viewing experience given the proximity of their ages to the characters they play. 

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, Lorenz Martinez, Becca Coates and Luigi Quesada
at their curtain call

Lorenz Martinez played multiple characters like Raph the guardian angel, Cancer the bad guy, Dani's father, God, and a slew of others, challenging him to give each character a distinct personality. Others worked, others did not. These overlapping roles are not always easy to figure out which, may be confusing for viewers, especially the younger ones. (Julienne Mendoza alternates in this role, and given his known versatility, it should be interesting to see how he attacks the various roles.)

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez plays Katherine, Dani's steadfast but loving mother. Martinez is celebrating her 25th anniversary this year, and she has several shows lined up this second half of 2019 ("Binondo," "Dani Girl," "Passion" and "Adarna"). Her vocal highlight here was a ballad that conveyed a mother's pain -- "The Sun Still Rose." (Pam Imperial alternates in this role.)


Director Toff de Venecia led his talented technical crew to bring this play to life. The story may have just been set inside a hospital room, but the set (by Faust Peneyra) and video projections (Joee Mejias) brought us to other areas of action, from the inner organs of a teddy bear, to outer space, and all the way to heaven. Peneyra's backdrop with the central black hole given three-dimensional depth by concentric lights was a triumph of innovative stage design. 

Lighting director Miggy Panganiban's highlight was that final scene of Dani seemingly floating in a dark abyss with twinkling lights -- beautiful.  It was too bad that I could not see a clear beam of colored light emanating from the ends of the light sabers during that fight scene between the kids and Cancer. This detracted somewhat from what could have been an exciting, visually arresting scene, especially with the nifty sci-fi sound effects by Glendfford Malimban

Stephen Vinas did the choreography. Myrene Santos designed the hair and makeup. Ejay Yatco is the musical director, leading a spare ensemble of three musicians on keyboard, cello and percussions. 


This show talked some seriously mature subject matter, disguised in the form of children "games". Dani would play several morbid games, like pretending her stuffed animals were dying of various forms of cancer as she sung their requiems. Later, she would even let her beloved teddy bear Mr. Fritz "die" of ovarian cancer so that she can follow his soul to heaven. Precocious as Dani was, can a 9-year old kid really think about death this way? 

The songs were talking about very macabre, hidden in sweet lilting tunes. The main antagonist Cancer were singing songs with titles like "God is Dead" and "Comaland." This Cancer guy was the same actor playing Raph the guardian angel, which was disorienting even for me. The most disturbing part for me was the eerie song "Side by Suicide" sung by the two kids in a sort of mutual death pact. This song was preceded by a scene of the kids buying the "strong stuff" from a Mexican drug pusher.  Can young audiences understand this the right way?

Because of these dark unsettling aspects, I cannot say I truly "enjoyed" the play. This musical was marketed for children, but I felt the topics discussed seemed way beyond their maturity. While I grant that children with cancer may be forced to mature faster than normal children, I still feel this material may be tough even for them. 

This play is not fun and games. This is as much as show about mental health as it was about cancer. It billed itself as "a musical about hope," but this hope was not easily seen in the show. This definitely requires a heart-to-heart family debriefing session after the show for the kids to process what they just watched -- especially if that kid has cancer himself.  


This re-staging of DANI GIRL by Sandbox Collective / 9 Works Theatricals runs from August 10 to September 1, 2019 at the RCBC Plaza. Show times are at 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays (except on Aug. 17). Ticket prices are at P2,000, P1,600, P1,300 and P900. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Track by Track: BINONDO: A TSINOY MUSICAL Original Cast Recording

July 23, 2019

"Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical" (MY REVIEW) had a limited four-show re-run at the Solaire during the weekend of July 12 -14, 2019. In time with that restaging, the producers decided to release an original cast recording CD to immortalize the songs Von de Guzman wrote for the show. Book and lyrics were credited to Ricky Lee, Gershom Chua and Eljay Castro Deldoc, with additional lyrics by Von de Guzman and Joel Lamangan. For the CD, we hear the solid evocative voices of Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Arman Ferrer singing the songs of Lily and Ah Tiong, unless otherwise stated. 

