Saturday, February 29, 2020

Review of TP's BATANG MUJAHIDEEN: Manipulating Minors

February 29, 2020

In March of the year 2000, Abu Sayyaf rebels led by Ustadz Janjalani and Abu Sabaya held hostage all the Christian staff and students of Claret School in Tumahubong village in Basilan province. It was a grueling 45-day ordeal for all the hostages, particularly for the school priest Fr. Rhoel Gallardo (as the very symbol of the invaders' rival religion) and one of the teachers Ms. Marissa (with whom Ustadz took fancy on).

Meanwhile, 7-year old Yakan girl Fatima had just witnessed her father ruthlessly murdered and cannibalized by the bloodthirsty Christian extremist called Kumander. Soon after this heinous crime, Fatima was recruited by Abu Sabaya to be a "mujahideen" or a guerrilla fighter in the name of Islam. Ustadz hid Fatima under the boy's name Al Mustafa (meaning "chosen one") to undergo training, where she even bested the other boys in combat skills.

The Little Theater had been rearranged so that the audience members are seated on four sides of a slightly-elevated square stage in the center. The show began with all nine members of the cast forming one diagonal line across the square and perform a washing ritual. Doray Dayao stood up from the center of the line, broke the fourth wall to address the audience about what the play was going to be about, explaining how the character of Fatima was going to be represented by a puppet which she carried on her left arm and moved with sticks held by her right hand. . 

Lhorie Nuevo was Ustadz and Eunice Pacia was Abu Sabaya, both compelling performances. Jonathan Tadioan played Fatima's proud father. Ybes Bagadiong was the ill-fated Fr. Gallardo. JV Ibesate played a chilling Kumander. Iman Ampatuan was Pyong, a Grade 4 student hostage at Claret. Monique Nellas had two memorably standout roles, as Fatima's grieving mother and as the unfortunate Ms. Marissa. Usual TP leading man Marco Viana oddly did not have a particular character to play.

A tense scene of retribution in "Batang Mujahideen"
(photo credit: Gian Carlo Vizcarra)

It may not be easy to get into the drift of the story right away because the casting of the multiple characters of either religion fluidly changed among the actors, regardless of gender. Notably, the two Abu Sayyaf leaders were both played by women. There were also two stories being told in parallel, that of Fatima (fiction) and that of the Claret School hostage taking (factual), which can get confusing at first. However, eventually you will soon get the drift of the various experimental techniques (puppetry, documentary theater, devised theater) employed by adventurous young director Guelan Luarca in this staging, and be engrossed with the drama up to the very end.

The liveliest scenes in the play was the circuit training montage of the titular mujahideen children, all of them portrayed by puppets doing obstacle courses, firing rifles and swimming in the river. Because of this, the scene ironically came across as whimsical and even cute, despite the perverseness of what was actually being presented. However the symbolism of the children being actual puppets of the adult extremists was not lost. 

The other remarkable scene was the literal shower of bullets that occurred during the fiery encounter between the military and the Abu Sayyaf. The bullet shells that littered the entire stage after that scene were a noisy reminder of the violence that had transpired. The spine-tingling depiction of Fatima's father's gory death and Fr. Gallardo's bloody torture was likewise imaginatively staged without resorting to graphic violence. 

The cast of nine at the curtain call
(Ampatuan, Nuevo, Ibesate, Nellas, Dayao, Viana, Bagadiong, Pacia, Tadioan)
(photo credit: Gian Carlo Vizcarra)

The play was written by Malou Jacob, whose main output had been political plays since the 1980s. Antonette Go assisted director Luarca in the directing chores. Cagayan de Oro-based playwright Dominique La Victoria took on the dramaturgy of this sensitive piece. The creative team was composed of Marco Viana and Paw Castillo for the set, D Cortezano for lights, Arvy Dimaculangan for sound, music and puppetry, and Joemel Era for choreography. The overall result was one haunting, thought-provoking presentation about Christian-Muslim relations which every Filipino should watch to gain at least some valuable understanding and empathy about these pressing issues of national concern.


