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Bravo! Best of theater 2018

It’s been an extraordinary year for the original Filipino musical

A boomer, a Gen X and two millennials took stock of the past 12 months in Manila theater. The result is this first collective appraisal by our Theater reviewers since Lifestyle began its Theater section six years ago, under Theater editor Gibbs Cadiz.

Two realizations: First, it’s been an extraordinary year for the original Filipino musical, three of which made our roster of outstanding productions.

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Second, stories about women and powerhouse female performances clearly dominated the stages this year.

This roundup presents our choices alphabetically.

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Best productions of 2018

  1. “Dekada ’70” (Black Box Productions). All the strands in Pat Valera’s adaptation of the same-titled Lualhati Bautista novel—the political and the personal, the social activism and the feminism, the violence on the streets and the small, affectionate family interactions—came together into a powerful, contextualized whole, with stirring music that was alternately militant and poignant. —ARTURO HILADO
  1. “Desaparesidos” (Almonte, Bustamante and Jamora/Ateneo Areté). This third version of Guelan Luarca’s adaptation of the eponymous novel by (again) Bautista

—which follows two New People’s Army activists during and after the Marcos years—was fiery, stunning theater, its evocations of the imagined past collectively becoming another galvanizing battle cry to “never forget.” —VINCEN GREGORY YU

  1. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” (Red Turnip Theater). Neither pro- nor anti-feminist, this supposed sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s classic pushed its audience into gray landscapes to rethink their longstanding views and feelings on complex issues. As directed by Cris Villonco, it showed heart and passion behind every line and movement, without sacrificing the underlying intellectual arsenal. —CORA LLAMAS
  1. “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” (9 Works Theatrical/Globe Live). Reimagining the Apo Hiking Society discography, it first invited viewers to relive a more innocent age with its upper-middle class college setting during the martial law years. But its second act became a dark coming of age for its characters, as the realities of a society in turmoil impinged on their lives, each confrontation becoming a painful learning experience. —CL
  1. “Himala: Isang Musikal” (The Sandbox Collective). This 15th-anniversary production of Ricky Lee and Vincent de Jesus’ adaptation of the Ishmael Bernal classic (with Nora Aunor in arguably her most famous role as the purported visionary Elsa) was elevated foremost by its spare, transformative staging. From start to finish, a transporting, theatrical triumph. —VGY

Bituin Escalante and Aicelle Santos in “Himala, Isang Musikal” —GIAN NICDAO

  1. “The Kundiman Party” (UP Playwrights’ Theatre). Floy Quintos’ newest play—and hopefully not his last—portrayed the world of the politically aware upper-middle class in a highly original narrative that matched the Filipino’s contemporary dilemmas against the spirit of a nationalist past as embodied by the kundiman. It posed the hard questions: Fight or flight? Comfortable retirement or return to the fray? —AH
  1. “Manila Notes” (Tanghalang Pilipino or TP). Rody Vera’s adaptation of Oriza Hirata’s “Tokyo Notes” elegantly captured the cadence of everyday life—in this landscape of musicals and melodramas, a rare and refreshing opportunity to just listen to the characters ruminate on art and on the fragility of life. Nothing and everything, happening all at once: That was the beauty of this play. —VGY
  1. “Side Show” (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group or ATEG). An old-fashioned spectacle of a production, featuring radiant performances and no shortage of emotionally resonant songs, and one that, through Gab Pangilinan and Kayla Rivera’s depictions of the conjoined Hilton sisters, emphasized the strength of sisterhood and companionship in the face of a monstrous world. —EMIL HOFILEÑA
  1. “Silent Sky” (Repertory Philippines). With none of the anti-patriarchal rage of many feminist productions, this retelling of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s fight for intellectual and civil freedom eloquently gave its characters the voice they never had in real life. The moments of frustration and heartbreak could be touching, but what broke through was its women’s inner wellspring of hope and optimism. —CL
  1. “Waitress” (ATEG). Masquerading as a kooky romantic comedy while revealing itself as an ode to generations of resilient women, it possessed an earnestness that snuck up on you. A note-perfect Joanna Ampil led a wildly entertaining cast through every heartbreak and through every one of Sara Bareilles’ soaring melodies. —EH

Bituin Escalante, Joanna Ampil and Maronne Cruz in “Waitress” —MANMAN ANGSICO

Plus:

Dulaang UP’s “Ang Dalagita’y ’sang Bagay na Di-buo,” Vera’s Filipino adaptation of the Annie Ryan play based on Eimear McBride’s “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing,” told—in heart-rending, soul-torching ways—one woman’s wretched life. Four actresses alternated as the titular woman of this nearly two-hour monologue; the night I watched, Skyzx Labastilla delivered a tour de force in this Herculean part. —VGY

