Less than two years since “change” cursed and killed its way into this corner of the world, and already, the theatrical landscape betrays heavily our collective frustrations with this era of blatant deceit. Where do we put our trust when our leaders lie so brazenly to our faces?
The best productions I saw this year all have to do with that little thing called faith. If the world outside seemed bereft of clarity, one could look to the theater to provide an artistic flotsam unto which one could cling, if only for a mere couple of hours.
No other show came closer to approximating the culture of duplicity enabled by our present government than Tanghalang Pilipino’s (TP) “Ang Pag-uusig,” a force-of-nature adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” translated by Jerry Respeto and directed by Dennis Marasigan.
Here we saw a mirror of society in the Salem witch trials, where people no longer knew what or whom to believe; where the truth was sacrificed in favor of power and repute.
This was the TP Actors Company at its most blistering since 2013’s “Der Kaufmann” (“The Merchant of Venice” in Rolando Tinio’s Filipino). The old guard, especially, were incendiary—Jonathan Tadioan as Deputy Governor Danforth, Marco Viaña as Reverend Parris, Lhorvie Nuevo as the vacillating Mary Warren, JV Ibesate as John Proctor.
Here, as well, was my choice for best performance of the year: Antonette Go’s ultra-fierce take on the diabolical Abigail Williams, whom one may view as a composite of Mocha Uson, Sass Sasot, Kellyanne Conway and the other patron saints of alternative facts.
The final tableau, where a lofty wooden wall collapsed to reveal hanged bodies in the shadows, was as much a triumph of design as it was a harrowing portent of the world we seem headed for.
‘My Name is Asher Lev’
In that world, men are forever wrestling with their demons, their self-perceived inadequacies taking limitless form. Two productions, both starring “breakout star of the year” Nelsito Gomez, dared to capture such storms that rage within us
—to splendid results.
Twin Bill Theater’s “My Name Is Asher Lev” was the storm that came by surprise, not least because its concerns—a Jewish painter struggling to reconcile his sacred traditions with the profanity of his art—felt too foreign and specific.
So it proved that the subject does not a production make.
“Asher Lev’s” mantra was intimacy: Steven Conde’s spare, fast-paced direction, the minimalist cross-shaped set, the sliver of a venue itself. All eyes, then, were on Gomez, Robie Zialcita and Nathalie Everett, delivering a thespian trifecta of astonishing bravery and versatility, the latter two morphing into several characters with aplomb.
Unforgettable, too: Joseph Matheu’s deceptively simple lighting design, advancing and literally illuminating the story through only the shifting hues slathered on the walls.
Two months later, Gomez was back, his fictive world closer to home, his demons darker, in UP Playwrights’ Theatre’s “Angry Christ”—easily my pick for the year’s most outstanding production. Some shows strove to untangle the present; this one, movingly directed by Dexter Santos, brought the past to transcendent life and took its audience to church.
In my review, I called “Angry Christ” “a work of such superlative, gratifying quality,” and indeed it was. There was the tumultuous inner life of its subject, the painter Alfonso Ossorio (Gomez), reimagined by Floy Quintos’ resplendent writing in ways that dissatisfied some literary critics, but which I found to be a richly studied portraiture for the stage. There was also the rest of this production
—how it harnessed its pool of talent and let all the elements cohere into a singular, rewarding experience, capped by a perfectly rendered finale.
‘Agnes of God’
The self-questioning and maddening roving of the mind was also at the core of Repertory Philippines’ “Agnes of God,” directed by Bart Guingona, in which a novice nun claims she gave birth by immaculate conception. Like “Asher Lev,” it was also a show of spare production values and thrilling performances, the actors framed by Joey Mendoza’s hulking set of panels and John Batalla’s ethereal lighting.
Chief among this highly accomplished production’s pleasures: Becca Coates going head-to-head with Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (in a nonmusical role!)—and how they delivered, despite the dated script.