BATANG MUJAHIDEEN runs from February 21 to March 9, 2020 at the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater) of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. There are four shows left: March 6 at 3 pm, March 7 at 3 pm and 8 pm, and March 8 at 3 pm. The tickets are at P1500 (VIP) and P1000 (Regular). The running time is a compact 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Review of Trumpets' JOSEPH THE DREAMER: A Favorite's Fortune

February 23, 2020

I had heard of a show called "Joseph the Dreamer" as the local version of the biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob. This was an original musical born out of Filipino talent written by Freddie Santos in 1989, adapted from a cantata composed by Cam Floria. This was definitely not a retread of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (1968), though they may be telling the same story. 

"Joseph the Dreamer" may hold the record as the longest running Philippine musical, but sadly I never had the chance to watch any of its runs. Audie Gemora played Joseph in the original run in 1989. 10 years later, pop star Gary Valenciano took on the role as the show reached its peak in 1999, with shows both in Manila and in the provinces.  

This year, "Joseph the Dreamer" goes onstage again for the benefit of next generation, as well as for those of past generations who missed it, like me. Seemingly as a nod to its long history, Audie Gemora is back iin the cast, this time as Jacob. Gary's son Paolo Valenciano takes on the role of stage director for his debut production in theater.

We all know the story from the book of Genesis. Jacob had 12 sons from four wives. Among his boys, his favorite was his 11th son Joseph, the firstborn of his favorite wife Rachel. One day, Jacob gave Joseph a coat of many colors, which caused his brothers to rise up against him in jealousy. Treacherously sold into slavery, Joseph found himself in Egypt where was able to hone his talent for interpreting dreams. When he foretold the future based on the Pharoah's strange dreams, Joseph was named governor of Egypt.

Sam Concepcion is a very charismatic Joseph, brimming with confidence and goodness of spirit. His smile had a wattage can brighten up the whole stage. On top of his star power, this exhausting role required the actor to be a triple threat of considerable stamina, as he had to sing, dance and act in practically all the scenes.  Admirably, Concepcion proved to be more than adequate for the demands of his challenging role. He even nailed a high-flying spin jump kick at one point. 

For the dancing this show, I can actually feel the spirit of Michael Jackson / Gary Valenciano in the hip hop moves by choreographer MJ Arda. There is so much joy onstage when the cast members were dancing, especially when rocking those characteristic "Walk Like an Egyptian" style steps. The absolute best dance number for me came at the very end when adorable little cutie Eli Luis led the entire cast of Hebrews and Egyptians to dance the finale "Praise His Name" -- a truly effusive Hallelujah moment indeed.

I did not automatically recognize Audie Gemora as Jacob, as his usual look was totally transformed with the long dreadlocks, beard and body heft. Gemora's Jacob was played mostly as a comic figure, but he still had that air of authority around him. Bituin Escalante only had one song number as Joseph's mother Rachel, but wow, did she stop the show dead in its tracks right there with her sheer vocal virtuosity (and her featured song "He Opens a Window" happened early in Act 2!). The narrator of the story (and Egyptian princess Asenath) was Kayla Rivera, who exuded an energetic stage presence in this role, sometimes lacking from her previous roles. 

Of course there are a lot of dramatic moments throughout the show. The climactic reunion scene among the brothers was downright tear-jerking in its pure sincerity. However, despite these sad scenes, there were several comical moments which had the audience in stitches. The best comedy was at the expense of the flamboyant Pharoah. His elaborate costumes alone with the glassy cape in one scene, and glittering gold lame cape in the next can make you giggle the way the lavish costumes looked on actor Carlo Orosa, who seemed to be improvising his outrageous gestures the whole time.

The other attention-getting scene was the one about Potiphar's wife, which had undertones of a scandal. The decision to execute this sensitive scene as a campy comedy was a very wise one, anchored on the comedic timing of Alys Serdenia in her performance of the naughty song "Mae East". Her slinky red costume was topped by an outrageously huge, triangular flat-op afro wig, which added to the hilarious nature of the scene.

