Monday, August 18, 2008

Pleasant and pretty, if not rapturous

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 08.18.2008

Wit, whimsy, irony--they're missing from Manila's stages these days, as three productions show

WHY IS SO MUCH competence so lifeless when we look at it?

That isn’t an original question, or an idle one. Walter Kerr, the late drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, had voiced that lament more than 50 years ago, in reaction to the “literate but bloodless” dramas that were then taking root in American theater.

Manila is worlds away from 1950s New York in so many things--least of all theatrical circumstances--but the question comes to mind when we look at the offerings that are lighting up the city’s various stages these days, over half a century later from Kerr’s time.

“Cinderella” at the CCP Main Theater, “Noli at Fili: Dekada 2000 (Dos Mil)” at the PETA Theater Center, and the recently ended “Hinabing Pakpak ng Ating mga Anak” at the Guerrero Theater in UP Diliman do not qualify as incompetent productions. On the contrary, they evince much thought, planning, care and skillful stagecraft.

But that they fall distressingly short of any artistic transcendence is telling. The commitment is there; the magic isn’t.

Bewailing the absence of magic might seem baffling in the case of Broadway Asia’s “Cinderella,” directed by Bobby Garcia, which is easily the most glitzy, spectacular show to have hit Manila in years.

On top of its $2-million budget, this production has a royal pedigree: beloved fairy tale, Rodgers and Hammerstein score, triumphant history as a Julie Andrews-headlined TV musical, and now, Lea Salonga in the title role. Magical, right?

Yes, to a point. The show is a visual wonder, from the pumpkin’s dazzling transformation into a gleaming coach to Renato Balestra’s lavish costumes, especially the sea of blue-and-white confections in the finale that recalls Cecil Beaton’s masterful orchestration of costume and millinery in the “Ascot Gavotte” sequence of George Cukor’s “My Fair Lady.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s tuneful score, not their best but studded with melodic gems like “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Wonderful?” offers Salonga the perfect excuse to reaffirm her enthralling talent for balladry.

The musical’s most beguiling moment, in fact, has nothing to do with special effects. It is when Salonga sings “In My Own Little Corner”--when she paints, with exquisite vocals and phrasing, the song’s clever lyrics (I’m a young Norwegian princess or a milkmaid/ I’m the greatest prima donna in Milan/ I’m an heiress who has always had her silk made/ By her own flock of silkworms in Japan).

“Cinderella’s” stylish music-making and visuals can’t, however, disguise the one weak element of the show that should’ve benefited from a sprinkle of transforming stardust.

The material is dated. Defying a rewrite (by Mark Waldrop), the book retains a musty, middling feel to it. The show itself, despite the arsenal of theatrical sleights-of-hand that director Garcia employs, is pleasant enough but never rapturous, supremely tasteful but unable to soar.

“Cinderella” advances the case that treacle and sentimentality are Garcia’s danger zones. Give him “Rent,” “Urinetown” or “Avenue Q” and he effortlessly finds the tang and tenderness of the material—that blissful realm of old-fashioned earnestness energized by urban wit. Give him cloying fare like “Beauty and the Beast,” however, or last year’s “Dogeaters” and now “Cinderella,” and that edge vanishes.

Playful irony, the kind he’s able to deploy with easy flair in his other shows, should make this primly pretty, workmanlike “Cinderella” zing.

(“Cinderella” runs until Aug. 24 at the CCP Main Theater. Call 8919999 or visit

‘Noli at Fili Dekada 2000’
Another kind of irony--slashing rather than genial--is required for PETA’s “Noli at Fili Dekada 2000 (Dos Mil).”

A modern reworking of the two Rizal novels (by Nicanor Tiongson, directed by Soxie Topacio), the play opens with a gripping tableau: a family huddled inside an imaginary hut, lashed by wind and rain, then, in a horrifying moment, swept away by a deluge of Biblical proportions.

Real water rains down on the actors, and though only a trickle compared to the real flood it’s approximating, the tactile sight of bodies getting drenched and gasping through the downpour packs a visceral wallop.

Things, alas, all go downhill from this arresting opener. Tiongson’s text, which combines and converts Rizal’s novels into a play about deforestation set in Southern Tagalog, aims for an ambitious verisimilitude. Sprawling and detailed, it is also ploddingly dull, simplistic and literal.

Every stock character of the “Noli” and “Fili,” every warp and woof of the tale, is well accounted for. The usual suspects are laid out with pat precision like pieces on a chess board: the virtuous but embattled protagonist (then Ibarra, now Ibarra Marasigan, the anti-logging mayor of Maypajo town, played by Lex Marcos), surrounded by assorted small-town figures of unfailingly venal nature--the crafty bishop, the greedy military man, the flighty, chattering aunt (Dona Victorina in modern garb, but of course).

What for?
Tiongson’s transposition is technically faultless, but it begs the question: What for? This play’s over two hours of didactically written and pedantically directed sturm und drang says nothing new, except preach--with the banal squareness of a high-school play--to the already converted.

Ask any kid who the country’s Big Villains are and he or she will have the roll call down pat. A steady diet of blaring headlines and TV melodramas has had the whole nation chewing for generations now on the unassailable premise of politicians, churchmen, generals, policemen and the plain rich all conspiring to leech this country dry.

“Noli” gravely regurgitates this slice of pro forma reality, but with hardly a tinge of wit, freshness or insight in its retelling. One could be in complete agreement with its points (as we are) and still be rendered weary by the belabored exercise.

Where’s the vitality in a play whose very topicality calls for alertness and action?

