Joe Gruta, widely considered one of the finest character actors in the Philippines, is once again playing Padre Florentino in Gantimpala Theater’s restaging of Rizal’ “El Filibusterismo,” adapted for the stage by Jomar Fleras and directed by Roobak Valle.
“El Filibusterismo,” the final installment of Gantimpala’s annual production of the Four Classics (“Ibong Adarna,” “Florante at Laura,” “Noli” and “Fili”), runs November 12, 13 and 14, (10 a.m./2 p.m.) at SM Southmall in Las Piñas; and November 20, 21, 27 and 28 (10 a.m./2 p.m.) at the AFP Theater in Quezon City.
Gruta and Gantimpala go a long way.
“My first play with Gantimpala—Bulwagan pa siya at the CCP, yung ‘Kanser,’ and I portrayed Pilosopong Tasyo,” says Gruta. “After that, I did majority of my plays with them. My last was ‘Lualhati sa Kaitaasan,’ with Spanky Manikan and Mia Gutierrez under Joel Lamangan’s direction. When we transferred at the MET, I directed some of their laboratory projects.”
What can we expect from his portrayal of Florentino?
“The same passion. My passion for acting has never wavered. You will definitely feel it. I’ve done this [role] before but I’m excited about this because it is a very challenging character, and I like the manner Roobak Valle is directing it,” he says. “Padre Florentino represents the Filipino priest. He knows the secrets of Simoun, even his back story. He is very intelligent, and has a bigger capacity to understand the weaknesses of men.”
Gruta’s beginnings in theater were an accident.
“It happened in 1969. There was a co-production between PAL and PETA. At the time they were doing ‘The Visit.’ I was not included in the play since what I did for the company was to solicit advertising for the programs.”
“But Vic Silayan’s co actor got sick and this happened 14 days before the show,” recalls Gruta. “Cecile Guidote Alvarez panicked and pulled me out from my soliciting job. She felt I was fit for the part. Since then, I have never stopped.”
Gruta’s no. 1 play is “Ang Paglilitis ng Mang Serapio.”
“Definitely the first,” he says. “It started as classroom production by Paul Dumol. Then, he was invited to stage it in PETA. I was the original Serapio, and we did three versions.”
“Second, the ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle.’ Fritz Benovitz went to Manila to direct it. They were rehearsing already for two months and because of a career problem, the lead actor could not do his role anymore. I was already in advertising that time. The PETA people convinced me to take over. It was not difficult to convince me since mahal ko ang theater, eh. When director Benovitz saw me, he said you should have been the first one to do the role.”
His final choice: “Mariano Alvarez’s character in the play 'Andres Bonifacio.' It was memorable for me because of the circumstances surrounding Alvarez and the controversy he was embroiled in, since the play tackled Bonifacio’s trial.”
“Theater is my first love,” says Gruta. “A few minutes before a performance, I still get nervous. The moment I step on stage, however, and I feel the lights on my skin, wala na ang kaba, ako na yung character.”
“Nothing beats the feeling of hearing the applause of people after a show. Hanggang ngayon, nothing beats that satisfaction. My decision to make theater as my vocation is affirmed. Tama pala ang choice ko.”
For information, bookings and ticket reservations on Gantimpala’s “Fili,” call 8995745, 8963503, 9985622. Or visit www.gantimpalatheater.multiply.com and www.facebook.com/gantimpala.
[Photo: Joe Gruta in the 2008 Tanghalang Pilipino production Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street]