UP Playwrights’ Theatre’s “Nana Rosa”—an essential but problematic play—was perhaps the quarter’s most visible, university-based show, but it wasn’t the only one.
‘Br. Benilde’ (Jan. 23-Feb. 2)
As campus theater is concerned, the year began with the a cappella, sort-of-biographical musical “Br. Benilde” at the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde School of Design and Arts Theater. The production was backed by a team of industry pros—Layeta Bucoy as writer, Tuxqs Rutaquio as director, TJ Ramos as composer and musical director, and, save for Natasha Cabrera and Al Gatmaitan (in the titular role), featured a student cast.
“Excessive” was the most appropriate adjective for this production: It was over-scored, over-choreographed, overacted, over-designed. What it lacked was a streamlined, disciplined feel to it, as though what was presented onstage was still a draft version of the real thing.
What stood out, in the end, was the glorious, unamplified singing of the Coro San Benildo, whose members were also part of the ensemble.
‘Oedipus’ (March 14-15)
At St. Benilde’s Taft Avenue campus last week, a far more brow-raising production took its bow—Dulaang Filipino’s “Oedipus,” which used Rolando Tinio and Onofre Pagsanjan’s translations of the Theban trilogy, but through Riki Benedicto’s ministrations, became a 45-minute, movement-heavy condensation.
We recognized this production’s global achievements—laurels from theater festivals in Spain, Canada and Belarus, plus an upcoming stint in the Czech Republic next month.
But it’s also necessary to question its qualities, as an audience who transcended the visual spectacle it offered and actually understood the language it employed. Truth was, the “Oedipus” we saw was performed with little regard for the script, by actors who seemed not to comprehend the lines they were spewing, in a space with terrible acoustics.
A word of caution, then: Perhaps we should be wary of devised productions such as this “Oedipus,” if they inadvertently end up teaching our students that it’s somehow acceptable not to tell the story well; not to listen to one’s co-actors; not to master the basics of theater performance, so long as one can pull off the show’s complicated choreography.
‘Kung Paano Maghiwalay’ (Feb. 13-March 9)
In stark contrast was the Far Eastern University Theater Guild’s “Kung Paano Maghiwalay,” the award-winning George de Jesus III play now directed by Dudz Teraña. Here, there was only the script and the actors—and it was interesting, to say the least, seeing a university company handle material that, at first glance, would seem the wrong fit.
Memories of the 2017 Pineapple Lab production were still relatively fresh, most especially the towering performances of Juliene Mendoza and Stella Cañete-Mendoza as the older couple. But Teraña’s take on the play instead aimed the spotlight on all the pairs of younger lovers.
The production wasn’t always successful. The tonal and thematic shifts between scenes and disparate acting styles could be quite glaring, and the pair who portrayed the older couple was burdened by too much heavy-handed anger in their scenes.
But whenever this production hit its stride, it was a joy to watch—how the student-actors very naturally brought to life their youthful characters. Even better, it figured out the play’s inherent comedy, so a delicate back-and-forth between rapture and anguish was more or less ever-present.
Celine Arriola, as the feisty Karla, served that back-and-forth with flair. And Paolo Casiao was a scene-stealing chameleon, playing all the background characters—taxi driver, Starbucks barista, nursing aide, etc.
‘Tao Po’ (March 14)
Then there was “Tao Po”—included in this roundup for the sole reason that it played a one-off show at the Ateneo de Manila University last week.
“Tao Po” was no campus theater. It’s a Palanca Award-winning monologue by Maynard Manansala, directed by Ed Lacson Jr. and starring the unflinching Mae Paner (aka Juana Change). It’s been around since 2017, performed on stages from Baguio City to Melbourne, Australia.
“Tao Po” strung four unrelated characters—a photojournalist, a Zumba instructor, a policeman and a grieving girl—who documented, perpetrated, or were victimized, respectively, by Duterte-era extrajudicial killings. And as their stories unfolded, what hit you the hardest was the realization that somehow, these were stories that have been normalized, that—quite troublingly—no longer bore an element of surprise.
Which made the show all the more vital to our times. “Tao Po” was a work of such brutal fearlessness, daring to fight back against the excesses of the Duterte regime, that it went beyond the simple rigors of solo performance.
It was about shedding light anew on stories that people have grown calloused to. It was about empathy, and about mining the limits of what it means to be human in these morally compromised times.
At the end of that performance, the makers issued a call stating that they’re open to bringing the play to willing venues. If you’re reading this—and have yet to see it, but have the resources to accommodate the show—reach out to them via the “Tao Po Juana Change” Facebook page. As theater is concerned, this is a play that must be seen and heard all across this country—and even beyond. —CONTRIBUTED