One lesson we’ve learned in the near-entire adult lifetime we’ve spent watching local theater (and, in the last 10 years, codifying our observations through this year-end roundup) is to never lose our capacity to be surprised.
The ephemeral, every-show-is-different nature of the art form assures that; but, also, the industry itself seems forever in ferment as it struggles to exist, create and be relevant in the moment. Against such a fluid, fertile state, becoming jaded is the worst one could be.
And so, a macro look at the state of Manila theater once a year can be an opportunity to be surprised, to marvel not only at the big changes and developments (more theater companies opening, for instance, heralding greater optimism in the market—this year, Artist Playground and Egg Theater Company made their debuts), but also the more subtle shifts and tremors less noticed perhaps in the frenzy of competing opening nights and simultaneous runs that are becoming the norm on the thriving scene.
Last year, we noted that, for the first time, the plays outnumbered the musicals—quite a development, if you think about it, in a country where ubiquitous song-and-dance productions have been dominant for the longest time, and are seen as a more natural extension of the Filipinos’ musical DNA compared to the “straight” plays. Musicals tend to get more mainstream attention, create bigger buzz and enjoy longer runs—or so the thinking goes.
But this year, from out of 69 shows we managed to catch (some more than once to see the alternate cast, so the figure should be closer to 90) came the confirmation that last year was no fluke: The plays were even more numerous this time, beginning with the heavyweights—no less than three productions of “King Lear,” two vastly different “Romeo and Juliets,” a visiting “Hamlet,” five versions of “Waiting for Godot,” adaptations of “The Cherry Orchard” and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” plus contemporary warhorses such as “The Normal Heart” and “33 Variations.”
Local playwrights added to the pile with new works of dizzyingly varied persuasions, from the Virgin Labfest’s traditional two-handers to modern pop-inflected gabfests such as “No Filter,” the Sandbox Collective’s monologue series pitched to millennials (a hit, take note, so that market apparently can be tapped away from their iPads and smartphones).
So abundant is the play category that, at this time, the holiday season when musicals are usually the only stage fare capable of holding their own against a distracted market, the ones still up and holding the fort are three scrappy plays—George de Jesus’ returning “Maniacal,” under his newly formed Egg Theater Company (on its last weekend at Pineapple Lab in Makati); and a twin bill production of Glenn Sevilla Mas’ “Games People Play” and Eljay Deldoc’s “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala” (also on its closing weekend at Power Mac Center Spotlight in Circuit Makati). The last musical for the year, Repertory Philippines’ “The Secret Garden,” took its final bow a week ago.
So, in the face of such invigorating rearrangements and reformations, what’s a devotee to do but welcome the surprise every time—and wish for more, in fact?
For 2015, here are the Manila productions and performances that, by giving us that old tingling feeling, kept the faintest threat of any jadedness at bay.
BEST PLAY (ONE-ACT)
“Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala” (Dean Francis Alfar’s short story “The Kite of Stars,” adaptation by Eljay Deldoc; Ed Lacson Jr., director). “The crown jewel of the Virgin Labfest,” wrote GMA Network reviewer Ibarra Mateo—and indeed it was. Eljay Deldoc’s adaptation of Dean Francis Alfar’s story about a besotted girl and a loyal friend who spend an entire lifetime scouring the world for materials for a giant kite that will allow her to be seen by the star-gazing boy she loves was, first of all, a shimmering celebration of the Filipino tongue. Director Ed Lacson Jr. would build on that lyrical scaffolding by harnessing the tropes of Filipino folklore to lend this moving tale of unconditional love the sweep, stature and power of a long-ago, but deathless, fable. An instant classic.
Honorable Mentions: “Dalawang Gabi” (Maynard Manansala; Jade Castro, dir.); “Kublihan” (Jerome Ignacio; Guelan Luarca, dir.); “Rashomon” (original adaptation by Fay and Michael Kanin, Filipino translation by Guelan Luarca; JK Anicoche, dir.)
