Best of theater 2019 | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Best of theater 2019

No less than 14 previously staged, full-length Filipino productions returned this year.

9 Works Theatrical brought back its APO Hiking Society musical “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!”. The crowd-favorite Eraserheads show “Ang Huling El Bimbo” played three sold-out runs at Resorts World Manila. Floy Quintos’ “The Kundiman Party” moved from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman to the Peta Theater Center, and “Himala, Isang Musikal,” coproduced by 9 Works and The Sandbox Collective, reappeared even better than its already perfect form in 2018.

Two perennials also turned up—a record-setting seventh run of “Rak of Aegis,” and the fourth (and inarguably best) version of Tanghalang Pilipino’s (TP) “Mabining Mandirigma”— alongside smaller but no less absorbing fare such as Sandbox’s redesigned “Dani Girl.”

Even the splashy foreign visitors were repeats: an nth dose of the interactive Harry Potter parody “Potted Potter”; and, at The Theatre at Solaire, updated productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” both having debuted locally at the Cultural Center of the Philippines earlier this decade.

Which is not to say 2019 was lacking in terms of new and/or original work—quite the opposite, actually.

The near-synchronous arrival of three pieces by American legend Stephen Sondheim was nirvana for the geekiest of musical theater geeks.

But Sondheim wasn’t the only one all over town. The Spanish playwrights somehow invaded the campuses. Dulaang UP (DUP) staged English and Filipino versions of Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” and Lope de Vega’s “Fuente Ovejuna”; MINT College did Lorca’s “Yerma”; and the Theater Arts program of De La Salle-College of St. Benilde had “Ang Dakilang Teatro ng Daigdig” (in part, Calderón de la Barca’s “The Great Theater of the World”) and “El Mar de Sangre” (Lorca’s “Blood Wedding,” which Artist Playground deconstructed into “Buwan” for its actors’ recital).

88 productions

Our schools, in fact, proved to be fertile ground, as evidenced below by our picks for the year’s crème de la crème.

Of the 88 fully staged productions we saw in Manila—including 28 musicals, 44 straight plays, and 20 new one-act plays—39 were staged by students or student-run companies.

University production or not, however, success was never a guarantee—not just in quality, but also in economic terms.

For every surprise hit, such as “Ang Pagsalubong sa Apatnapu” by the Marikina-based community outfit Teatro ni Juan, there were the likes of “Aurelio Sedisyoso” and “Guadalupe: The Musical,” neither planned rerun of which materialized.

FrontRow Entertainment’s “M. Butterfly” folded abruptly midway through its national tour.

And, most conspicuously, the London-based Rose Theatre canceled its repertory productions of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” less than a week before the intended opening.

What follows is by no means an exhaustive appraisal of the 2019 Manila theater scene. Take it, instead, as our personal roll call of those we’d most welcome to see again onstage.

Best play (one-act)

“Fangirl” (Herlyn Alegre; Charles Yee, dir.).

The most accomplished entry of Virgin Labfest 15 turned the seemingly ridiculous phenomenon of pop-culture fandom into compelling comedy, buoyed by richly detailed writing, airtight direction, and a tireless trio of actresses playing longtime friends fighting tooth and nail over a concert ticket.

Good news to those who missed it: “Fangirl” will be back next year in the Labfest’s “Revisited” section.

Honorable Mentions: “Anak Ka Ng” (U Z Eliserio; Maynard Manansala, dir.); “Wanted: Male Boarders” (Rick Patriarca; George de Jesus III, dir.); “The Bride and the Bachelor” (Dingdong Novenario; Topper Fabregas, dir.)

Best play (full-length/ non-Filipino material)

“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” (Tony Kushner; Bobby Garcia, dir.).

The best production in Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s season heralded Garcia’s return to nonmusicals after “God of Carnage” seven years ago, and, more significantly, his second stab at part one of Kushner’s magnum opus, 24 years after premiering in the Philippines all two parts and seven hours of it.

In his script, Kushner writes that an “epic play” such as “Angels” “should be a little fatiguing.” Garcia’s production was perceptively paced and rendered, with astonishing emotional precision, the unraveling lives of its eight main characters in the 1980s AIDS crisis. It made you laugh, broke your heart, and left you with a renewed sense of hope and possibility.

