THE NAKED AND THE PLAYING-DEAD
PDI, October 24, 2005
In "All About Men 2... Penis Talks Reloaded," the gay peep show masquerading as a musical revue that opened two weekends ago at the Music Museum, 17 young men with rippling abs, sweaty chests and unembarrassed faces cavort onstage in the skimpiest of Bench skivvies. (No, they don't sing "Jumbo Hotdog.")
They are joined by two women who keep their clothes on for the most part, and a pixie-faced actor with a fleshy, gnomelike frame--not at all displeasing to watch, but in the company of his shapely co-stars, a presence obviously meant for something else other than physical allure.
That actor is Ricci Chan, beloved by many "Rent"-heads as the first and the best Angel of the Broadway musical's local staging. Despite a height that barely vaults over 5 ft, Chan is proving to be the brawniest cast member of "Penis Talks 2." He must be, because on his puny shoulders rests pretty much what goes right in this preachy gay fantasia as an amateur drama club might have staged it.
Chan was also the best thing in last year's "Penis Talks 1." But this time, his exposure is bigger, allowing him to flex his natural showman's flair for the drop-dead punchline, the picturesque bitchiness. Whenever he's onstage, the business of talking about penises becomes a generally entertaining affair.
What goes horribly wrong, which is to say the rest of "Penis Talks 2," is not the fault of Chan's co-actors that include Jay Manalo, Luis Alandy, Christian Vazquez, Polo Ravales, Paolo Paraiso, Reggie Curley, RJ Rosales, Rich Vergara, Roselle Nava and Joy Viado (assisted by nine hunks wearing yellow thongs and billed primly as the "chorus").
God knows acting on stage can be terrifying, but doing it in your barely-there undies must be hell. No, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in these stars, but in the material as conjured by the gilded team of writer Ricky Lee and directors Joel Lamangan and Mel Chionglo.
These three gentlemen need no introduction. So here are some samples of what passes for wit, comedy and theatrical diction (not the enunciation of words, but the quality of the text) in "Penis Talks 2."
A nervous sperm (Ravales in loose, all-white pajamas and head wrap) outruns, slow-motion, the other sperm cells to the background music of Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire." He sees an egg cell (Nava, encased in an all-white body suit and giant ball) and exclaims, "Wow, siya na yata ang pinakamagandang egg cell sa balat ng ovary!"
They meet, they hold hands, they sing a medley of one-line snatches from various songs, beginning with "Fancy meeting you alone in the crowd" and ending with (to the tune of "Got To Believe In Magic") "'Coz it's magic when two chromosomes fall in loooove."
Vince De Jesus is credited as the musical director and composer of the show's 25-odd songs, but the playbill doesn't say if he also wrote the lyrics. Whoever the librettist is must be in serious need of remedial Science class. The egg and the sperm cell each carries 23 chromosomes, accounting for the 46 chromosomes we all have. Females carry two XX chromosomes, males carry one X and one Y.
Comedy, camp, farce--they are no excuse for sloppy, suspect writing, for lines that flout logic, or worse, that confuses what is truly, provocatively funny with what is merely tasteless. Especially in a show that has hyped itself as a thoughtful if lighthearted examination of sexual issues not often talked about, in the manner of Eve Ensler's groundbreaking "The Vagina Monologues."
"Penis Talks 2's" salaciousness is hardly jolting. Nowadays, any third-rate comedy bar can dish it out, and with more playful alacrity. It's getting past the material's risible psychology without cringing that poses a bigger challenge.
We are supposed to laugh, for instance, at a line uttered by a clueless hermaphrodite (played by Chan) who, distressed at not having his/her period yet, says something unprintable in its crude original form but which roughly translates to "I've even downed Xenical and passed off the oily discharge as my period!"
The show drags the character through all sorts of scrapes involving his/her dual sex organs. Deliverance, if you will, comes only in the form of a "bisexual" hunk who makes use of both sexes, to the hermaphrodite's supposed fulfillment.
Sound science? We don't know. But the glib, lazy way the material is handled inspires no reassurance.
Characteristically, after having razzed the character to bits, the vignette ends with hectoring bromides about the need for kindness and tolerance toward others seen as "different."
"Penis Talks 2's" dramatic design is clear by this time. Play up the freakishness for laughs, then turn around to warn against bigotry and narrow-mindedness, trusting that the audience would be too far into the flesh parade to notice the bogusness of the high-minded niceties.
An ensuing sequence has the chiseled Vazquez playing a hunchback necrophiliac who, as the narrator helpfully explains it, is driven to seek solace in the morgue by constant social rejection.
Then, in possibly the most bizarre musical number ever mounted on a local stage, the ensemble fans out to become upright corpses while Vazquez humps their legs like a dog and sings, "Sa punebre at requiem ako'y kumakahol, parang asong mabangis, naglalaway, nauulol!"
But, really, "Penis Talks 2" is a meditation on benevolence. The necrophiliac is redeemed by the arrival of a cadaver that, for once, he learns to respect and love. No, not just any corpse. An AIDS victim's corpse.
"Hitsura pa lang, alam mo nang namatay sa AIDS," intones the narrator. One more strike for bad science. How do you identify by sight the remains of an AIDS victim? By an Ash Wednesday cross on its forehead, perhaps, marking it as HIV-positive of late?
The necrophiliac, undaunted, embraces the body. Cue for the ensemble to rouse themselves from death-like stupor and mouth, in "sabayang pagbigkas," the "magandang aral" of the tale: "Huwag manghusga" and similar self-pleasuring tripe.
It would be nice to say the show's more serious parts play better, but they suffer from another affliction: banality.
The play's concession to "social relevance" is to mix necrophiliacs and hermaphrodites with abused children and OFWs--all sketched with the broad, indistinct strokes that suggest Lee never trawled far from his emporium of easy stereotypes in writing "Penis Talks 2."
A weepy Manalo gets to play an OFW accused of killing his Arab employer, in an agonizingly long segment better suited to "Maalaala Mo Kaya."
Alandy, meanwhile, apparently hoping to relive the acclaim he got from "Penis Talks 1" where he persuasively essayed the role of an abused child, sought to extend the franchise by playing the same character, but now as an adult suffering from a mysterious case of erectile dysfunction. Voila! He is cured only when he remembers his past and learns to forgive the father who violated him.
This is essentially the same play that got Lamangan the Aliw Award for Best Director for a Musical Play in 2004.
The genre is usually defined by the presence of an extensive musical, and particularly vocal, score. That a collage of loose sketches with the barest music and singing in it could help its director win over last year's true-blue musicals (Atlantis Productions' "Baby," Trumpets' "Mr. Noah's Big Boat," Rep's "Fame," Tanghalang Pilipino's "Himala, the Musical" and New Voice Company's "Cabaret") is, to put it mildly, a puzzlement.
"Plays, it goes without saying, can and do act as mouthpieces for their authors' ideas and visions," said the theater critic Hilton Als.
In light of its creators' pedigree, and keeping Als' words in mind, "Penis Talks 2" stands as the "Jumbo Hotdog" of all puzzlements.