Something is happening in local theater. No, we don’t mean that all the previous years had been a long period of ennui and inactivity. Far from it.
Our annual yearend roundups in the last nine years—covering all the stage productions we could manage to catch in the metro, anywhere from 50 to 60-plus shows of dizzying variety and persuasion in a year (see infographic below)—provide prima facie evidence that the theater industry is far from the sick, dying creature it’s been long lamented to be.
Despite the perennial impediments posed by sparse funds and marginal popular recognition, it has, in fact, grown and expanded through the years.
Proof? There are more professional theater companies now than there has ever been in the history of live performance in this country, each with its own full season of shows. Except in summer, weekends have become an occasion to pick from a virtual smorgasbord of shows running in various venues all over Manila.
The market is big enough to sustain both a sold-out, three-month run of the Broadway behemoth “Wicked” and the scrappy local productions brave enough to take it head-on early this year: the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s “Rak of Aegis” and Dulaang UP’s “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.”
Here’s the twist: “Wicked” has come and gone, but “Rak of Aegis” is still playing. Even better, it continues to pack in roaring crowds while “Chicago,” the snazzy Broadway import that replaced “Wicked,” is playing to many empty seats at The Theatre in Solaire (a pity, because the show is first-rate).
Something is changing, too, in the content being offered to audiences. Last year was a banner year for the original Filipino musical. With a record 14 productions big and small, it outnumbered its foreign counterparts for the first time in memory.
This year, from a quick look at the 67 or so shows we caught, came another surprise: There were vastly more plays than musicals!
While the biggest crowd-drawer remained of the latter variety—who could resist singing along to Aegis songs, after all?—serious big-ticket dramas, at least this year, seemed to have achieved a more than fighting chance against their pert and bubbly song-and-dance cousin. (Hence the longer-than-usual citation list for performers in plays below.) Who would’ve thought?
And, you might not have noticed—the young are effectively taking over the scene. A generational shift appears to be underway. Consider the rookie, relatively untested names that made a splash in our book in the 2014 theater landscape.
Some of the best productions were directed by newbie directors—Ed Lacson Jr., Toff de Venecia, Topper Fabregas and Rem Zamora, the latter two veteran actors successfully making their first stab at direction.
Many plays and musicals were galvanized to life by the exceptional performances of actors who are young and/or recent to the business—Pepe Herrera, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Rebecca Coates, Kim Molina, Delphine Buencamino, Martha Comia; or even the likes of Guelan Luarca, Joe-Nel Garcia and Cholo Ledesma, who are Ateneo students by day and occasional (capable) actors by night.
In playwriting, J-mee Katanyag’s and Raymund Reyes’ entries at the Virgin Labfest made us sit up and know their names. In music, Krina Cayabyab, Ejay Yatco and the songwriting tandem of José Carlo Frios and Nina Virgin served notice with their debut full-length scores that they have what it takes to enrich local musical theater.
This year was also marked by a sudden bounty of small, independent drama festivals led by intrepid young organizers. Since 2005, the Virgin Labfest has been the only festival of its kind providing a platform for the staging of new (one-act) plays.
In February came the first alternative—MNL, a festival at CCP of avant-garde dance, theater and performance-art works by indie theater artists and companies, among them Kolab Co. and Sipat Lawin Ensemble. The launch of Short+Sweet Manila followed at UP, showcasing a vibrant raft of original 10-minute plays. And in October, De Venecia’s brainchild, The Imaginarium, played host at the Peta Theater Center to about 13 productions, most of them aiming for the uncommon and different in their staging. Early next year will bring another one: the birth of Fringe Manila.
That youthful, renewing dynamism is the best reassurance that more exciting Filipino theater is ahead. Which means we are likely to be in the business of doing this annual roundup for the next 10 more years and beyond. Who’s complaining?
For 2014, here’s what we consider the best of the Manila theater scene:
Best Play (One-Act)
“Malapit Man, Malayo Din” (Chris Martinez, playwright; Melvin Lee, director). A pair of young lovers is on the verge of separation because of… traffic. One lives in Las Piñas, the other in Valenzuela, and hardly the twain meet because of Manila’s infernal road conditions. This irresistible premise, performed to giddy, exasperated perfection by Peta actors Pat Liwanag and Roi Calilong, was a fresh showcase of playwright Chris Martinez’s innate ear for mining the heights of tragicomic absurdity in everyday urban life (note “Our Lady of Arlegui,” “Welcome to Intelstar”). Unfortunately, the play, part of Peta’s laboratory series of new works that was resurrected this year, ran for only a weekend and was hardly seen. Repeat, please?
