BRAVO! BEST OF THEATER 2017: Symmetries, swerves and surprises in a golden year
Stephanie Zacharek writes in introducing her Top 10 Movies of 2017 for Time Magazine: “For critics, the act of drawing up a 10-best list is always a time of angst—but who wants to hear it?”
Ah, angst you will not hear in this theater roundup, now on its 13th year, as we exult, in fact, at having caught some 76 shows throughout 2017. That big number testifies not only to the extraordinary vibrancy of contemporary Manila theater (our coverage so far hasn’t extended to the regions, sad to say, due to logistical and resource constraints), but also to the bountiful trail blazed by those two pillars of the industry, the Philippine Educational Theater Association and Repertory Philippines, which both celebrated their golden anniversary this year. Peta would go on to bag a rarer distinction as one of the Ramon Magsaysay Awardees for 2017.
Having said that, it wasn’t all peachy, as the year also volleyed up one surprise after another—beginning with the lackluster fate of many marquee productions.
Red Turnip Theater had an unusual misfire in “The Nether,” and quietly went into hiatus for the rest of the year. Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Aurelio Sedisyoso,” from the same pedigreed team behind the much-awarded “Mabining Mandirigma,” seemed a spent shadow of its predecessor. Gantimpala Theater and Grand Leisure Corporation’s anticipated “Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical” proved to be a bloated mess. The Necessary Theatre’s “Blackbird” was strangely uninvolving. Rep, after its strong first three season offerings, floundered with “Hair.” Peta, too, hit a bump with what felt like an undercooked “A Game of Trolls.” And the Virgin Labfest unveiled its weakest lineup in years.
But the surprises also extended to moments of symmetry and serendipity. Consider: The five most accomplished nonmusical productions of the year—Dulaang UP’s “Angry Christ,” Twin Bill Theater’s “My Name is Asher Lev,” Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Ang Pag-uusig,” Rep’s “Agnes of God” and Peta’s “Ang Buhay ni Galileo”—all had to do, one way or another, with questions of faith and belief vis-a-vis reason, free expression, creativity, independent thought, empirical knowledge. What are the chances of such a striking conjunction? (Or was it all a first attempt to make sense of our anxiety at being increasingly unable to believe in anything, in the age of normalized lying and “fake news”?)
Another alignment—the number of exceptional monologues this year by women actors, of which more is said later.
And yet another: Two musicals—Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s “Kinky Boots” and 9 Works Theatrical’s “Newsies,” which opened merely days apart—had respective books by one man: Harvey Fierstein. Did the Broadway legend ever know he had a sort of mini-retrospective in Manila?
Or, take the case of three productions, again all united by one man: Joel Lamangan. In September, the stalwart actor-director debuted a rough-edged but rousing “Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical” at the arts festival Pista Rizalina in CCP. A few days later, his “Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical” opened at the Kia Theater—and it was a letdown. You’d think that was enough for one artist for the year, but there was the indefatigable Lamangan in December, an actor this time, in a riveting performance as Galileo in Peta’s restaging of its landmark “Ang Buhay ni Galileo.”
However coincidental, that three-act trajectory of Lamangan’s 2017 output in theater can pretty much stand in for the general disposition of the rest of the industry, as it forges on through the good and bad patches, the seasons of plenty and want—the way pioneers like Rep and Peta have done so in the last 50 years. The Filipino is resilient? You bet—just take a look at its theater.
Here are the rest of the shows, performances and memories we will take away from this most eventful year.
BEST PLAY (ONE-ACT)
Honorable Mentions: “Tao Po” (Maynard Manansala; Ed Lacson Jr., dir.); “Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat” (Eljay Deldoc; Roobak Valle and Tuxqs Rutaquio, dirs.)
BEST PLAY (FULL-LENGTH/NON-FILIPINO MATERIAL)
“My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok’s novel adapted by Aaron Posner; Steven Conde, dir.). This spare, rigorously staged production not only told its story with emphatic clarity and power, it also served notice about a number of important signposts: that Steven Conde was evolving into another new director to watch, that newbie producer Twin Bill Theater was finding its groove in small but probing material (“Dog Sees God,” “Suicide, Incorporated” and now “My Name is Asher Lev”), and that young lead Nelsito Gomez (in “a mesmerizing tour-de-force portrayal,” as Inquirer reviewer Cora Llamas put it) was having his breakthrough moment.