Here are my thoughts about the 12 songs included in the CD, as I try to recall the scenes of the show again in my head when I hear them. The last time I watched the show was a whole year ago (was unable to catch the rerun), please pardon any lapses in my memory.


It is the Moon Festival and the people are out celebrating in the streets of Chinatown in Binondo. Filipina nightclub singer Lily had her fortune told in the Chinese temple, and the Chinese moon god Ge Lao sees love in her future. This happy opening number set the stage for the love story about to unfold.


Lily was singing this Chinese song in the Binondo nightclub where she worked, when Ah Tiong walked in an got hopelessly smitten. I have to credit the three lead singers for sounding authentic in pronouncing the tricky Chinese phonetics. Kudos to dialect coach!  This version of the song had lines of Filipino translation lyrics that alternated with the original Chinese lyrics. Since I knew this song by heart since childhood, this new variation took some getting used to for me, but I understand this was done to convey the full message of the song to the Filipino audience. 


This was the song where Ah Tiong was walking around the empty streets of Binondo after the club thinking about this pretty girl Lily he just met that night. It was in this song where he revealed that he had actually been betrothed by his parents to a local girl named Jasmin. The whole song was actually an internal debate of Ah Tiong within himself. Should he remain loyal to Jasmine waiting for him in China, or should he pursue his interest of courting Lily? The answer should be obvious to all of us, but as a romantic hero, Ah Tiong was a flawed man. Faithfulness and fortitude were not his strong points. 


This song sung by Noel Rayos as Carlos, while not really totally within the romance plot, has a message that resonates among the Chinoy audiences. Carlos was a Chinoy, born and raised in Binondo. This song was Carlos way of expressing that his loyalty and patriotism lay with his country of birth, the Philippines, and not China. This is a very timely song, especially now. It reflected the inner sentiment of most Chinoys now as Chinese nationals from the mainland overrun the city. The Chinoys want to make clear that they are Filipinos by heart, and they should not be lumped as one together with the foreigners. 


Lily and Carlos had known each other since they were children, and Carlos had always been her reliable friend during times of need. Lily and Carlos are singing this song together, however, they have a different message to tell each other. Carlos loves her and wants their relationship to go to the next level. Lily loves Carlos too, but alas, only as a friend. The way this song was built up to that painful ending, this is was probably the saddest songs in the whole musical. It is not easy to accept that the person you desire to be your partner for life is relegating to the friend-zone. In this track, it was Floyd Tena's voice we hear giving life to Carlos' unrequited longing.


This song was a welcome upbeat change of pace in the middle of the show. This cheerful song celebrated the intensely giddy joy being experienced by Lily and Ah Tiong. These two young people falling madly in love with each other, such that they felt both their hearts were dancing to the thrilling beats of a disco song. This was a fun part of the show, in that the singer-actors also get to show off their dancing skills while belting out the song, which is definitely not an easy feat to achieve. This was the only song in this CD that featured the voices of Carla Guevarra-Laforteza and David Ezra singing as Lily and Ah Tiong.


The title alone tells the full story of this song. This song is a cautionary message by Lily's mother after she learned that her daughter was falling in love with a Chinese man Ah Tiong. The warning was not only one about their differences in their nationality and culture, but also about their differences in social standing. Mrs. de la Rosa wants to make Lily realize that she was going into a relationship which was fraught with so much uncertainty such that being hurt was already so certain from the get go. The message of the song may be predictable, but this was a master showcase for the powerhouse vocals of Ms. Ima Castro.


Ah Tiong needed to go back to China and this song was a countdown to that moment when he was leaving on a plane. In one of the cheesiest (sorry) yet so earnestly-delivered lines in the script, we hear Ah Tiong telling Lily that he will inform his parents how he had found his eternal love in the Chinatown of Manila. He promised Lily he will definitely come back and never again leave her side. It was ironic that while the two lovers sang of spending eternity together, they were actually about to part for good. This song closes Act 1 with a highly memorable scene where director Joel Lamangan and his tech crew were able to achieve stage magic with the dramatic illusion of Ah Tiong boarding an airplane as Lily was left behind tearfully waving goodbye -- a truly cinematic moment in the show. 