(“Noli Fili Dekada 2000” runs until August 24 at the PETA Theater Center. Call 7256244, 4100821, 0917-8154567, 0917-5642433, e-mail, or visit

‘Hinabing Pakpak ng Ating Mga Anak’
In style, treatment and dramaturgy, Dulaang UP’s “Hinabing Pakpak ng Ating Mga Anak,” with concept, script and direction by Anton Juan Jr., would never be considered a companion piece to “Noli at Fili Dekada 2000.”

If they were paintings, PETA’s play would be representational while Juan’s would be abstract. One proffered a near-photographic slice of contemporary life, the other aspired to metaphorical heights.

That shouldn’t preclude, however, their sharing the same level of grinding, livid fervor for their respective messages.

In “Hinabi’s” case, it’s all about the children--their abuse and mistreatment through war, poverty, injustice, adult malice and neglect, the works. Juan sought nothing less than a searing document of United Nations breadth and proportions to voice his plea, assisted by snippets of children’s stories--by the late and much-loved playwright Rene Villanueva--expertly interwoven into the narrative.

No, there was no narrative. What Juan did whip up was a dense, bombastic, alternately cryptic and lyrical pastiche of images, words, sounds, symbols and ruminations, all flaring out of his cri de coeur: “Anong klaseng lipunan ito... na kinakain ang kanyang mga anak?”

There is no gainsaying Juan’s ample gifts as a visual conjurer. In “Hinabi,” he unveiled a drawn-out procession of unnerving, entrancing, eye-popping imagery, each one more intricate than the last. Visual overload was inevitable, as one set piece hardly had time to cohere before dissolving into the next one.

Telling his story in plain prose proved knottier. One moment Juan could write a wistful, aching line (an urchin, on why he is afraid to laugh and be happy--because “parang nagkakautang ako sa kalungkutan”).

The next he could set up a gratuitous, rampantly manipulative scene (two starving boys snatch the cell phone of a prissy coed, while Juan’s character shrieks to the heavens, “Ano ang tama?!”)

Arty touches notwithstanding, this is, quite simply, theater as a bullhorn, with all the delicacy of a boulder lobbed at the audience by catapult.

In “Hinabi,” not one character was vaguely human. Not the children as embodied by the young actors, whose grim, anonymous exertions played out like a writhing, indeterminate mass onstage.

And certainly not the questioning, conversing figures designed as stand-ins for Villanueva and Juan himself (played by Joel Saracho and Earl Ignacio, respectively), who were more concepts than flesh and blood--soapboxes garbed in human dress.

Would it have been too much to ask for a fleck of whimsy in a play that purported to pay homage to a beloved icon of kiddie TV and literature?

If good theater were all about physical stagecraft, then “Hinabi” would be a model. But if it were also about emotion, tension, nuance and resonance, this one left us cold and pretty much bludgeoned.


Kurt said...

our bank sponsored half of last Friday's show and so i got to watch it for free, albeit (hehe) in the nosebleed area. there were a few "wow" moments (i.e. pumpkin into carousel) but it just didn't feel special enough. i also don't understand why they thought of tweaking the fairy godmother character by just a little bit and adding a few new details about Cinderella's stepsisters but deciding to stick to convention for everything else. it would have been nice to see a fresh take on cinderella without having to totally recreate the premise of the story. it also looked weird that cinderella was a good foot shorter than her prince (who didn't seem to be all that - though i was in balcony and may not have been close enough to fully appreciate his "princehood"). All in all it was just okay. Hrrm...

amateur misanthrope said...

I waited for weeks for your critique of the Anton Juan play.

It's well worth the wait.

"What Juan did whip up was a dense, bombastic, alternately cryptic and lyrical pastiche of images, words, sounds, symbols and ruminations ..."

As always, very spot on.

But I wonder what you mean with this line: "In “Hinabi,” not one character was vaguely human."

For me, the characters were too, too human. The scene where the street urchin faces the audience with his hands outstretched, asking for alms... It's a familiar Manila street scene made stonier.

Avocadobo said...

sa wakas. nakakamiss ang iyong mga theater reviews. :)

gibbs cadiz said...

KURT, very valid points. tara, pag-usapan natin yan sa amici don bosco, yey! :)

hi MISANTHROPE, thanks for the encouragement. about the characters--for me, it's ultimately the fact that, while they had familiar human characteristics, they were simply mouthpieces of the writer-director's thesis, ideology, or whatever one might call it. they weren't embodying truthful lives, but advancing a point. but that's just me. :)

ay, ikaw pala yan, JJ, haha! at nakaka-miss ang iyong mga performances. kelan ka balik sa teatro? :)

Anonymous said...


balita ko may crush ka sa isang actor dun sa pangatlong play! hahahahahaha

gibbs cadiz said...

ANONYMOUS, so what else is new? if i had a peso for every actor that people like you have said i have a crush on, i could retire from reviewing theater this very day and buy myself a nice little house in the boondocks. nice try, buddy, but am taken. :)

TheBachelorGirl said...

Very interesting as always, Gibbs! Had to bring out the dictionary though, well, actually, searched online. Some heavy words there... Hehe...

beektur said...

blame the disneyfication of broadway. the spectacles sans soul. blame the academic theorization of stage productions (hehe). kaya i stand firm: real theater is in the streets ;). or at least in chicago, not new york, paris, berlin or london. chos.

what do you mean you are taken? detalye!

gibbs cadiz said...

hey LORNA, thanks. heavy words? where? hehe. :)

BEEKTUR: re disneyfication of broadway--korak. academic theorization--double korak, hehe. re taken--ay, email me. wahaha! :)

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