It’s been a year-long master class by the country’s theater vets--and, boy, are we awed
THE SHOT ACROSS THE BOW, SO TO SPEAK, was made very early in 2008, when, on a sparsely made-up stage in a theater in Greenbelt 1, Repertory Philippines’ production of Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” quietly unfolded, with Bart Guingona and José Mari Avellana in the lead roles.
Rep had managed to lure Avellana out of retirement to play the dying professor Morrie Schwartz. Before this production, few young theatergoers had heard of the august actor, the scion of two National Artists for Theater--Lamberto Avellana and Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana--and himself a fixture of local stages in decades past.
“Tuesdays With Morrie” was to be Avellana’s first foray into theater in 15 years. It was a gruelling part, requiring the actor to deteriorate, within two hours, in front of the audience’s eyes as Schwartz succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Avellana had to be sickly but inspirational—a prefabricated occasion for any lesser actor to make a treacly ham of himself.
Avellana, instead, employed the potent resources at his disposal—the rust-proof acting skills, but also the wisdom of his advanced years, the gravitas he wore with wry, graceful lightness—to sketch a rigorous, unsentimental portrait of a man unfazed by the dying of the light.
“By so completely embodying Morrie, Avellana makes what is otherwise prosaic speech acceptable as the epigrammatic poetry of the quotidian,” Philippine Star critic Exie Abola was moved to write of the performance.
This was only January 2008. Avellana had set an unusually high bar for the rest of his peers to follow. Happily, the year would turn out to be a feast of equally compelling performances by others of his kind.
While the pop culture landscape remained besotted with youth, with movies and television gorging on ever-fresher batches of nubile, hormonally addled hopefuls every 15 minutes or so, local theater, at least this year, was ground zero for a remarkable development.
The old-timers took over. The leathery trumped the dewy, experience clobbered freshness, the rich, weighty roles now veered toward the vets.
Avellana’s towering performance in “Tuesdays With Morrie” was quickly followed by another striking turn, that of Mario O’Hara as the crafty, bon vivant president of a banana republic in Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Kudeta.”
Long a luminary across various disciplines, the writer-actor-director was at his usual pungent best despite the hint of physical laboriousness that now informed his onstage exertions.
O’Hara, it should be noted, has kept to a punishing pace purely in terms of the succession of complex characters he has played onstage—the raging derelict angling for one last lay with a hooker in “Ang Pokpok ng Ohio”; the murderous kingpin in “Orfeo sa Impiyerno”--both with Tanghalang Pilipino--and, very memorably, the aging playwright wrestling with writer’s block and a barnacled suburban life in PETA’s “Belong Puti” last year.
On a roll
Avellana and O’Hara’s early beachhead wasn’t lost on their counterparts on the distaff side. Actresses of a certain age, often relegated to shabby roles on TV, likewise have been on a roll this year, bagging parts and churning out performances that only they, in their full, incandescent maturity, could do with conviction.
Irma Adlawan and Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino are a generation or so younger than Avellana and O’Hara, but they, too, qualify as seasoned pros, their resumés now studded with some of the most distinguished roles in Filipino and world theater. The two great actresses simply extended their domination of the big leagues this year with freshly minted definitive performances.
In Tanghalang Pilipino’s blockbuster production of David Henry Hwang’s “The Golden Child,” Adlawan was a cyclone of wrathful rigidity as the first wife of a Chinese trader out to modernize his household in early-1900s China.
Given the ironic undertow that seems to tug at nearly everything in theater these days, the role, with its cascade of hissy, slashing one-liners, could have spiraled into a crowd-pleasing, scenery-chewing diva exercise.
Adlawan, with iron discipline, refused to carve any distance between herself and the character; First Wife, the hardest of them all, was also the most startlingly moving.
For an old-fashioned diva performance of fireworks, pathos and sardonic comedy, one had to turn to Centenera-Buencamino in Floy Quintos’ one-act entry in the Virgin Labfest, “Ang Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna.”
Playing a possibly deranged woman president out to turn her country into a monarchy, Centenera-Buencamino was hands down the festival’s high point--the supernova around which other younger actors could only reflect light from.
Remarkably, even before yearend, Centenera-Buencamino is delivering another expert performance, making 2008 a high-water mark in her career.