After Ah Tiong left, Lily soon realized that she was with child. She never knew that Ah Tiong is trapped in China because of the ongoing Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao Tse Tung. In this song, Lily is already resigning to the fact that Ah Tiong is most probably never coming back and that she had to face a future of raising her baby on her own. This song featured Shiela's crystalline voice at its most exquisite as she navigated the painful frustration and hopelessness that underlie its sad lyrics. She will carry this depression as a thorn in her heart until it eventually took a heavy toll on her health.


Jasmine was very sincere when she sang about Ah Tiong being her first and the last love. But who was Ah Tiong singing about when he sang these same lyrics? Was it really Jasmine whom he was embracing on that park bench? Or was he in fact singing about his faraway Lily in Manila? Or was it both of them he loved equally? Moral dilemma notwithstanding, this was my absolute favorite song in the whole CD melodically and arrangements-wise. This was the song I try to sing along to, even if I really couldn't because of the very high notes. Mariella Laurel and Arman harmonize beautifully together here as Jasmine and Ah Tiong. The erhu (Chinese violin) and Chinese percussion made this song even more distinct and authentic. 


This song is sung by Ruby, the daughter of Lily, now a high school student. This is about her acknowledging her mother's surprise revelation on her sickbed. Carlos, the father Ruby knew all her life, is not her biological father. Instead it is this stranger who just came in to visit that day, Ah Tiong. Ashlee Mickaela Factor imbued this song with youthful idealism and innocence. I wondered about the title of the track I recall that this song is but a part of a longer song number which included Ah Tiong begging for Lily's forgiveness for being unable to fulfill his promises.


For the finale, the streets of Binondo are again alive with another big festival. It is Chinese New Year and the whole cast assembled on the stage for one final extravaganza production number amidst all the usual trappings of Orientalia with energetically spectacular results. All's well that ends well as all the characters move on with their lives following Lily's tragic passing, and hope shines eternal for a good future ahead for everyone. 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of STOP KISS (2019): Break in the Bliss

July 13, 2019

American playwright Diana Son's 1998 play "Stop Kiss" is about two women who lived in New York City. Callie is a bored cynical TV traffic reporter. Sara is an idealistic elementary school teacher in the Bronx. They became close friends after their first meeting despite their disparate personalities and backgrounds. One early morning at 4 am, they were assaulted by an unknown man on the streets of West Village. While one of them escaped with minor injuries, the other ended up comatose in the ICU.

This is not the first time "Stop Kiss" is being staged in Manila. The New Voice Company, known for its advocacy of women's issues with feminist plays like David Mamet's "Oleanna" and Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," first tackled this play in 2003. This year, new player in theater production Positive Space, in cooperation with MusicArtes, Inc. and New Voice Company, brings back "Stop Kiss" again.

In the 2003 run, Jenny Jamora played the role of Callie, while Missy Maramara played the role of Sara. This year, 16 years later, Jamora and Maramara are back in these roles once again, but each in the other's role. The way Maramara and Jamora inhabited the roles of Callie and Sara respectively this time around was so like second skin for both them, I could not imagine one in the other role at all. This switch casting was a testament to their versatility as actresses. I was wishing they would actually switch cast within this same run. 

Sara (Jamora) and Callie (Maramara) talk on the couch
Photo credit: Adrian Christopher Cancio 
(from Stop Kiss press kit)

The first time I've seen Missy Maramara perform was in an emotionally-devastating one-woman show was just last year in Dulaang UP's "Ang Dalagita'y Sang Bagay na Di Buo." Since then, she was on a roll with marked roles in "The Dressing Room" and "The Kundiman Party" (both also with DUP), and "The Dresser" (with Repertory Philippines). In between, she took on the directorial chores for Blue Rep's topnotch production of "Spring Awakening" and got through it with flying colors. 

