Sunday, June 28, 2020

Reviews of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 Writing Fellowship Program Showcase Sets A and B

June 28, 2020

Since 2012, the Writing Fellowship Program had been a 2-week program about writing plays which was held in conjuction with the Virgin Labfest. I had never seen any showcase live before, although I had seen some products of the workshop which had later made it into the Labfest roster itself. From last year's Workshop came three of this year's featured plays, namely "Titser Kit" "Blackpink" and "Mayang Bubot." 

From the usual 10, there were only 6 fellows this year because of the pandemic, all of them just happened to be female, and all from Metro Manila. Ms. Melissa Corazon Mantaring is the program director. Playwright and professor Glenn Sevilla Mas is again the program mentor as he had been since 2009 when it was called the Writer's Lab. All plays had been directed by Dennis Marasigan, which he had been doing since 2013.

Set A:


Laureana at Larissa

Written by Bienangela "Gentle" Mapagu

It was April 2020 during this time of the pandemic. Larissa (Chloe Jenna) could not absorb anything from the books she had been reading. Laurene (Micah Musa), a being who transported dead souls to the afterlife, appeared beside Larissa and engaged her in a game of checkers (a la Bergman's "The Seventh Seal") where winner gets to decide her fate.

The whole play turned out to be an internal conversation of a mentally-disturbed individual -- a manifestation of a restless mind when such a person is locked down in the house because of a community quarantine. These imaginary friends are their means of coping with the stress and crisis, and a way for them to express their frustrations about everything happening around them, from current events to personal problems. It was probably through these "friends" where they can bounce their thoughts to come up with the best logical decisions.  



Dalawang Tibok

Written by Franchesca Palattao

It was 11 pm in a studio in Manila. Angeli (Mina Cruz) and Paula (Bench Bautista) were a lesbian couple who had been together for 15 years. Both of them are already pushing 40 and gainfully employed. One night, Angeli expressed her desire to bear a child. Unfortunately, Paula did not agree. 

This play was an intimate private conversation between two partners, which later evolved into a major argument which brought up buried skeletons. This type of situation could realistically have happened to a relationship of any couple of any sexual orientation where one wanted a child and the other does not. Perhaps it becomes more problematic if the relationship had already lasted as long as this one in the play -- 15 years. Have they not made this matter clear long ago, or was there a desire that only arose later in life when one somehow felt something lacking in one's life?



Centerfold

Written by Jhudiel Clare D. Sosa

Teenager Ana (Pat Maliwat) was asking advice from her older sister Jessica (Maia Dapul) about a piece of advice she read from a girlie magazine. The conversation started lightly from a question about shaving. Then it later evolved to more sensitive matter regarding Ana's boyfriend Gregory and what he was demanding for her to prove her true love. 

This was a humorous sisterly conversation which could be objectionable for some because the girls were liberally saying terms which corresponded to private parts of the body and other profanity. Hearing those words said in Filipino further added to the vulgarity factor than if the medical English terms had been used. This play offered advice to young girls not to get their knowledge from magazines. They were also reminded to love and respect themselves first. What toxic men want should not dictate what their decisions about their bodies. 


Set B:


Afterwards 

Written by Cecilia M. de Jesus

Allie (Nicole Chua) was admitted in a private room in the hospital. Her admitting physician Dr. Salazar (Marvin Ong) was asking her tough questions in his need to understand when she tried to take her own life two days ago. To further draw her out of her resistance, the doctor related the suicide of a person dear to him.

This play was one very somber mental health affair replete with pregnant pauses throughout which cause a lot of tension and suspense. Having someone dear to us unexpectedly commit suicide leads us to blame ourselves for not being able to predict and prevent the tragedy. Being unpredictable events, we cannot be held responsible for the decisions other people make about their lives. Time will eventually lighten the weight of the guilt if we ourselves make the right choices. This play spoke to those left behind, to assuage them in their extreme anguish and to reassure them of eventual acceptance and moving on.



Balat, Sando, at Boxers 

Written by Hannah Dorol

One warm summer afternoon, Maggie (Pia Meily) and her elder brother Matt (Alvin Obillo) were both lounging around with their legs raised on their seats, wearing only sleeveless shirts and short shorts. Matt began chastising his sister about her poise and clothes, and how they were attracting lascivious looks from the men passing outside their house. 

This play covered a very current controversy about blaming the victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault for wearing skimpy clothing which provoked the men around them to entertain lusty thoughts. The approach of the play was light and humorous at first, but the argument between the siblings did become quite heated before long. I guess this topic will generate unending arguments between women (who want freedom to wear whatever they want) and men (who think that showing skin invites maniacs). 



Teacher Ka Lang/ Pa Naman 

Written by Ansherina May D. Jazul

Ms. Javier (Matel Patayon) was a Filipino teacher in a private university. One day she was called to speak with Mr. Ocampo (Jon Montes), the principal. She was asked why her students went to a rally with her, and admonished for posting a complaint about the school on her social media account. Ms. Javier used the opportunity to air her misgivings.