The cast at the curtain call
(Front row L-R: Orosa, Escalante, Rivera, Concepcion, Luis, Gemora)

To distinguish scenes of dreams from reality, director Valenciano employed effects such as black lights with neon color ribbons, flashing strobe lights and glittery laser lights (designed by Dong Calingacion). The centerpiece of the set designed by Mio Infante was a movable triangular stage where Joseph frequently performed. Infante was also responsible for all those fabulously atypical anachronistic costumes, especially those ornate Egyptian designs. (My minor costume disappointment was about the "coat of many colors" itself, because the colors were at the back and inside the coat, so when Joseph was facing the audience, all we see is a plain black coat.)

Since this is the very first time I had seen this show, I would not know how much different this current show to the original. I can clearly see its appeal to audiences of all ages. In true Trumpets style, Biblical lessons were imparted without sounding preachy. The way it was staged this time by the young director Valenciano (along with his similarly young co-director Nelsito Gomez) was well-paced, engaging and entertaining. The musical score is very catchy and energetic as produced this time by musical director Myke Salomon. It can therefore easily lend itself to evolving styles of dance choreography in its various incarnations over the years, and yes, the years to come.


JOSEPH THE DREAMER runs at the Globe Auditorium of the Maybank Performance Arts Theater in Bonifacio Global City from February 21 to March 7, 2020. As of now, there are five show times left on the Ticketworld site: 8 pm on Feb. 28 and 29, and 3 pm on Feb. 29, March 1 and 7. Tickets are sold at P2,500 for VIP, P1,500 for Gold, and P1,000 for Silver. Currently, there are limited seats left for all remaining show dates.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Review of Black Box's DEKADA '70: Filipino Family in Furious Flux

February 22, 2020

The title "Dekada '70" is a popular Palanca Award-winning literary classic by Luwalhati Bautista first published in 1983, recognized for its brave political and feministic stand. It was adapted into a film by Chito Rono in 2002, shown during the Metro Manila Film Festival, starring Vilma Santos, Christopher de Leon and Piolo Pascual (who swept as Best Supporting Actor in practically all award-giving bodies that year for his role as Jules). I am not proud to confess that I had not read the book yet, nor was I able to watch the film before. Therefore I watched this musical play without any knowledge of its full plot.

Amanda was the subservient wife of self-made architect Julian Bartolome, and loving mother to a brood of five rambunctious boys, namely Jules, Gani, Em, Jason and Bingo.  While Amanda yearned to find a job of her own, Julian imposed his stern objections for her to do anything more than be the homemaker she had been all those years. Amanda realized that if she went on living like this, she will die without leaving any substantial legacy.

The main story begins towards the end of the 1960s, when Jules was already in college and exposed to political activism via his close friend Willy. When Martial Law was declared in 1972 and Willy fell victim to bullet during a rally, Jules left home and took his fight to the mountains as an armed rebel. Meanwhile, Em took up journalism in UP where he took up the same fight, but using words.

"Dekada '70" was basically the story of one regular middle-class Filipino family during that turbulent period of time in our near past. This family's wholesome bourgeois existence was disturbed when children went to college, became politically aware and made their own decisions. The family also personally experienced corruption, abuse and tragedy at the hands of government authorities. Meanwhile, while there is a struggle for class freedom in society, there was also a struggle for personal freedom within the home.

Stella Canete-Mendoza and Julienne Mendoza

Stella Canete-Mendoza was riveting as the central character of Amanda Bartolome. It was her journey from her first childbirth experience, through her years as dedicated wife and mother, up to her firm decision to act upon her own liberation. Her first song "Gusto Ko, Pero" was her Shakespearean soliloquy. This same inner conflict in women that Bautista integrated into the politics of the story is still being tackled in current cinema, like "Marriage Story" as a recent example. 

Her real-life husband Julienne Mendoza (a favorite actor of mine since I saw him in the first run of "Rak of Aegis" in 2014) played his proud and toxic character of Julian with remarkable restraint, just as a typical father-figure was naturally expected to act. Just when I thought he would not have a song of his own, he delivered the song "Minsan May Tahanan" before the show ended with palpable vulnerability.

