There’s the gist of the last 10 years in Philippine theater—or, at least, the ever-expanding scene in Manila that we have covered week after week to arrive at this best-of-the-decade rundown of homegrown shows.
Our theater industry remains a small and predictably unpredictable sphere.
Most productions are constrained to limit themselves to playing only on weekends, for runs that hardly go beyond a month.
It’s an encouraging sign of the times, therefore, that running after anywhere between three and five productions in a single weekend has become a frequent occurrence, especially in the second half of the decade.
And we’re not complaining.
So, a toast to the crème de la crème of the 2010s!
1) “Next to Normal” (Atlantis Productions, 2011; music by Tom Kitt, libretto by Brian Yorkey; Bobby Garcia, director). This electrifying, heart-shredding production was our first glimpse this decade of the mastery of the Broadway musical idiom that would become an Atlantis—and Garcia—signature.
Here, as well, we witnessed the first, and perhaps finest, of many fine turns—“fine” being a severe understatement—that the peerless Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (as the bipolar protagonist Diana Goodman) would churn out in a 10-year span.
2) “Stageshow” (Tanghalang Pilipino, 2012; script by Mario O’Hara; Chris Millado, director). Former Theater editor Gibbs Cadiz said it best: “An instant classic … [mapping] out a crucial lost era in the history of Filipino culture, and [filling] a gap in our understanding [of] what makes us the Scheherazades of the world, singing and dancing for our lives in the face of death and destruction.”
Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino was sensational in a Herculean tour-de-force as bodabil star Ester. Her real-life husband Nonie Buencamino played her onstage husband—a whirlwind of dizzying virtuosity, attaining peak form with an explosive dance rendition of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.”
3) “Der Kaufmann: Ang Negosyante ng Venecia” (Tanghalang Pilipino, 2013; William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Filipino translation by Rolando Tinio, adaptation by Rody Vera; Tuxqs Rutaquio and Rody Vera, directors). We saw a number of outstanding Shakespeare adaptations this decade, but none as mind-bending as this.
It was the sheer ironic cruelty of it all, the themes of discrimination and domination played to devastating hilt, that stuck with you—Vera setting the story in a concentration camp where Jewish inmates are forced to “play” the play, given how the original’s traditional villain happens to be the Jewish Shylock.
One of TP’s most unforgettable productions: a comedy brilliantly transformed into unthinkable tragedy.
4) “Red” (The Necessary Theatre by Actor’s Actors Inc., 2013; John Logan; Bart Guingona, director). This two-hander happened to be that year’s most cerebral play—talk of Matisse and Pollock, art and mythology, the endless vexations of the creative mind, populates the dialogue—but on the magnificent shoulders of Guingona (as the painter Mark Rothko) and the ever-reliable Joaquin Valdes (in one of his rare stage outings, as Rothko’s fictional assistant), was also the most mesmerizing.
5) “Sa Wakas” (Culture Shock Productions, 2013; book by Andrei Pamintuan and Ina Abuan, score by Ebe Dancel; Andrei Pamintuan, director). Parallel to the surge of jukebox musicals on Broadway was a similar development hereabouts, our “honorees” so far including The Eraserheads, APO Hiking Society, Yeng Constantino, Aegis, and Francis Magalona.
But the best of the lot—and by best, we mean the tightest, most elegant and fully realized fusion of story and music-making—was the 2013 premiere of this Sugarfree musical, telling a middle-class, millennial love triangle in the inverted-time structure of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” With musical direction by the prolific Ejay Yatco.
6) “Middle Finger” (Tanghalang Ateneo, 2014; Han Ong, Filipino translation by Ron Capinding; Ed Lacson Jr., director). The claustrophobia and blinding confusion of coming-of-age in a society that wants its youth silenced and stifled, rendered with breathtaking fearlessness in what is undoubtedly the university company’s most accomplished work this decade.
This was the year our hearts wept for Guelan Luarca (the playwright is also an actor!) and Joe-Nel Garcia as a pair of lost, tormented teenagers, and also the year Lacson emerged as formidable figure in theater directing.
7) “33 Variations” (Red Turnip Theater, 2015; Moisés Kaufman; Jenny Jamora, director). Unquestionably a highlight for the company that has made a name for pushing boundaries with heady, creatively challenging plays.
First-time director Jenny Jamora’s management of the interpenetrating timelines was nothing short of astounding, as were the set (by Ed Lacson Jr.) and lighting design (by John Batalla) that combined economy and imagination.
With Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, in yet another memorable role, as the dying musicologist Katherine Brandt, Teroy Guzman as fictionalized Ludwig van Beethoven, and Ejay Yatco as Guzman’s piano-playing double, dazzlingly executing the titular “33 Variations” throughout the dramatic action.
