Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review of UPPT"s THE KUNDIMAN PARTY: Championing Culture and Country

April 21, 2018

The name of playwright Floy Quintos is a trusted brand of excellence in local theater. For the past three decades or so, he has written some of the most memorably intelligent plays both in English and Filipino, all with strong socio-political commentary spiked with prickling wit. So remarkably distinct is his brand, there had evolved a new adjective to describe them -- "Quintosian."

Since 2013, five of his plays had been staged in UP under the direction of Dexter M. Santos, and I am happy to have watched all five of them. These were: "Collection" (MY REVIEW), "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" (MY REVIEW), "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" (MY REVIEW), "Angry Christ" (MY REVIEW) and now this new one, "The Kundiman Party." 

This play is set in our present time. Maestra Adela Dolores, a famous operatic diva from more than 30 years ago, has long retired from performing, and was now spending her time teaching her craft to students in her home. She kept a close circle of friends around her, namely the nurturing Helen, the liberated Mitch and the over-protective Mayen. The four ladies regularly met in Maestra's house where they listened to music and discussed politics.

One day, the ladies got together just when the Maestra was mentoring a budding young soprano named Antoinette. Things got more interesting when they met Antoinette's boyfriend Bobby, who was into anti-government political activism (causing him to be estranged from his father, the unpopular Senator Juancho Valderrama). Bobby had the idea of using Maestra's kundiman to revitalize nationalism in the youth via social media, giving rise to a viral online "Kundiman Party."

The script of Floy Quintos, again, does not disappoint in both its essence and its language. It had such current significance as it frankly discussed the present political turbulence and issues. It conveyed very powerful messages about music, culture pride, and nationalism. The sense of humor, mostly coming from the vibrant repartee of the "titas," was very entertaining in its cattiness and occasional vulgarity.

Quintos' choice of kundiman songs to be included in the show was so inspired. All were beautiful in both melody and lyrics, such as Nicanor Abelardo's "Bituing Marikit" or "Nasaan Ka Irog" or "Mutya ng Pasig". When Francisco Santiago's "Pilipinas Kong Mahal" was sung, tears welled in my eyes in its piercing poetic patriotic fervor. Two other kundiman songs by Santiago open and close the show, "Pakiusap" and "Madaling Araw."  Maestro Ryan Cayabyab provided additional kundiman arrangement for piano.

The classy set designed by Mitoy Sta. Ana

Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino exuded such a genuinely elegant aura of a diva as Maestra Adela Dolores, so completely believable in her regal sense of the dramatic. Her cluelessness with regards to gadgets and social media was delightfully depicted. Her delivery of lines was so rich in bombast and nuance at the same time. This was a magnetic performance that stood out in its own class of excellence.

Kalil Almonte had a conflicted role to play as Bobby. His was a critical character who presence turned the perfectly sheltered life of Maestra upside-down. He was unwaveringly headstrong and single-minded, which can be difficult to watch in scenes where his passionate stubbornness bordered on insensitivity and rudeness. His open-ended final fate makes him an enigma. This is a character the audience will likely discuss after the show. 

The three titas of the play all had distinct personalities we all recognize in our own titas. The veteran actresses in these roles all played off each other in a very natural and relaxed manner. Stella Canete-Mendoza played Helen, the motherly one, the gentle one, the caring one. Her breakdown scene was a highlight moment for her. Missy Maramara played Mitch, the carefree one, the sexy one, the brutally frank one. Her story about her viral Instagram post was hilarious. (Jenny Jamora alternates as Mitch.) Frances Makil-Ignacio played Mayen, the wary one, the suspicious one, the negative one. She had a character just like Mayen in the Virgin Labfest one-act play Adrian Ho's "Sincerity Bikers Club" last year. 

One very key role in this play is that of Antoinette because she is the one singing all the kundiman songs we hear. It is up to her to mesmerize us with her clarity of rendition and emotional connection of these vocally-challenging songs. Arya Herrera and Teetin Villenueva (whose angelic voice I already heard sing in "Collection" before) alternate in this role. On the matinee show I watched earlier today though, it was understudy Miah Canton playing Antoinette. To her credit, she nailed all her singing parts. She had us all listening to her every word she was singing. Acting-wise, she looked rather stiff and nervous at first, but she ultimately pulled through thanks to her supportive co-stars. 