Honorable Mentions: “Betang” (J-Mee Katanyag; Ed Lacson Jr., dir.); “Ang Naghihingalo” (Raymund Reyes; Dennis Marasigan, dir.); “Sa Isang Hindi Natatanging Umaga at ang Mga Ulap Ay Dahan-dahang Pumaibabaw sa Nabubulok na Lungsod” (Allan Lopez; Denisa Reyes, dir.); “Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal” (Eljay Deldoc; Roobak Valle, dir.); “Freshman” (Chris Martinez, playwright/director)
Best Play (Full-Length/ Non-Filipino Material)
“Cock” (Mike Bartlett; Rem Zamora, dir.). Red Turnip Theater’s avowed mission to churn out contemporary plays that highlight the text-actor dynamic was on sharp, persuasive display in “Cock.” First-time director Rem Zamora went for go-for-broke unconventional by staging the play bare, sans props or scenery or sundry bells and whistles, relying only on the sheer ability of his gifted quartet of actors (Topper Fabregas, Niccolo Manahan, Jenny Jamora and Audie Gemora) to live their lines and pull the play through. Which they did, enthrallingly.
Best Play (Full-Length/Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation)
“Middle Finger” (Han Ong; Filipino translation by Ron Capinding; Ed Lacson Jr., dir.). Ed Lacson Jr. first made a name for himself as the longest-serving stage manager of the Virgin Labfest before trying his hand at directing, with small but well-received Labfest entries such as “Ondoy,” “Street Manifesto” and “Isang Daan (A Hundred, or A Road).” This year, he vaults to the big leagues with a run of four compelling productions—“Games People Play” (first staged in December 2013, with a breakout blockbuster rerun in Ateneo early this year); “Betang” (our pick for the best entry in this year’s Labfest, but which disappointingly didn’t make it to the Revisited set); “The Pillowman” (only a staged reading, but already a singular experience that “could be the year’s most entrancing piece of theater,” wrote Inquirer reviewer Vincen Gregory Yu); and, most authoritatively, his mesmerizing, forcefully intelligent production of Han Ong’s “Middle Finger” for Tanghalang Ateneo (“handled masterfully,” declared another of our reviewers, Exie Abola). In a year of novice directors making their mark—Zamora with “Cock,” De Venecia with “Dani Girl,” Fabregas with “Rabbit Hole”—Lacson’s four-strong feat is the most impressive, and “Middle Finger” should serve as his calling card.
Honorable Mentions: “Rite of Passage: Sa Pagtubu Kang Tahud” (Glenn Sevilla Mas; Ron Capinding, dir.); “Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente” (Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Filipino translation by Rolando Tinio; Chris Millado, dir.)
Jonathan Tadioan (“Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”). A 29-year-old actor playing the 63-year-old Willy Loman of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” one of the all-time Olympian parts for male actors? Tadioan proved himself equal to the task with a soulful performance of gruffness and vulnerability, bravado and grace, that built on the resonant Filipino translation of Miller’s text by the late National Artist Rolando Tinio.
Honorable Mentions: Guelan Luarca (“Middle Finger”); Topper Fabregas (“Cock”); Niccolo Manahan (“Cock”); Russell Legaspi (“Fluid”); Spanky Manikan (“Mga Ama, Mga Anak”); Robert Arevalo (“Mga Ama, Mga Anak”); Cholo Ledesma (“Rite of Passage”); Michael Williams (“Rabbit Hole”); Roi Calilong (“Malapit Man, Malayo Din”); David Bianco (“Venus in Fur”); George de Jesus III (“The Country Wife”/“Ang Misis Kong Promdi”); Gio Gahol (“Freshman”)
Jennifer Blair-Bianco (“Venus in Fur”). A bravura display of range that saw Blair-Bianco taking on four distinct characters, often at the wink of an eye or a turn of a line, in the course of David Ives’ thrilling two-hander about seduction, ambition and sexual power play. Playing opposite her real-life husband David, Blair-Bianco never ceded an inch of crystalline control or insight into her various incarnations.
Honorable Mentions: Agot Isidro (“Rabbit Hole”); Gina Pareño (“Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”); Racquel Pareño (“Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”); Sheila Francisco (“August: Osage County); Baby Barredo (“August: Osage County); Liesl Batucan (“Wait Until Dark”); Sherry Lara (“Betang”); Dolly de Leon (“Ang Naghihingalo”); Pat Liwanag (“Malapit Man, Malayo Din”); Delphine Buencamino (“Measure for Measure”/“Hakbang sa Hakbang”); Ana Abad Santos (“Fluid”); Martha Comia (“The Country Wife”/“Ang Misis Kong Promdi”)
Best Featured Actor-Play
Yul Servo (“Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”). If his devastating turn as Willy Loman’s deeply conflicted son Biff is any gauge, TV/movie actor Yul Servo has the chops to carve a lasting space in the theater. He deserves to be enticed more frequently to the stage, where his quietly charismatic presence and dramatic dexterity can be given freer, more challenging rein.