Honorable Mentions: “Stop Kiss” (Diana Son; Ed Lacson, Jr., dir.); “If He Doesn’t See Your Face” (Suzue Toshiro, English translation by Christy Scriba; Ricardo Abad, dir.); “Every Brilliant Thing” (Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe; Jenny Jamora, dir.); “Dancing Lessons” (Mark St. Germain; Francis Matheu, dir.)

Best play (full-length/ original Filipino material or adaptation)

“Alpha Kappa Omega” (Mike de Leon’s film “Batch ’81,” adapted and directed by Guelan Luarca).

In an interview last year, Luarca, then newly appointed artistic director of Tanghalang Ateneo (TA), said: “Theater [should be] agitating and ever-questioning, ardent in its pursuit to challenge the status quo.”

That, he achieved irrefutably with this unflinching, contemporized take on De Leon’s classic tale of a bunch of fraternity neophytes during the Marcos years.

Performed almost entirely by a student cast, “Alpha Kappa Omega”—yet further proof of the prolific Luarca as one of our most astute artist-critics—was at once a fiery indictment of strongman culture and a subtle middle finger to the sycophancy and depravity now symbolic of Duterte-era politics.

Honorable Mentions: “Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines” (Sophocles’ “Antigone,” adapted by Sabrina Basilio; Tara Jamora Oppen, dir.); “Makinal” (Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal,” adapted by Eljay Castro Deldoc; Nour Hooshmand, dir.); “Katsuri” (John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men,” adapted by Bibeth Orteza; Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, dir.)

Best actor (play)

Marco Viaña (“Katsuri”).

The play itself faltered over erratic world-building, but the world Viaña built for his character—the personal, social and emotional landscape inhabited by his version of John Steinbeck’s farmhand George—was fully persuasive and realized. Viaña has always been a dependable member of the TP Actors’ Company, counting in his exemplary body of work noteworthy appearances in the Filipino adaptations of such classics as “The Merchant of Venice,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Coriolanus,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Crucible.” As the hand of God made manifest in this adaptation of “Of Mice and Men,” he simply outdid himself.

Honorable Mentions: Topper Fabregas (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”); Leo Rialp (“Red”); Jonathan Tadioan (“Katsuri”); Lance Reblando (“Wanted: Male Boarders”); Brian Sy (“If He Doesn’t See Your Face”); Audie Gemora (“The Dresser”); Randy Villarama (“Dancing Lessons”); Ron Capinding (“Ang Apologia ni Sokrates”); John Sanchez (“Alpha Kappa Omega”); Quiel Quiwa (“Freedom Wall”); Marco Viaña (“Coriolano”); Joshua Tayco (“A Family Reunion”); Chrome Cosio (“A Family Reunion”); Alex Medina (“The Bride and the Bachelor”); Xander Soriano (“Marat/Sade”)

Best actress (play)

Kakki Teodoro (“Every Brilliant Thing”).

“We tend to talk about performance as though it’s the definition of falsehood, when, at its best, it’s the height of truth,” wrote critics A.O. Scott and Wesley Morris in The New York Times.

Those words ring truest this year for Teodoro’s breakout masterwork in this Herculean monologue, in which she scoured, with breathtaking range, the volatile psychological terrain of her manic-depressive character, and, in the interactive segments, all but completely erased the fine line between reality and pretense.

Long a reliable fixture of the ensemble, Teodoro finally got her chance in the spotlight this year—and delivered a star performance in every sense of the word.

Honorable Mentions: Missy Maramara (“Stop Kiss”); Delphine Buencamino (“If He Doesn’t See Your Face”); Skyzx Labastilla (“Anak Ka Ng”); Mayen Estañero (“Fangirl”); Jill Peña (“Dancing Lessons”); Krystle Valentino (“Anak Ka Ng”); Gigi Escalante (“Ang Tahanan ni Bernarda Alba”); Stella Cañete-Mendoza (“The House of Bernarda Alba”); Jenny Jamora (“Stop Kiss”); Meann Espinosa (“Fangirl”); Marj Lorico (“Fangirl”); Via Antonio (“The Bride and the Bachelor”); Karyl Oliva (“Proposal”); Claudia Enriquez (“Dolorosa”)

Best featured actor (play)

Markki Stroem (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”). In an extremely crowded category this year, none took us on a more transporting (and quietly heart-shredding) narrative journey than Stroem, whose Joe Pitt, the Republican Mormon in denial of his sexuality, was the closest embodiment of that sense of vulnerability pervading “Angels in America.”

