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)
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”)
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”)
“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)
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”)
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.