As Callie, Maramara was in practically all the scenes as they switched from flashback to present day with the mere slide of a wall to delineate the change in time setting. This would necessitate Maramara to switch emotions from dark to light and back within seconds, and impressively, she was more than able to do so effortlessly it seemed. Having been a New Yorker for 11 years now, Callie was already jaded with how her life was going, until Sara came along like a bright ray of sunshine.

The first time I've seen Jenny Jamora perform was in 2005 at the now defunct Republic of Malate in the New Voice Company production of David Hare's "The Blue Room." Fast forward to the present, Jamora is one of the theater actor-directors comprising the Red Turnips, with whom she had an acclaimed stint as the director of "33 Variations." This year, she directed "Every Brilliant Thing" with Sandbox Collective" and reprised her role of the liberated Tita Mitch in "The Kundiman Party" (a role she alternated with Maramara).

As Sara, Jamora needed to project authenticity as a zealously dedicated school teacher. She was a bit on the quixotic side as she strove to break free from the comfort zone she knew her whole life in laidback St. Louis, Missouri, in order to teach (and make a difference) in a notoriously rough public school in the Bronx.  Jamora was able to bring out that sense of naivete and idealism which enamored her to Callie and to us. Delicate and vulnerable, Jamora made us care for Sara, and made us want to take care of her. 

Missy Maramara and Jenny Jamora at the curtain call
El Tayech, Guveara, Glorioso and Mercado behind them

The rest of the cast played characters peripheral to the lives of Callie and Sara. Tarek El Tayech stole his scenes as George, Callie's easygoing friend with benefit. Robbie Guevara played Detective Cole assigned to investigate the assault case, while Jay Valencia-Glorioso played the excitable Mrs. Winsley, a witness to the attack. Gabe Mercado felt miscast as Sara's estranged boyfriend Peter, as I initially though he was Sara's dad. J-Mee Katanyag played a Nurse in the hospital scenes.

Ed Lacson Jr. outdid himself in this project as he took on the hats of both director and set designer. The ingenious sliding front wall Lacson devised was instrumental in his storytelling, as the scenes alternated from past to present back and forth, depicting blissful happy moments between girls in their apartment, alternating with the grim depressing post-assault scenes in the hospital. With Teresa Barrozo's subtle music score and Jethro Nibaten's enhancing light design, Lacson made these major scene transitions feel smooth and easy, like watching the story unfold on a television screen. Pacing may feel a bit long in the second act, but as a whole, this was one compelling play to watch.


"Stop Kiss" plays at the Power mac Center Spotlight Theater in Circuit Makati for two weekends, July 12-14, and July 19-21, 2019. Showtimes are at 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets priced at P2,000 and P1,000. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XV - SET D: Of Monsters, Mothers and Memories

June 22, 2019


Written by: Nicolas B. Pichay
Directed by: Jose Estrella

General Videla was a notorious soldier back in Martial Law, who changed loyalties and led the military coup during the EDSA Revolution. Since then, he had retired and kept by himself in his own private island. When he turned 82, he decided he wanted to have his memoirs written to bring himself back to public attention, in an ambition to run for the presidency. A young man Efren appeared at the mansion whom the General thought was the writer he hired. Apparently, Efren had other things on his mind.

The playwright Nicolas B. Pichay is also an attorney, as well as a Palanca Hall of Famer. Unlike the other plays I had seen so far in this festival, this play was dead serious, with a palpable sinister streak of danger and violence running through it. Well, it was a Martial Law-inspired play about torture and revenge, humor had no room. There had been plenty of plays about Martial Law before, but this one had a different attack on the subject matter -- a tense conversation between two characters with a dark philosophical debate about two opposing schools of thought on how to mount and win a revolution, with a game of chess as the apt analogy. 

Leo Rialp and Johnny Maglinao

General Videla was played by veteran actor Leo Rialp in a powerful, masterful portrayal of a Martial Law monster. Even at his age, Rialp had the handsome snappy bearing of a military man. His commanding voice and intimidating presence totally dominated the stage. He sounded frightening even when he was just announcing his chess moves. The role of Efren was played by neophyte actor Johnny Maglinao, who tried his best on that stage to project confidence and bravado. Facing off with Rialp in a showdown of wits was a tall order for any new actor, Maglinao survived a baptism of fire in his first VLF. 