Best of theater 2019
Nelsito Gomez and Markki Stroem in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” —JAIME UNSON

The actor himself had, through the decade, steadily built a resumé in musical theater, in such shows as “Jersey Boys,” “Next to Normal” and “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.” In making the leap to nonmusical plays, he raised the bar the highest, indisputably signaling the arrival of a serious new entrant to the field.

Honorable Mentions: Gio Gahol (“Laro”); Nelsito Gomez (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”); Phi Palmos (“Laro”); Art Acuña (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”); Cholo Ledesma (“Alpha Kappa Omega”); Ross Pesigan (“Laro”); Jon Abella (“Laro”); Brian Sy (“Coriolano”); Adrian Reyes (“Freedom Wall”); Nonie Buencamino (“The Kundiman Party”); Jack Yabut (“Makinal”); AJ Sison (“Wanted: Male Boarders”); Jonathan Tadioan (“Coriolano”); Ross Pesigan (“Fuente Ovejuna”/Filipino version); Boo Gabunada (“The Kundiman Party”); Earvin Estioco (“Alpha Kappa Omega”); Jay Gonzaga (“Laro”); André Miguel (“Laro”); Vincent Kevin Pajara (“Laro”)

Best featured actress (play)

Katski Flores (“Alpha Kappa Omega”). As the teacher Ms. Casuso, the play’s voice of reason and moral axis, Flores appeared in only a handful of scenes. But how she made every minute count, with a performance that recalled the finest and fiercest fleeting turns of the decade—think Roselyn Perez in “The Normal Heart,” Gina Respall in “The King and I,” Cherie Gil in “Nine.”

Flores’ primary job was to ground the world of “Alpha Kappa Omega,” which she did every time she stepped onstage—only to send the play shooting skyward with her blazing presence and incendiary monologues.

Honorable Mentions: Angeli Bayani (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”); Sabrina Basilio (“A Family Reunion”); Sherry Lara (“Coriolano”); Karen Romualdez (“Makinal”); Harriette Damole (“Marat/Sade”); Antonette Go (“Tartuffe [o Ang Manloloko]”); Tami Monsod (“The Dresser”); Sarina Sasaki (“Ang Tahanan ni Bernarda Alba”); Gel Basa (“Ang Tahanan ni Bernarda Alba”); Adrianna Agcaoili (“Marat/Sade”)

Best musical (non-Filipino material)

“Spring Awakening” (music by Duncan Sheik, libretto by Steven Sater; Missy Maramara, dir.). Nothing really compares to the thrill of seeing students aim for the big leagues—and hit their marks to show what campus theater can achieve.

Best of theater 2019
The ensemble of “Spring Awakening” —NATE BOSANO

This year, the elite company of DUP’s “Ang Nawalang Kapatid” and TA’s “Middle Finger” and “Kalantiaw” welcomed to their ranks Ateneo Blue Repertory’s second shot at “Spring Awakening”—a revelatory, lucidly mounted and across-the-board stunning production that made full, intelligent use of its resources to conjure a world both archaic and frighteningly current.

Tying together all the ravishing elements was Maramara’s direction—steeped in a profound understanding of youth, its juvenile desires and reckless nature, and able to keenly translate that understanding into plot, movement, and expression. The result was one of the best university productions we’ve seen this decade. It was also one of the best productions of the decade—period.

Honorable Mentions: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (book by Hugh Wheeler, score by Stephen Sondheim; Bobby Garcia, dir.); “Passion” (book by James Lapine, score by Stephen Sondheim; Robbie Guevara, dir.); “Company” (book by George Furth, score by Stephen Sondheim; Topper Fabregas, dir.)

Best musical (original Filipino material or adaptation)

“Hanggang Isang Araw” (book by Eljay Castro Deldoc, based on Trina Paulus’ “Hope for the Flowers,” score by Fitz Bitana and Krina Cayabyab; Mark Mirando, dir.). This little-seen production, part of UP Diliman’s lineup of student theses, was the pinnacle of invention and imagination —and the kind of resourceful, risk-taking theater we should all stan. An aspirational musical about caterpillars that was practically a no-entry warning to cynics? Hell yes, it worked—and worked really, really well, care of Mirando’s playful direction; Deldoc’s compact writing; Bitana and Cayabyab’s lush, no-frills music; and a chameleonic four-person cast led by the incandescent Miah Canton in a breakthrough performance.