Honorable Mentions: Joe-nel Garcia (“Middle Finger”); Marco Viaña (“Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”); Ron Capinding (“Rite of Passage”); Teroy Guzman (“Rite of Passage”); Audie Gemora (“Cock”); Dido dela Paz (“Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”); JC Santos (“The Glass Menagerie”); Richard Cunanan (“August: Osage County”)
Best Featured Actress-Play
Frances Makil-Ignacio (“Rite of Passage”). In the role of an embittered spinster aunt stewing in a lifetime of regret and recrimination, Makil-Ignacio sidestepped cliché and caricature to create a character of harrowing starkness and truth, lending her one explosive breakdown near the end of “Rite of Passage” such unforgettable power and poignancy.
Honorable Mentions: Jenny Jamora (“Cock”); Che Ramos-Cosio (“Rabbit Hole”); Liesl Batucan (“August: Osage County”); Tami Monsod (“August: Osage County”); Sheila Francisco (“August: Osage County”); Dolly de Leon (“Middle Finger”)
Best Musical (Non-Filipino Material)
“Dani Girl” (music and lyrics by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond; Toff de Venecia, dir.). A musical about a child with cancer searching for answers about her illness sounds like a guarantee of, at best, an awkward evening at the theater. But, almost miraculously, you emerged out of “Dani Girl” edified, exhilarated, won over by its authenticity. Toff de Venecia’s exquisite handling of the delicate material ditched the treacly for the winningly quirky, resulting in the year’s most moving, and movingly acted, musical.
Honorable Mentions: “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott; Jaime del Mundo, dir.); “Shrek The Musical” (music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire; Bobby Garcia, dir.); “The Last 5 Years” (music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; Robbie Guevara, dir.)
Best Musical (Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation)
“Rak of Aegis” (music and lyrics by the Aegis band, book by Liza Magtoto; Maribel Legarda, dir). Nothing less than a phenomenon, with over 130 shows so far and counting, in a run that has extended for much of the year. For all its narrative shortcuts and sometimes tedious character conflicts, “Rak of Aegis” was sleek where it mattered the most—in the epic, glorious music-making, courtesy of musical director Myke Salomon’s brilliant reworking of the Aegis songbook and a crackerjack cast responsible for what Lea Salonga has called “probably the best ensemble singing I’ve heard in a local musical in a very long time.”
After last year’s “Sa Wakas,” which retooled the music of Sugarfree to novel effect, “Rak of Aegis” also takes it a step further with its more adventurous repurposing of both the music and lyrics of Aegis’ industrial-strength pop ditties. The wholesale reimagination marks a genuine achievement in hauling the jukebox-musical template deeper into the realm of true dramatic storytelling in song.
Honorable Mentions: “Ang Nawalang Kapatid” (music by Ceejay Javier, Filipino adaptation of the “Mahabharata” by Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, dir.); “Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini” (music by Krina Cayabyab, book and lyrics by Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, dir.)
Roeder Camañag (“Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini”). Playing the part of the Sublime Paralytic in the last months of his life, sickly in his Guam exile and agonizing whether pledging allegiance to the new American colonizers in exchange for repatriation to his homeland would be a betrayal of all he had stood for, Camañag delivered a haunting, elegiac portrait of a hero reduced to fumbling human scale, in a performance that made full use of his mature actorly and musical skills.
Honorable Mentions: Joaquin Valdes (“The Last 5 Years”); Red Concepcion (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”); Michael Williams (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”); Nicco Manalo (“Kleptomaniacs”); Jon Santos (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”); Deli del Rosario (“FnL”); Patrick Libao (“Filipinas 1941”)
Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (“Shrek The Musical”). This is unquestionably Valderrama-Martinez’s year, with two stellar turns in markedly dissimilar productions. In “Dani Girl,” she was an indomitable presence as the desperate but steely mom trying to provide solace to her cancer-stricken child. In “Shrek The Musical,” as Princess Fiona, she switched to sassy tomfoolery to become the virtual comic essence of the show, a singing-dancing-emoting-spitting-wisecracking whirlwind of a talent who, in prosthetics yet, would finally claim her own sweet spot in the pantheon of local musical leading ladies.
Honorable Mentions: Rebecca Coates (“Dani Girl”); Cris Villonco (“Ghost The Musical”); Aicelle Santos (“Rak of Aegis”); Kim Molina (“Rak of Aegis”); Joan Bugcat (“Rak of Aegis”); Mitzie Lao (“Dani Girl”); Tippy Dos Santos (“Grease”)
Best Featured Actor-Musical
Pepe Herrera (“Rak of Aegis”), Reb Atadero (“Dani Girl”). Yes, a tie—because, hands down, this category is the most competitive this year, with nearly everyone on the list a shoo-in. But we have to choose, and for this we’re invoking our place as the (sole) instigator of this year-end survey to pick two.