8) “Desaparesidos” (Ateneo Entablado, 2016/Ateneo Areté, Almonte, Bustamante and Jamora, 2018; Lualhati Bautista’s novel, adapted and directed by Guelan Luarca). In an era that cries out for politically engaged art, “Desaparesidos” captured both the courage and passion of the resistance struggle, and the heartaches bedeviling its (supposed) triumph.
Indicative of Luarca’s protean abilities were its two incarnations: the visceral, epic-sweep, student-run original, and two years later, a marvelously tighter and deeper recalibration.
Seeing the two versions was almost “Rashomon”-like: the same canvas, merging the political and the personal, witnessed through somewhat different lenses—and a richer combined experience of this theatrical work for that.
9) “Fun Home” (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group, 2016; music by Jeanine Tesori, libretto by Lisa Kron; Bobby Garcia, director). With its themes of homosexuality, suicide and dead-end marriages, it certainly didn’t fit the conventional happy-hummable Broadway mold. But what an indelible piece of theater—alternately funny and heartbreaking, and gripping in its emotional power and depiction of the complex human spirit.
As the subdued matriarch Helen Bechdel, Lea Salonga was no central character—the splendid leads were Cris Villonco (as Alison Bechdel) and Eric Kunze (as Bruce)—but it defied belief that anyone could have come away unshaken by her rendition of “Days and Days.”
10) “Tribes” (Red Turnip Theater, 2016; Nina Raine; Topper Fabregas, director). Inarguably the second peak in a remarkable three-year run of critical successes for the company, from “Cock” to “Rabbit Hole” to “Time Stands Still” to “33 Variations” (the first peak!) to “This Is Our Youth” to “Constellations.”
“Tribes” felt like new plane for Red Turnip: The dominant aesthetics were silence and restraint, which the production pulled off impressively to become, as Cora Llamas wrote in her review, “compelling, consequential theater.”
11) “Angry Christ” (UP Playwrights’ Theatre, 2017; Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, director). Probably the best original Filipino play of the decade—a masterpiece on many levels, from Santos’ nuanced evocation of an entire regional milieu to the explication of a bewildering, complicated artwork; from the intertwined depictions of class realities by Nelsito Gomez (as the painter Alfonso Ossorio) and Kalil Almonte (as Ossorio’s fictional lowly assistant), to Monino Duque’s lighting—bringing to literal light in the final scene the titular mural, before obliterating it to emotionally wrecking effect.
Above all, there was Quintos’ magisterial writing, harnessing the multifarious strands in the life of an artist and a society.
12) “Ang Pag-uusig” (Tanghalang Pilipino, 2017; Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Filipino translation by Jerry Respeto; Dennis Marasigan, director). No other show that year came closer to approximating the culture of duplicity enabled by the Duterte administration than this force-of-nature play, mirroring our country in the Salem witch trials, where truth was sacrificed in favor of power and repute.
This was the TP Actors’ Company at its most blistering since “Der Kaufmann”: Jonathan Tadioan as Deputy Governor Danforth, JV Ibesate as John Proctor, Marco Viaña as Reverend Parris (and Proctor in the next year’s rerun), Lhorvie Nuevo as the vacillating Mary Warren, and an ultra-fierce Antonette Go as the diabolical Abigail Williams.
13) “Himala, Isang Musikal” (9 Works Theatrical & The Sandbox Collective, 2018/2019; book by Ricky Lee, music by Vincent de Jesus, lyrics by Ricky Lee and Vincent de Jesus; Ed Lacson Jr., director). This decade saw the original Filipino musical truly come into its own, and this “Himala” must be accorded pride of place—a tremendously moving parable of our country in this age of unthinking faith in messiahs.
Its core quartet of women was extraordinary: the luminous Aicelle Santos (Elsa), Kakki Teodoro (Nymia), Neomi Gonzales (Chayong) and Bituin Escalante (Saling, also played by Shiela Francisco in the 2019 run).
Beyond them, however, the best character was Barrio Cupang itself, the grit and desolation summoned to tenable life by topnotch direction and design.
Vincen’s other picks
1) “Ang Nawalang Kapatid” (Dulaang UP, 2014; music by Ceejay Javier, Filipino adaptation of “Mahabharata” by Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, director). The most exhilarating dancing of the decade, the bone-breaking choreography (also—unsurprisingly—spearheaded by Santos) exceptionally executed by a troupe of mostly student-actors, including four of our most dependable names now: Ross Pesigan (Karna), Jon Abella (Yudisthira), Vincent Kevin Pajara (Duryodhana) and Teetin Villanueva (Draupadi).
2) “The Pillowman” (The Sandbox Collective, 2014; Martin McDonagh; Ed Lacson Jr., director). A one-off reading that was easily the towering highlight of “The Imaginarium” festival at the Peta Theater Center. McDonagh’s police interrogation of an author accused of gruesome murders was an entrancing back-to-basics in narrating the horror story, finding consummate vessels in Audie Gemora (Katurian), Robie Zialcita (Michal), Niccolo Manahan (Ariel) and the late Richard Cunanan (as Tupolski, the comedy performance of the year).
