Monday, December 15, 2008

BRAVO! Best of Theater 2008

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12.15.2008

Anything put on stage that we could watch, we watched--the breadth of talent and imagination on display always a balm of hope

It wasn’t the best of times, it wasn’t the worst of times. Put another way, it was more of the same for the Manila theater scene in 2008.

The contradictions are striking: The most lavish production to set up shop this year, Broadway Asia’s “Cinderella,” played to packed houses right up to its closing show, even with premium tickets that went as high as P7,000--the steepest prices for a Manila musical in recent memory.

Other musicals, such as Stages’ “West Side Story,” Atlantis Productions’ “Hairspray” and Repertory Philippines’ long-running children’s show “Mulan,” also did well despite--or perhaps because of--the tough times. Pricier tickets notwithstanding, musical extravaganzas are often seen as a feel-good respite from the bleak world just outside the theater doors.

As always, drama companies offering more probing, serious fare can’t hold a candle to that. The 13-year-old New Voice Company, for instance, failed to mount a season play this year--a first in its history. Its only offering was a special one-night (though star-studded) event featuring a retread of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.”

Actor’s Actors’ Inc., which had a late-breaking production last year with “Children’s Letters to God,” was nowhere on the calendar in 2008. Tanghalang Pilipino, meanwhile, scaled back its season productions from four to three--though it did have a surprise hit in David Henry Hwang’s “The Golden Child,” which it successfully marketed to schools and the Chinese-Filipino community.

Overall, a hit-and-miss record, but something not dissimilar to previous years’. Theater will plod along, it’s clear--an oddly comforting reminder, given how the economic malaise, abetted by the continuing fragmentation of pop culture and entertainment, has steadily elbowed theater to the margins.

Here’s a round-up of the best of Manila theater in 2008. Anything put on stage that we could watch (given the vagaries of time and work constraints), we watched--the breadth of talent and imagination on display always a balm of hope.

(Disclosure: We failed to catch Gantimpala Theater’s “Ang Pagong at ang Matsing” and Tanghalang Ateneo’s “The Death of Memory,” both of which won Aliw Awards [for Best Musical and Best Play, respectively] this year. Their non-inclusion here is not a judgment on their merits.)

Best Play (One-Act)
“Ang Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna” (Floy Quintos, writer/director). The subsequent Palanca hardware only confirmed what theatergoers at the 2008 Virgin Labfest had known; this was a play of stylish wit and dramatic provocation (what if the country’s woman president decided to become--curtsy now--a queen?), with a grand central performance by Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino.

Honorable mentions: “Ang Bayot, ang Meranao, at ang Habal-Habal sa Isang Nakakabagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte” (Rogelio Braga; Nick Olanka, dir.); “Laban ng Basketball” (Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, translated by José Villa Panganiban; Dexter Santos, dir.); “The Lover” (Harold Pinter; Tess Jamias, dir.); “Baclofen” (Chris Martinez; Jethro Tenorio, dir.)

Best Play (Full-Length)
“The Golden Child” (David Henry Hwang; Loy Arcenas, dir.). A splendid production marked by eloquent staging and fluid direction, nearly flawless acting by a great cast, visually stunning scenery and costumes, and the sharp, epigrammatic richness of David Henry Hwang’s lines.

Honorable mentions: “Atang” (Floy Quintos; Alex Cortez, dir.); “Master Class” (Terrence McNally; Michael Williams, dir.); “Otelo, ang Moro ng Venecia” (William Shakespeare’s “Othello” translated by Rogelio Sicat and Luna Sicat-Cleto; Ricky Abad, dir.); “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” (adapted by Rody Vera from Benjamin Pimentel’s novel; Chris Millado, dir.); “Tuesdays with Morrie” (Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher; Baby Barredo, dir.)

Best Actor-Play
José Mari Avellana (“Tuesdays with Morrie”). A magnificent performance that embraced big emotions without a shred of pulp or sentimentality, rendering his dying professor’s character all the more indelible in your memory.

Honorable mentions: Mario O’Hara (“Kudeta”); Joe Gruta and Dido de la Paz (“Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street”); Teroy Guzman and Nonie Buencamino (“Otelo, ang Moro ng Venecia”); Art Acuña (“The Golden Child”); Joey Paras and Arnold Reyes (“Ang Bayot, ang Meranao, at ang Habal-Habal sa Isang Nakakabagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte”); Bart Guingona (“Tuesdays With Morrie”); Dante Balois (“Hiblang Abo”); Richard Cunanan (“Slipped Disc: A Study of the Upright Walk”); Jonathan Tadioan (“Pamantasang Hirang”); Vince de Jesus (“Couture”); Kalil Almonte (“Baclofen”)

Best Actress-Play
Cherie Gil (“Master Class”). The glamorous actress had a tricky high-wire act to do: play Maria Callas as a character, not an impersonation, while casting off her own outsize persona as the local movies’ eminent queen of mean. She delivered--nay, conquered.

