Mabining Mandirigma holds up a mirror to present politics

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I went to see Mabining Mandirigma by Tanghalang Pilipino on Sunday at The Little Theater in CCP having already figured out my review in my head: it’s a retelling of our problems as a nation during post-colonial Spain, problems which have endured for more than a century to exist as the same problems we have today. True enough, the musical did take me on a roller coaster ride of emotions—mainly frustration—because as with Noli and El Fili, the Rosales Saga, and even Heneral Luna the film, selfishness, greed, and impunity have all been deeply embedded in our government leaders’ DNA.

Mabining Mandirigma is about the life of Apolinario Mabini, particularly his role in the uprising against the Americans after we gained “independence” from Spain. (In quotes because the Philippines was sold by Spain to the US in the Treaty of Paris.)

I know little about Mabini prior to seeing the musical, and I can’t say I know more about him after. As the chief adviser to the revolutionary council, and later to Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, the turning point of the plot was the choice to accept a P50-million loan from a group of illustrados to fund the cash-strapped Filipino government and the war against the Americans. Mabini says no, because the loan effectively places the Philippines under the hands of the elite—if it were him, he would have provided the funds for free; Aguinaldo says rejecting the offer might send the illustrados away and support the Americans instead.

It was a no-win situation.

Aguinaldo accepts the loan and the elites grow in power; they effectively have Aguinaldo by his collar. Mabini resents the elites—portrayed garishly and grotesquely by the production itself (“Oooh, is this a pro-Duterte play?” I asked myself)—and eventually quits Aguinaldo’s cabinet, after 1) Aguinaldo coddles his fellow Caviteño, Pedro Janolino, who refused to aid Gen. Antonio Luna in the Battle of Caloocan; and later, 2) Aguinaldo acquiesces to the demands of the elites who, after all, have contributed to his war kitty. (“Ay, shades of Duterte.”). Despite that, Mabini and Aguinaldo remain friends, until the former learns that Aguinaldo had Luna assassinated. (“Ay, extra-judicial killing.”)

Mabini was eventually arrested by the Americans and having refused to pledge allegiance to their flag, he was exiled in Guam. He later gave up American resistance and was welcomed back in the Philippines. It was at this point that I felt dejected even if the musical tried its best to salvage his legacy. 1

That is until the lights dimmed and the cast came out one by one in their black t-shirts and each actor started speaking out against the Marcos burial and extra judicial killings in the country. I thought it was a brilliant call to action. For those first two hours, I had been examining Mabini’s life from a distance and got very judgmental in the process, then suddenly, in the epilogue, the spotlight was on us: the same problems from a century ago still exist today: what are you doing about it?

 

Mabining Mandirigma has an 8 p.m. show on December 16; 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. shows on December 17; and a 3 p.m. show on December 18 at the CCP.


  1. Until now, I remain unconvinced about his legacy, so I did a quick research (for now). Ambeth Ocampo in this column, writes about how Mabini is reduced to the titles “Sublime Paralytic” and “Brains of the Revolution,” then proceeds with nary an argument about the weight of Mabini’s contribution to Philippine history. 
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Review: Chicago the Musical in Manila

For most people, including myself, the film version of Chicago, is the standard in the interpretation of the play, written by a Chicago Tribune reporter, who covered a string of murder trials with female defendants in the ’20s. Seeing the Manila staging made me appreciate the film even more: director Rob Marshall did a glorious interpretation, considering how the musical production is very minimalist—no costume and set changes, very few musical props, and lean choreography. The movie had set an extremely high bar.

Nevertheless, I fully understand the freedom and creative abandonment available in film versus the limitations of a play. It would be unfair to expect the same caliber of glitzy spectacle in a live staging; however, I did expect the same caliber of talent in its actors: after all, they still delivered (almost) the same lines and sang the same songs.

That is why I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the Manila production. Considering I watched on its first weekend evening run, I expected a rousing début; instead it was a dud. It took way too long for the energy to pick up, and even then, it never really hit its climax.

Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart and Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly in Chicago. Photo via www.inquirer.net.

Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart and Terra MacLeod as Velma Kelly in Chicago. Photo via www.inquirer.net.