Honorable Mentions: “Walang Aray” (libretto by Rody Vera, based on Severino Reyes’ “Walang Sugat,” music by Vince Lim; Ian Segarra, dir.); “Lam-ang” (book and lyrics by Eljay Castro Deldoc, based on “Biag ni Lam-ang,” score by Fitz Bitana and Jen Darlene Torres; Fitz Bitana and Marco Viaña, dirs.)

Best actor (musical)

No citation.

Honorable Mentions: Sandino Martin (“Spring Awakening”); Vien King (“Passion”); Jett Pangan (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”); Nicco Manalo (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”); JC Santos (“Lam-ang”); Lance Reblando (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”); Phi Palmos (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”); OJ Mariano (“Company”)

Best actress (musical)

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (“Passion”) and Lea Salonga (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). What’s better than one triumphant performance by an actress in a Sondheim show? Two such performances. How lucky we are, then, to have witnessed in the same year career-best work from both Valderrama-Martinez and Salonga.

Best of theater 2019
Lea Salonga in “Sweeney Todd” —JAIME UNSON

Honorable Mentions: Gab Pangilinan (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”); Krystal Kane (“Spring Awakening”); Felicity Kyle Napuli (“Dani Girl”); Miah Canton (“Hanggang Isang Araw”); Celine Fabie (“Himala, Isang Musikal”); Monique Wilson (“Mabining Mandirigma”); Maia Dapul (“Unperfect”)

Best featured actor (musical)

Juancho Gabriel (“Spring Awakening”). As the tragic Moritz, whose coming of age becomes both his metaphorical and literal death sentence, Gabriel was an electric bundle of nerves and confusion—gone too soon in the world of the musical, but a most indelible presence on that stage.

Honorable Mentions: Victor Robinson III (“Himala, Isang Musikal”); Lorenz Martinez (“Dani Girl”); Daniel Drilon (“Dani Girl”); George Schulze (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”); Jason Tan Liwag (“Spring Awakening”); Juliene Mendoza (“Dani Girl”); Raul Montesa (“Passion”); Nyoy Volante (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”); Paw Castillo (“Lam-ang”); Hans Eckstein (“The Quest for the Adarna”); Joseph Nabong (“Hanggang Isang Araw”); Bene Manaois (“Walang Aray”); Chino Veguillas (“Company”)

Best featured actress (musical)

Cathy Azanza-Dy (“Company”). There were many reasons to catch this surprisingly of-the-moment rendition of “Company,” but none as persuasive as Azanza-Dy’s pitch-perfect embodiment of what makes this musical and what makes it work—as bride-to-be Amy, neurosis, heartache and comedy all rolled into one.

Honorable Mentions: Tex Ordoñez-de Leon (“Lam-ang”); Alexa Prats (“Spring Awakening”); Jenine Desiderio (“Rak of Aegis”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“Company”); Anna Luna (“Lam-ang”); Joanna Ampil (“Cats”); Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”); Maronne Cruz (“Company”); J-mee Katanyag (“Walang Aray”); Leah Patricio (“Rak of Aegis”); Sheila Francisco (“Himala, Isang Musikal”); Jasmine Fitzgerald (“Passion”)

Best director

Missy Maramara (“Spring Awakening”). See Best Musical (Non-Filipino Material).

Honorable Mentions: Ed Lacson Jr. (“Stop Kiss”); Guelan Luarca (“Alpha Kappa Omega”); Bobby Garcia (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”); Ricardo Abad (“If He Doesn’t See Your Face”); Charles Yee (“Fangirl”); Maynard Manansala (“Anak Ka Ng”); Mark Mirando (“Hanggang Isang Araw”); Robbie Guevara (“Passion”); Francis Matheu (“Dancing Lessons”)

Artistic, technical standouts

In lighting design, Aaron Porter produced the year’s finest work with his psychedelic evocation of the ‘60s for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and his black-and-white show of masterly exactitude for “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Also—Shakira Villa Symes’ dreamlike play with shadows for “Passion”; D Cortezano’s lights-as-physical-beats for “Alpha Kappa Omega”; Miyo Sta. Maria (“Spring Awakening”); Jonjon Villareal (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”); Dennis Marasigan (“Coriolano”); John Batalla (“Every Brilliant Thing”); Barbie Tan-Tiongco (“The Dresser”); Andre Gonzales (“Makikitawag Lang Ako”); and Jethro Nibaten (“Stop Kiss”).