This play talked about the current difficulties experienced by teachers in our country. Being a teacher in Filipino was not being given its due importance. Feedback from students counted for only 5% of a teacher's yearly assessment, in contrast with 70% for feedback from the administration. Teachers were not given an open channel to complain to the administrators. Teachers who were idealistic and fought the status quo in their youth would eventually get jaded as they get promoted into the administration. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Reviews of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 STAGED READINGS Set 2: CASA DE PUN, MATIRA ANG MATIBAY: Venting on Violence

June 26, 2020

MONGOLOIDA'S CASA DE PUN

Written by Claro de los Reyes
Directed by Guelan Luarca and Zoe de Ocampo

Enrica (Kakki Teodoro) was the daughter of a dark-skinned African-American man and a fair-skinned Filipina with Hispanic ancestry. After suffering a violent assault which resulted in the loss of her left eye, she decided to migrate to New York City to live her dreams in anonymity. There she had a Haitian-American landlord (Anthony Vaughn Merchant) and African-American neighbors Punnygal (Teisha M. Duncan) and Brownman (Ybes Bagadiong). Along with foreign celebrities like Queen Isabel II and Billy Ray Bates, Enrica also encountered local personalities like Imelda (Tata Tuvera) and Rizal, both of whom had her facial deformity.

This staged reading turned out to be quite a web odyssey -- an online orienteering course or an obstacle course. On its website, you follow a series of written instructions which would lead you through a maze of YouTube videos, as designed by the tech team of Kat Dizon, Franny Tan and Carmen Dolina. It was fun at times and frustrating at times, as you click on boxes and arrows to get to the next page, or click on numbers on the side to get side notes, or click on a box to drag and read the unintelligible dialogue, or click on drawings of open eyes to close them. Seeing Imelda and Isabel eating bangus with huge wooden utensils was truly bizarre.

I am not going to pretend to completely understand what this play was all about. I went through the videos twice and watched the after-show Q and A session, but I really do not get what Filipino-American playwright de los Reyes was trying to tell me exactly. I think it may be about the tough life ahead for those of either the "mongoloid" race or worse, the "negroid" race (as they were called in the play's archaic terminology) throughout history up to the present. I am really not sure, in fact I may be way off. However, in creating this unique "virtual theater" web experience, directors Luarca and de Ocampo made sure I kept my fingers busy clicking links instead of scratching my head in confusion. 




MATIRA ANG MATIBAY

Written by Bernice Dacara
Directed by Alon Segarra

Vito (Matthew Deinla) and Erik (King Velasquez) were both plebes in a military school. Their classmate Nico just died from injuries resulting from blunt trauma he sustained after their initiation. On the night before their recognition day, a distraught Vito engaged Erik to discuss what happened to their friend and how he suffered under the their sadistic upperclassmen. Later, the discussion turned to themselves -- on what they should have done back then, and what they could do now.  

This was a straightforward two-hander about the sensitive topic of hazing in military institutions. Playwright Dacara admitted that her story started off as the experiences of an uncle. As she was writing though, the controversial news about the death of PMA cadet Darwin Dormitorio by hazing became a big national issue, and this made her story significant currently as well. That Dacara was able to convincingly write the culture of violence experienced by men with a balance of male and female perspective was notable.

The virtual staging by Director Segarra was quite basic, just one Zoom window for each boy as they were lying down on their beds conversing with each other. The progress of emotion was well-paced for both the nervous Vito and the pragmatic Eric. Both young actors were able to bounce off each other pretty well as the tension between them got more and more intense. The ending felt weaker than what the build-up promised, and could perhaps be polished more when it is actually staged. It was a bit distracting that Velasquez's ponytail and their scripts were both very visible, and their bedrooms looked very different, but then again it was supposed to be a script reading after all (but they could've gone for a full-on performance like the others readings did). 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Reviews of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 STAGED READINGS Set 1: BAGAHE, DOMINADOR GONZALES, JENNY LI: Engaging Empathy

June 20, 2020

BAGAHE

Written by Nicko de Guzman
Directed by Joel Saracho

Che (Lui Manansala) and Caloy (Ward Luarca) are a senior Filipino couple who had lived in California, USA since they got married after college. Their daughter Hiyas decided to study in UP Diliman for college, like her parents, and was now about to give birth to their first grandchild. While they were packing their balikbayan boxes to go back to Manila, Che unexpectedly disagreed with Caloy's plan to staying in Manila for good. 

Initially, the conversation between husband and wife began innocuously enough, deciding which things to bring back to Manila and which ones to leave behind (using the "sparking joy" philosophy of Marie Kondo). However, once Che declared her firm objection to staying in Manila for good, then we were taken down a trip to their memory lane, from their first meeting in UP at a political rally to the circumstances surrounding their migration to the US, to clarify why this decision being imposed on her was very objectionable to her.

The two senior actors, Manansala and Luarca, acted like they were very much a real life couple. They were very natural as they bantered and shared memories with each other, both pleasant and unpleasant. The idyllic nostalgia soon took a turn to guilt and regret. So much conflict and contradiction, personal and ideological, just welled up inside Che at that point, causing Ms. Manansala to shed tears so raw and painful, it was impossible not to move her audience to tears along with her as well. Che's sentiments may resonate stronger for students and alumni of UP who shared the same socio-political awareness as Che did. 


DOMINADOR GONZALES: NATIONAL ARTIST

Written by Dingdong Novenario
Directed by Bunny Cadag

Theater director Dominador Gonzales (Joel Saracho) had been named as one of the latest batch of National Artists. His former student and one-time lover Oliver Torres III (Audie Gemora) called to congratulate Gonzales, whom he called Dmon. Oliver also became a playwright but is now focused on a career in the corporate world. He asked Dmon to collaborate with him to stage an old play he had written about. Dmon was not interested.

