Monday, December 14, 2009

BRAVO! BEST OF THEATER 2009: Season of ‘sturm und drang’

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12.14.2009

Actresses Ana Abad Santos and Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino dominate the year of ‘Ondoy’ and ‘Pepeng’

“ROYAL CATFIGHT caps uncommon year of German drama in Manila.” That’s an efficient if rather glib way of summing up the year about to close, weaving as it does the three main imprints that marked local theater in 2008.

First, the German connection: By some serendipitous alignment of vision, various theater companies blanketed the city with a glut of Teutonic plays: two Brechts (Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Madonna Brava ng Mindanao,” a reworking of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” and World Theater Project’s “The Threepenny Opera”); two Wedekinds (Dulaang UP’s “Lulu” and Atlantis Productions’ “Spring Awakening,” the Duncan Sheik musical based on the Wedekind play); one Kleist (“Amphitryon”) and one Schiller (“Mary Stuart”), both by Dulaang UP, which must have prompted the wave with its season devoted to German drama.

One more is in the offing--Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” set to open in February.

Next, the abundance of powerhouse roles for actresses and the curiously barren scene at the other end of the gender spectrum.

Unlike last year when actors, especially show-stopping veterans, ruled the roost with male-dominant plays such as Gantimpala Theater’s “Hiblang Abo” and TP’s “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” this year’s theatrical pantheon consisted mostly of iconic women: Candida and Paula in Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”; Blanche Dubois in Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Elizabeth I and her royal nemesis in “Mary Stuart”; Atang de la Rama in the rerun of Floy Quintos’ paean to the late sarsuwela queen, along with Queen Yolanda in his “Ang Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna”; Victoria, the hapless matriarch in Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht’s “Apples From the Desert”; and, not the least, Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

To the extent that an actress would be able to reign over such an inviting landscape, two actually did.

Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino continued to rule the boards with her Atang, Queen Yolanda, Madonna Brava and Elizabeth I. But 2009 was as much Ana Abad Santos’ year as hers, with a string of exceptional appearances from Candida to Julia (in “Dead Stars,” Anton Juan’s adaptation of the seminal 1925 Paz Marquez Benitez short story) to Mary Stuart and Blanche Dubois—a run quite hard to top.

Crushingly, her Blanche played for only one weekend, right after tropical storm “Ondoy.” Reliable watchers swear she was excellent. We failed to catch that production, however, so it is not included in this round-up, the absence not a judgment on its merits either way.

(A side pattern, if you will: Three plays with sexually explicit themes--“Lulu,” “Spring Awakening” and “Flores para los Muertos,” the Filipino version of “Streetcar,” which we caught, both iterations directed by Quintos--failed to quicken pulses or arouse much heat. Are frank sex and high-minded Pinoy theater incompatible?)

Finally, who would have thought Centenera-Buencamino’s and Abad Santos’ parallel tracks would converge in an actual face-off courtesy of “Mary Stuart?”

That putative royal row was also the last straight play to close in Manila this year. Fireworks, indeed, to cap the parade. Here are what we propose as the best of Manila theater in 2009:

Best Play (One-Act)
“Doc Resureccion, Gagamutin ang Bayan” (Layeta Bucoy, writer; Tuxqs Rutaquio, director). The personal is powerfully political in this savage exploration of family grievances spawned by all-too-familiar economic disparities and social ambitions. “Energy and originality are the two vital forces of any new good play,” said the playwright Romulus Linney. This one has both in spades.

Honorable mentions: “Isang Araw sa Karnabal” (Nicolas Pichay; Chris Millado, dir.); “Boy-Gel ang Gelpren ni Mommy” (Sheilfa Alojamiento; Carlo Pacolor Garcia, dir.); “Maliw” (Reuel Molina Aguila; Edna Vida Froilan, dir.); “Art” (Yasmina Reza, Filipino translation [correction: adaptation] by William Manzano; Pat Valera, dir.)

Best Play (Full-Length)
“Mary Stuart” (Friedrich von Schiller, Filipino translation by Allan Palileo; Tony Mabesa, dir.). Minor distractions aside (the superfluous videographics, the wildly uneven acting styles of the supporting cast, glaringly in the English version), Mabesa’s staging of the titanic clash of two formidable women in history made for a rich, engrossing spectacle of wits and ideas, rendered more memorable by the career-best performances unleashed by its principals.