Written by: Sari Saysay
Directed by: Tanya Lopez

Dolor Espina was packing the clothes of her daughter who had been arrested for stabbing a soldier. Talking to herself, Dolor related and relived the events that transpired in the past months that led to that day --  how her husband Emmanuel was recruited to be an NPA member surrenderee to earn money, and how she was forced to sell her body to keep her and her daughter alive after he never came back home..

Playwright Sari Saysay worked in community theater and Dolor's situation is an amalgam of realities he had learned while working among the poor fisherfolk. His last two VLF plays, "Bus Stop" (2017) and "Ang Mga Propesyunal" (2018) all had children as the main characters. For this year, there was still a child involved but she was not seen on stage, as the play concentrated on a mother who was about to lose her child.

Venise Buenaflor

This play was a one-woman affair, with young Venise Buenaflor boldly taking on the role of Dolor. She delivered one continuous hour-long monologue, recounting all those painful experiences she went through, at first with her husband, and later with her daughter. This was a monumental task for any actor to achieve. Buenaflor pulled it off creditably but she was somewhat lacking in stage presence. Because of its length and somber mood, I think the audience may likely have had a difficult time trying to pay full attention to her complex serious soliloquy the whole time, that is if they could keep awake. 


Written by: Rolin Migyuel Cadallo Obina
Directed by: Phil Noble

Olivia Mendoza was a 70-something old woman who had been living in a home for the aged with some other cranky old folk. However, Olivia was already suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, which was making her her drift in and out of her normal memory. One day, when Julia, a flashy old friend, suddenly paid her a visit, Olivia's painful past memories all came coming back.

Rolin Obina's script began as what seemed to be a quiet, even poignant little piece among senior citizens living together in a home. However, when the haughty and flamboyant Julia came into the scene, the whole play turned upside-down to high-stakes comedy. The title and poster made me expect a very serious play, so I was totally caught off-guard by Obina's big knockout LGBTQ plot twist, which was so insane that it was so good. The script though can feel to be too long and repetitive at times, but I believe it could still be streamlined further in future performances.

Pineda, Legaspi, the Froilans, Villalobos and playwright Obina

Edna Vida Froilan played Olivia Mendoza in a performance so physically and emotionally fragile, with her rich deep voice so vital in her character. Her true love Andres was played by her real-life husband Nonoy Froilan, which accounts for their romantic chemistry in their tender scenes (like how it was in "Hintayan ng Langit"). Indie film actors Erlinda Villalobos and Crispin Pineda add to the crazy mix as their cantankerous housemates, Lika and Cesar. However, they all took a back seat to Celeste Legaspi who was certainly the life of this party as Julia. Her dripping sarcasm and snooty nouveau-riche attitude was played to the hilt for maximal comic effect. This outrageous rollicking play was an easy audience favorite, its messy writing and direction notwithstanding. 

Friday, June 21, 2019


June 21, 2019


Writer: J. Dennis Teodosio
Director: Roobak Valle

I attended a meeting earlier so I reached the CCP about 4:30 pm already. I only caught the last play of Set C, mysteriously titled "Surrogare." I missed the first two plays of the day, Anthony Kim Vergara's "A Family Reunion" and Dingdong Novenario's "The Bride and Bachelor." I did stay after the show to listen to the open forum with the artists. All three playwrights spoke very well about their plays and how they came up with them.

40-something Adam and his 20-something partner Evangelio (Eve for short) are celebrating their 7th anniversary of living together. However, that night, Adam brought his former student, former stalker Ana home with him, much to the annoyance of Eve. Adam went down on one knee to propose marriage to Eve. After that, Eve came up with a proposal which caught Adam by surprise. Then, Ana revealed why she was there in the first place.

Playwright J. Dennis Teodosio (who had been based in Myanmar since 2011) had been part of VLF from the very start, with "Geegee at Waterina" (which returned as a musical last year) part of VLF1. Heshared that the central story of this play was based on him and his partner when they were trying to adopt a child after seven years of living together. Their research about adoption laws and options led to the birth of this new one-act play. 