In Quintos’s latest work, Dulaang UP’s “Atang,” now running in Guerrero Theater at UP Diliman, the actress embodies the indomitable Atang de la Rama, the late sarsuwela pioneer and the country’s first superstar, with a blend of flinty, hard-earned hauteur and unexpected sweetness.
Playing her alternate is Frances Makil-Ignacio, a durable mainstay of Dulaang UP productions who made the leap to Rep earlier this year as Queen Gertrude in “Hamlet.” It was a small, pinched part in a heavily edited, radically reimagined Shakespeare plunked into a dystopian setting.
But in “Atang,” Makil-Ignacio is as affecting as Centenera-Buencamino, her Atang funnier, more ornery yet no less vulnerable.
Compared to these three actresses, show-biz royalty Cherie Gil is quite a newbie in theater--though, it is clear, only in terms of exposure, not in talent.
Before the Philippine Opera Company’s excellent if short-lived staging of “Master Class” in October, Gil had only done two productions--Atlantis Productions’ “Doubt” and Rep’s “The Sound of Music,” both in 2006.
She was riveting in “Doubt” but finally overwhelming in “Master Class,” offering a haunting, crystalline performance that, with barely a raised voice, branded the role of a ruined Maria Callas as hers--spectacularly, indisputably hers--for many moons to come.
In a year of bold star turns, hers had the unique distinction of effacing the image of Gil the movie star, enshrining in its place Gil the consummate theater actress. Lavinia had become La Divina.
Before all of them took the spotlight this year, however, there was the legendary Naty Crame Rogers.
At 85, Rogers--the second Paula (after Dolly Benavides) to Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana’s Candida in the seminal run of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”--turned up on the Tanghalang Ateneo stage in May, still hale, hearty and twinkly-eyed as the yaya who would introduce curious kids to the dark arts in Joaquin’s “May Day Eve.”
Her rare appearance, coming after Avellana and O’Hara and right before the turn of Centenera-Buencamino et al., seemed to serve as the affirming peak of a wave of new productions populated--or, at least, given anchoring weight--by well-worn, grizzled faces.
Gantimpala Theater’s “Hiblang Abo,” for instance, sensitively directed by Tony Espejo from Rene Villanueva’s play about four geezers in a home for the aged, saw Bodjie Pascua, Ces Aldaba, Dante Balaois and Lou Veloso mining abandonment and hopelessness with unblinking ferocity.
The unheralded Balaois, a frail figure with fluttering arms and a wheezy voice, was heartbreaking. Unfortunately the show ran for only two days, before a sparse, nonpaying audience at Luneta’s Concert at the Park.
A gaggle of codgers, more flamboyant this time and clearly in the mood for playful macho swagger, gathered for Tanghalang Pilipino’s recently ended production of Benjamin Pimentel’s “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.”
Marquee actors Tommy Abuel and Bembol Roco led a cast that included Pascua, Veloso and Aldaba again, plus Dido de la Paz and Joe Gruta, in an orotund, meandering play about Filipino WWII veterans battling cold and loneliness in San Francisco as they waited for the benefits promised them by the US government.
In director Chris Millado’s hands, Pimentel’s novel, coiled and laconic, became a chatty, tune-filled theatrical showcase for inveterate scene-stealers like Veloso. Still, the truly stunning turn came from Gruta, a pillar of unruffled strength amid the ribald camaraderie stirred up by his showboating co-actors.
Even in a kid-at-heart show like Atlantis Productions’ “Hairspray,” with its unyielding chorus line of bright-eyed, high-kicking youngsters in faux-‘60s costumes, it was the vintage names that held sway and gave the show its heft.
“Hairspray’s” two discoveries, lead actors Madel Ching and Tim Espinosa, were appealing in their youth, energy and full-throttle commitment to their roles. Their dancing was dynamite, but their singing, their characterization—their sense of presence onstage—needed more work.
No such distressing lack on the part of Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Michael de Mesa and Leo Rialp, all of whom occupied the boards with crisp, marvelous command, as if to say to the tykes around them, “Watch and learn”--as well they should.
Like the rest of their well-ripened peers in this atypically fecund year for the country’s theater seniors, they prove that, sparkling soda notwithstanding, fine-aged wine packs a more flavorful punch.