3) “The Bridges of Madison County” (2015; book by Marsha Norman, score by Jason Robert Brown) and “Waitress” (2018; book by Jessie Nelson, score by Sara Bareilles; Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group; Bobby Garcia, director). Two very American tales united by three elements: Garcia’s emphatic focus on the text—his honest-to-goodness “tell the story” sensibility; first-rate design (Faust Peneyra’s frame-laden walls and Jonjon Villareal’s lights in “Bridges”; David Gallo’s pink-and-blue rotating diner in “Waitress); and Joanna Ampil as each production’s emotionally crystalline and note-perfect leading lady.
4) “Mga Buhay na Apoy” (Tanghalang Pilipino, 2015; written and directed by Kanakan Balintagos). What could have been just another family-under-fire drama turned out to be a flawlessly acted, beguilingly written, unmistakably Filipino work that understood the power of nostalgia—how the past is merely a Pandora’s box of answers to all future times.
5) “Almost, Maine” (Repertory Philippines, 2016; John Cariani; Bart Guingona, director). Repertory Philippines’ best production this decade was this captivating little gem of whimsy and muted heartache, featuring the superlative acting quartet of Natalie Everett, Caisa Borromeo, Jamie Wilson and Reb Atadero; and John Batalla’s Gawad Buhay-winning conjuring of the northern lights.
6) “Kalantiaw” (Tanghalang Ateneo, 2016; Rene Villanueva; Charles Yee, director). A celebration of everything theater should represent: ingenuity, imagination, panache where it matters, and that rare ability to overcome so many odds given so little.
This was one of Yee’s two enthrallingly stylized works that year (the other was “Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania”)—marking him as primed for the big leagues.
The play, about one of Philippine history’s biggest hoaxes, couldn’t have been timelier, arriving at a time of rising historical revisionism.
7) “Spring Awakening” (Ateneo Blue Repertory, 2019; music by Duncan Sheik, libretto by Steven Sater; Missy Maramara, director). The Tony-winning rock musical given a revelatory, lucidly mounted, across-the-board ravishing treatment, steeped in a profound understanding of youth, its juvenile nature and reckless desires, to evoke a world both archaic and frighteningly current. Also my choice for best musical of 2019.
Arturo’s other picks
1) “Care Divas” (Peta, 2011; book by Liza Magtoto, score by Vincent de Jesus; Maribel Legarda, director). Magtoto’s tale of five gay overseas Filipino workers in Israel—caregivers by day, drag performers by night—was wildly entertaining, campy glitter interwoven with personal heartbreak and the queens’ oppressive sociopolitical realities.
The 2011 premiere was trailblazing in the way it gave ample space for both flamboyance and pathos, with a bittersweet spectacle of a finale that was a fitting salute to the musical’s affirmation of Filipino OFW and LGBTQ resilience.
2) “William” (Peta, 2011; Ron Capinding; Maribel Legarda, director). A delightful conjunction of smarts, laughter and heart, set to engaging rap music by Jeff Hernandez, “William” allowed its story’s band of teenagers the possibility to grasp in Shakespeare’s prose and verse an idiom for coping with reality. “The Bard for young people”—but done with great respect for both the youth and the Bard. Would that adults could “learn” their Shakespeare so authentically, indeed!
3) “Mabining Mandirigma” (Tanghalang Pilipino, 2015/2019; music by Joed Balsamo, libretto by Nicanor Tiongson; Chris Millado, director). Groundbreaking in many ways: the “steampunk” aesthetic in the score and Toym Imao’s visually arresting design; the casting of the central role of Apolinario Mabini with a woman (first Delphine Buencamino, then Liesl Batucan, Hazel Maranan and, most recently, Monique Wilson, in the musical’s most polished version yet); and Tiongson’s deeply affecting portrayal of the protagonist as fully human, love of country transcending infirmities and impulses to create a true modern hero.
4) “Changing Partners” (MunkeyMusic, 2016/2018; book and score by Vincent de Jesus; Rem Zamora, director). A showcase of Filipino talent in the purest sense: haunting yet accessible music, remarkably intricate scripting, imaginative direction, and shape-shifting, gender-bending turns from Agot Isidro, Jojit Lorenzo, Sandino Martin and Anna Luna.
The 2016 premiere at the Peta Theater Center was already scintillating; the 2018 rerun gave the musical a richer, even more spacious texture.
5) “The Kundiman Party” (UP Playwrights’ Theatre, 2018; Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, director). Political theater seldom explores the social layers of uncertain ground.
Quintos’ most recent play probed, through an absorbing narrative, how the comfortable but politically aware upper-middle class gropes for an effective response to the threats to society and country.