Honorable Mentions: “Agnes of God” (John Pielmeier; Bart Guingona, dir.); “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” (Sarah Ruhl; Chris Millado, dir.)
BEST PLAY (FULL-LENGTH/ORIGINAL FILIPINO MATERIAL OR ADAPTATION)
“Angry Christ” (Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, dir.). A transcendent, moving work. Playwright Floy Quintos imagined the sociocultural and private environment that must have attended the painter Alfonso Ossorio’s creation of his mural masterpiece “Angry Christ” in an unlikely hacienda chapel in sakada-era Negros, and director Dexter Santos translated that vision into a rapturous, heart-stopping experience in the theater. To quote Inquirer reviewer Arturo Hilado: “it’s possibly the best original Filipino play I have seen in recent memory, beautifully written… and conceptually magisterial in harnessing all the strands—artistic, moral, sexual, religious, social—in the life of an artist, a family and a society.”
Honorable Mentions: “Ang Buhay ni Galileo” (Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” Filipino translation by Alan Glinoga; Rody Vera, dir.); “Ang Pag-uusig” (Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Filipino translation by Jerry Respeto; Dennis Marasigan, dir.)
Nelsito Gomez (“Angry Christ”). In playing two superficially similar but vastly different characters—a young Orthodox Jew conflicted about his creative impulses in “My Name is Asher Lev,” and, in “Angry Christ,” an artist of privileged, Catholic upbringing struggling with his sense of moral and artistic inadequacies—Gomez made 2017 his banner year. His revelatory turn in “Asher Lev” already notched him frontrunner status in this list. But in “Angry Christ” he simply topped himself, in a performance of startling subtlety and delicacy that further confirmed the emergence of a serious new actor in the scene.
Honorable Mentions: Nelsito Gomez (“My Name is Asher Lev”); Joel Lamangan (“Ang Buhay ni Galileo”); JV Ibesate (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Boo Gabunada (“Bagong Cristo”); Michael Williams (“Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike”); Joshua Spafford (“In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]”); Fitz Bitana (“Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat”); Paul Cedrick Juan (“Sakuntala”); Gie Onida (“Birdcage”); Elijah Canlas (“Bantayog: Bata, Banta, Bantay, Tayo, Tayog”); George de Jesus III (“Sylvia Q”)
Mayen Estañero (“Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major”). Her monologue in “Buwan at Baril” lasted a mere 20 minutes, but it was all Estañero needed to create an unforgettable, hurricane-force portrait of a woman claiming the dead body of her revolutionary husband, while wondering where that lofty sacrifice fit in the lives of the family he has left bereft. In a rich year of monologues by women actors—a luminous Missy Maramara in “Clytemnestra,” Mae Paner fearlessly taking on the EJK era in “Tao Po” and Angeli Bayani carving her own tour-de-force moment in “Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major”—Estañero raised the bar highest, and vaulted over it.
Honorable Mentions: Angeli Bayani (“Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major”); Missy Maramara (“Clytemnestra”); Mae Paner (“Tao Po”); Roselyn Perez (“Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“Agnes of God”); Irma Adlawan (“Makbet”); Cris Villonco (“Dear and Unhappy”); Stella Cañete-Mendoza (“Kung Paano Maghiwalay”); Giannina Ocampo (“In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]”); Cath Go (“M Episode”); Matel Patayon (“Sakuntala”); Blanche Buhia (“Lukot-lukot, Bilog-bilog”)
BEST FEATURED ACTOR-PLAY
Kalil Almonte (“Angry Christ”). As the curious country bumpkin alternately seduced and unsettled by the arrival of the aristocratic Alfonso Ossorio, the painter-overlord whose choice of him as his gofer eventually opens the young man’s mind to a world beyond the hacienda and barrio, the superb Almonte provided, in the words of Inquirer reviewer Vincen Gregory Yu, “a grounding heart to the play, the much-welcome quotidian yang to all its grandiloquent yin.”
