By any standard—quantity, quality, variety—it has been an amazing year for Philippine theater.
There was a stretch from June to mid-December when I counted at most a couple of weekends when I did not take in at least one show, and sometimes as many as three or four.
In essaying this exercise in listing favorites, the sheer number and range of offerings were positively mind-numbing. The original intention was to simply list a “10 favorites,” but the process of choosing proved so bewildering that, to limit as well as make some sense of the options, I decided to settle for naming five straight plays and five musicals (though, as will be seen, I will end up cheating).
In the end, I decided to add as well five favorite one-act plays, given the flowering of mini-festivals of one-acters.
It cannot be overemphasized that this is a list of personal favorite plays, not a “10 best” list. It has a lot more to do with personal taste and bias than any effort at objective aesthetic criteria (one of the choices may not even strictly qualify as a play, not being a full-fledged production).
It is simply one theater fan’s summation of what has stayed in his mind as the highlights of a year of almost nonstop enjoyment.
My five favorites in this category were all so exceptionally rewarding that I will initially just list them in the order in which I watched them, before commenting on them. All were outstandingly directed and had such fine performances all around, down to minor roles.
1. “Constellations” (Red Turnip), dir. Rem Zamora
2. “Tribes” (Red Turnip), dir. Topper Fabregas
3. “Desaparesidos” (En-tablado), dir. Guelan Luarca
4. “Boy” (Tanghalang Ateneo), dir. Ed Lacson Jr.
5. “Wit” (Upstart Soundstage), dir. Steven Conde
So, do I have a bias for Red Turnip? Umm… Certainly, if I had done a similar exercise in the past two years, Red Turnip plays would have figured both years (“Cock,” then “33 Variations”). But two in one year?
But I do not see how one can get away from it. In a way, the two are a contrast—“Constellations” a splendidly mind-bending dive into parallel universes with incredibly sophisticated performances by Cris Villonco and JC Santos; and “Tribes,” a more accessible family drama, but what a family, acted out, heart-wrenchingly and hilariously, by a wonderful ensemble: Dolly de Leon, Cris Pasturan, Teroy Guzman, Thea Yrastorza, and, most of all, Kalil Almonte and Angela Padilla in amazing turns of technical virtuosity communicating love and anguish in sign language.
If I had to choose a top favorite, it would probably be “Desaparesidos.” Aside from the immediacy of its topical relevance, it was the production that had to deploy the largest cast, and a largely student one, in a brilliantly set up theater-in-the-round, in a draining display of physical and emotional violence.
The leads were powerfully played by Delphine Buencamino and Brian Sy, but I have to give recognition as well to the young supporting cast, particularly the alternates (I watched twice and got both) who played the roles of Jinky and Karla.
In contrast to the epic canvas of “Desaparesidos,” “Boy” was much more intimate, but unsparing as well in its depiction of a different kind of violence—the psychological trauma that victimizes not only the lead character but all the others around him. Another splendid ensemble here: the ubiquitous Teroy Guzman, Mayen Estañero, Juliene Mendoza, and the astonishing student performers, Camille Abaya and Cholo Ledesma, the latter in a devilishly difficult role.
It can be argued that “Wit” does not belong here. It was actually a one-performance dramatic reading (part of a series of six such evenings staged by Upstart Productions) and probably not more than a few dozen people watched it. A pity: The director and performers staged it such that, minimalist though it was, I found it fully as satisfying as any play I have seen recently. (I had watched it years back as an Off-Broadway full production, and, I swear, this was at least as good!)
The tremendous performance by Tami Monsod had to be one of the best I have seen this year, and the some-half-dozen supporting cast members were sterling. It was both grim (about cancer) and mordantly funny, and the script was almost frighteningly intellectual. But Monsod went through the emotional gamut brilliantly.
More than in the case of straight plays, the theatergoer was spoiled for choice with musicals. Major theater companies and big-name productions seem to have a preference for this genre, perhaps with an eye for the Filipino audience’s taste (especially with the current vogue for “jukebox musicals”—even ballet companies are into it!).
Ironically, in this case, I am able to list my favorites by rank, as my preferences are clearer.
1. “Fun Home” (Ateg), dir. Bobby Garcia. This was quite simply magnificent. I had watched it on Broadway last May when it had been my favorite theater fare on that trip, but I enjoyed it on the RCBC stage fully as much, if not more so.