Pepe Herrera, a classically trained vocalist, broke through with a nutty, deliriously zany turn as the boatman Tolits in “Raks of Aegis”—his first big-musical stint, by the way. (He would prove that wasn’t beginner’s luck with another unhinged turn as the “jologs” cousin in Peta’s preview run of “FnL”). Reb Atadero, meanwhile, was a shape-shifting virtuoso in “Dani Girl,” dazzling and effortless in about a dozen character transformations—an altogether tremendous performance.
Honorable Mentions: Jerald Napoles (“Rak of Aegis”); Poppert Bernadas (“Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini”); Myke Salomon (“Rak of Aegis”); Juliene Mendoza (“Rak of Aegis”); Phi Palmos (“Rak of Aegis”); Nyoy Volante (“Shrek The Musical”); Jett Pangan (“Shrek The Musical”); Pepe Herrera (“FnL”); Micko Laurente (“Kleptomaniacs”); Luigi Quesada (“Dani Girl”)
Best Featured Actress-Musical
Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (“Dani Girl”). See Best Actress-Musical above.
Honorable Mentions: Kalila Aguilos (“Rak of Aegis”); Ima Castro (“Ghost The Musical”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Shrek The Musical”); Kakai Bautista (“Rak of Aegis”); Antoinette Taus (“Grease”); Teetin Villanueva (“Ang Nawalang Kapatid”); Bituin Escalante (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”)
Ed Lacson Jr. See “Middle Finger” above.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Millado (“August: Osage County,” “Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente”); Maribel Legarda (“Rak of Aegis”); Dexter Santos (“Ang Nawalang Kapatid,” “Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini”); Rem Zamora (“Cock”); Toff de Venecia (“Dani Girl”); Ron Capinding (“Rite of Passage”); Topper Fabregas (“Rabbit Hole”)
Artistic and technical standouts
Dexter Santos’ complex choreography and overall movement design for “Ang Nawalang Kapatid,” first of all, which his tireless all-student cast performed with precision and aplomb night after night.
For set design, a clutch of standouts this year—Gwyn Guanzon’s stunning barrio hovel of a set for “Rite of Passage”; Mio Infante’s flooded-village scenery for “Rak of Aegis”; Ohm David’s imposing rock-cavern setting for “Ang Nawalang Kapatid”; Clint Ramos’ Tiffany-blue jewel-box parlor for “The Country Wife”/“Ang Misis Kong Promdi”; Ed Lacson Jr.’s warren of wire fences in “Middle Finger”; and Joey Mendoza’s all-red living-room distillation of Diana Vreeland’s élan and spirit in “Full Gallop.”
In music, three important debuts—Ejay Yatco’s gorgeous melodies for his otherwise poorly staged “Toilet The Musical”; Krina Cayabyab’s strikingly dissonant score for “Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini”; and the envelope-pushing rap-hiphop music of José Carlo Frios and Nina Virgin for “Kleptomaniacs”—joining Myke Salomon’s topnotch vocal direction and musical rearrangements for “Rak of Aegis,” and Ceejay Javier’s concise score for “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.” And from the dance-drama “Agyu: Patungo sa Paraiso” (a promising freshman work by choreographer-actor Delphine Buencamino), an atmospheric all-instrumental score by Cebu-based artists Jean Govinda and Jade Lim.
Joseph Tolentino’s orchestration for “The Last 5 Years” was, as usual, noteworthy; ditto with Javier’s work in “Shrek The Musical” and Yatco’s buoyant piano work for “Dani Girl.” Also, Teresa Barrozo’s judicious sound and music design for “Middle Finger”; and Jethro Joaquin’s cornucopia of radio ditties and countryside noises in “Rite of Passage.” Props, too, to the reliable proficiency of the graduating Technical Theater classes of the College of St. Benilde-School of Design and Arts, as showcased in productions such as “Fluid” and “Agyu: Patungo sa Paraiso.”
More: John Batalla’s lighting for “Wait Until Dark” and “Ang Nawalang Kapatid,” and Meliton Roxas Jr.’s for “Middle Finger”; Edgar San Diego’s riotous costumes for “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical”; Gino Gonzales’ innovative takes on Indian and 17th-century Vienna silhouettes in “Ang Nawalang Kapatid” and “Measure for Measure”/“Hakbang sa Hakbang,” respectively; and Benny Batoctoy’s prosthetics and special effects for “Shrek The Musical” (that giant puppet dragon!).
Finally, Nicolas Pichay’s translation of William Wycherley’s “The Country Wife” into a piquant, sparkling “Ang Misis Kong Promdi”; Rody Vera, Anj Heruela and Maynard Manansala’s verbal jubilee of a play in “FnL”; and Floy Quintos’ librettos for “Ang Nawalang Kapatid” and “Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini”, twin models of compact but transporting storytelling.