Honorable Mentions: Robie Zialcita (“My Name is Asher Lev”); Bodjie Pascua (“Ang Buhay ni Galileo”); John Emmanoel Moran (“Ang Buhay ni Galileo”); Jonathan Tadioan (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Marco Viaña (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Joshua Tayco (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Anthony Falcon (“Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat”); Jonathan Tadioan (“Lukot-lukot, Bilog-bilog”); Bong Cabrera (“Si Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon”); Gabo Tolentino (“Sakuntala”); Xander Soriano (“Si Janus Silang at ang Labanang Manananggal-Mambabarang”); Andre Tiangco (“M Episode”)
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS-PLAY
Candy Pangilinan (“Mga Ama, Mga Anak”). Pangilinan’s 2016 stage outing, in the Virgin Labfest’s “Dalawang Gabi,” was a disappointment, the Dulaang UP-trained actor playing too broadly her character as a tragicomic love-struck teacher. This year, her turn in “Mga Ama, Mga Anak” as that hokey cliché, the gold-hearted hooker, marked a return to form—equal parts hilarious, pugnacious and achingly tender, her reading of an otherwise faintly risible Nick Joaquin line—“Marami nang lalaking umangkin sa aking katawan, pero siya ang una kong mangingibig” (Filipino translation by Virgilio Almario and Jose Lacaba)—transforming the words into a most poignant declaration.
Honorable Mentions: Nathalie Everett (“My Name is Asher Lev”); Becca Coates (“Agnes of God”); Antonette Go (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Lhorvie Nuevo (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Doray Dayao (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Issa Litton (“Mga Ama, Mga Anak”); Caisa Borromeo (“In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]”); Tami Monsod (“In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]”); Stella Cañete-Mendoza (“Angry Christ”); Angelina Kanapi (“Faust”); Madlen Nicolas (“Nothing But Dreams”)
BEST MUSICAL (NON-FILIPINO MATERIAL)
“Matilda The Musical” (music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly; Bobby Garcia, dir.). “Matilda The Musical” and “Kinky Boots” duked it out for Best Musical in the 2013 Tony Awards, which “Kinky Boots” won. This year, director Bobby Garcia afforded Filipino theatergoers a chance to see both musicals as his company’s successive season offerings. While “Kinky Boots” was enjoyable fare, anchored on a scream of a performance by Nyoy Volante as drag queen Lola, “Matilda The Musical” was the far more compelling material—dark and wise and piercing, and Garcia’s staging of it a gleaming showcase of exemplary talent across the board, from the production elements to the performances, especially by its amazing kiddie cast.
Honorable Mentions: “Newsies” (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein; Robbie Guevara, dir.); “Kinky Boots” (music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, book by Harvey Fierstein; Bobby Garcia, dir.)
BEST MUSICAL (ORIGINAL FILIPINO MATERIAL OR ADAPTATION)
“Gugmang Giatay” (book and additional music by Jude Gitamondoc and Rowell Ucat; Edison Saynes, dir.). While it could stand a bit more pruning and polish, this production from Cebu was a joyous blast of authentic musicality and sassy fun. It was performed completely in Cebuano (accompanied by supertitles), but one didn’t mind, because the piquant language itself, along with the repertoire of classic and contemporary Visayan melodies and the exuberant but disciplined performances of the cast, added up to a rockin’ show of unexpected sweetness and charm.
Honorable Mention: “Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical” (music by Joed Balsamo and Lucien Letaba, libretto by Bonifacio Ilagan; Joel Lamangan, dir.)
Gian Magdangal (“Newsies”). Magdangal’s stint at Hong Kong Disneyland appears to have done him good, allowing him to come back to the Manila stage with his airy, pristine tenor now a tad darker and more robust, and his thespic skills even more well-honed. He was plainly overaged for the role of the newsboys’ accidental leader Jack Kelly in this Disney musical, but when he opened his mouth and sang, he forthwith erased any such quibble—and soared.
