Wednesday, August 21, 2019

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

August 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baylocon, Villarama, Pena, Garcia at their curtain call

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


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

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Review of Tanghalang Ateneo's DOLOROSA: Females of Fortitude

August 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Elena (Claudia Enriquez) and Mariano (Capinding)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review of PhilStagers' SINDAK 1941: Harrowing Hostilities

August 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, August 10, 2019

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

August 11, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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