Camanag, Romualdez and Paule

I had seen Paul Jake Paule perform in plays before (the most challenging one being Macbeth), but this turn of his as Eve was the most outrageous I've seen him in! He fluidly transitioned from flirty and flighty, to bitter and bitchy, from confidently flashy to emotional wreck. Veteran actor and singer Roeder Camanag played Adam in stark contrast to Paule's flamboyance, as a calm and mature partner. Karen Romualdez played Ana, whose character could have been fleshed out some more to explain better her offer to the couple.


Writer: Chris Martinez
Director: Kanakan Balintagos

Two college freshmen from UP were studying for a critical math final exam together one night. Bonn is a basketball jock who was having trouble with his grades. So, he was asking help from Ryan, a free-spirited gay guy who gets high grades with no effort. However, when a power outage interrupted their study session, their conversations move on from Statistics to more bizarre matters. 

One of the innovations in this year's VLF Staged Readings was "Once They Were Virgin" featuring the first one-act plays ever written by now well-established playwrights. "Freshmen" was the first play written by Chris Martinez, who had since gone on to great success as a writer and director in both theater and film. This was directed by no less than its original director way back in 1991, Kanakan Balintagos, who had also gained much acclaim as a director in both theater and film since then. 

Nepomuceno and Estioko

This was supposed to be a staged reading, but the two young actors actually had their lines down pat already and did not have scripts in their hands anymore. Nico Nepomuceno played straight conservative virgin Bonn, as Earvin Estioko played the liberated weirdo role of Ryan. As the play went on, I realized I had seen this one-act play staged in PETA before (MY REVIEW), directed by Chris Martinez himself. As it was before, the overall outlandish weirdness and situational illogicality of the this play still did not really sit too well with me. 


Writer: Jun Lana
Director: Dennis Marasigan

Two 70-something senior citizens were stuck in bad traffic jam. Since they did not have a driver that day, Elvira had to drive her husband of 45 years Manolo to the hospital because he seemed to be suffering a heart attack in progress. As they were waiting for the traffic to move, Elvira wistfully reminisced about their lustful younger days when sex was the best part of their marriage. 

Jun Lana is recognized as a genius writer, having won 11 Palanca Awards for Literature, the youngest man to enter the Palanca Hall of Fame in 2006. He is now better known as an acclaimed film director. 

Provocatively titled despite its senior cast, "Rated X" was the first one-act play ever written by Lana, but this was the first time it was ever performed in public on a stage. According to VLF festival director Tuxqz Rutaquio who introduced the play, this was supposedly banned the first time Lana tried to stage it, not really sure why.

The simple set consisted just two car seats, with a telephone (a typical landline-looking variety, haha!) in between them. The scripts were placed on stands in front of the seats, looking like the dashboard. The two actors who played Elvira and Manolo were seasoned veterans -- Sherry Lara and Lou Veloso

Veloso and Lara

Veloso's acting was very restrained, owing to the fact that he was playing a weak man slowly succumbing to a heart attack. This situation allowed the ever-luminous Ms. Lara to shine brilliantly for all she's worth. In spite of the fact that she was just sitting down on a chair for practically the whole play, Lara's Elvira was funny, naughty, raunchy, heartbreaking, poignant, beautiful -- one of the best one-act play performances I had ever witnessed. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XV - SET B: Of Students, Supports and Sexes

June 20, 2019

I have been watching the Virgin Labfest at the CCP for six years in a row now. The fresh one-act plays chosen for this festival had been exceptional theater pieces, and this year is already its 15th year, with the stimulating theme of "Titibok-tibok". This year, a record number of 207 scripts had been submitted and the top 12 were chosen to be staged. The festival started yesterday with the three plays of Set A.

The Staged Readings have also been grouped into sets of 2 or 3, and now costs P100 a ticket (formerly free). For Set A and B, there is a theme of "Once They Were Virgins" featuring the first VLF plays of veteran VLF playwrights, like Chris Martinez, Jun Lana, Liza Magtoto and Chris Millado. The other staged readings were plays submitted this year, but which did not make it into the top 12. 