Which is puzzling. The musical begins with a sassy and huge number, All That Jazz, and it could have easily set the tone for an electric night, but under Terra MacLeod’s (Velma Kelly) lead, the number was cold and dull. The ensemble performed like they were all in rehearsal and that this was their fourth run—they’ve gotten their lyrics and dances down pat so now, they just need to do this last run perfectly so they can all pack up their bags and go home. I was hoping that someone—anyone—would rouse their fellow actors to strive better, and in Cell Block Tango, there were some glimmer of hope in the murderesses, but there’s not much the ensemble could do when the lead stars simply go through the motions and act like they can do better than being in a tour. In Manila. These are seasoned actors; what I saw (or didn’t see) couldn’t possibly be attributed to jitters.

Even Bianca Marroquin, who played Roxy Hart was too mechanical in her perfection. There were no visible strain of effort in her (actually, in most of the ensemble, and most definitely in Terra.) Even their high kicks are limp, as if straining a muscle at any point of the two-hour staging would be an exercise in pointlessness. Nevertheless, it was nice that they were magnanimous enough to do cartwheels.

I did enjoy the performances of Jacob Keith Watson (Amos Hart), Jeff MacCarthy (Billy Flynn), Christophe Caballero (Mary Sunshine), Aurore Joly (Hunyak), and the charming conductor with his orchestra, who I felt had more love for the Filipino audience. Overall, I liked that seeing this musical provided additional background information on the characters (through the songs that didn’t make the film’s cut), and that it gave me more appreciation for great Filipino actors and plays.

I sincerely hope Chicago the Musical was simply having a bad day that night.

* * * *

The Theater at Solaire: Good acoustics and pretty intimate environment; you’ll get a decent view from anywhere in the orchestra unless you’re seated behind a really tall person or Tessa Prieto-Valdez. Best seats in the house are those in rows G to U. (I didn’t get to go up the balcony section so I can’t comment.) Toilets are new, decent, and clean. No urinals for the men’s restroom in the orchestra section (all cubicles), so expect a long line during intermission.

Eat anywhere but here. Food is horrendous and expensive. Prices are levied with 10% service charge even if there’s not much service to speak of. Staff needs training.

Review: Ghost the Musical

“What?! You’ve never seen Ghost?! With Patrick Swayze?!” the exasperated guy behind me admonished his friend. Well, if she is a child of the 90s, she has a valid excuse—the film was released in 1990. (And if you are from my generation, then yes, it’s been that long ago.)

This also gives the musical its own excuse: when Jao invited me to see the play, I didn’t think it was smart to mess with the original material, which has produced one of the most memorable movie moments of all time. However, two decades do give the play ground for educating the younger generation.

Other details got me excited: the music and lyrics were co-written by Glen Ballard, who wrote Jagged Little Pill with Alanis Morissette. (Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics is the musical’s other half, with book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the film’s screenplay.) Notwithstanding what I initially found to be an odd pairing, I was also looking forward to seeing Cris Villonco and Christian Bautista play Molly Jensen and Sam Wheat.

Until I remembered Unchained Melody.

It’s like that year’s equivalent of Let It Go or the previous decade’s My Heart Will Go On. It played on and on in radio stations. You heard it everywhere. In fact, I think it went on for years so that even if I hear the first few keys of the song two decades later, I still get the strong urge to rip my hair off.

And there’s also the matter of the ghost. “So how will they make Christian look like one?” Jao asked. “Maybe, he’s not even here at all—we’ll only see his hologram,” I replied.

* * * *

Set in New York, I initially doubted how Christian, who plays a banker, will navigate the world of Wall Street and its brash city accent. Fifteen minutes into the show (and yep, he was there, flesh and blood), he already commits his first—and thankfully, only—blunder: “Don’t bubble the burst,” he tells Molly. It stupefied me for a few seconds as I internally debated whether this was a private joke in the tradition of Melanie Marquez. As a leading man, he has the face, physique, and charm to pull off the role, but I found him lacking in grit: even when he was angry, I wanted to pat him on the head.

It’s Cris who anchored the whole production together. Her Molly is pained and vulnerable—whenever she stared off into the distance, you know she’s recalling Sam’s death on loop in her head, holding on to memories as if they’d still materialize the next day. The highlight of her performance would be her pensive rendition of With You, one of the few songs that I found to be a signature Glen Ballard: Though my heart is broken / It keeps breaking every day / You took my hopes with you / Took my dreams with you. 

I find ‘anchored’ the perfect word because the musical was being pulled from different directions: from the cheesy (I blame my bias against Unchained Melody), to the downright corny: It was painful to watch Jamie Wilson play an angry mentor ghost, relegated to doing nothing but grunt and growl in… well, anger, complete with crashing sounds and lightning effect. Surely, Jamie, an astute actor, could have been generous in consigning the role to an up-and-comer instead.