Novenario dropped a lot of terminology of the "call-out" millennial generation -- body shaming, ageism, cancelledt, enabling, smart-shaming, toxic masculinity, establishing authority ("hijo"), feeling entitled, misplaced loyalties, etc. There were names of controversial celebrities like Woody Allen and Ben Tulfo, as well current local news, like ABS-CBN and POGO. There is a message for people who avoid taking sides and stay silent, especially for theater artists and their transformative power. Cadag made this a "staged reading" even for the audience when she had the actual script running below the actors. That was a brilliant idea to further vivify the concept of literally bringing the script from page to stage, seeing the skills of the actors as they interpret the written words.

From the start, you already get the feel that Oliver was up to something, and Audie Gemora made sure we felt that with his cocky attitude he projected. His phone call to Dmon was a not purely casual one, he clearly had an ulterior motive -- from how Oliver eyed Dmon's young ward Edward (John Nico Labrador) to how he scoffed with resentment at Dmon's wall of awards. Being the seasoned veteran actors they were, the interaction between Gemora's user and Saracho's diva was mesmerizing. (That dig against harsh theater critics was particularly precious, haha!) As we listened in to their increasingly heated conversation, we were all held rapt witnesses to a scandal about to explode. This is strong stuff. 



JENNY LI

Written by Buch Dacanay
Directed by Nour Hooshmand

During a drunken party at a classmate's house, college student Jenny Li (Liway Gabo) witnessed her best friend Bernadette (Harriette Mozelle) being raped by her boyfriend Jason. She tried to talk about the unfortunate incident to Bernadette herself but she was still in denial. Her mother (Beng Maramba) was open, warm and caring. Their male friend Max (Esteban Fulay Jr.), also a witness, was wary of getting involved. When she met Jason's friend Paris (Joshua Tayco), he had his own confession which turned out to be a turning point in Jenny's ordeal. 

Playwright Dacanay had chosen a very timely topic to write about, as outfits worn by women are again being blamed for causing them to be raped.  The issue of mental health is a logical consequence of the traumatic experience, not only for the victim, but the friends who care for her as well. Of all the plays in this year's Virgin Labfest, this has got to be the most subdued and restrained. As it tackled a sensitive topic no one wants to talk about so everyone was carefully avoiding the topic. The scenes are generally very tense and quiet. The actors were all talking in soft voices, probably just over a whisper. The gentle piano music of Ali Hooshmand was vital in helping to draw the emotions out. The development of the story was not as straightforward as you might think.

More than the staged reading that it was supposed, this online staging of director Hooshmand was fully produced. Like some of the other featured plays, this was presented as a short film. The graphics by Steven Tantiongco and the animation team of Franchesca Del Mundo and Joanna Mandigal, defining not only the various settings, but also establishing the confused moods of the characters.  It employed green screen technology to get the actors in "closer interaction" with each other, even they were actually in different locations. We see a scene showing books being passed, but it was there to prepare us for an even more intimate act -- a hug. This hug was a major moment of collective comfort, not only for Jenny, but for the whole audience sharing her ordeal.


Sunday, June 14, 2020

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 - SET D: DAPITHAPON, MULTIVERSE: Fraternal Focus

June 14, 2020


DAPITHAPON

Written by: Jay Crisostomo IV
Directed by: Sig Pecho

After their final day of high school, Dennis (Khayl Sison) and Yanni (Quiel Andrew Quiwa) meet at their close friend Chippy's (Jerome Dawis) house to get together one more time before their graduation day. Behind their raucous juvenile craziness and raunchy adolescent activities, it turned out each of them was dealing with various problems, such as extreme parental pressure, an impossible crush and hopelessly low grades. 

The melodramatic title seemed ironic for a play about high school graduates. This play was set in 1999, so the writer and director included several pop culture and musical references from that time to create a rich atmosphere of nostalgia. At this age, I know that the thoughts of teenage boys are expected to be rather sexually-preoccupied. However, it was unfortunate that most of their foolish noisy banter that afternoon centered on these kinky topics, which was admittedly not too comfortable to sit through. Even the two adult characters, Chippy's mother Mrs. Garcia (Peewee O'Hara) and their teacher Mrs. Javier (Ina Azarcon-Bolivar), were also made to deliver vulgar sex jokes! 

I realize these were the same naughty gimmicks which made "Wanted Male Boarders" very popular last year and even landed it among the revisited this year. However, in the context of "Dapithapon," there could have been so much more for these boys to talk about which could have made the script feel more substantial than trashy. I felt they missed a vital opportunity to recreate more universal high school graduation memories for more audiences to relate to. The technical aspects of the online staging was more or less basic when compared to the others, nothing very unique to make it particularly memorable. 


MULTIVERSE

Written by Juliene Mendoza
Directed by: Fitz Bitana

Playwright Peter (Iggi Siasoco) was spending a fun time with his younger brother Bobby (Vino Mabalot) who had just been discharged from the hospital after complications from a severe drunken binge. They were having a blast playing video games, discussing comic books, super heroes, multiverses, movies and their mother's cooking. As the two brothers promised each other a closer relationship, Peter invited Bobby to watch the premiere of the new alternate reality play he had written for a theater festival.

