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‘Jubilation!’ A year of plenty for Manila theater

Enough bounty to fill a Top 10 list and more–and here we try
Dalanghita Productions’ “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady,” directed by Chris Martinez. PHOTO BY JAYPEE MARISTAZA

Dalanghita Productions’ “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady,” directed by Chris Martinez. PHOTO BY JAYPEE MARISTAZA

The best production I saw this year was the rerun of “Venus in Fur” by Actor’s Actors Inc.’s The Necessary Theater. It played only two performances, and why such an unforgettably enthralling experience—one that’s right up there alongside the likes of Atlantis Productions’ “Next to Normal” and Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Stageshow”—was granted so short a life remains a travesty.

Jennifer Blair-Bianco’s tour de force alone, her tremendous four-character metamorphosis in the course of 90 delightful minutes, was reason enough for this show to run for much longer.

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Not to say, of course, that 2015 did not yield a healthy number of original productions. One need only look at the wealth of first-rate nonmusical plays that saw life, and for the most part, love; the bounty’s enough to fill a Top 10 list and more.

At the head of the pack is Red Turnip Theater, who, at barely over two years old, has already become synonymous to intelligent, perceptively mounted plays.

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In the field of musical theater, I count 15 original productions and two reruns, plus the international tour of “Singin’ in the Rain”—elegantly staged, despite failing to capture the market—and Resorts World Manila’s concert version of “South Pacific,” whose success was in large part thanks to Joanna Ampil’s sublime turn as Nellie Forbush.

The sweet surprise was that two of the better musicals I saw were by the Ateneo Blue Repertory, which easily qualifies as the year’s standout campus theater organization. Their “In the Heights” thoroughly imbibed the material’s Latino spirit, and their “Breakups and Breakdowns” startled with its maturity and deft grasp of character.

In a similar vein, the then-graduating batch of the Philippine High School for the Arts also made heads turn in Dulaang Sipat Lawin’s “Rashomon,” which worked with Guelan Luarca’s translation of Fay and Michael Kanin’s script and was directed by JK Anicoche. Watching those kids play dual roles and navigate the shifts in character with striking ease made for an unforgettable afternoon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (where this “recital” took place).

Actor’s Actors Inc./The Necessary Theater’s “The Normal Heart,” directed by Bart Guingona. PHOTO BY BEVERLY ESGUERRA

Actor’s Actors Inc./The Necessary Theater’s “The Normal Heart,” directed by Bart Guingona. PHOTO BY BEVERLY ESGUERRA

Production

This age-old fixation with lists and order (hence, pop culture’s “listicle,” denoting a relatively easier and quicker read) demands that this encapsulation of the year in theater be somehow presented in a particular arrangement.

A longer list would have seen the inclusion of, among others, Red Turnip’s “Time Stands Still”; Repertory Philippines’ “Run for Your Wife” (British comedy pulled off rollickingly, with Jeremy Domingo acting circles around the ne’er-do-well-friend stereotype); Loy Arcenas’ impeccably acted “Arbol de Fuego”; and Dulaang UP’s manic modernization of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” cheekily titled “#R</3J.”

Here, then, are the 10—or rather, 12—BEST PRODUCTIONS of 2015:

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1. “33 Variations” (Red Turnip Theater). Who knew classical music, historical dramatization and mother-daughter issues could blend so well? This was what every production should be—intelligent but not pretentious, ambitious but not vain, evocative but not unbearably sentimental, in its best moments attaining a kind of dramatic sanctity.

2. “Mga Buhay na Apoy” (Tanghalang Pilipino). Kanakan Balintagos’ Palanca award-winning play found its power in nostalgia, understanding that the past is a Pandora’s box of answers to all future times. What could have been just another family-under-fire drama turned out to be a flawlessly acted, beguilingly written, unmistakably Filipino work that wittingly took you down memory lane, whether into tearful corners or happier days.

3. “The Bridges of Madison County” (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). A work of admirable subtlety and elegant musicality where all the elements cohered into a singular, emotionally resonant whole, the pieces tied together by Bobby Garcia’s accomplished staging and grounded by Joanna Ampil’s towering turn as a lonely housewife whose “normal” life is suddenly upended by the arrival of a stranger.