Here are the three plays of Set B which premiered this afternoon:


Written by: Layeta Bucoy
Directed by: Mara Marasigan

The story is about a poor family who could barely get by with their financial situation, but they will do everything so that their youngest daughter Ali, who is a freshman in UP, can continue her studies and graduate. The father relies on the patronage of their barangay captain, occasionally becoming a petty crook. The mother is a blind fanatic of a patron saint she calls Nuestra. The gay elder brother does odd jobs including driving a tricycle to help.

Raffy Tejada and Tex Ordonez-de Leon (as Tatay and Nanay) had to amp up their performances to keep the energy up in this rather static play. Reynald Santos as Kuya goes over the top with his gay antics to spice things up some more. The suspense of play hung on a mystery being kept from Ali when she came home. However, I felt that this secret did not make such a strong impact as it should when it was revealed. 

Figueroa, de Leon, director Marasigan, Tejada and Santos

I felt this was because VLF virgin Lorrie Figueroa (as Ali) could not seem to keep up with her more experienced co-stars acting-wise. She seemed nervous and very tentative in her maiden effort. When Ali made her own surprise revelation towards the end, her announcement lacked a knockout punch. I trust that as the festival goes on, Figueroa should get her bearings and confidence up in her next performance dates.


Written by: U.Z.Eliserio
Directed by: Maynard Manansala

Pina's father passed away and her OFW mom Connie came back to bury him. While they were sorting out his things, Pina hotly confronted Connie for her absence in her life, while Connie defended herself by reminding her daughter of the material comforts her hard-earned money got for the family. Suddenly, Pina found the last lottery ticket which her father bought before he died, and saw that it had won them P10M.

These two characters were played by two actresses who had been acclaimed before for their performances in theater, and they were both solid here. Krystle Valentino (as Pina) made her VLF splash four years ago as the lead in the beautiful "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala" (2015). Skyzx Labastilla was awarded for her riveting turns in "Indigo Child" (2016) and the one-woman show "Ang Dalagita'y Isang Bagay na 'di Buo" (2018). Rafa Tibayan (Valentino's leading man in "Maria Isabella") played a smaller yet marked role as Pina's activist boyfriend Niko.

Tibayan, Labastilla and Valentino

This play was a balanced mix of drama and comedy as it follows the confrontational conversation between a rebellious teenager Pina and her absentee OFW mother. It was shocking to hear a daughter speak so disrespectfully to her mother that way, but sharp witty humor effectively tempered the unsettling situations onstage. The simmering tension between the two women was paced and developed so well by the director until the whole thing just boiled over in the end. 


Written by: Rick Patriarca
Directed by: George de Jesus III

After a disagreement with his mother, Melody, a cross-dressing gay guy, moved into one of the room in a boarding house for boys, to the distress of current boarders: namely, the naive inexperienced Marco, the studious nerd Ian and the alpha male Andrew. With Ian always in his room studying and Andrew usually out with his girlfriends, Melody and Marco eventually develop a relationship beyond mere friendship. 

Melody was played by Lance Reblando, a triple threat who was last seen in "Ang Huling El Bimbo." He would incorporate his talents of flexible acrobatics and even singing into his bold role. Marco was played by Ross Pesigan, whose baby-face allows him to play youthful innocents, like he did in the recent gay drama "Laro." Andrew was played by Pesigan's scene partner in "Laro," Vincent Pajara with his swaggering macho accent. Ian was played by AJ Sison, who still needed to loosen up some more in his rather tentative performance when compared to the all-out, no-holds barred portrayals of his co-actors.

Sison, Pesigan, Reblando and Pajara

Of all the plays in this year's VLF, this was the one with the most pre-festival buzz because of its very raunchy posters and photographs of its four main actors naked with only towels protecting their modesty. True to its promise, the play frankly tackled issues of a man's sexuality, with a generous helping of naughty humor. With the exaggerated daring sexy antics and a hilarious manner of achieving a time lapse effect, this was the easy audience favorite for this set, and most probably for the whole festival.