Honorable mentions: “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” (Nick Joaquin; José Mari Avellana, dir.); “Amphitryon” (Heinrich von Kleist, Filipino translation by Jerry Respeto; Jose Estrella, dir.); “Apples from the Desert” (Savyon Liebrecht, Filipino translation by Liza Magtoto; Tess Jamias, dir.); “Ismail at Isabel” (Rody Vera; Maribel Legarda, dir.); “Kung Paano Maghiwalay” (George de Jesus III, writer/director)

Best Actor-Play
Jonathan Tadioan (“Doc Resureccion, Gagamutin ang Bayan”). Underlining the dearth of commanding parts for lead actors in full-length productions this year (or, at least, commanding parts adequately played) is Tadioan’s turn as the murderous backwoods cousin--at only 45 minutes, a breakthrough part the young actor scaled to blackly impressive dimensions.

Honorable mentions: Riki Benedicto (“Doc Resureccion, Gagamutin ang Bayan”); Paolo O’Hara (“Isang Araw sa Karnabal”); Bembol Roco (“Kung Paano Maghiwalay”); Leo Rialp (“Apples from the Desert”); Jules de la Paz (“Art”)

Best Actress-Play
Ana Abad Santos (“Mary Stuart”). Fiery in her wrath and icy in her stillness, Abad Santos’ hypnotic, mystic-like Mary Stuart is, quite simply, one of the finest, most lucid pieces of acting work we’ve seen in many a theatergoing season. That it came in the same year she played Candida in Rep’s “Portrait” and Blanche Dubois in TP’s “Streetcar” is all the more astonishing.

Honorable mentions: Stella Cañete, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino and Banaue Miclat (“Mary Stuart”); Ana Abad Santos, Irma Adlawan and Liesl Batucan (“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”); Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (“Madonna Brava ng Mindanao”); Sherry Lara (“Apples from the Desert”); Diana Malahay (“Amphitryon”); Skyzx Labastilla (“Isang Araw sa Karnabal”); Mayen Estañero (“Ang Mamanugangin ni Rez”)

Best Featured Actor-Play
Dido de la Paz (“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”). How pointed was De la Paz’s delineation of Don Perico in this Joaquin warhorse? Simply, that right after his glorious “Contra mundum” monologue, you could actually feel the play shifting gears toward a different resolution, gaining new traction from the benediction it has received.

Honorable mentions: No citations

Best Featured Actress-Play
Peewee O’Hara (“Apples from the Desert”). A Jewish spinster--a hunchback to boot--with a bottomless basket of wisecracks and schemes? O’Hara’s take on this colorful caricature was altogether wise and endearing, the rampart of cheerful common sense in a Jewish Orthodox household being rent apart by winds of change.

Honorable mentions: Angeli Bayani (“Doc Resureccion, Gagamutin ang Bayan”); Kathlyn Castillo (“Madonna Brava ng Mindanao”)

Best Musical
“The Threepenny Opera” (play by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill; Anton Juan, dir.). To Brecht scholar Eric Bentley, “to breathe life into [a revival] you must either recapture the spirit of the original or by new insight create life.” By this benchmark, Juan’s “Threepenny Opera” was a triumph--topical in its sharp local flavor, yet magnanimous in its fidelity to the play’s humane, incendiary impulses. Sung and acted by a topnotch cast, this scrappy musical blessed its audience with something other than plain enthrallment. Rep’s “Sweeney Todd,” a worthy candidate in this category, left you entertained; “The Threepenny Opera” left you enlightened.

Honorable mentions: “Sweeney Todd” (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler; Baby Barredo and Michael Williams, dirs.); “Si Juan Tamad, ang Diyablo at ang Limang Milyong Boto” (music and lyrics by Vince de Jesus; Phil Noble, dir.); “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin; Bobby Garcia, dir.); “N.O.A.H (No Ordinary Aquatic Habitat)” (music by Rony Fortich; book, lyrics and direction by Jaime del Mundo)

Best Actor-Musical
Audie Gemora (“Sweeney Todd”). We would’ve preferred a darker, more tragic Sweeney on top of the basic gifts Gemora brought to this arduous role--his authoritative presence, the robust vocals, his obvious ease with Sondheim. Still, with few, if any, front-running performances this year, his qualifies as already the most accomplished.