“Nagwawalang Gubat,” Luarca’s adaptation of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” a three-act chronicle of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s ouster, proved to be a must-see with its surprising acuity, power and fury. Directed by JK Anicoche, the student cast from the Philippine High School for the Arts was a powerhouse ensemble whose abilities equaled those of seasoned university theater actors. —CL

The Sandbox Collective’s “Lungs”—90 minutes of virtually nonstop communication and miscommunication covering cradle to grave—beautifully explored a tough but authentically affecting relationship, with a contemporary script that was LOL-funny as it was wrenching. Andrei Pamintuan’s minimalist production was amazingly effective in portraying the emotional and psychological odyssey of its protagonists, carried off with flair by a charismatic duo-cast. —AH

Best performances of 2018

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  1. Joanna Ampil (“Waitress”). Her spirited take on her character—the resolute, optimistic but oppressed wife—never descended into Disney-like, saccharine mawkishness. Who knew a song or two about baked pies could be so moving? —CL
  1. Cathy Azanza-Dy (“Silent Sky”). Boisterous courage, passion fueled by an unyielding intelligence, and a sly vulnerability made her Henrietta Swan Leavitt dominate the stage. Thus, viewers didn’t have to understand the intricacies of early astronomy to rally to her cause. —CL
  1. Stella Cañete-Mendoza (“Dekada ’70”). Through the years, Cañete-Mendoza (often in partnership with husband Juliene) has given us a number of wonderfully vivid Filipino women onstage, but it would be difficult to match her spectacular Amanda Bartolome, which ran the gamut from yearning but loyally repressed housewife to uncomprehending and anguished mother to defiantly liberated and self-realized woman. Her final scene at the head of the full ensemble, her clenched fist raised, was indelible. —AH

Stella Cañete-Mendoza and Jon Abella in “Dekada ’70.”

  1. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (“The Kundiman Party”). In a production crammed with memorable performances, her hauntingly nuanced Maestra Adela, standing out as one of the most fully realized characters in recent Philippine theater, embodied the social contradictions and conflicted idealism of (some of) the Filipino bourgeoisie, in moods variously hilarious, acerbic and defiant. A brilliant performance, perhaps standing beside her Katherine Brandt in Red Turnip’s “33 Variations.” —AH
  1. Maronne Cruz (“Waitress”). She took what could have easily been a collection of cheap, shallow quirks and fashioned a genuinely endearing character for herself. With impeccable comedic timing and an aching sense of longing, she never let Dawn’s eccentricities obscure her beautiful heart. —EH
  1. Sheila Francisco (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”). As the loyal, feisty housekeeper, Francisco stood out in an already small cast of towering performances, her chameleonic demeanor of shifting into contrasting emotions breaking down the other characters’ defenses to show their true motivations. —CL
  1. Sab José (“Lungs”). Theater aficionados would know José from her featured roles in lighthearted productions like “Eto Na!” and “No Filter.” In The Sandbox Collective’s “Lungs,” she came into her own as a full-fledged dramatic actress, her bravura portrayal of the feminine end of a neurotic but loving relationship breathlessly spanning the play’s length and the lifetime of a complex woman

—funny, exasperating, touching. —AH

The ensemble of “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” —GIAN NICDAO

  1. Sherry Lara (“’night, Mother”). The year’s first great performance was Lara’s take on the elderly everywoman archetype—a mother desperately and hopelessly trying to delay her daughter’s intended suicide

—in a nerve-wracking, 90-minute, life-or-death salvo. —VGY

  1. Missy Maramara. In four productions, intensity and verve remarkably displayed through an astonishing range of roles: a haplessly conflicted Lady Anne in “RD3RD,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” at the Ateneo Areté’; a dizzying multiplicity of vivid characters, all revolving around a harrowingly abused protagonist, in “Ang Dalagita’y”; the delightfully liberated Tita Mitch in “The Kundiman Party”; and a gallery of vignettes in New Voice Company’s short-lived “The Vagina Monologues,” running a gamut of tones from sly wit to fiercely felt pain.—AH
  1. Gab Pangilinan (“Side Show”). Despite being joined at the hip to the impressive Kayla Rivera, Pangilinan distinguished herself as the ambitious Daisy Hilton—fighting past her character’s physical limits and emerging as a fully formed individual who was as world-weary as she was indomitably protective. —EH
  1. Aicelle Santos (“Himala: Isang Musikal”). Santos reinvented one of Filipino cinema’s most tragic characters, channeling a nation’s all-consuming desperation and making us feel Elsa’s every sacrifice. Pushing herself to magnificent vocal heights, she left unforgettable scars that you could get only from live theater. —EH
  1. Brian Sy (“Desaparesidos”). He was in a league of his own as the rebel Roy, taking the viewer on a journey that plumbed the depths of patriotism, and more importantly, fatherhood and manhood. This was an actor finally landing the role and spotlight worthy of his talents. —VGY

