THIRTEEN, in fact, because one play featured a pair of performances so tightly woven into each other that to cite one actor without the other would be an injustice. In any case, whittling the choices down to 12 is quite a task, considering the good harvest this year of great theater moments. The Old Guard had a run of plum parts, while some young ’uns showed they are fierce talents to be reckoned with—beginning now. Here, in alphabetical order, are 13 names that defined first-class acting in Philippine theater in 2008.
1. Irma Adlawan (Tanghalang Pilipino’s The Golden Child). In a production boasting of excellent performances across the board, hers was the most fascinating--daringly contradictory and daringly played. As the tragically obstinate First Wife unable to cope with modernity in a feudal Chinese household, Adlawan was in top form, eliciting both antipathy and sympathy with riveting force.
2. Joanna Ampil (Stages’ West Side Story). She left the country at 17 to play Kim in Miss Saigon in London, and stayed there for good, becoming “a major West End star,” as one publication had acclaimed her. It took Ampil more than a decade to earn the live applause of her countrymen in a homegrown production; when she did--as an enchanting Maria in the classic Bernstein-Sondheim musical--it was thoroughly deserved.
3. José Mari Avellana (Repertory Philippines’ Tuesdays with Morrie). Fifteen years off the boards didn’t seem to have dulled Avellana’s skills; his Morrie Schwartz, a dying professor with a penchant for dispensing cheery bon mots in what was by any measure a sentimental play, was a triumph of poignancy and insight, all done with honesty, never pitching into schlock.
4. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (The Virgin Labfest and Tanghalang Pilipino’s Ang Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna, Dulaang UP’s Atang). Touchstone performances either way, one marked by white-hot intensity, the other by slow-burn grandeur. First a batty woman president bent on making herself queen, then as the formidable sarsuwela pioneer Atang dela Rama in her dotage--and only within months of each other. Awesome’s the word for Centenera-Buencamino.
5. Cherie Gil (Philippine Opera Company’s Master Class). For two hours every night for five nights last October, Gil, only in her third major theater outing, seemed absolutely possessed by the ghost of the diva-in-decline Maria Callas. So fine-grained was her disappearing act that you completely forgot she had, beyond the footlights, her own iconic persona--the Cherie Gil of Philippine movies.
6. Joe Gruta (Tanghalang Pilipino’s Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street). Artless yet howlingly funny, his portrayal of a proud former guerrilla and military man reduced to begging for WWII benefits in chilly San Francisco is one of the most delicious yet heartbreaking performances we’ve seen in many a theater season. Vintage rocks, in the grizzled Gruta’s case.
7. Joey Paras and Arnold Reyes (The Virgin Labfest and Tanghalang Pilipino’s Ang Bayot, ang Meranao, at ang Habal-Habal sa Isang Nakakabagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte). Friends in real life, Paras and Reyes evinced crackling chemistry onstage in a play otherwise characterized by unimaginative, bare-bones staging. Their cohesive flair was as taut as one could wish, helped along by Rogelio Braga’s clever take on Muslim-Christian (and gay at that) relations.
8. Onyl Torres (Dulaang UP’s Isang Panaginip na Fili). Floy Quintos and CJ Javier’s deliberately discordant, fricative musical featured a revolving cast of actors for the lead roles. Torres was by far the most creditable interpreter, his vigorous singing and acting creating a Simoun of compelling depth and tragedy.
9. Rody Vera (Tanghalang Ateneo’s Otelo, ang Moro ng Venecia). His Iago simmered with merry gleam in eye, unapologetic and exultant in the sheer power of his malice. The character is often played as a rat; Vera played him as a fat cat, resulting in the year’s most entertaining portrait of villainy.
10. Rowena Vilar (Stages’ West Side Story). A spectacular find. We owe Leo Valdez big-time for recommending the Australia-based Vilar to Stages, then at its wits’ end trying to look for a suitable Anita. Vilar was perfect casting--a burst of genuine sass, sexiness and superb dancing on the Meralco stage.
11. Cris Villonco (Dulaang UP’s Orosman at Zafira, Repertory Philippines’ Hamlet). A pair of breakthrough performances, one moving in its limpid fragility, the other splendid in its pitch-perfect blend of tenderness and ferocity. Hong Kong Disneyland now employs Villonco, depriving Philippine theater (temporarily, one hopes) of one of its brightest young stars.
12. Nyoy Volante (Atlantis Productions’ Hairspray). His last theater work was as Jett Pangan’s alternate in the role of James Thunder Early in Atlantis Productions’ Dreamgirls in 2003--an impressive turn, by the way, not least because it held its own against rock god Pangan’s. His hip, shimmyin’ return in Hairspray proved he’s only gotten better in the interim. Please do more musicals, Mr. Volante.