Honorable mentions: Joaquin Valdes (“Spring Awakening”); Bibo Reyes (“Bare”); Jon Joven (“Song of Joseph”); Teroy Guzman (“The Threepenny Opera”); Vince de Jesus and Victor Robinson III (“Si Juan Tamad, ang Diyablo at ang Limang Milyong Boto”); Vince Tañada (“Ako si Ninoy”)

Best Actress-Musical
Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“Sweeney Todd”). “What becomes of ‘Sweeney Todd’ in which the spotlight burns more brightly not for the titular demon barber of Fleet Street but for his sidekick, Mrs. Lovett?,” we asked in our review of the play. Well, first and last, you get the sheer delight of watching Lauchengco-Yulo create a crackerjack Mrs. Lovett that honors its lineage while being entirely her own.

Honorable mentions: Kalila Aguilos (“The Threepenny Opera”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza and Thea Tadiar (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”); Tricia Amper-Jimenez (“Song of Joseph”)

Best Featured Actor-Musical
Marvin Ong (“Sweeney Todd”). Surprising self-possession and moving sensitivity marked Ong’s portrayal of the young orphan Tobias, in only his second professional appearance on stage (he played Edmund in Trumpets’ original musical, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 1998, at 10 years old). His rendition of “Not While I’m Around” was an unequivocal high point in the musical.

Honorable mentions: Ricci Chan (“The Threepenny Opera”); Nicco Manalo (“Spring Awakening”); Ikey Canoy (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”)

Best Featured Actress-Musical
Bituin Escalante (“The Threepenny Opera”). The “walking presence,” as the theater connoisseurs behind the blog Proletartist aptly called her. Escalante simply had to saunter across the stage as Pirate Jenny to charge the scene. But then, she had to sing, too, and when she did, no one else was better.

Honorable mentions: Liesl Batucan (“Sweeney Todd”); Sheila Francisco (“N.O.A.H”); Pinky Marquez (“Songs for a New World”); Frances Makil-Ignacio (“The Threepenny Opera”); Bea Garcia (“Spring Awakening”); Mian Dimacali (“Tick... Tick... Boom!”); Joann Co (“Si Juan Tamad, ang Diyablo at ang Limang Milyong Boto”)

PLUS: Best of Theater 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005.


waltzang said...

yun na!

Joaquin said...

Funny how I look forward to your annual theatre recap more than the official award giving bodies. hahah...

you should add categories to award the creative team and staff. Best Director. Best Scenic Design. Best Musical Direction...

while you're at it.

Merry Christmas gibbs! Here's to a more talked about 2010. Cheers.

Fran said...

I've always wondered, is Featured Actor like a Supporting Actor in Film and TV?

Anonymous said...

What I've been wanting to ask ever since I first read your year-end best of theater round-up in 2005: is there really a need to cite more than one honorable mention considering the quality and the number of productions you've seen (around 43, not including the Virgin Labfest plays, according to the watch list on your blog)?

For instance, you wrote about Audie Gemora: "Still, with few, if any, front-running performances this year, his qualifies as already the most accomplished." And yet you cited five other actors.

Maybe I'm not the target audience of this round-up. Maybe I don't get it (I'm not as avid a theatergoer as some of your readers here, having only seen six to seven productions this year (some more than once, but that's not the point)). But if it felt as if the list included everyone, what's the point?

(For example, including the best musical, you cited five musicals. How many musicals did you see last year?)

Of course, I agree with Joaquin. I think this yearly list of yours is more exciting than any other theater award-giving body (I think the Aliw Awards is a joke).

gibbs cadiz said...

JOAQUIN and WALTER, thanks much. :)

FRAN, yep--best featured is a fancier way of saying best supporting. the tony awards use best featured. :)

ANONYMOUS, thanks for your comment.