The attractive backdrop of their online stage was composed of vividly colorful comic book panels. Director Fitz Bitana came up with very clever ideas on how to stage video games (using the actors themselves "fighting" on the floor) and superhero battles (using costumed hands and fingers "fighting" on the tabletop). There was a playful part where the brothers morphed into Olderman and Alaska Boy. Because of the online platform, this play actually became the visual feast its title promised to be. There were occasional lapses when certain parts of an actor's body would cross over screen borders, betraying the fact that the two actors were not acting in separate places as the illusion should be. 

Stories about brothers (from "A River Runs Through It" to "Rain Man") always get to me, and now I add this story to that list. That I grew up and still have an ongoing fascination with anything comic book and superheroes myself drew me even further into this fraternal drama. I was thankful that writer Juliene Mendoza kept everything wholesome and easily relatable for all ages. As I had mentioned in my previous reviews, Mendoza had consistently amazed me with his acting talent, and now I also recognize his talent as a playwright to imbue this one-act play with so much heart and deep pathos in its short running time. This is certainly a new classic. 


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 - SET C: PAPAANO TURUAN and PILOT EPISODE: Tortured Thoughts

June 13, 2020


PAPAANO TURUAN ANG BABAE HUMAWAK NG BARIL

Written by Daryl Pasion
Directed by Erika Estacio

Oka was a jobless farmer forced by financial circumstance to join the CAFGU, a paramilitary group organized to augment the military effort against rebels. After one such encounter, he was able to take a leave to visit his wife Liling, who was now eight months pregnant.  What was supposed to have been a much-needed reunion turned into an emotional roller coaster when impossible requests had to be decided upon.

Even if his play tackled issues of real-life violence, the words written by young Daryl Pasion were of literary quality, almost poetic, many times quotable in its gut-punching eloquence. Eshei Mesina had the showier role of Oka. At one point, he delivered an emotionally brutal story about his life-changing experience with his friend Andoy. I will not be surprised if this powerful monologue would be someday be an audition piece of choice for dramatic stage actors. At first, Lhorvie Nuevo as Liling lent her wifely support as her husband wallowed in his self-pity. However, that climactic moment eventually came when she owned center stage to make the most difficult decision of her life.

Director Erika Estacio had delivered the most polished online staging of a VLF play so far.  The virtual background of the couple's house looked as if it was straight out of a rustic Amorsolo painting.  The rendering of the actors's images on top of these backdrops were very clean, no visual glitches at any time. The music and sound design of Teresa Barrozo was absolutely topnotch, I can even say it was perfect. That the soundtrack may have been mixed in live made it even more of an impressive achievement. From the chirping crickets to that pulsating beat that raised the level of atmospheric suspense to another level. Those disembodied voices of unseen characters gave such extraordinary hair-raising impact. 




PILOT EPISODE

Written by Floyd Scott Tiogangco
Directed by Giancarlo Abrahan

A young gay man suddenly suffered a particularly difficult panic attack while riding the train to work and had to rush immediately to the emergency room to manage his mental distress. At home, his very concerned, but frazzled parents try to their desperate best to help get him through one of his most extreme manic-depressive episode.

The main plot of Tiogangco's "living his truth" script may seem simple and even familiar, even if suffering from mental health issues and the struggles of families to cope are definitely not simple nor easy to understand.  This type of "stream of consciousness" script really depended on the performance of the cast to effectively bring it to life, and the casting . Phi Palmos was bursting with nervous energy as the troubled young man as he made us all experience his confusion. As his harassed parents, Missy Maramara and Jojit Lorenzo were both clutching at straws to offer him whatever they could give, from food to movies to prayers, to no apparent avail. You felt their desperation and their love through their son's uncontrolled tantrums, chain smoking and risky Grindr hookups.

Director Giancarlo Abrahan was known more to for his acclaimed family-oriented indie films such as Dagitab (2014) and Paki (2017). His virtual staging of this family-oriented play was impressive for its technical precision despite the messy scenario he was portraying. The play started as a monologue by Lloyd telling about his experience in the hospital and the handsome doctor there. The scenes in the house were shown in multiple screens, with at least two cameras showing each actor from different angles. One of the impressive gimmicks was the passing items (like mobile phone, clothes and most notably, a dildo) from one character to another. The family dynamic remained very palpable despite the scenes being split into six screens. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 - SET B: GIN BILOG, MAYANG BUBOT, BOYBOY: Troubling Toxicity

June 13, 2020


GIN BILOG

Written by Luisito Nario
Directed by James Harvey Estrada

Brothers-in-law Entong (Rhon Kenneth Mercado) and Dune (Buboy Villar) were having one of their regular drinking session beside the railroad. Between bottles of gin, they would sing songs on a videoke machine ("My Way" was a particular favorite) while they exchanged senseless stories peppered with profanity. Entong was married to Dune's elder sister Lorna (Lovely Abella), whom he treated very badly. This particular day, it got to a point that Lorna just wanted out of it. 

In this play, writer Nario pushed boundaries on how to portray abject poverty in our country, the absurdist style of which may or may not sit well with certain audience members. I, for one, do not like hearing bad words, and here, there was a crisp "P-I mo!" in practically every line from all three characters. This was also a very noisy play, all of them were shouting their Batangueno lines or croaking their off-key songs at full-volume the whole time. It may have been funny for a while, but as the play kept this volume at maximum at length, it eventually became exhausting. Later, the play took a inevitable turn to violence that brought the unpleasantness factor up further. That said however, the action sequence that went down during that climax was presented very well by director Estrada, given that the characters were on separate screens on the Zoom format. Watching the talkback session after the show revealed how different Rhon Kenneth Mercado spoke and acted in real life in contrast with his toxic character Entong, quite a feat of acting.