Despite the title, the musical is actually not much fun, but for emotional complexity and terrific dramatic performances, it can’t be beat. The whole cast was great and Cris Villonco and Eric Kunze particularly outstanding, but the incandescent moment belonged to Lea Salonga: the promotional pitch for the show notwithstanding, hers was not the central role, but she was as fine as in any of her star roles, and her terribly aching “Days and Days” was the rendition that would haunt the viewer afterward.
2. “Changing Partners” (Peta & MunkeyMusic), dir. Rem Zamora. Bias comes into play here again, as this is a rare case of original Filipino material (by Vincent de Jesus), and not in the “jukebox musical” mode. It is actually pretty thin story-wise, but so inventively and intricately scripted, staged and acted that it was a sheer joy to watch. The four shape-shifting castmembers—Agot Isidro, Jojit Lorenzo, Sandino Martin and Anna Luna—were so attractive, and sang and acted with so much grace and verve that you wished they would not stop.
3. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” (9 Works Theatrical), dir. Robbie Guevara. A rather dated, but still poignant, musical (a sort of antecedent to “Rent”), but made freshly memorable by the dazzling triple-threat (acting, singing, dancing) performance of its ensemble of three: Ariel Reonal, Tanya Manalang and, above all, Jef Flores, in a wonderful bravura display of theatrical talent.
4. “Jersey Boys” (Ateg), dir. Bobby Garcia. Okay, so this is the quintessential “jukebox musical,” with its whole reason for being focused on nostalgia rather than any fresh dramatic narrative. That does not detract from the very real appeal of its catchy music, the human interest in the lives of fallible stars, and most of all the infectious energy of its cast. The ensemble as a whole was first-rate—Markki Stroem (particularly fine dramatically), Christian Bautista, Nino Alejandro, and Nyoy Volante, who was absolutely world-class.
5. Here’s where I cheat. I dithered over choosing my fifth favorite musical among three productions, and decided to cut the Gordian knot by naming all three, in no particular order of preference:
“Dirty Old Musical” (Spotlight Artists Centre), dir. Dexter Santos. Another “jukebox musical,” but with local material from the ’70s, this was corny, cheesy, occasionally coarse, and overacted—in the lingo of its times, “baduy”—but, for that reason, hugely enjoyable. John Arcilla, Nonie Buencamino, Robert Sena, Bo Cerrudo and Michael Williams played wonderfully to type.
“Ako Si Josephine” (Cornerstone Entertainment/ABS-CBN Events), dir. Maribel Legarda. Based on the music of Yeng Constantino (whom I had not even heard of—no doubt a generational thing), the story was shaky and full of holes, but the music was catchy, the production was exuberant and fun, the supporting cast (too many to name) was a riot, and there were standout performances from Maronne Cruz and Jon Santos. (Hey, I learned to enjoy Yeng Constantino!)
“American Idiot” (9 Works Theatrical), dir. Robbie Guevara. I never expected to thoroughly enjoy an honest-to-goodness rock musical, and for that alone this show deserves a place on my list. The acting performances were not consistently stellar (these were rockers, not thespians), but the pure energy of the music and vocals, and the brilliant glitz of the production, made it an evening to remember.
It would be remiss not to give a nod to one-act plays, which seem to be coming into their own. Where their exposure used to be limited to the seminal Virgin Labfest at CCP, this year there were at least two full-blown one-act “festivals,” the anti-martial law “Never Again” and the late-season “Tatlong Linggong Pag-ibig” by Dalanghita Productions; plus a scattering of short-play productions in various venues, such as those of Artist Playground.
So, anyway, my five favorites:
1. “Indigo Child” (Rody Vera, dir. Jose Estrella). I found this the most effectively harrowing, and moving, of the “Never Again” plays.
2. “Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean” (Ma. Cecilia de la Rosa, dir. Ariel Yonzon)
3. “Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania” (Alexandra May Cardoso, dir. Charles Yee)
4. “Bait” (Guelan Luarca, dir. Mara Marasigan)
5. “Daddy’s Girl” (Ricardo Novenario, dir. Nicholas Pichay)
Art Hilado has been watching plays here and abroad for over four decades now.