There’s also the psychic Oda Mae Brown, the movie role which gave Whoopi Goldberg her Oscar. The vivacious Ima Castro played her to sass perfection—and she could have really run away with it especially with the show-stopping number, I’m Outta Here—but she and Cris eventually give the musical its sobriety: by the end of the play, a few patrons around me were sniffling (e.g., Jao).

Technically, the musical, directed by Bobby Garcia, is superior. In the first few minutes, I already wanted to congratulate the lighting director and set designer for the smart use of projector and small space, and for that cute elevator scene. However, the material could have been darker—here, the ghosts seem like caricatures, the types who would drink milkshake with Casper. Best friend Carl, who is played with both charm and grit by Hans Eckstein, and murderer Wille Lopez, played by Altair Alonso, could have been more sinister—sexually sinister, that is. The audience should have been frightened, if not by ghosts, then at least by its living villains.

 

Ghost The Musical runs until May 11, 2014 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati. Visit www.atlantisproductionsinc.com for details.

Review: The Director’s Club cinema, SM Aura

SM Aura

 

  • P350 gets you one free tumbler of popcorn. No refills, no drink. Even for SM, it’s cheap of them. (And in any case, this is the much-hallowed SM Aura.)
  • I have to hand it to their service staff though–even if I didn’t ask for popcorn, they brought me one before the start of the screening.
  • If you’re alone get an aisle seat; if a couple, get the center seats.
  • The side table has a button so you may call on the staff in case you need anything.
  • I liked the lazy boy even if at 6’1, my feet were dangling outside the foot rest. I liked the inclination and how I sunk into the chair.
  • Unfortunately, for those with less than average height (5’3″ and below), they had to sit up straight so they can get a good view of the screen. Note that in the photo, the floor is not that steeply inclined.
  • Also, it’s so easy to trip over the steps (given their little height difference) if you’re not too careful.
  • It’s an intimate cinema—there are two other front rows cropped out of this photo—which is great if the other movie goers observe proper cinema etiquette.

I’ve only tried one other premium theater, Eastwood’s Ultra 7 cinema. That one had free-flowing popcorn and soda, though I can’t remember for what price. However, comparing the seats, I prefer Aura’s, which adjusts to my preference more than Eastwood’s.

Review: Carrie the Musical (updated)

I only know Carrie from its iconic prom bloodbath scene so when Jao told me had tickets to the musical, I knew I was in for a treat. Here was a material that has made it to pop culture history, and finally, I was going to learn about it.

For someone my age (ha!), it was initially hard to get past the subject: here’s a bunch of high schoolers whose quest in life was to “get in.” Yawn. Millenials. Screw you. And then there’s Carrie, the outsider. The underdog. The cinderella. In another retelling. The stereotype that will never die. The cliché that goes on and on and on.

The musical really begins when you meet Carrie’s overbearing and Christian fundamentalist mother, played by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo in this production. She provides such gravitas that the Glee-like atmosphere is lifted (thankfully) and the play takes on a very dark undertone–and here, you realize, Carrie is first and foremost a Stephen King novel after all. (How apt that in the latest Carrie film version, the role is played by Julianne Moore, she who can also do no wrong.)

Together with Carrie, who is played with perfect vulnerability and naïveté by Kayla Rivera, the mother and daughter duo lends serious weight to the issues at hand: fanatical religion and bullying.

Still, the characters are hardly black and white. In The World According to Chris, the bully explains how her father raised her:

Better to whip than get whipped

Even if somebody bleeds
Please
Nobody dies from a scar
And that’s the way things are

The mother, for all her praises to God and physical and emotional abuses to her daughter, is also coming from her own source of pain. And even if Carrie rejects her mother’s hypotheses on life, in the end, Mrs. White is proven right. It’s scary in its complexity: like cancer, acts of unkindness metastasize and affect people–and their generations–in exponential ways. (Life lesson: always be kind.)

With such heavy themes, it was no wonder that laughs were hard to come by. (Though I appreciate the bromance jokes, however fleeting–most of the audience members barely caught them.) Markki Stroem, whom I know nothing about outside the realm of cuteness, was a revelation. His voice was celestial and in Dreamer in Disguise, it was his beautiful voice that made me forget I was inside the theater; I found myself deeply absorbed in his song and in my own thoughts. It was a moment for me as it was for Carrie.

Carrie the Musical runs until October 6, 2013 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati. For tickets, contact Atlantis Productions at 892-7078 or Ticketworld 891-9999.