MAYANG BUBOT SA TAG-ARAW

Written by Norman Boquiren
Directed by Mark Mirando

In a nipa hut built beside a mango tree on the top of a hill, a young Aeta lady named Maya (Opaline Santos) established an organization that aimed to defend their land and heritage as Aetas. One day, Maya was visited by her old childhood friend Bubot (Ji-Anne Lachica). They last saw each other six years ago when Bubot left with her mother to go to Manila. After the usual nostalgic pleasantries, Bubot (now calling herself with the urban name Ariana) suddenly dropped an invitation for Maya to leave her mountain home, and go with her to the US.

Like "Titser Kim" yesterday, playwright Boquiren wrote "Mayang Bubot" as a passionate statement against the systematic abuse of the indigenous Aeta people. It showed that despite having the short end of the stick in terms of life opportunities, the Aeta are proud people who value their land and culture. Unfortunately, these precious possessions of theirs are steadily being eroded by various selfish interests, foreign and local, in the guise of "progress." Director Mirando employed various types of images, like photographs, film footage and especially shadow projection with paper cutouts to enhance dramatic elements of the plot. Despite their remote locations, the tension between Opaline Santos and Ji-ann Lachica was very thick, as the conflict between them was slowly built up as they talked. In pre-recorded scenes, Janna Cortez and Irish Legaspi played the two girls during flashbacks of their wistful childhood. 


THE BOYBOY & FRIENDS CHANNEL

Written by Anthony Kim Vergara
Directed by Joshua Tayco

"The Boyboy & Friends Channel" was a viral YouTube channel featuring the cute and chubby Boyboy (Norbs Portales) and his three outspoken friends, namely: the alpha male Dennis (Anthony Falcon), the low-IQ Greg (Jerald Napoles) and their content creator Randy (Nicco Manalo). In the latest episode, the four friends allowed tattoo artist Juma (Gabo Tolentino) to tattoo an unknown design on their forearms, based on a secret suggestion by one of the friends, only to be revealed later as a big surprise.

This is another VLF play with all the ingredients of an audience favorite. It was a broad comedy about a YouTube channel whose content centered on nothing but raunchy jokes and stupid pranks, everything played for laughs. The cast members were all veterans and played their characters with wicked glee, sometimes in excess. With such a "fun" premise, writer Vergara actually criticized toxic masculinity and the culture of foolish online influencers. That before YouTube these four friends were all laid-off from a TV station which closed down, there was also an indirect dig at the current issues about this. Director Tayco rose to the challenge of online staging by creating the illusion where all five cast members seemed to be interacting in one room using green screen technology (the images needed cleaner cropping though, especially Nicco's which was always deformed), while the scenes were being shown on a faux YouTube page complete with running comments (which were actually from the CCP FB during the live broadcast). 



Thursday, June 11, 2020

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST 2020 - SET A: DOGGY, TITSER KIT, BLACKPINK: Arguing for Acceptance

June 12, 2020

Virgin Labfest XVI, with its timely theme "KAPIT" under new festival director JK Anicoche, will go down VLF history as the year this festival of one-act plays had to resort to being presented as online videos as a result of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. The fiesta atmosphere of the CCP during the VLF run is definitely missed. There are also internet and technical problems that can arise during the live presentation, as it already happened in these first three offerings.

After this first week of live (probably problematic) performances via Facebook, there would be presumably smoothed-out versions on its Vimeo channel later this month.



DOGGY

Written by: Dustin Celestino
Directed by: Roobak Valle

A week before their wedding day, millennial couple Mark (Chrome Cosio) and Jane (Che Ramos-Cosio) came home from a gathering with friends where they played a game of "Never Have I Ever." Jane revealed that she had done certain sexual activities with former boyfriends, which she now avoided to do with Mark. This belated discovery about Jane's past annoyed the insecure Mark so much that it led to a furious debate between the two of them that actually threatened their upcoming date at the alter. 

The script of Dustin Celestino went through all the permutations of how an argument about sex and intimacy between a couple could go, and how insulting or messy these could be. The way old arguments are brought up and how the same toxic topics go around in circles will feel obsessive and painful. With real-life husband and wife Mr. and Mrs. Cosio playing Mark and Jane, the conflict within "Doggy" took on a deeper dimension. They were likely shooting their scene right in their own bedroom so there was an uncomfortable voyeuristic feel. You can feel the seething frustrations on both sides, and yet could only wait and see how they would get through this tempestuous night. How those sparks would have flown if this was being performed on a stage, I could only imagine. Couples who watch this together may get provoked by the various points raised by Mark and Jane against each other. 



TITSER KIT

Written by: Jobert Grey Landeza
Directed by: Adrienne Vergara

Lumad teenager Patrick (JM Salvado) was being called for questioning by the principal of his new school. Scared, he hid under an old table in the school storage room. His favorite teacher Titser Kit (Io Balanon) found Patrick crouched in there and engaged him to talk about his difficulties in his school now, and to reminisce about their times together in a Lumad school. 