The cast was a roll call of generous portrayals of flawed, but very real, modern Filipino types, with Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino at the head as Maestra Adela, as nuanced a protagonist—hilarious, sad, passionate—as any in recent memory.
6) “Dekada ’70” (Black Box Productions, 2018; Lualhati Bautista’s novel, adapted and directed by Pat Valera, music by Matthew Chang, lyrics by Pat Valera and Matthew Chang). Already an audaciously realized musical as a student thesis, but polished into its latest form in a matter of months.
It was an all-around triumph—adaptation, direction, music and orchestration—but the show no doubt belonged to Stella Cañete-Mendoza as Amanda Bartolome: Her moment in the finale, clenched fist raised as she stood at the head of the ensemble, was iconic.
7) “Passion” (Philippine Opera Company, 2019; book by James Lapine, score by Stephen Sondheim; Robbie Guevara, director). Sondheim is a master of the modern, intelligent musical, and “Passion” may just be his most demanding piece.
This production was simply gorgeous—visually, vocally, dramatically, turning a grotesque tale of obsession into an empathetic exploration of the nature of desire.
Starring a ferocious Shiela Valderrama-Martinez as Fosca, embodying physical and mental sickness, and affirming the transcending power of beauty and love.
Plus: our favorite one-acts:
1) “Kawala” (Virgin Labfest, 2011; Rae Red; Paolo O’Hara, director). Ingeniously utilizing only half the stage—the story, after all, is set in an elevator—it was a progressive laugh trip that arrived at something unexpectedly poignant. Starring the underrated Cris Pasturan as the elevator boy forcibly dragged into the private entanglements of his building’s tenants.
2) “Kublihan” (Virgin Labfest, 2015; Jerome Ignacio; Guelan Luarca, director). Exquisitely simple—some 45 minutes of dialogue between two high school friends on the brink of parting ways—but amazing how, despite minimal resort to the explicit, it contained a world of adolescent emotion and inner experience.
3) “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala” (Virgin Labfest, 2015; Dean Francis Alfar’s short story “The Kite of Stars,” adapted by Eljay Castro Deldoc; Ed Lacson Jr., director). This was sheer poetry, Lacson’s staging investing the production with a wondrous sense of yearning and magical realism. Starring Krystle Valentino in her breakout role as the title character.
4) “Indigo Child” (Never Again: Voices of Martial Law, 2016; Rody Vera; Jose Estrella, director). Powerful how it rose above polemics to put a wrenchingly human face to the legacy of a brutal dictatorship. Movingly acted by Skyzx Labastilla and Rafael Tibayan as a mother-and-son tandem coming to terms with the past and each other.
5) “Mula sa Kulimliman” (Virgin Labfest, 2016; Carlo Vergara; Hazel Gutierrez, director). Crisp, unpredictable writing, and worth seeing again and again, if only for Mayen Estañero giving the performance of a lifetime as an ordinary housewife who discovers her husband is not of her world.
6) “Fangirl” (Virgin Labfest, 2019; Herlyn Alegre; Charles Yee, director). The seemingly ridiculous phenomenon of pop-culture fandom as engrossing comedy—one high-octane, LOL sequence after another landed perfectly by the tireless trio of Mayen Estañero, Marj Lorico and Meann Espinosa.
Finally, more decade-best works: Reb Atadero in “Dani Girl”; Nicco Manalo in “This Is Our Youth”; Myke Salomon as (jukebox) musical director of the decade with “Rak of Aegis,” “3 Stars and a Sun,” “Ako si Josephine” and “Ang Huling El Bimbo”; Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante in “Carrie”; Carla Guevara-Laforteza in “Rent” and “Nine”; the kulintang music and igal choreography of “Sintang Dalisay”; Audie Gemora in “The Producers” and “La Cage aux Folles”; Skyzx Labastilla in “Ang Dalagita’y ’sang Bagay na Di-buo”; Gwyn Guanzon’s soil-drenched set for “Rite of Passage”; Cathy Azanza-Dy in “Silent Sky”; Kakki Teodoro in “Every Brilliant Thing”; PJ Rebullida’s choreography for “Newsies”; the quartet of Frances Makil-Ignacio, Ces Quesada, Missy Maramara and Harriette Damole in “The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away Ultimately Becomes Nostalgia”; Sheenly Vee Gener in “Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean”; Ed Lacson Jr.’s set and direction for “Stop Kiss”; Tami Monsod in Upstart Production’s staged reading of “Wit”; Jennifer Blair-Bianco in “Venus in Fur”; Gab Pangilinan in “Ang Huling El Bimbo”; Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” in “Company”; Pinky Amador in “Piaf”; Lea Salonga in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”; and Mio Infante’s instantly unforgettable set for “Rak of Aegis.”