Lauchengco-Yulo’s take on the psychiatrist sent to investigate this conventual crisis was the epitome of lucidity. And Coates—an Agnes whose angelic appearance could just be the biggest lie of all—had the audience hooked and hypnotized by her every apparition, in a smashing return to leading roles since crushing our hearts as the cancer-stricken center of “Dani Girl” three years ago.
‘Vibrator Play,’ ‘Eurydice’
After “Agnes,” Rep went old-school period drama with “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” packed with everything the 50-year-old company does excellently and more. I had expected the usual love story, but was left enchanted and occasionally tickled by its exploration of the cracks and seams in which romances grow and wither.
In hindsight, this was an even tougher play to pull off, as what it really needed (and achieved) was a certain delicacy, most palpable in that entrancing finale, when the walls rose, the furniture moved, and the house dissolved to reveal stark darkness and snowfall, the lovers played by Giannina Ocampo and Joshua Spafford naked as cherubim. (As such, my pick for best director is Chris Millado, and for best set design, Mio Infante.)
“The Vibrator Play” was really about romantic faith in peril, though it was equally masterful in its handling of farce (with Caisa Borromeo in a hoot of a performance). Consider TP’s “Eurydice,” then, its sister production.
The crux of “Eurydice,” directed by Loy Arcenas from Guelan Luarca’s translation of Sarah Ruhl’s play, is the idea of total trust: Orpheus, without glancing back, must leave the Underworld ahead of his wife, trusting only in the words of Hades that she’s trailing behind. Those familiar with this Greek myth know the sad fate that followed.
I was completely smitten by this charming production, its steady grasp on the notion of tenderness its key strength. And Teresa Barrozo’s sound design, emphasizing silence and eeriness, layered this otherworldly romance.
Then there were also those who left their distinctive marks in productions that weren’t as impeccable: Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante’s wronged-woman performance in “Blackbird”; Roselyn Perez, all acerbic wit and self-deprecation in “Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike”; the fiery Lady Macbeths—Irma Adlawan in “Makbet” and Cath Go in “M Episode”; Angeli Bayani, an emotional hurricane in “Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major”; Fitz Bitana and Anthony Falcon (“Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat”), Ricci Chan and John Lapus (“Hindi Ako si Darna”), and Gie Onida (“Birdcage”) dispensing spots of brilliance to a dismaying Virgin Labfest.
And the musicals?
Well, 9 Works Theatrical’s “Newsies” was really about PJ Rebullida’s choreography—the best dancing I’ve seen since Dulaang UP’s “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.”
And there was a particularly impressive quartet of leading men: Gian Magdangal in “Newsies”; Pepe Herrera in “Sa Wakas”; and the spectacular drag queens—Nyoy Volante in “Kinky Boots” and Red Concepcion in “Care Divas.”
Upstart Productions’ “Monty Python’s Spamalot” was a rollicking roller-coaster of absurdity with a genuine comedy troupe of an ensemble. It was for me already the best local musical, which doesn’t speak well of the general scene.
Instead, it was the touring production of “The Sound of Music” that felt most worthy of a standing ovation. At The Theatre at Solaire, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical sang with an authentic, beating heart, and showed that smallness could be your biggest asset.
Here, I suppose, enters my apology: Save for “Ang Pag-uusig,” I missed the rest of the fourth-quarter productions, for reasons that are matters of faith as much as they are grounded in science. Call it life’s unpredictability weaving into personal quarters.
I’m inclined to believe this is also the sort of uncertainty that constitutes part of the joy of theater. Between the rise of the curtain and the final bows rests only our faith in the prospect of success—that the excitement generated by every press launch and season announcement may translate into an abundance of stunning productions and stirring performances, hopefully too many by December to fit year-enders such as this.
Most welcome, in fact, are those blink-and-miss-them surprises, such as Jenny Jamora, fleeting but utterly fabulous, running away with Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Si Janus Silang at ang Labanang Manananggal-Mambabarang” as the titular monster.
Instances such as this surely affect the viewing experience—improve it, enlighten it, or altogether change it. And it’s the kind of change one welcomes and yearns for. —CONTRIBUTED