The way Adrienne Vergara directed this one-act play as a short film, which enhanced the delivery of Landreza's dramatic elements of the story even more. This quiet play only had two characters in a single setting with not much action -- all talk straight for more than 30 minutes, some lines were delivered in a Lumad language. To be frank, if this was actually staged as a play in Huseng Batute, there is a risk that certain audience members may get distracted or bored. However, in short film form with the colorful animation employed, the material took on a magical character which held the viewer in and made him listen intently to Patrick's unfortunate plight. For most of the other plays, presenting on an online platform may not be ideal. However, for this intimate play, having this online video format turned out to actually be a big advantage.  



BLACKPINK

Written by: Tyron Casumpang
Directed by: Jethro Tenorio

Tatay (Jonathan Tadioan) was a liberal widower military man had three sons. The youngest son Bunso (Noel Comia Jr.) was an effeminate teenager who loved dancing to the songs of Kpop girl group Blackpink. The second son Diko (CJ Barinaga) was a manly jock type who was into the military culture. The eldest Kuya (Gio Gahol) was a free spirit who just shifted into his nth course in college, gender studies. One day, Bunso was angry that his teacher did not allow him to join the girl dance group in the school program, so he volunteered to dance with his dad and two brothers instead.

This had all the ingredients to be the audience favorite at this year's VLF because of its comedic treatment of its prickly theme of gender issues. Noel Comia Jr., already recognized for his acting prowess both on stage and film as a child actor, absolutely threw all inhibitions into the wind to play Bunso in the most over-the-top performance I had seen him give. This was a hilarious play for sure, but it was definitely out to deliver a big message exhorting everyone to allow each man freedom of sexual orientation, identity and expression without any boxed-in labels. Most of the conservative Boomer parents in the audience probably had no prior idea what SOGIE is, and this play will open their eyes to these concepts. But whether they can easily accept these fluid ideas as Tatay did in the play, I think that may take more time. 


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Review of Rep's ANNA IN THE TROPICS: Smoky and Steamy

April 28, 2020




Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna in the Tropics" is the second offering of Repertory Philippines for their current season. It was supposed to run from March 13 to April 5, 2020. Unfortunately, the run-up to opening night was already rife with increasing serious concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. There were still several theater shows which still managed to push through on that weekend of March 8, when a public health emergency was declared nationwide.

Even then, Rep was still planning to push through with its opening night on March 13 with social distancing precautions. But as the threat of a Metro Manila lockdown loomed, Rep sadly decided to cancel the run on March 12. That same night, they still pushed through with their preview show with limited audience of a few special guests only. That one show was already the first and final performance of Rep's "Anna in the Tropics." More than a month later, I was able to watch a video of that single staging, and I am thankful for the privilege. 


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It was 1929 in Tampa, Florida. There was an immigrant family from Cuba who were in the business of making traditional Cuban cigars. The family was headed by a middle-aged couple, Santiago and Ofelia. Their eldest daughter Conchita was married to a fellow factory worker Palomo. Their much younger daughter Marela was still single in her early 20s. Working with them was Chester, Santiago's younger half-American half-brother.

It was the tradition in cigar factories back then to hire a lector, or someone who read stories to entertain the workers while they were they were busy rolling the tobacco in paper. The new lector who just arrived was a handsome man named Juan Julian. As he read the steamy story of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel "Anna Karenina,"  long hidden frustrations and passions were roused among his rapt audience.

The setting of the play was uncommon and very interesting. The atmosphere of the stage was very exotic with all the raw wooden elements used in the set. Together with the muted lighting, the homey set evoked a heady sense of that bygone era. A most stunning technical element were those very stylish costumes designed by American costume designer Becky Bodurtha. Those clothes (mostly whites, creams and khakis), and the hairstyles, hats and accessories, completed the whole nostalgic picture and brought us back to the late 1920s America. The accent the actors used to deliver their English lines sounded like they could be transposed to pre-war Philippines as well. 

There were no lead roles, as each character all had their turn to be at center. Gie Onida and Madeleine Nicolas played Santiago and Ofelia. They both reflected the pride of being the owners of a cigar factory which valued the traditional way, as well as the grounded relationship between a long-married couple. As they are both known for, Skyzx Labastilla and Brian Sy gave intense performances individually as Conchita and Palomo. But together as a couple, their chemistry was lacking, and their relationship unconvincing, but this may be what the story required. Gab Pangilinan had the verve and naivete of young Marela, making everyone want to take care of her.

Ricardo Magno was magnetic as the debonair Juan Julian, as the role required him to captivate all the females and gain the ire of the men. His natty white suit and fair refined features made him stand out in every scene he was in. Paolo O'Hara seemed to be miscast as Chester (nicknamed Cheche) in the physical sense, but this did not mean he did not give a potent performance. He had the most memorable scenes that were raising hell (modernization and change) and chilling to the core (desire and despair).

This casting was unique because all seven actors in the ensemble were portrayed by actors who were acting in their very first Rep play. Aside from Pangilinan, who had starred in imported musicals like "Side Show" and "Beautiful," the other six veteran actors were more known for their work in productions in the Filipino language. I first knew of Onida from PETA; O'Hara and Labastilla from Virgin Labfest; Magno and Sy from Tanghalang Pilipino and Nicolas from her indie films and telenovelas. 


Cast Photo 
(from Rep FB page)

There was something odd about the play because major events that happened, be they scandalous or traumatic, were never mentioned again until the show ended. I wanted to see some sort of repercussion or justice, but these were not immediately forthcoming. The way New York-based set-designer and director Joey Gonzalez-Mendoza told his story flowed very well, with clear peaks of emotion along the way. However, as the play was written by Cruz, that climax came so abruptly (the lighting of Barbie Tan-Tiongco and sound of Fabian Obispo was remarkable in this scene), just when you wanted the story to flow some more. 