BEST PLAY (FULL-LENGTH/NON-FILIPINO MATERIAL)
“33 Variations” (Moisés Kaufman; Jenny Jamora, dir.). The material itself—about a dying musicologist’s obsession with how Beethoven must have wrung out from his own expiring faculties his celebrated Diabelli Variations—may have felt too schematic in moments, but actress Jenny Jamora’s cogent direction produced an altogether vaulting, empathetic work of intelligence and imagination. The fact that this was only her debut full-length directorial effort (last year she directed a one-act entry at the Virgin Labfest) made the achievement all the more extraordinary, serving notice that the ranks of local young directors who bear watching have just admitted a serious new entrant.
Honorable Mentions: “The Normal Heart” (Larry Kramer; Bart Guingona, dir.); “This Is Our Youth” (Kenneth
Lonergan; Topper Fabregas, dir.); “4000 Miles” (Amy Herzog; Bart Guingona, dir.); “Run for Your Wife” (Ray Cooney; Miguel Faustmann, dir.)
BEST PLAY (FULL-LENGTH/ORIGINAL FILIPINO MATERIAL OR ADAPTATION)
“Mga Buhay na Apoy” (written and directed by Kanakan Balintagos). A mesmerizing mix of family melodrama and indigenous mythology, “Mga Buhay na Apoy” was an early play by the filmmaker Kanakan Balintagos that already contained the germ of the themes he would revisit in his films—strength in self-identity, truth in one’s roots. With unhurried assurance and intense conviction, he teased out a slow-burn drama of tribal incantations and suburban silences that, like “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala,” felt distinctly, exhilaratingly, Filipino.
Honorable Mentions: “Arbol de Fuego” (Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Filipino adaptation by Rody Vera; Loy Arcenas, dir.); “Juego de Peligro” (Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Filipino adaptation by Elmer Gatchalian; Tuxqs Rutaquio, dir.); “Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘En Attendant Godot’” [“Old Folks Waiting” version] (Samuel Beckett; Filipino translation by Guelan Luarca; JK Anicoche, dir.); “Maniacal” (written and directed by George de Jesus III); “#R</3J” (William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Filipino adaptation by Guelan Luarca; Dexter Santos, dir.); “Tungkol kay Angela” (Joshua Lim So; Banaue Miclat, dir.); “The Horse and His Boy” (C.S. Lewis’ children’s novel adapted by Luna Griño-Inocian; Jaime del Mundo, dir.)
Jef Flores (“This Is Our Youth”). A rip-roaring, utterly fearless, don’t-you-f*cking-look-away performance of a bored, bullying, coke-sniffing ’80s slacker that jolted Kenneth Lonergan’s sprawling play of Reagan-era ennui, directed by Topper Fabregas, to radioactive, nerve-jangling life. Along with his more intimate turn as a restless young outsider in “4000 Miles,” Flores’ live-wire turn in “This Is Our Youth” indisputably marked him out as this year’s breakout star.
Honorable Mentions: Nicco Manalo (“This Is Our Youth”); Jojit Lorenzo (“Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘En Attendant Godot’” [“Old Folks Waiting” version]); Joel Saracho (“Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘En Attendant Godot’” [“Old Folks Waiting” version]); Bart Guingona (“The Normal Heart”); Raffy Tejada (“Arbol de Fuego”); Jef Flores (“4000 Miles”); Bernardo Bernardo (“Haring Lear”/Peta-Studio Connections); Nonie Buencamino (“Time Stands Still”); Joel Lamangan (“Haring Lear”/Dulaang UP); Jamie Wilson (“Run For Your Wife”); Arnold Reyes (“Juego de Peligro”); Miguel Almendras (“My Friend Has Come”); Reb Atadero (“The Horse and His Boy”); JC Santos (“Games People Play”); Ibarra Guballa (“Dalawang Gabi”); Dido dela Paz (“Mapagbirong Haplos”)
Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (“33 Variations”). The part of a musicologist estranged from her daughter and all but consumed by a major Beethoven work called for both the cold erudition of a scholar and the open, expansive impulses of a spirit in thrall to the mysteries of music and art. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino’s “quietly stellar” turn, as Inquirer reviewer Exie Abola put it (one of two sterling performances she gave this year, the other as the scheming insular in “Juego de Peligro”), provided the play its indispensable base notes of authority and believability.