Jon Abella, Abe Autea, Iggi Siasoco and Boo Gabunada

Jon Abella played the eldest son Jules, who underwent a dark and disturbing transformation when his eyes were forced open by political violence. His powerful singing voice was showcased in his song "Balikat," which expressed his emotions at a friend's unjust death. Vincent Pajara played the second son Gani, who got married first and enlisted in US Navy for financial stability. Boo Gabunada played the middle son Em, who became a journalist against his father's wishes for him to take up something more stable. His frustrations were expressed in his solo "Boses ni Em" which closed Act 1. (Esteban Fulay, Jr. alternates as Em.)

Iggi Siasoco and Abe Autea started out with childish mannerisms as their characters Jason and Bingo were still in elementary in Act 1. However, emphasizing their wacky youth early on made their dramatic moments later in Act 2 all the more heart-rending, especially with the ordeal Jason had to go through. On the other hand, Autea led the incredibly sad and tear-jerking song "Kapatid" on which he also played the acoustic guitar. 

Gel Basa, Matel Patayon, Victoria Mina and Phi Palmos

Victoria Mina played Tess, Amanda's friend who was the mother of Willy. Gel Basa played Evelyn, the unplanned wife of Gani. (Justine Pena alternates as Evelyn.) Matel Patayon played Mara, Jules' partner in the armed resistance who later became his wife. These three women were given a beautiful song to sing ("Payapang Pampang") together with Amanda. Paw Castillo gave a fervent portrayal of Willy (Juan Miguel Severo alternates as Willy, which I think is an interesting piece of casting I'd like to see), whose activist views were expressed in his song "Sigaw ng Bayan". Phi Palmos, Tope Kilatchko, Sabina Basilio and Rona Raissa Angeles play prominent roles in the ensemble. 

Director Pat Valera wrote the adaptation for the stage as a musical, acting as dramaturgist, as well as song lyricist. His epic vision resulted in this intensely-emotional, heavily-dramatic piece of theater. This musical (with music by Matthew Chang, lights by Meliton Roxas Jr. , set by Ohm David, costumes by Hershee Tantiado) was first staged under U.P. Dulaang Laboratoryo in June, 2018, and was restaged later that same year in the Doreen Black Box, Areté, Ateneo de Manila. I was not able to see it back then. 

Director and Writer Pat Valera

This year, Black Box brings back "Dekada '70" to the Arete once again, this time as a new member of Philstage. This production is surely on its way to securing a number of Gawad Buhay citations. On top of performance and technical merits, this show carried a strong call for vigilance and pro-action in the face of oppression. The rousing Act 2 opening song "Bayan, Bayan, Bayan Ko" made sure this urgent message came across, as relevant now as it was all those 40 years ago. 


This current staging of DEKADA '70 runs at the Doreen Black Box, Arete, Ateneo de Manila from February 21 to March 8, 2020. Show times are Friday and Saturdays at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices at P1200 (Gold), P1000 (Regular) and P700 (for students). The show is about 2 hours and a half long, with a 10 minute intermission. The first two weekends are already sold out, so hurry to snag those remaining tickets for the closing weekend. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review of Rep's STAGE KISS: Acting Actualized

February 10, 2020

For its first show of their 83rd season, Repertory Philippines chose to stage a play by Sarah Ruhl, one of the most prolific American playwrights in this new century. In 2017, there was Sarah Ruhl festival of sorts in Mnaila.  Rep staged a 2009 Ruhl play with a rather racy theme and title "In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play)," while Tanghalang Pilipino staged a Filipino adaptation of Ruhl's 2003 play "Eurydice." This new Rep offering is more recent material, as Ruhl wrote "Stage Kiss" in 2011.

