By now, with the play getting a do-over every so often and several generations of film and stage actresses having taken a crack at the indelible roles of Candida and Paula in Nick Joaquin's A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, to talk about the scene that closes Act 1 would no longer qualify as a spoiler.
It's a masterfully written moment that strips the two impoverished sisters bare and exposes them to both pity and scorn, terror and tenderness, as much as it leaves the audience discomfited at having to deal with unrestrained, shattering hysteria onstage--and over a matter that any modern observer would shrug off as laughably quaint and trivial. The play's setting, one must know, is 1941 Intramuros--the old Manila, a world ground to dust in the ensuing war and all but unknown to today's Filipinos.
For actresses playing Candida, in particular, the challenge is acute: how to segue, within a beat or so, from hilarity to heartbreak, from squeals of laughter to teacup-rattling sobs of sorrow, as the lights dim and the shadows gather around the fraying Marasigan house. (Celeste Legaspi's roof-busting musical version is here, courtesy of Larawan co-producer Girlie Rodis.)
Portrait's great breakdown scene is jolting the boards once again in Rep's ongoing production of the play, with Irma Adlawan and Anna Abad Santos taking turns applying their considerable dramatic chops to the part of Candida in meltdown, along with Liesl Batucan as a stalwart Paula. (The first reviews are in--here.)
Decades ago, these parts were pioneered by a trio of formidable women--Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana as Candida and Dolly Benavides as Paula, with Naty Crame-Rogers eventually taking over the younger part. The tandem of Ms. Avellana and Ms. Rogers would perform the play hundreds of times, and then bring the parts to the screen in the 1966 film version likewise directed by Ms. Avellana's husband Lamberto.
From an appreciation piece I wrote for the Inquirer on the occasion of Ms. Avellana's 90th birthday in January 2007: “In a documentary that accompanied Avellana’s conferment of National Artist honors in 1999, Bienvenido Lumbera, now a fellow National Artist (for Literature), recalled watching this play as a young man. For him, ‘Daisy Avellana’s Candida in ‘Portrait’ was the highest moment of Philippine theater. She was Philippine theater at a time when there was hardly any Philippine theater.’”
That pinnacle moment is long gone. Fortunately, we have the film--still extant, preserving flickering images of Ms. Avellana and Ms. Rogers in perhaps the greatest roles of their careers. Here is the play's pivotal moment performed for and recorded on celluloid, the black & white cinematography somehow lending an extra tinge of pathos and grace to the tragic scene. This is the first time, incidentally, that this excerpt from the classic film will appear online.
(The clip is from the 1999 CCP documentary on Ms. Avellana's life and art. In an interesting case of prefigurement, the breakdown scene was re-created for the documentary by Olga Natividad as Paula and... Irma Adlawan as Candida.)
PLUS: A historic moment--85-year-old Naty Crame-Rogers joins the cast of Rep's Portrait at curtain call. [Gracias, Lorna, for the video below and the first photo.]