Honorable Mentions: Irma Adlawan (“Mga Buhay na Apoy”); Cherie Gil (“Arbol de Fuego”); Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (“Juego de Peligro”); Krystle Valentino (“Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala”); Meann Espinosa (“Dalawang Gabi”); Baby Barredo (“4000 Miles”); Angeli Bayani (“Uod, Butete at si Myrna”)
BEST FEATURED ACTOR—PLAY
Teroy Guzman (“33 Variations”). The other mighty plank of “33 Variations” was Teroy Guzman’s evocation of a Beethoven in ferocious creative despair against the dying of the light, in this case his encroaching deafness—a performance of vivid, commanding, silken physicality progressively lashed by a raw undertow of mortality and grief.
Honorable Mentions: Topper Fabregas (“The Normal Heart”); Jake Macapagal (“Arbol de Fuego”); Bodjie Pascua (“Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘En Attendant Godot’” [“Old Folks Waiting” version]); Jeremy Domingo (“Run For Your Wife”); JC Santos (“Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig”); George de Jesus III (“Haring Lear”/Peta-Studio Connections); Buddy Caramat (“Haring Lear”/Peta-Studio Connections); R.S. Francisco (“Maniacal”); Jojo Cayabyab (“Haring Lear”/Dulaang UP); Richard Cunanan (“The Normal Heart”); Paul Holme (“Run For Your Wife”); Franco Chan (“33 Variations”); Vincent Pajara (“Tungkol kay Angela”)
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS—PLAY
Roselyn Perez (“The Normal Heart”). As the bulldog of a doctor wheelchair-bound but indefatigable on the earliest frontlines of the AIDS crisis in Larry Kramer’s cri de coeur of a play, Perez was an indomitable presence—eventually sliding to unforgettable with a searingly delivered monologue that qualifies as one of the year’s most stunning moments in theater.
Honorable Mentions: Malou Crisologo (“Mga Buhay na Apoy”); Giannina Ocampo (“Time Stands Still”); Dolly de Leon (“Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig”); Adrienne Vergara (“Juego de Peligro”); Angeli Bayani (“Arbol de Fuego”); Mailes Kanapi (“Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘En Attendant Godot’” [“Old Folks Waiting” version]); LJ Reyes (“Juego de Peligro”); Via Antonio (“Maniacal”)
BEST MUSICAL (NON-FILIPINO MATERIAL)
“The Bridges of Madison County” (music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Marsha Norman; Bobby Garcia, dir.). Should be a career high point for nearly everyone involved in it—from director Bobby Garcia’s radiant control of the material to Joanna Ampil’s sublime vocals and the sheer pictorial splendor of Faust Peneyra’s scenery. Rinsed of the remotest traces of its sentimental origins, this rapt, steadfastly sincere production paid full measure to Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeous musical about second possibilities in life.
Honorable Mentions: “La Cage aux Folles” (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein; Robbie Guevara, dir.); “The Boy in the Bathroom” (book and lyrics by Michael Lluberes, music and additional lyrics by Joe Maloney; Toff de Venecia, dir.)
BEST MUSICAL (ORIGINAL FILIPINO MATERIAL OR ADAPTATION)
“Mabining Mandirigma” (book and lyrics by Nicanor Tiongson, music by Joed Balsamo; Chris Millado, dir). “A terrific new work by Nicanor Tiongson, with soaring music by Joed Balsamo, playful and incisive choreography by Denisa Reyes—all tied together by Chris Millado’s exciting orchestration of text, music, visuals, humor and propulsive storytelling,” noted Ralph Peña, artistic director of New York’s Ma-Yi Theater. Add to that mix the startling decision to cast a female actor (the compelling Delphine Buencamino) as the warrior-intellectual Apolinario Mabini, and Toym Imao’s “steampunk” design peg that audaciously physicalized the show’s idiosyncratic look at its subject matter, and the inspired risk-taking across the board resulted in a valuable new addition to the contemporary Filipino musical canon.
Honorable Mentions: “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady” (book by Carlo Vergara, music and lyrics by Vince de Jesus; Chris Martinez, dir.)