The unnamed female protagonist was coming back to stage after a long hiatus because she decided to concentrate on her family. On the first day of rehearsals, it turned out that her leading man was her ex-lover (also unnamed), and their roles (uncannily also about an unexpected reunion of two ex-lovers) required them to be lovers on stage. She was already dedicated to her finance specialist husband and feisty daughter Angela. He was already in a relationship with a pre-school teacher Laurie. Will all those stage kisses they share in this new play actually rekindle the old flame they had together all those years ago?

As She, Missy Maramara was such a natural at improvisations. I felt a lot of those wacky overly theatrical "acting" style of this female lead character was all spontaneously done in the moment, and these showed off her athleticism and her grace in stage movement, possibly acquired from doing yoga or Pilates. Her comic timing was also so faultless. The humor can get quite dark at times, especially in that scene when her character was "roughed up," but Maramara never missed a beat.

She (Missy Maramara) and He (Tarek El Tayech)

As He, Tarek El Tayech had the leading man stage presence, especially with his height, brawn and facial hair. He had  that roguish bravado and overconfidence about him that his character required. He was able to match Maramara in the improvisation department, as well as the proficiency in various accents. This resulted in very palpable chemistry when they are sharing a scene together, . This was especially true in those titular stage kisses they exchanged, which had heat and passion needed to make them realistically affecting. 

Jamie Wilson was his reliable best as the play's director Schwabach, so dedicated to his craft, yet so corny in his taste and vision. Andres Borromeo was a riot as Kevin, the gay understudy who could not stand the kissing scenes. Mica Pineda played his girlfriend Laurie (in real life) and her girlfriend Millicent (in the play).  Justine Narciso played the daughter in real life (Angela) and in the play (Millie), as well as the maid (also Millicent, unnecessarily). Veteran actor Robbie Guevara played her husband whose story arc would turn out to be longer than anybody initially thought.

The cast at the curtain call
(Nangit, Narciso, Wilson, Maramara, El Tayech, Guevara, Borromeo and Pineda)

It seemed that based on the central characters' backgrounds, the actors playing them needed to be a bit older, maybe middle aged at least. However, casting younger attractive actors in the lead resulted in tangible romantic thrill the way the story played out  How that set design of His apartment (by Ohm David) served a double purpose later on was a stroke of writing genius. The play within the play, entitled "The Last Kiss," was set in the 1930s, so that gave Bonsai Cielo a chance to design some stylish vintage formal outfits, best of which was Her emerald long gown.

I enjoyed all the inside jokes Ruhl shared about actors and acting which made this show practically a satire about the theater industry. The flow of the story was not exactly smooth though. Just when you thought it was winding up, a totally new angle came up. What seemed to be a light comic romp in Act 1 transformed into a darker The whole concluding scene felt like it came from out of the blue. However, director Carlos Siguion-Reyna and his game cast managed to rise above these drawbacks in Ruhl's script and work wonders.


STAGE KISS runs from February 7 to March 1, 2020 at the Onstage in Greenbelt One, Makati City. Show times are at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, with 3:30 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices are at  ₱2,000 for Orchestra Center (Reserved Seating), ₱1,500 for Orchestra Sides (Free Seating) and ₱1,000 for Balcony (Free Seating).

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Review of PETA's UNDER MY SKIN: Horizons of HIV

February 8, 2020

The scourge of HIV-AIDS in the Philippines is still growing leaps and bounds even now. The present statistics are alarming, adding a staggering 36 new HIV patients a day in 2019. This number only stood at 2 new patients a day just 10 years ago. This is despite what seemed to be repeated information campaigns about HIV coming from all forms of mass media, the theater stage included. This new play written by Rody Vera attempts to reeducate its audiences with how people nowadays get HIV-AIDS and what can be done about it.

Dr. Gemma Almonte was a physician who had dedicated herself to the continual study of HIV and manage cases of HIV referred to her. Her role was basically what held all the stories told in this play together. On opening night, it was Roselyn Perez who played the good doctor in her first professional play in Filipino in her 40+ year theater career. Perez had already played an AIDS doctor before in "The Normal Heart" for which she won awards. Here, Dr. Gemma was mainly a narrator and an educator. However, she was also given one dramatic moment of pure empathy with a young AIDS patient she was particularly attached with, and Perez worked that scene for all its worth. (Her alternate is film actress Cherry Pie Picache, and that should also be something to catch.) 