Honorable Mentions: Nyoy Volante (“Kinky Boots”); David Ezra (“Aurelio Sedisyoso”); Arman Ferrer (“Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical”); Red Concepcion (“Care Divas”); Boo Gabunada (“Mula sa Buwan”); Jef Flores (“Godspell”); Pepe Herrera (“Sa Wakas”); Gian Magdangal (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”); Eric Cabrera (“Pagsambang Bayan, The Musical”)
Esang de Torres (“Matilda The Musical”). A 10-year-old wisp of a girl, De Torres ensured that not one false, sentimental note seeped into “Matilda The Musical” with her remarkably poised performance as the wonder girl standing up for herself and her bullied peers in a nightmare school. “She doesn’t rely on the usual cute antics like many child performers. Heck, she doesn’t even smile,” reported ABS-CBN’s Vlad Bunoan, adding that “her voice was downright beautiful.” The role of Matilda is a veritable warhorse for a child actor, but De Torres rode it with impressive panache.
Honorable Mentions: Uma Martin (“Matilda The Musical”); Felicity Kyle Napuli (“Matilda The Musical”); Lourdes May Maglinte (“Gugmang Giatay”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Once Upon a Mattress”); EJ Pepito (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Ashe Uy (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Ela Lisondra (“Putri Anak”)
BEST FEATURED ACTOR-MUSICAL
Jamie Wilson (“Matilda The Musical”). One of the brightest comic villain creations one saw on a local stage in the last many years. As the kid-torturing headmistress Miss Trunchbull, Wilson was spectacular, manifesting—above the hulk and bellow of his masterful performance—a veteran actor’s infectious glee at chomping his teeth on a role of a lifetime.
Honorable Mentions: Joaquin Valdes (“Matilda The Musical”); Reb Atadero (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”); George Schulze (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”); Domi Espejo (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”); Von Saw (“Gugmang Giatay”); Fred Lo (“Mula sa Buwan”); Jef Flores (“Newsies”); Greg Dulcie (“Newsies”); Roi Calilong (“Tagu-taguan, Nasaan ang Buwan”); Gianluigi Ale (“Dagohoy”—or only a 45-minute excerpt of this homegrown musical from Bohol, but enough to convince us that Ale was a gifted young performer); Baron Geisler (“Aurelio Sedisyoso”); Jon Abella (“A Christmas Carol”)
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS-MUSICAL
Shiella Pestaño-Gemperoa (“Gugmang Giatay”). The cheeky, bumptious nature of Visayan humor found riotous embodiment in Pestaño-Gemperoa’s scene-stealing portrayal of the salty lola at the corner sari-sari store guzzling beer at midday while doling out pithy advice to her lovelorn neighbors. She was also assigned the lovely native ballads to sing (“Matud Nila,” “Usahay”), and in those quiet moments, Pestaño-Gemperoa was just as winning.
Honorable Mentions: Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (“Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical”); Aicelle Santos (“Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical”); Cris Villonco (“Matilda The Musical”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Matilda The Musical”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Monty Python’s Spamalot”); Maronne Cruz (“Hair”); Joan Bugcat (“Tagu-taguan, Nasaan ang Buwan”); Maya Encila (“Katips”); Yanah Laurel (“Kinky Boots”)
Dexter Santos (“Angry Christ”). “Angry Christ” felt like a new plane in Santos’ work—leaner and sparer than it’s ever been, but just as thrillingly theatrical. (See also Best Play [Full-length/Original Filipino Material or Adaptation].)
Honorable Mentions: Rody Vera (“Ang Buhay ni Galileo”); Steven Conde (“My Name is Asher Lev”); Dennis Marasigan (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Bart Guingona (“Agnes of God”); Bobby Garcia (“Matilda The Musical”); Robbie Guevara (“Newsies”)
ARTISTIC AND TECHNICAL STANDOUTS
Monino Duque’s master-class lighting for “Angry Christ” is the best of a fine lot that includes John Batalla (“Agnes of God”); Joseph Matheu (“My Name is Asher Lev”); Dennis Marasigan (“Ang Pag-uusig”); Driscoll Otto (“Matilda The Musical”); Meliton Roxas Jr. (“Sakuntala”); Katsch Catoy (“In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]”); and Jonjon Villareal (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”).