Director-designer Ed Lacson Jr. easily exceeded himself with his jaw-dropping theater-within-the-theater set design for “The Dresser,” along with the Instagram-inspired look of “Stop Kiss” that wonderfully simplified the storytelling. The crowded field also includes Ohm David’s otherworldly wood paneling for “Spring Awakening”; Faust Peneyra’s ‘60s throwback in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and claustrophobic clutter for “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”; Tata Tuviera (“Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines” and “If He Doesn’t See Your Face”); Jason Tecson (“Passion”); Marco Viaña (“Lam-ang”); David Gallo (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”); Kayla Teodoro (“Dancing Lessons”); Joey Mendoza (“The Quest for the Adarna”); Gino Gonzales (“The House of/Ang Tahanan ni Bernarda Alba”); Monica Sebial (“Alpha Kappa Omega”); and Charles Yee (“Nana Rosa”).

For costumes, Bonsai Cielo’s work for “Lam-ang” impeccably summoned the look and texture of native myth. Likewise, Gayle Mendiola and Leika Golez (“Spring Awakening”); Tata Tuviera (“Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines”); Raven Ong (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”); Hershee Tantiado (“Hanggang Isang Araw” and “Alpha Kappa Omega”); and Zenaida Gutierrez (“Passion”).

For sound design, Arvy Dimaculangan’s mastery of music and silence was most sublime in “Every Brilliant Thing,” in addition to his topnotch soundscapes for “Laro,” “Dolorosa” and “Freedom Wall”—bravo! More: Teresa Barrozo (“Stop Kiss”); Jethro Joaquin (“The Dresser”); TJ Ramos (“Lam-ang” and “Coriolano”); Justin Stasiw (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”); Glendfford Malimban (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”); Xander Soriano (“Alpha Kappa Omega”); and Jon Lazam and Marie Angelica Dayao’s clever use of radio for “Nana Rosa.”

For musical direction, Ejay Yatco was behind the lustrous, full-bodied music-making in “Spring Awakening” and the retooled “Mabining Mandirigma.” Gerard Salonga (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”); Daniel Bartolome (“Passion”); Farley Asuncion (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”); and Rony Fortich (“Company”) also did first-rate work.

The year’s standout choreography/movement design was by Mica Fajardo for “Spring Awakening,” trailed by Nicolo Ricardo Magno’s for “Alpha Kappa Omega.”

Steven Tansiongco’s projection design for “Makinal” should have earned him a 1.0 for this thesis. The other notable in this field was GA Fallarme for “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

For translation/adaptation, the inimitable Guelan Luarca, besides his script for “Alpha Kappa Omega,” also triumphantly tamed Shakespeare with an easy-on-the-ears “Coriolano”; while Sabrina Basilio emerged as the year’s breakout writer with “Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines.” Two more: Eljay Castro Deldoc (“Makinal”); and Nicolas Pichay (“Fuente Ovejuna”).

The sharpest—and funniest—original book of a musical was Rody Vera’s for “Walang Aray.” Plus—Eljay Castro Deldoc (“Hanggang Isang Araw”); and Luna Griño-Inocian (“The Quest for the Adarna”).

For original composition, Vince Lim was responsible for the riotous “Walang Aray” (with Vera’s lyrics) and “Charot!” (lyrics co-written with Jeff Hernandez and Michelle Ngu). Also—Fitz Bitana and Krina Cayabyab (“Hanggang Isang Araw”); and new instrumental work by Teresa Barrozo in “Stop Kiss” and Arvy Dimaculangan in “Dolorosa.”

Breakouts, brief appearances and readings. Finally, it is only right to recognize the three names that, for the first time, grabbed our attention and now have us looking forward to their next appearances: Nikki Bengzon (“Bring It On: The Musical”); Davy Narciso (“The Theory of Relativity”); and Paw Castillo (“Mabining Mandirigma” and “Lam-ang”). Luis Marcelo and Justine Narciso was a pair of perfectly cast surprises in “The Quest for the Adarna.” In “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” Gab Pangilinan and Teetin Villanueva each ran away with their time in the spotlight; ditto Sabrina Basilio in both “Spring Awakening” and “Dolorosa.”

And the Company of Actors in Streamlined Theatre produced two staged readings that may as well have been the real thing. The first was James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” with a delectable Roselyn Perez as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Jaime del Mundo giving the year’s first great performance as King Henry II. And the second was Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” with a sensational ensemble led by Audie Gemora, Tami Monsod and Mako Alonso. For both shows—full staging, please!

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