September 12, 2015
Despite being a tragedy, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" has endured through the years since its initial publication in 1597 with its story of a pair of young lovers whose romance was doomed from the start. This story has been told and retold and retold once again, adapted into various situations and various cultures in many films and plays of varied styles.
For its 40th theater season, Dulaang UP once again challenges conventions to stage a radical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in the context of present-day Filipino youth culture, politics and showbusiness. The very title itself, composed of seemingly random symbols and letters, may not be properly read by the older generation. I still do not know how to properly pronounce it. Apparently the </3 between R and J means "heartbreak".
Everybody knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, so each production strives to stand out by the uniqueness of its interpretation. This DUP staging calls itself a "multimedia hallucination" so that would give you an idea of how this show will probably go. That they explicitly warn that this play is for mature audiences only suggests that their show will be bold and daring.
The setting is still called Verona, but in the Philippines. The Montagues become the Montes family. The Capulets become the Capule family. The two families are bitter political rivals. The names of Romeo and Juliet are reduced to their initials, R and J. The big difference here is that their Juliet is not a shy 13-year old shrinking violet. Instead, 16-year old J is a showbiz star, a brash spirited teen idol. This difference in the basic character of J would later figure in the radically-changed ending.
From the very first scene, your attention is immediately grabbed by the unique vision in white of Romeo and Juliet floating and frolicking in midair, as they were borne by dancers who contort their bodies into different positions in order to achieve the proper effect. From such a triumphantly surreal beginning, the whole Act 1 would prove to be a very exciting, very creative telling of familiar stories. This flexible ensemble of dancers would again be imaginatively utilized in a series of scenes depicting R and J's secret rendezvouses as cubicles and cars.
One of the best scenes for me was that that wild party scene where R and J first met. It was so well-staged with so many dancers on the stage with so much energy and debauchery. The excellent lighting and soundtrack in that scene transformed the whole theater into one big nightclub. It was truly trippy and electric.
I had never seen the stage of Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater so big and so bare, with minimalistic props coming in and out as they were needed. Everything flowed so efficiently. The projection screen is used in ways I had never seen before with so many original visuals. So much popular youth culture has been injected into this play in the visuals, the lingo, the technology, the music, the dancing. So many facets of the original play which I did not notice or pay attention to before were given prominence here, like Romeo's first love Rosaline or Mercutio's homosexuality.
Roco Sanchez and Francesca Go, the lead actors playing R and J, are relatively new with a short list of prior theater credits, but their acting performances were so brave, vital and memorable here. They possess amazing dancing skills to boot from classical balletic moves to interpretative jazz moves to funky hip-hop moves. The onstage chemistry between these two young actors was undeniable, giving the audience a sense of romantic thrill in their scenes together. When R said J was "resplendent", Go truly was. Sanchez exuded the vibe of a young Yul Servo.
Among the young supporting cast, the standout was Stephen Vinas in the bad boy role as J's cousin Tybalt. His stage presence was as remarkable as his six-pack abs, as he literally stood out from the madding crowd onstage. Rowald Aviles and Jonathan Abella, playing the guys on R's side, Ben (for Benvolio) and Markky (for Mercutio), unfortunately could not match the intensity projected by Vinas on that stage. Better casting choices could have made that big brawl scene even more breathtaking than it was.
The senior actors playing the rival politician fathers, Ricky Ibe (as Congressman Montes) and Mitoy Sta. Ana (as Mayor Capule), portray their roles in their slimy best. However, Ibe actually captured more attention in his second (uncredited in the playbill) role as the Boy Abunda-like emcee of TV talk show "Diretsahan". The caricature was hilarious, especially as he mimicked how Abunda would interrupt the guest as they were talking. By quick costume and wig changes, Marynor Madamesila would portray both Mrs. Montes and Mrs. Capule. She would have her big scene in Act 2 as the Psychiatrist lecturing J about the hormonal basis of love.
After the intermission though, the whole texture of the play will change. For all the visual and emotional vibrancy of Act 1, Act 2 was the complete opposite. We know this Act 2 would be a downer the way events go, but I did not expect it to be this down. R's long sobbing soliloquy may have been a big dramatic moment for Sanchez, but I felt it lost something when the video showed of his suicide did not coincide with how it was portrayed onstage. I do not know if I like the twist in the ending about J. The long final scene was in complete silence, lit only by cellphone flashlights . Too bad during the show I watched, the dramatic power of that scene was interrupted by a girl's sneeze piercing the silence, causing the audience to burst into giggles.
The final image we see on the big screen was a real-time video of the audience. This, and the unconventional absence of a curtain call, were head-scratching puzzles for the audience as they reluctantly and very quietly, I guess thoughtfully, filed out of the theater. This was the most uneasy ending of a theater show I have experienced.
Just when you thought they could not do anything more to Romeo and Juliet, here is "#R </3 J" to shake you up. Dexter M. Santos skillfully directs and leads the choreography team to bring this novel adaptation by Guelan Varela-Luarca to vivid life. The technical designers -- Krina Cayabyab (Music), John Batalla (Lights), Ohm David (Set), Winter David (Video), Darwin Desoacido (Costumes) -- have collaborated to create the perfect theatrical hallucination for us to immerse ourselves in.
"#R </3 J" will have three last shows today September 13, 2015 at 10am, 3pm and 8 pm. There will be another show on Sept. 14 at 8 pm to accommodate those who bought tickets for the Sept. 8 show cancelled because of power outage and inclement weather. Venue is at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, 2nd Floor Palma Hall in UP Diliman.
For ticket inquiries, you may contact Samanta Clarin (09277406124) or Camille Guevara (09178239531). You may also contact the DULAANG UP Office at 9261349; 4337840 or 9818500 loc 2449.