Teroy Guzman only had one scene in the final act, but his stage presence as Senator Juancho Valderrama was so strong. His line delivery was crisp, authoritative, and quite persuasive -- so amazing to watch. Farley Asuncion played the piano beautifully on stage throughout the show as Maestra's faithful Ludwig. However, he also gets to sneak in some funny one-liners once in while. Rica Nepomuceno played it all-out comedy as the over-the-top professional singer Melissa, but she also gets to sing a grand kundiman with aplomb. (Melisa Camba alternates as Melissa.)

With this show, Dexter M. Santos directs his final play as Artistic Director of Dulaang UP, a post he held since 2015. Under his directorial vision, the play was staged in a very engaging manner that held the full-house audience in rapt attention throughout its nearly 3-hour running time (with 10 minute intermission), as we imbibed the music and the issues the show presented to us. 

Mitoy Sta. Ana deserved kudos for his set design of Maestra's elegant yet homey living room and staircase, as well as his costume choices of the cast (particularly those worn by the Maestra). Monino Duque was the main lighting designer, following up his comeback last year for "Angry Christ."  Steven Tansiongco is responsible for the video and graphics design which was essential to depict the social media aspect of the script. Krina Cayabyab served well as musical director to seamlessly integrate the kundiman into the narrative.

The cast and crew take their bows 
Front Row L-R: Guzman, Maramara, Canete-Mendoza, Centenera-Buencamino, 
Makil-Ignacio, Almonte, Canton and Jacob

The combination of classical Filipino music and current news events and politics in this play made for a thought-provoking piece of theater, as all other Floy Quintos works are known to be. There are scenes with lofty idealistic ideas about cultural nationalism being floated around, but there are also scenes of sobering realism to bring us back down to earth and keep our feet on it. 

Maestra Adela made several choices in her life where she put love of country above her personal career and comfort. All the other characters here all had to make their own big choices in their own lives as well as events in the play unfolded. Faced with the current divisive political landscape we live in today, the audience is also prodded by this show to also make our own big choices. It hopes we stand up and choose to do what is best -- for our culture and for our country. 


"The Kundiman Party" opened last April 11, 2018 and will play up to April 29. For its final week next week, showtimes are at 7 pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and 10 am on Sundays. Tickets are only at P500 each. Contact person is Camile Guevara 0917-8239531.


UPDATE: MAY 23, 2019

Floy Quintos' "The Kundiman Party," my choice for the Best Full-Length Filipino Play last year is being re-staged for the next two weekends from May 24 to June 2, 2019. Showtimes are at 8 pm on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sunday. This time it will staged in the PETA Theater in Quezon City. 

Original Cast Members: Mendoza, Maramara, Buencamino, Ignacio and Canton

The press preview that I watched tonight is already the third time I had seen the play, and it never lost its powerful impact on me as a viewer. The female cast is basically the same as the female cast I described in the main review above for the first time I watched this show in UP Diliman -- Shamaine Buencamino as Maestra Adela, Stella Canete-Mendoza (Tita Helen), Missy Maramara (Jenny Jamora alternates as Tita Mitch) and Frances Makil-Ignacio (Tita Mayen) as her three "kerengkeng" tita friends and Rica Nepomuceno as Melissa. Miah Canton played her student Antoinette with visibly a lot more confidence in her portrayal this time around.

New Cast Members: Nonie Buencamino and Boo Gabunada

The male cast though was all new. The pianist Ludwig, formerly played by Farley Asuncion, is now played by Gabriel Paguirigan. Antoinette's passionate political activist boyfriend Bobby is now played by Boo Gabunada. He got the youthful impulsiveness and hyperactive verve for the role, like Kalil Almonte had originally (with attacked differently). It  must have been difficult for Gabunada to pretend to sing badly. 

In the role of Sen. Juancho Valderrama, Nonie Buencamino created magic on that stage -- especially in the scene where he acted side by side his real-life wife Shamaine. His performance was remarkably impressive, especially given the fact that Teroy Guzman already hit the role out of the park the last time.  

Magical Moment: Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino in a scene together

The artistic and technical staff of director Dexter Martinez Santos include Nour Houshmand (Assistant Director), Mitoy Sta. Ana (Production Designer, recreating Maestra's chic living room as it was on the stage of the Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall), Krina Cayabyab (Musical Designer), and Meliton Roxas (Lighting Designer).

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