Dr. Gemma's newest patient was Jonathan had concomitant infections of pneumonia and pulmonary TB. When his HIV test turned out positive, the news caused much anxiety for his current partner Greg, his ex-lover Syd (Eko Baquial), and Syd's younger current lover (Jarred Jaicten). From whom did Jonathan get it and to whom had he passed it on to? How can a partner support his infected partner? This central story was the focal point around which discussions about HIV's effects on gay relationships revolved.

Mike Liwag played the frail Jonathan, while Gio Gahol played his terrified lover Greg. Both of these actors made a mark in excellent indie films last year, Liwag in "Culion" and Gahol in "Sila-sila." The conflict Greg faced may be the knee-jerk reaction of many HIV patients when they first hear the news, and Gio . The highlight of these two roles was a spectacular curtain dance routine representing the birth of their love affair. The two actors get to show off their athleticism and grace as they perform acrobatic moves on the flowy apparatus. (Miguel Almendras alternates as Jonathan, while Anthony Falcon alternates as Greg.) 

The talented cast takes its curtain call.
(Front row: Terrana, Liwag, Gahol and Perez)

Dino was a sickly 14-year old boy brought to Dr. Gemma by his mother Aling Loida for a chronic cough. When his test result was unexpectedly positive, Loida wondered how her Dino got it when all he did was play DOTA with his friends. Dylan Talon is already college graduate but because of his slight build, he could still pull off this key role of Dino, a young teenager, with disturbing realism. Kitsi Pagaspas was a natural in her serio-comic role of a harassed mother, somewhat like her role in "Charot!" but dialed down given the nature of this play. (Her alternate is Lotlot Bustamante.)

Mary Rose was a stressed-out mother who had a five-year old son whose diarrhea never got well. She went to have it checked with Dr. Gemma, and it turned out he was HIV positive, which meant that he could've only gotten it from her. Now, how did she get it? How about her other kids? Gold Villar Lim played the shell-shocked Mary Rose in her fear, despair and indignance. (Her alternate is She Maala.) Mico Esquivel played her husband Louie during his singular fateful moment of irresponsibility which led to disastrous results. (His alternate is Bene Manaois.)

There were two other episodes which were played out like breaks from the main storyline. Both segments featured Dudz Terrana in full drag. In the first, Terrana was a comedy bar performer who just accompanied his friend to the HIV testing center and decided to take the test himself. This may seem dry on paper, but here, this scene was given a full stage production treatment, complete with chiffon curtains and graphic projections to show the results per patient's birthday.  In his second scene, Terrana was Mother, the owner of a beauty salon who treated his employee (Jason Barcial, alternate Joseph Madriaga) unfairly when he tested HIV positive. His monologues were replete with gay-speak which flew over my head but those who understood were all laughing their heads off.

Talkback session after the show. 

Director Melvin Lee had to harness all his imagination and creativity to make a show about deadly serious and morbid topic like HIV-AIDS entertaining and engaging, and he succeeded. There was enough comic relief without totally undermining the serious advocacy behind it, and Lee made sure that this critical balance was kept intact. Teresa Barrozo (composer and sound designer), Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije (production design), Ian Torqueza (lights designer), Steven Tansiongco (video designer), Nicole Primero and Carlos Deriada Jr. (choreographers) kept the proceedings interesting throughout the show -- not a dry moment at all. 


"UNDER MY SKIN" runs from February 8 to March 22, 2020 at the PETA Theater in Quezon City. Ticket prices range from ₱1,800.00 (VIP), ₱1,500.00 (ORCHESTRA Premium),₱1,000.00 (ORCHESTRA Regular), ₱1,500.00 (BALCONY Premium) and ₱800 (BALCONY Regular). Show runs for about a little less than 2 hours with no intermission. There is an open forum after the show with the audience to discuss the issues presented.