It was 1997. Liesl Batucan was appearing as Luisa in the long-running Broadway musical “The Fantasticks.” She was being directed by Baby Barredo of Repertory Philippines, her “theater Mama”: “She molded me, honed me, sharpened me, guided me, inspired me and at times, as needed, scolded me. But the end result was that she brought out the best in me,” Batucan recalls.
“There was this priceless moment onstage when I realized the truth of what she said. When you are on that stage, you forget yourself. You are no longer Batucan, and she was right. From that time, on those boards, on that set, I was Luisa. When an actor finds that zone, it is priceless.”
Cut to the present. At Italianni’s in Greenbelt, Makati City, Batucan, my favorite Rep actress, is recalling her many other favorite roles with typical warmth and effusiveness.
A more recent acclaimed performance—actually various roles—was in the riotous “Forbidden Broadway.” There were instant quick changes, and intense concentration, mental focus and musical precision were needed.
“I had to impersonate Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing and Chita Rivera… and there were spoofs of ‘Annie,’ ‘Les Misérables,’ ‘Mamma Mia,’ ‘A Chorus Line.’ It was hilarious. There was a great cast to work with, and my good friend Joel Trinidad was directing me.”
In 2009, she played Paula (with Irma Adlawan as Candida) in Nick Joaquin’s classic, “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” one of the few Filipino plays presented by Rep. Batucan won a Best Actress trophy at the Aliw Awards, and the director (“dearest Tito Mari”), Jose Mari Avellana, was chosen Best Director.
Another late beloved mentor was Rep’s Zenaida Amador, who directed Batucan in many roles, the last of which was as Portia in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
“I still remember her face, her voice, her words, her stance, the twinkle of her eyes at rehearsals,” says Batucan. “I still smile and get misty at the memory.”
It was also Amador who cast Batucan as—get this—Juliet/The Nurse/Lady Capulet in one production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and through sheer grit and determination, she was able to pull it off.
A “small” but stunning role was as the “crazed and broken” beggar woman in the Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd.” Here she played an old crone begging for alms who would, in one instant, throw off her rags to become a sexy dancer. The bravura performance earned her a Philstage Gawad Buhay Award.
Multiple characters were again the norm in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Her big moment was in a poignant monologue, her face on the giant video screen, playing a divorceé who is trying out a video-dating service for the first time. It was a superb, affecting performance.
Then, for the first time in a Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) play, Batucan played the third wife of a Chinese mandarin in “The Golden Child.” The playwright, David Henry Hwang (of “M. Butterfly” fame) was giving her some pointers backstage “and I could barely focus, I was so starstruck; and the ensemble was so finely tuned, we won Best Ensemble at the Philstage Gawad Buhay.”
Another feat was in the late Mario O’Hara’s “Stageshow” (TP, directed by Chris Millado) where Batucan acted, sang and danced up a storm with another multitalented performer, Roeder Camañag, as her love interest.
What have all these experiences taught her, as a person and as an artist?
“I feel so immensely blessed to have had the privilege of living so many lives vicariously,” she gushes. “It certainly keeps life dynamic and exciting, that’s for sure.”
“Plus, I’ve learned that the very qualities that make one a good human being are also the very same qualities that make one a good actor and artist—humility, openness, truth, clarity, compassion, empathy, courage and, ultimately, love.”