Perhaps watching this play performed live will make a difference in final impact. Watching  play on video may be the next best thing, but the experience is simply not the same. Hoping that the opportunity to see this play live may still come to pass some day, when the local theater scene comes back to life again after this health crisis blows over. May the Lord grant that day to come soon.


Sunday, March 8, 2020

Review of Kapamilya Theater's TABING-ILOG the Musical: Troubled Teenagers

March 8, 2020




The original "Tabing Ilog" was a popular teen-oriented tv series on ABS-CBN that ran from four years, from 1999 to 2003. This show, most probably inspired by its American contemporary "Dawson Creek," was the springboard for several currently well-known actors, such John Lloyd Cruz, Patrick Garcia, Baron Geisler, Paolo Contis, Kaye Abad, Desiree del Valle, and Jodi Sta. Maria. I disclose that I never saw a single episode of this show.

This year, for its maiden foray into the theater scene, ABS-CBN's Kapamilya Theater decided to translate this series (and its typical array of teen-related problems) into a full-length stage musical. They definitely wanted to get things right their first time out by getting the services of multi-awarded artists to create this piece, namely Vincent de Jesus (for music and lyrics), Jade Castro (for book) and Topper Fabregas (as director).

The story opened with a gathering of friends at their favorite hangout spot under a tree beside a river. As usual, it was James (PBB's Jem Macatuno) who led in texting everyone to come. Rovic (Ian Pangilinan) came with his girlfriend Eds (PBB's Kiara Takahashi). Fonzy (PBB's Argel Saycon) came with his sister Corrine (PBB's Lou Yanong). Badong (PBB's Batit Espiritu) came with his trusty sidecar. Their special guest that day was George (Miah Canton), their gangmate who went to the States, now here on vacation. 

These character names were the original character names from the TV series. James was Patrick Garcia. Rovic was John Lloyd Cruz. Eds was Kaye Abad. Fonzy was Baron Geisler. Corrine was Desiree del Valle. Badong was Paolo Contis. George was Jodie Sta. Maria. Of course, these names alone would give the currently millennial fans of the original series a serious case of throwback nostalgia back to their teenage years. Along with that, there were also memory-triggering props, like the bicycles and the tree with a swing made from an old tire.


The stage with the bikes and the tree with the tire swing

The play lasted for two hours, with a 15 minute intermission. The main story dwelt on how the gang dynamics were severely altered after Rovic and Eds broke up on account of a Fil-Am interloper named Jerry (Justine Narciso), George's best friend from New York who came home with her. The second act would deal with some social activism, when their beloved riverside spot was threatened by the planned building of a dam in their area. 

In between were little anecdotal side-stories about moving out, speaking up, alcoholism, mental health, platonic friendships, LGBT issues, and the graduation ball. This caused the story telling to be episodic, thus making the flow of the story erratic. The scene about Fonzy getting injured was puzzling because it was not clear what he was doing and why. There was a gay character Ely (Franco Ramos) to make a point that calling them "bakla" was okay as long as it was not said in an insulting way. James' kid sister Sammy (MNL 48’s Brei Binuya) was given her own song to sing to represent the "future generation".

Among the young actors in the cast I watched, the best singer of them all was Miah Canton. You can clearly hear the difference between a classically-trained voice (like Canton's) and someone who can just sing (the rest). Tough as it may sound, everyone's singing (except for Canton) were of inconsistent quality, to put it mildly. Some teetered precariously on the edge of the correct tune and a few actually veered off-key, to the misfortune of De Jesus' songs. The group dancing could have had better coordination and timing. Their acting performances frequently came off as quite self-conscious. These issues are nothing that more intensive training in voice, dance and acting cannot fix, if they seriously want to pursue stagecraft. 

I saw the list of alternates per role and saw a number of proven stage singers among them, like Gab Pangilinan (for Eds), Teetin Villanueva (for Corrine), Krystal Kane (for Jerry) and Noel Comia Jr. (for Sammy). The other alternates were mostly graduates of PBB, like Abi Kassem (for Eds), Sky Quizon and Hanie Jarrar (for Rovic), Emjay Savilla (for Badong), Gian Wang and Gabby Sarmiento (for James), Shawntel Cruz (for Jerry), Art Guma (for Ely) and Lie Reposposa (for Sammy). There were MNL 48 members, like Abby Trinidad and Belle de los Santos (both for George). The alternates for Fonzy are theater actor Vino Mabalot and Star Hunt alumnus Elyson de Dios. 

The various adult characters involved in the teens' stories were played by two seasoned senior actors. On the show I watched, the characters of Rovic's grandmother, Eds' mother, and the school teacher in charge of the grad ball were all played by Joann Co. (Her alternate in these roles is Agot Isidro.) The characters of Eds' father, the school principal, and Eds' gay fashion designer boss in Rizal was played by Jojit Lorenzo. (His alternate in these roles is Paolo O'Hara.) Their extensive stage experience in singing and acting was definitely apparent vis a vis the younger actors. 