Teetin Villanueva in “Desaparesidos” —IRVIN ARENAS

  1. The cast of “Manila Notes.” There were no “stars” in this play. Instead, it featured the year’s finest ensemble, the pitch-perfect playing ranging from meatier comic turns by Meann Espinosa and Kathlyn Castillo to those so-called peripheral parts smartly rendered large, such as Elle Velasco’s museum curator. —VGY

Plus:

First, three vital performances from three reruns: Shaira Opsimar as the new Aileen in the sixth run of “Rak of Aegis”; Marco Viaña as the definitive John Proctor in TP’s “Ang Pag-uusig”; and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, doing wonders with just a single song in ATEG’s “Kinky Boots.”

Second, three featured performances that all but ran away with their respective shows: the comic geniuses Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale”) and Bibo Reyes, who made a star turn out of “awkward, philandering gynecologist” in “Waitress”; and Kakki Teodoro’s weave-snatching town prostitute in “Himala.” —VGY

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s cold, calculating turn as Nora Helmer in “A Doll’s House, Part 2” didn’t win hearts or evoke sympathy, but dislodged viewers from their intellectual comfort zones. —CL

10 artistic and technical standouts of 2018

  1. Three examples of effective, detailed set design: Benjamin Padero’s cluttered, lived-in bungalow for “‘night, Mother”; the academic, music-loving tita’s domain as built by Mitoy Sta. Ana for “The Kundiman Party”; and for “Waitress,” David Gallo’s pink-and-blue pie diner, with its rotating centerpiece, giving life to its characters’ escapist fantasies. —VGY
  1. Myke Salomon’s brand-new, kaleidoscopic arrangements of Eraserheads classics for Full House Theater Company’s “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” with some songs taking on completely different contexts and others simply growing in scale and intricacy. —EH
  1. In “Silent Sky,” Joey Mendoza’s brownish, boxed set of 19th-century America, as lit by John Batalla, opens up to a canvas of limitless stars, epitomizing the protagonist’s quest to unlock their secrets and push beyond her own limits. —CL
  1. Daniel Bartolome and Orly dela Cruz reworking Apo Hiking Society for “Eto Na!” where each tune felt organically and unpretentiously introduced into the far-from-simplistic story (book by Robbie Guevara, with cowriter Jonjon Martin). —CL
  1. In “Himala,” the desolation of Barrio Cupang, suffocated by darkness and ghostly voices, as designed by Ed Lacson Jr. (set), Barbie Tan-Tiongco (lights), Carlo Pagunaling (costumes) and Vincent de Jesus (musical direction). —EH
  1. “Desaparesidos” turning martial law into a frantic, claustrophobic, multimedia nightmare (choreography by Jomelle Era, set by Charles Yee, lights by D Cortezano, sound by Arvy Dimaculangan, projections by Steven Tansiongco). —EH
  1. Mark Dalacat’s constrictive set, lit by D Cortezano, captured the kind of somber, ravaged in-between suggested by Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Marisol,” with superlative sound work

—yet again—from Teresa Barrozo. —VGY

  1. The evolving world of TP’s “Balag at Angud,” as designed by Toym Imao and Marco Viaña, built from and mirroring the same found objects that sculptor and installation artist Junyee, the musical’s subject, worked with. —EH
  1. Rody Vera’s scripts for “Ang Dalagita’y” and “Manila Notes” as bookends to yet another prolific year of theater writing. —VGY
  1. Jodee Aguillon’s set for “Lungs’” was the essence of minimalism: a plain platform as stage, framed by four poles at its corners, among which Miggy Panganiban’s play of lights suggested shifts of scenes and passage of years. This minimalism conveyed a world of emotions and a history of lives for an equally minimalist cast. —AH

Director of the year

One name consistently popped up in our individual lists: Ed Lacson Jr., in what qualifies as a career-high work, his bare-bones approach to “Himala” bringing forth sensational performances and the tangible barrenness of a wretched place.

Next, Guelan Luarca for “Desaparesidos,” though he was already honored in this same space two years ago for that play’s initial version.

Finally, four other notables: Bobby Garcia (“Waitress”), Robbie Guevara (“Eto Na!”), Cris Villonco (“A Doll’s House, Part 2) and Joy Virata (“Silent Sky”).

—VGY

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