Audie Gemora (“La Cage aux Folles”). Turns out Gemora’s nifty turn as the brash but vulnerable cross-dressing director Roger De Bris in Repertory Philippines’ “The Producers” two years ago was but a preview of the gloriously realized Albin he would unveil in 9 Works Theatrical’s joyous production of “La Cage aux Folles.” Gemora had a vital partner in the seemingly ageless Michael de Mesa as his life companion Georges, but, like the nightly cabaret headlined by Albin’s diva alter ego Zaza, this was essentially Gemora’s show, and life was a celebration (as well as a series of nightly ovations) every time his Albin took center stage.
Honorable Mentions: Michael de Mesa (“La Cage aux Folles”); MiG Ayesa (“The Bridges of Madison County”); Topper Fabregas (“The Boy in the Bathroom”); Noel Comia Jr. (“Prinsipe Munti”)
Joanna Ampil (“The Bridges of Madison County”). Had Joanna Ampil done only the concert version of “South Pacific” staged by Resorts World Manila in September, her exquisite Nellie Forbush would still be the best musical performance by any actress we’d have seen this year. She followed that up with an unfortunate fish-out-of-water turn in the half-cooked “Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale,” the deliberate low-rent campiness of which seemed a mismatch with her gifts. But in “The Bridges of Madison County,” as the lonely Iowa farm wife Francesca Johnson, she was back in her element with a ravishing, incandescent performance, the complex and highly demanding score giving full bloom to her potent expressive and vocal powers.
Honorable Mentions: Delphine Buencamino (“Mabining Mandirigma”); Kim Molina (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Bituin Escalante (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Frenchie Dy (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Natasha Cabrera (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Kim Molina (“Manhid”); Myramae Meneses (“Kanser@35”)
BEST FEATURED ACTOR—MUSICAL
Antonio Ferrer (“Mabining Mandirigma”). Thrilling pipes wedded to an easy, dapper presence onstage made Antonio Ferrer’s youthful, impetuous Emilio Aguinaldo as galvanizing a presence in his own way as the central character of the Sublime Paralytic in “Mabining Mandirigma,” creating true gritty tension between these pillars of the Philippine Revolution even as the musical itself found its airy heights in Ferrer’s robust, ringing singing.
Honorable Mentions: Nar Cabico (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Fred Lo (“Manhid”); Nino Alejandro (“The Bridges of Madison County”); Noel Rayos (“La Cage aux Folles”); Renz Verano (“Rak of Aegis”); Lorenz Martinez (“Rak of Aegis”); Juliene Mendoza (“Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale”); Noel Comia Jr. (“The Secret Garden”)
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS—MUSICAL
Antoinette Taus (“Bituing Walang Ningning, The Musical”). In its original run, “Bituing Walang Ningning, The Musical” seemed to flail about for a semblance of a center, unable to decide whether it was more a concert show than a true musical (the otherwise enchanting Willy Cruz songs were hardly integrated into the narrative, for instance). The show was unwieldy, fuzzy—until Antoinette Taus was drafted for the rerun, and gave the production a shot of authentic pop-star pizzazz which made the proceedings a tad more persuasive. (The production is a blockbuster, however, so we recognize we’re in the minority in this regard.)
Honorable Mentions: KL Dizon (“Manhid”); Emeline Celis-Guinid (“The Bridges of Madison County”); Sheila Francisco (“The Boy in the Bathroom”); Caisa Borromeo (“The Boy in the Bathroom”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Saturday Night Fever, The Musical”); Sweet Plantado-Tiongson (“Rak of Aegis”); Sheila Valderrama-Martinez (“Rak of Aegis”); EJ Pepito (“In the Heights”)
Jenny Jamora (“33 Variations”). See Best Play (Full-Length/Non-Filipino Material) above.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Millado (“Mabining Mandirigma”); Kanakan Balintagos (“Mga Buhay na Apoy”); Bobby Garcia (“The Bridges of Madison County”); Ed Lacson Jr. (“Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala”); Bart Guingona (“The Normal Heart,” “4000 Miles”); Loy Arcenas (“Arbol de Fuego”); Topper Fabregas (“This Is Our Youth”)
[Note: In the print edition of this story, Bobby Garcia’s name was inadvertently left out—but should have appeared—in the Honorable Mentions list for Best Director (for “The Bridges of Madison County”). This online version reflects the correct list. Our apologies for the error.]