The cast at the curtain call
(Espiritu, Yanong, Takahashi, Pangilinan, Macatuno, Saycon, Canton, and Binuya)


Overall, the script could use some streamlining or the direction more tightening, to get the story flowing more smoothly. Better yet, some more interesting plot points could maybe be developed to generate more excitement in the story. Another teenage love triangle was not exactly novel nor compelling. They sneaked in the name of Anne (that was Paula Peralejo's character in the TV series) at one point, but they never mentioned her again before the show ended. While this show can still be entertaining especially for the fans, I'd say there is still much room for improvement for it in future stagings. 


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TABING ILOG runs from March 7- April 26, 2020, at the Dolphy Theater, Sgt. Esguerra Ave, Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila. Access to the theater is via the Audience Entrance. Show times are at 8 pm from Thursdays to Sundays, and 3 pm matinees on Saturday and Sundays. Ticket prices range from P2,500 (VIP), P1,500 (Orchestra Side), P1,200 (Balcony Center) and P1,000 (Balcony Side). 


Saturday, March 7, 2020

Review of Blue Rep's NEXT TO NORMAL: Breakable Bipolarism

March 7, 2020




This is the third time I had seen "Next to Normal" (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey).  In 2010, my wife and I were able to catch it at Booth Theater on Broadway, starring Marin Mazzie (as Diana), Jeff Danieley (as Dan) and Kyle Dean Massey (as Gabe). My review of that show was posted HERE. In 2011, we watched a local staging by Atlantis, starring Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (as Diana), Jett Pangan (as Dan) and Felix Rivera (as Gabe).  My review of that show was posted HERE. Today, I was able to see a third version of this intense psychologically dramatic musical.

Diana Goodman was a very stressed out housewife. Her husband Dan was very concerned for Diana's fragile psyche, as she juggled several psychotherapeutic drugs. Diana seemed very closely attached to her clingy eldest son Gabe, who was determined to be her center of attention. However, she was emotionally distant from her rebellious daughter Natalie, who was turning to drugs herself. When Diana's delicate psychiatric condition took a turn for the worse, her new doctor Dr. Madden recommended electro-convulsive therapy with all its attendant risks to her memory.


Dan and Diana argue as Gabe looked on

The Fine Arts Theater on the third floor of the Gonzaga Building in the Ateneo de Manila University campus was a very intimate space. This is very surprising because the stage of the Booth Theater was huge as well as the multi-tiered metallic set for the Goodman house. I already considered the set for the Atlantis production staged at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium to be a significant downscaling of the set. Now seeing this very small stage right in front of me, I felt this was going to be a very different viewing experience, and it was.

The story being told gained a different point of view the very intimate way this musical was staged this time around. The simplicity of the set directed all the attention to the actors. The actors were so up close to the audience, we can see the sweat on the brow and the tears on their faces. The songs, especially "I'm the One" and "Song of Forgetting," seemed to have gained so much more angst and power when I can clearly see the actors' every facial expression while singing them in a setting like this. Yorkey's deep and witty words were heard loud and clear. 


Dan and Diana in an intense scene

Cris Villonco and Jef Flores may initially seem too young to pull off the roles of Diana and Dan. However, it soon became evident that being younger made their Diana and Dan all the more vulnerable to the extreme stress of parenthood that they crumbled under. Villonco had a delicate physicality which made her Diana so precarious. Her vocals were given quite a strenuous workout in driving rock songs like "The Break," but they remained crystal clear and pitch perfect the whole time. Flores gave his Dan a fragile edge himself which I did not see in previous incarnations of the role, so evident in that final duet of him with Gabe.

Tim Pavino was very earnest as Gabe, a son who had an unhealthy connection with his mother. The revelation scene about Diana's problem with Gabe still packed a punch even if I am watching this for the third time. Pavino's soaring vocals were pushed to extremes with the range of his song "I'm Alive." (Adrian Lindayag alternates as Gabe.) 


Dan and Diana revisit memories with Natalie

Ateneo freshman Nikki Bengzon was remarkable as the jaded teenager Natalie, both singing- and acting-wise, unfazed by her professional multi-awarded co-stars. Sophomore Carlos de Guzman was delightful as Natalie's supportive boyfriend Henry. (Jam Binay and Davy Narciso alternate as Natalie and Henry.)

Jobim Javier made a big splash in the theater world in 2018 with his star-making performance as Butch in "Eto Na! Musikal nAPO," which eventually won him the Gawad Buhay award as Best Actor in a Musical for that year. Here however, his weaker singing vocals as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine tended to be drowned out in group numbers under the superior and better projected vocals of his co-stars. (Jason Tan Liwag alternates in these two doctor roles.)


The cast at the curtain call
(Javier, Pavino, Villonco, Flores, Bengzon and de Guzman)

Director Missy Maramara overcame the severe venue and budget constraints and successfully used these limitations to bring out to the fore the play's innermost powerful emotions. Despite the fact that this was already my third time to watch the show, this one was so stripped down that hit me in a whole different impact, with the intensity of its raw display of heart and soul by the lead actors. Thanks to the musical direction of Ejay Yatco, the original Broadway soundtrack (on Spotify) sounded so sterile in comparison. Emotions here are so frayed, a debriefing is in order after the show. 

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Blue Rep's NEXT TO NORMAL runs from March 6 to 22, 2020 at the Fine Arts Theater, 3rd floor of Gonzaga Building, ADMU, QC. Show times are at 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and 8 pm from Thursdays to Sundays. Ticket prices at P530 (Gold), P430 (Silver) and P380 (Bronze-SRO). So far, a check of the KTX website (LINK) showed that all show dates are already sold out! Stand by for any announcement of additional dates.