1. need to cite more than one honorable mention? yes. i err on the side of encouragement. frankly, i don't get the point of your question: "is there really a need to cite more than one honorable mention considering the quality and the number of productions you've seen?" is there a presumption there that most productions are actually bad and don't deserve mention in the list? because in the next paragraph you say you get to watch only six or seven. i hope you get to watch more; you'd realize there are many good ones out there that don't get as much buzz as the big--but not necessarily quality--productions. all the more that they shouldn't be left out in a list like this.

2. re audie gemora--in my opinion, no clear frontrunners in his category this year, but of those that deserved recognition (meaning, all things considered, quibbles and all, they're about equal), his stands out for the degree of difficulty of the material and the effort/talent he put into it--even if i'm not 100-percent satisfied with his performance. then again, in my nearly half a lifetime of theatergoing, perfect performances rarely, if ever, happen. my list goes for what's best WITHIN a given year.

3. the list does not include everyone. check out my watch list. example--which answers your last question too: how many musicals did i see last year? 16. they're all in my watch list. how many eventually got cited one way or the other? six or seven--a few with only one, usually for acting. my list leaves out some major productions: the fantasticks, songs for a new world, even spring awakening. so, no, the final list does not include everyone; in fact, there is more that's left out than what gets in. at the risk of sounding dramatic, the list is edited with much agonizing and rigor, because i appreciate the importance of recognizing and encouraging the work of artists who deserve so much support--mere name recognition, say, for a part played well in a production that vanished in just one or two weekends--but get so little of it. that, in the end, is the whole and only point of the yearly list.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for answering. I kid you not when I say I've always wanted to ask you this. But I do have to clarify some points:

1. I wasn't implying that "most productions are actually bad." I can't say that, because I haven't even seen half of what you've watched. And even if I had the chance to see as many productions as you, I know I don't have the critical capacity make that judgment.

2. My only real concern: the number of the productions you saw and the number of citations. I felt that, if the honorable mentions were reduced to just one, the citations would have more weight. The productions being considered are sparse in number to begin with. Citing five productions in your best musical category means you "honored" more than 25 percent of the musicals done this year. This isn't bad, especially in an industry that needs all the support and encouragement it can get. But it feels less exclusive and less elusive. Of course, since you said your purpose was to encourage and recognize, that answers my question.

3. But, personally, as an avid reader of your theater reviews, I'd prefer elaborate write-ups on the honorable mention/s instead of a list (better if you can write about all the cited productions, but considering space constraints that's probably not possible). As I've said, I saw only a few productions. I know it isn't your responsibility, but I would like to read more about the honorable mention/s you cited so I'll know what I missed. And I'm sure I'm not the only who feels this way.

gibbs cadiz said...

thanks, ANONYMOUS. ah, if only i could write 'elaborate' write-ups every time. i appreciate the encouragement, and i'll try to be more prolific. :) merry xmas!

Anonymous said...

“Mary Stuart” (Friedrich von Schiller, Filipino translation by Allan Palileo; Tony Mabesa, dir.). Mary Stuart-->Minor distractions aside (the superfluous videographics, the wildly uneven acting styles of the supporting cast, glaringly in the English version), Mabesa’s staging of the titanic clash of two formidable women in history made for a rich, engrossing spectacle of wits and ideas, rendered more memorable by the career-best performances unleashed by its principals. -->i think the superfluous videographics, wildly uneven acting style are not would call minor distractions. well, to each his own...for me, the let down of this play is how the editing made by the artistic team transformed such rich material, into something like a telenovela from gma 7, with two women ala amor powers clawing at each other. Sayang na material. I just hope our dramaturgs and directors would really look and read foreign materials carefully and closely. Medio disappointing kasi academic production pa naman.

Anonymous said...

Your dismal options in the Best Actor in a Musical category reminds me that awards honor "the best" of a qualified lot, and is not necessarily a recognition of an excellent or accomplished performance.

gibbs cadiz said...

no quarrel with you there. :) though 'dismal' is overstating it, too. :)

Anonymous said...

Given your review of audie gemora's acting in Sweeney Todd (which i totally agreed with), sana hindi mo na lang siya cinite na best actor... parang hindi maintindihan kung pampalubag loob or what...

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