4. “Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett’s ‘En Attendant Godot’” (Tanghalang Ateneo). The “Old Folks Waiting” version had the look, sound and feel of a classic, simply because its magnificent four-person cast spoke Guelan Luarca’s shimmering Filipino translation with such natural authority. Beckett’s absurdity and Luarca’s perverse crassness found pristine marriage in the interpretations of Joel Saracho, Bodjie Pascua, Mailes Kanapi and especially Jojit Lorenzo, who aged himself so convincingly, it was as if he would keel over anytime.

5. “4000 Miles” (Repertory Philippines). Rep’s subdued season opener turned out to be its finest for the year: A little gem chock-full of conversation, where silence and shadows oversaw the amusing affairs of a grandmother (Baby Barredo) and her hippie grandson (Jef Flores, in his little-seen breakout performance).

6. “The Normal Heart” (The Necessary Theater by Actor’s Actors Inc.). Polemical theater at its finest—fearlessly mounted and thrillingly acted, the vicious truth-telling delivered with scalding conviction by a top-flight cast led by Bart Guingona (who also directed). Thirty years since its inception, “The Normal Heart,” as evidenced by this distressingly short-lived production, remains a vital, compelling work.

7. “This Is Our Youth” (Red Turnip Theater). For most of the audience, this play was as close as they could probably get to the hallucinatory euphoria, that nothing-can-stop-us, me-against-the-terrifying-world sensation only the perpetually high and pitifully young would know too well. A live-wire production that never stopped moving, and one you simply couldn’t take your eyes off.

8. “Maniacal” (Egg Theater Company). A satire of present-day Manila theater, littered with explosive dialogue and tongue-in-cheek references. In its three brief runs, it remained fresh and retained its trademark unforgiving truthfulness as a tender, endearing tribute to a complicated industry.

9. “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady” (Dalanghita Productions). A triumphant, heartfelt celebration of the art form—musical comedy at its finest, brimming with wit and style, with tons of laughs peppered in between the glorious singing. Or, to borrow from one of  its lead characters, “jubilation!”

10. “Dalawang Gabi,” “Kublihan” and “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala” (Virgin Labfest XI). A brilliantly acted tried and tested comedy, an elegiac Chekhovian two-hander, and a spectacularly realized fantasy: These were the best of the Labfest, and in a just world, we’d be seeing all three again in next year’s Revisited set.

Cherie Gil and Jake Macapagal in a scene from Peta's "Arbol de Fuego," directed by Loy Arcenas. PHOTO FROM PETA

Cherie Gil and Jake Macapagal in a scene from Peta’s “Arbol de Fuego,” directed by Loy Arcenas. PHOTO FROM PETA

PERFORMANCES

It was a great year for women, from the seasoned pros—Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino in “33 Variations” (let the awards pile on this one!) and “Juego de Peligro,” Irma Adlawan in “Mga Buhay na Apoy,” Roselyn Perez in “The Normal Heart,” Ana Abad Santos in “Time Stands Still” and Meann Espinosa in “Dalawang Gabi”—to the breakthroughs—Saab Magalona-Bacarro in “No Filter: Let’s Talk About Me,” LJ Reyes in “Juego de Peligro” and Krystle Valentino in “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala.”

It was even better for the men, and from a long list of 47 performances from the nonmusical plays alone, Ibarra Guballa in “Dalawang Gabi” and Vincent Pajara in “Tungkol kay Angela” remain two of my favorite discoveries of the year, while JC Santos was a glowing addition to the returning “Games People Play.”

A list of 16, then—the ones that, up to this day, remain bright as sunshine in my mind.

1. Nicco Manalo (“This Is Our Youth”).  In Manalo’s portrayal of a blundering, well-off adolescent New Yorker, social awkwardness became, for a brief two hours, something adorable, or desirable. His timing was never imperfect, the humor of every line and scene never taken for granted. All in all, a landmark performance that deserves longevity in our memories.