Honorable mentions: Shamaine-Centenera Buencamino (“Ang Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna”); Irma Adlawan, Liesl Batucan and Tina Chilip (“The Golden Child”); Mailes Kanapi (“Slipped Disc: A Study of the Upright Walk”); Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Ayen Munji-Laurel and Kalila Aguilos (“Atang”); Mailes Kanapi (“Marisol”); Wenah Nagales (“The Lover”)

Best Featured Actor-Play
Rody Vera (“Otelo, ang Moro ng Venecia”). We’re sticking by what we gleefully wrote of his Iago: “The watchword of his performance is malice--a pure, angst-free peevishness that takes impish delight at his evolving ability to upend lives and bend the truth to his will.”

Honorable mentions: Nico Manalo (“Marisol”); Paolo O’Hara (“Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street”); Leo Rialp (“The Golden Child”)

Best Featured Actress-Play
Cris Villonco (“Hamlet”). With her touching Ophelia, Villonco served notice that she would be the year’s brightest re-discovery (she left the scene for a while to finish her US studies)--a young actress now stronger, more radiant in her grown-up self-assurance.

Honorable mentions: Bituin Escalante (“Atang”); Delphine Buencamino (“Couture”)

Best Musical
“Orosman at Zafira” (Francisco Baltazar, with additional text by Sir Anril Tiatco; music by Carol Bello; Dexter Santos, choreographer and dir.). A blazing musical-theater experience, and, not incidentally, a calling card for how disparate elements--Baltazar’s archaic Tagalog text, Bello’s neo-ethnic world music, Santos’ hybrid choreography--could create something uniquely, arrestingly homegrown, as far away from Broadway as could be.

Honorable mentions: “West Side Story” (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents; Menchu Lauchengo-Yulo, dir.); “Altar Boyz” (music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, book by Kevin del Aguila; Chari Arespacochaga, dir.); “Hairspray” (music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan; Bobby Garcia, dir.); “A Christmas Carol” (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, adapted from the Charles Dickens novel; Baby Barredo and Robbie Guevara, dirs.); “Bat Boy, The Musical” (music by Lawrence O’Keefe, book and lyrics by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming; Robbie Guevara, dir.)

Best Actor-Musical
Onyl Torres (“Isang Panaginip na Fili”). He accomplished something not every singing actor could do--make a dark, dissonant musical sound, well, musical, his exceptionally sung and acted Simoun teasing out unexpected subtexts and shadows from the score’s banquet of broken chords.

Honorable mentions: Michael de Mesa (“Hairspray”); Red Concepcion (“Altar Boyz”); Franco Laurel (“Isang Panaginip na Fili”); Jett Pangan and Juliene Mendoza (“E.J., Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson”); Marvin Ong (“Bat Boy, The Musical”); Audie Gemora and Michael Williams (“A Christmas Carol”); Robert Sena (“Skin-Deep”); Sherwin Sozon (“Cory, The Musical”)

Best Actress-Musical
Cris Villonco (“Orosman at Zafira”). Showing impressive range, her spellbinding turn in this tremendously taxing musical cemented the luminous promise she had shown in the near-simultaneous--and worlds apart--run of Rep’s “Hamlet.” That we would lose her talents later in the year to HK Disneyland was quite a tragedy.

Honorable mentions: Joanna Ampil (“West Side Story”); Maita Ponce (“Orosman at Zafira”); Lea Salonga (“Cinderella”); Isay Alvarez (“Cory, The Musical”); Karylle (“West Side Story”); May Bayot and Gail Guanlao-Billones (“Skin-Deep”); Madel Ching (“Hairspray”)

Best Featured Actor-Musical
Nyoy Volante (“Hairspray”). Who knew the pop singer more well-known for his mellow acoustic crooning could burn the floor and shake the rafters with his charismatic, extra-groovy dancing and singing as Seaweed J. Stubbs?

Honorable mentions: Greg de Leon (“Isang Panaginip na Fili”); Ricky Ibe, Roeder Camañag and JC Santos (“Orosman at Zafira”); Reb Atadero (“Summer of ’42”); Leo Rialp (“Hairspray”); Jake Macapagal (“West Side Story”); Harold Cruz (“Bat Boy, The Musical”)

Best Featured Actress-Musical
Rowena Vilar (“West Side Story”). Unknown in these parts before Stages’ “West Side Story,” Vilar exploded on the Meralco Theater stage with jaw-dropping panache as the spitfire Anita. A sensational RP debut for the Australia-based actress.

Honorable mentions: Jean Judith Javier (“Orosman at Zafira”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“Hairspray”); Laura Cabochan (“Bat Boy, The Musical”); Delphine Buencamino and Mica Pineda (“Isang Panaginip na Fili”)

PLUS: Best of Theater 2007, 2006, 2005.

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