ARTISTIC AND TECHNICAL STANDOUTS
Dennis Marasigan’s lighting for “Mga Buhay na Apoy” played an essential part in that play’s conjuration of the mystical, and leads the year’s outstanding lighting work which, in our book, also includes Jonjon Villareal’s for “The Bridges of Madison County”; Katsch Catoy’s for “Mabining Mandirigma”; John Batalla’s for “33 Variations,” “The Horse and His Boy” and “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”; Meliton Roxas’ for “The Normal Heart”; Barbara-Tan Tiongco’s for “Arbol de Fuego” and “Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig”; Joseph Matheu’s for “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala”; and Paul Miller’s for “Saturday Night Fever, The Musical.”
For set design/scenery, Faust Peneyra’s gilt-edged proscenium framing a profusion of more frames for “The Bridges of Madison County” took one’s breath away; also—Ed Lacson Jr.’s sets for “33 Variations” and “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala”; Toym Imao’s for “Mabining Mandirigma”; Loy Arcenas’ for “Arbol de Fuego”; Paulo Alcazaren’s for “Mga Buhay na Apoy”; Ohm David’s for “Haring Lear”/Dulaang UP; and David Gallo’s for “Saturday Night Fever, The Musical.”
Joed Balsamo’s music for “Mabining Mandirigma,” which bent and satirized the sounds of the American Occupation, was both playful and thought-provoking. Vince de Jesus, meanwhile, whipped up a rousing score of winning hooks and musical moments in “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.”
For musical direction—Ceejay Javier’s lush orchestration for “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Saturday Night Fever, The Musical”; Joseph Tolentino’s for “La Cage aux Folles”; and Rodel Colmenar’s for “Bituing Walang Ningning, The Musical.”
More—Teresa Barrozo’s sound design for “33 Variations” and TJ Ramos’ for “Mabining Mandirigma;” Ejay Yatco’s character piano playing for “33 Variations” and “The Boy in the Bathroom.”
For costumes—James Reyes for “Mabining Mandirigma”; Loy Arcenas for “Arbol de Fuego”; John Carlo Pagunaling for “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala”; Mio Infante for “La Cage aux Folles”; Eric Pineda for “Haring Lear”/Dulaang UP and “Saturday Night Fever, The Musical”; Tuxqs Rutaquio for “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”; and John Abul and John Carlo Pagunaling for “Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale.”
Denisa Reyes’ choreography for “Mabining Mandirigma” is on top of a short list that includes Arnold Trinidad and PJ Rebullida’s for “La Cage aux Folles” and Vince Pesce’s for “Saturday Night Fever, The Musical”; and the overall movement design for “#R</3J” credited to Dexter Santos, JM Cabling, Al Bernard Garcia, Jeff RM Garcia, Isagani Tayag and Stephen Viñas.
Ralph Lumbres and Teta Tulay gave shadow puppetry a boost with their beguiling work in “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala” and “Prinsipe Munti,” respectively.
In the field of translation/adaptation, a rich harvest this year courtesy of Eljay Deldoc’s “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala”; Rody Vera’s “Arbol de Fuego”; Elmer Gatchalian’s “Juego de Peligro”; Luna Griño-Inocian’s “The Horse and His Boy”; and, not least, Nicolas Pichay’s “Haring Lear.”
Special mention must be made, finally, of Guelan Luarca, who, this year, saw three of his translations—“Waiting for Godot,” “R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum)” and “Rashomon”—and one adaptation—“Romeo and Juliet”—come alive on stage.
He also directed the poignant Virgin Labfest entry “Kublihan” (written by a 21-year-old first-time playwright, Jerome Ignacio), played the Fool in Dulaang UP’s production of “King Lear” and, just a couple of weeks ago, was at a conference in Tokyo to deliver a paper on Shakespeare.
Luarca, by the way, is 24. With folks like him and the current intrepid generation leading the charge for local theater down the road, the scene is set for many more highlights and surprises for us theatergoers. Jaded—what’s that?