2. Joanna Ampil (“The Bridges of Madison County”). A beacon of emotional clarity, as she brought weight and lightness, sadness and rapture to a hackneyed role. And the songs, through her lustrous, exceptionally expressive voice, became occasions for exquisite, breathtaking imagery.

3. Jef Flores (“4000 Miles” and “This Is Our Youth”). In the former, his solitude spoke volumes and drew us deep into the mind of a lost, melancholy man; in the latter, he bared to the world the rocky, unpredictable terrain of a druggie’s explosive mind, to frightening, exhilarating effect.

4. Kim Molina (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”). Her portrayal of the ditzy “palengkera” sister Viva was a genuine star performance—fiery and engaging, fueled by roof-busting vocals. Add to that her well-deserved Gawad Buhay! win for “Rak of Aegis” and her turn as a hot-headed, potty-mouthed superhero in “Manhid,” and there you have—as Inquirer Lifestyle-Theater editor Gibbs Cadiz called her—theater’s “newest leading lady.”

5. Topper Fabregas (“The Normal Heart”). As a closeted, sophisticated style journalist, Fabregas was the embodiment of the play’s title, in a gut-wrenching, refreshingly against-type performance that only the heartless could have survived unmoved.

6. Audie Gemora (“La Cage Aux Folles”). His Albin was a truly fabulous flesh-and-blood incarnation of what could have easily been caricature. Gemora’s take on the show’s anthem of liberty and acceptance, “I Am What I Am,” was one of those ephemeral moments musical theater worshipers live for.

7. Bernardo Bernardo (Nonon Padilla’s “Haring Lear”). Winds howled and storms swirled around Bernardo’s madcap, blisteringly unstoppable Lear—hands down the best Shakespearean performance of the year.

8. Cherie Gil (“Arbol de Fuego”). Her last two onstage outings, as Diana Vreeland in “Full Gallop” and the glamorous producer Liliane La Fleur in “Nine,” basically grabbed your attention by the neck. But in Peta’s “Arbol de Fuego,” Gil’s portrayal of the fall of class was wholly mesmerizing in its lack of flourish.

9. Giannina Ocampo (“Time Stands Still”). In the year’s first production, Ocampo delivered a breakthrough performance as a sort of dumb blonde who all but glowed with warmth, tackiness, superficiality and kindness, providing the welcome breath of fresh air to this hyper-intellectual play.

10. Russel Legaspi, Malou Crisologo and Karen Gaerlan (“Mga Buhay na Apoy”). As the adult children of a family riven by secrets, they were the soul of this utterly absorbing play—three remarkable performances that unveiled both truth and lies with careful calibration.

11. Via Antonio (“Maniacal”). The female comedy performance of the year is Antonio’s splitting, tumbling, pirouetting take on the bitter-actress figure, who subsisted on exaggeration, hysteria and leopard-spot leotards to riotous effect.

12. Arnold Reyes (“Juego de Peligro”). In Reyes’ hands, “Juego’s” verbose if beautifully written archaic Filipino (by Elmer Gatchalian) took on much-needed steam and pizzazz; and the character of Vicente became a philanderer of the highest order, played with an alluring mix of cockiness and raunchiness.

13. Bryan Sy (Tony Mabesa’s “King Lear”/“Haring Lear”). He was unexpectedly the perfect vessel for Nicolas Pichay’s easy-on-the-ears translation of “Lear,” the dialogue acquiring newfound vigor with his lyrical delivery. The year’s best Shakespearean performance by a young actor.

MiG Ayesa and Joanna Ampil  in Atlantis Theatrical’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” directed by Bobby Garcia. PHOTO BY MANMAN ANGSICO

MiG Ayesa and Joanna Ampil in Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” directed by Bobby Garcia. PHOTO BY MANMAN ANGSICO

DIRECTION

We can start with Bart Guingona’s incisive direction of “The Normal Heart” and Topper Fabregas’ feather-light handling of “This Is Our Youth”; and at the Virgin Labfest, Ed Lacson Jr.’s refreshing innovativeness in “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala” and the wordless dance Audie Gemora whipped up in “Birtwal.”