For set design/scenery: The grandest set we saw this year was an old one—Salvador Bernal’s jaw-dropping mansion of Art Nouveau capiz and stylized anahaw decor, recreated for Ballet Philippines’ Filipino-themed “The Nutcracker.” In plays and musicals, exceptional scenery was turned in by Joey Mendoza (“Agnes of God” and “Blackbird”); Gino Gonzales (“Angry Christ” and “Makbet”); Faust Peneyra (“Matilda The Musical”); Mio Infante (“In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”); Virgilio Balanon II (“My Name is Asher Lev”); Loy Arcenas (“Eurydice”); and Ohm David (“Ang Pag-uusig” and “Sakuntala”).
Special commendation must be made of the novel set of soaring bamboo poles and ladders employed by Dagway Sigmahanon from Capiz for its “Damgo, A Night to Keep Dreamin’, Mangarap sa Gitna ng Sobrang Init,” an indigenized version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Two productions were invaluably helped by original musical scoring for a play—Poch Gutierrez and Tim Cada’s live guitar-and-cello music for “Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major” (with additional music by Vince de Jesus); and Krina Cayabyab’s for “Angry Christ.” Verne de la Peña’s ethnic music and arrangements for “Putri Anak” also commanded the ear.
For musical direction, the sharpest-sounding were courtesy of Farley Asuncion (“Matilda”) and Daniel Bartolome (“Newsies” and “A Christmas Carol”—it’s a feat to create that lush, well-rounded sound at the open-air Globe Iconic Amphitheater in BGC). Also noteworthy—Jude Gitamondoc (“Gugmang Giatay”); Rodel Colmenar (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”); Molinder Cadiz (“Kinky Boots”); Mary Katherine Trangco (“Putri Anak”); and Robert Encila (“Katips”).
For sound design—Kevin Heard (“Matilda The Musical”); Ric Lorenzo (“Sakuntala”); Teresa Barrozo (“Eurydice”); Jethro Joaquin (“Agnes of God” and “Blackbird”); Noel de Brackinghe (“A Christmas Carol”); Jaime Godinez and Rards Corpus (“Newsies”); and Rards Corpus (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”).
For costumes—Darwin Desoacido created beautiful native finery for “Putri Anak,” while Bonsai Cielo pulled off suave period costumes for “In the Next Room [or The Vibrator Play]” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”). More—Gino Gonzales (“Angry Christ” and “Makbet”); Raven Ong (“Matilda The Musical”); Eric Pineda (“Newsies”); Steven Conde (“My Name is Asher Lev”); and Leeroy New (“Tagu-taguan, Nasaan ang Buwan”).
The most exhilarating dancing this year was by the ensemble of “Newsies,” choreographed by PJ Rebullida; also—“Matilda The Musical” and “Kinky Boots,” both by Cecile Martinez; and the classic komedya movements recreated by Angela Baguilat and Jeremy dela Cruz for “Putri Anak.”
In translation/adaptation, Alan Glinoga’s work in “Ang Buhay ni Galileo” (Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” translated to Filipino), which debuted in 1981, should be mentioned here given “Galileo’s” restaging. But for texts done this year, the two important works are Jerry Respeto’s “Ang Pag-uusig” (Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”) and Allan Palileo’s “Sakuntala” (derived from the “Mahabharata”).
Brief but vivid appearances. Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention something else noticeable this year that would not fit in the ready categories above: the number of instances of proficient actors making the briefest appearances in shows, one or two scenes at most, yet leaving such vivid and well-played imprints that their shadows lingered in their wake.
In “Angry Christ” there were two—Neil Tolentino as the Huk leader Jesus Lava, and Felipe Ronnie Martinez as the modest Ilonggo sculptor Benjamin Valenciano. “Lukot-lukot, Bilog-bilog” had one in precocious kid actor JM Canlas as a child beggar, while in “Ang Buhay ni Galileo,” Manny Pambid scorched his one scene as a doctrinaire monk. And the “Hair” we saw was opened by noncharacter guest artist Abi Sulit delivering a fierce, roof-raising “Aquarius.” No small roles, indeed…
[Note: In the print version of this story, Robbie Guevara was inadvertently credited as director for “Kinky Boots”; it should be Bobby Garcia. This online version reflects the correction. Our apologies.]
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