But the year’s three most noteworthy directors:

First, I belong to the minority who wasn’t wholly impressed by “Mabining Mandirigma.” With the marvelous exceptions of Delphine Buencamino (as a female Apolinario Mabini) and Antonio Ferrer (as Emilio Aguinaldo), the performances, in a musical theater context, somehow fell short of the material’s ambitions.

But expertly steered by Chris Millado, the show still ended up as an engaging, visionary piece, and I can’t wait to see how it has evolved when it reopens in February 2016.

Second, Bobby Garcia for “The Bridges of Madison County,” which functioned with clockwork fluidity, everything falling neatly into place at the perfect time.

And third—saving the best for last: Jenny Jamora for “33 Variations.” Only her debut full-length work, and yet the profundity and poignancy of this production seemed to have been woven by an experienced hand. If this show “moved from high note to high note,” as fellow reviewer Exie Abola noted in his review, it was first and foremost her doing.

ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE ACHIEVEMENTS

1. The ingenious, imaginative conjuring of faraway settings in “33 Variations” (set by Ed Lacson Jr., lights by John Batalla) and “The Bridges of Madison County” (set design of the year by Faust Peneyra, lights by Jonjon Villareal).

2. The breathlessly intoxicating choreography of “#R</3J,” a collaboration among DUP artistic director Dexter Santos, JM Cabling, Al Bernard Garcia, Jeff RM Garcia, Isagani Tayag and Stephen Viñas, whose Tybalt was a bedazzling gyrating machine.

3. JM Cabling’s movement design for DUP’s “Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig,” which had some of the year’s most vivid, convincingly realized sequences of violence.

4. Nicanor Tiongson’s libretto and Joed Balsamo’s music that lent “Mabining Mandirigima” an air of plausibility, if not hyper-reality.

5. Three Broadway scores summoned to sumptuous life through expert musical direction: Rodel Colmenar for “South Pacific in Concert,” Ceejay Javier for “The Bridges of Madison County” and Joseph Tolentino for 9 Works Theatrical’s “La Cage Aux Folles.”

6. Guelan Luarca as the theater writer of the moment, thanks to his translations/adaptations of the classics for  “#R</3J,” “Godot5,” “Rashomon” and Tanghalang Ateneo’s bewilderingly flamboyant “R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum).”

7. The script of The Sandbox Collective’s “No Filter,” edited by Jam Pascual and Wanggo Gallaga—a compilation of totally “relatable” monologues written by and for privileged millennials.

8. George de Jesus’ protean script for “Maniacal,” changing with every run by incorporating the latest happenings in this fickle biz.

9. In “33 Variations,” Ejay Yatco inadvertently stealing the show as the piano-playing double to Teroy Guzman’s blustery Beethoven.

Final notes

The original song of the year is a no-brainer: “Kayumanggilas,” the explosive Act II opener of “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.” Vincent de Jesus’ wildly creative wordplay—“bansot,” “jologs,” “sakang,” “isaw” and “balut” uproariously crammed into a few lines to paint the “barakong Pinoy” image—had the audience in stitches during all four times I saw this summer blockbuster.

Lastly, props to Joaquin Valdes, Mica Pineda and Chinie Concepcion for the moxie to put up “One Night Stand,” the monthly cabaret at Twelve Monkeys Music Hall and Pub in Century City Mall. Great that it’s become a venue for theater artists to showcase their talents through (mini-)concerts, akin to the sort that regularly occurs in New York venues such as 54 Below and Joe’s Pub.

Even better, its one-of-a-kind-themed nights, for the most part, do surpass expectations, from Carla Guevara-Laforteza’s scorching 40th birthday concert to “Mundong Entablado,” which celebrated the original Filipino musical, to the “Rent” 1999 Manila cast reunion concert. For those three evenings alone, “One Night Stand” has every reason to keep going.

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TAGS: “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady, ” Philippine Theater, 9 Works Theatrical, Atlantis Entertainment Theatrical Group, Audie Gemora, Cherie Gil, Chris Millado, Dalanghita Productions, Dulaang UP, Jef Flores, Kim Molina, Nicco Manalo, Peta, Red Turnip Theater, Shamaine Centenera Buencamino, Tanghalang Ateneo, Tanghalang Pilipino, Theater
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