Legally Blonde, the musical

I thought I’d watch the Broadway version of Legally Blonde on YouTube, the one which MTV taped and aired, before seeing the local staging; I’ve never heard of the songs in the musical and I wanted to familiarize myself. I enjoyed it so much (my new favorite song is, Oh My God, You Guys) it raised my expectations. I also read reviews of  Atlantis Productions’ version and they were all generally positive so I knew I was in for a treat.

I think as Filipinos, we can say that we’re generally apprehensive and skeptical of Western adaptations, more so in the case of Legally Blonde, which requires actors to have the California Valley accent and others to go… well, blonde. The inside jokes all refer to American pop culture, and require countless hours spent on cable TV and entertainment websites. I wondered if Atlantis attempted to tone down these references and adapt a more Pinoy flavor.

The answer was no, although there were little tweaks, such as references to American Idol and The Apprentice that weren’t in the Broadway version, but generally it stayed true to the original. The result: a lot of the jokes which were hilarious as I saw them in YouTube fell flat during the local staging. I could count the number of times the audience bellowed with laughter, and they were few. I’m not sure if these were due to: enunciation or audio/technical problems, or the audience simply not getting it.

The casting was perfect, with high praises for Jinky Llamanzares in the role of Paulette Bonafante; Geneva Cruz as Brooke Wyndham; Jett Pangan as Professor Callahan; Cris Villongco as Vivienne Kensington; and Joel Trinidad playing several bit roles, but most notably as the head of Harvard University Admissions. Nikki Gil had the perfect diction and accent as Elle Woods—plus a very pleasing singing voice—but she had zero energy (or okay, fine… 30 percent energy) during the 2 pm performance. Elle’s charm lies in her extreme perkiness and overall pleasantness—you’d want her to be your best friend; not Nikki’s Elle. Opposite of her were those playing the Delta Nu girls, who were really fun and hilarious to watch in their roles you’d want to hang out with them after to party; one would wonder why they had voted Elle as the sorority’s president.

Guji Llorenzana’s Warner lacked the arrogance that the character needed. Nyoy Volante had my eyes rolling every time it was his turn to speak—he delivered them as if he were reading nursery rhymes and I suppose this was due to his lack of confidence speaking in English. The other actors in their supporting roles were laudable, and provided this production with comic relief.

Production and stage design will never compare or even come close to the Broadway version, although I appreciate the campy charm of the toy dogs that replaced trained canines employed in the original production.

I’d recommend you to watch this particularly if you’d like to unwind and forget about the world’s troubles—just don’t watch the MTV broadcast prior to your play date. (I will leave it to you to read between the lines.)

Legally Blonde, The Musical runs until July 18.

Or perhaps…

it is the material. Is Rent still relevant today? Sure, it discusses love, life and death, but the characters are limited by, for one, the lack of social networks online. Mark needn’t have waited a year to screen his documentary — he could have uploaded weekly episodes on YouTube. Maureen could’ve had a wider audience — the world in fact, via live streaming. Or Twitter. Benny could have had blackmailed Mimi with her sex video. There’d be no answering machines — everyone is visible and online.

In other words, I felt that the material was dated and therefore, less comprehensible for the young Pinoy, and the characters, less accessible to the actors.

Rent: Hits and Misses

Here’s my nice 🙂 review of 9 Works Theatrical’s staging of Rent:

From left: Anna Santamaria, Job Bautista, OJ Mariano, Carla Laforteza and Mark Tayag

    — Carla Guevara-Laforteza as Maureen was riveting and smashing; her portrayal stole the show from everyone who was on the stage with her. Watch out for her Over the Moon performance, which brought the house down. (And if my poor memory serves me right, it was better than Monique Wilson’s.) She also started the production rolling — it had a rough start (the bad news: she won’t be onstage until the last quarter of Act 1). Carla was also hot as a lesbian.

    — Pleasantly surprised with Oj Mariano’s Tom Collins considering this is his acting debut. There is a believable chemistry between his character and Angel (Job Bautista).

    — I wonder if Mikey Arroyo was Noel Rayos’s peg for the smirking Benny. This made him really irritating.

    — I liked the voice of Nicole Asensio (Mimi)

    — I liked the ensemble; Gary Junsay in particular looked really pissed.

    — I also liked Jenny Villegas as Joanne but my lesbian friends don’t agree because they found her old and unfashionable relative to Maureen.

    — Fredison Lo (Mark) is extremely cute

    — Everyone had their accents down pat

Fredison Lo, Gian Magdangal, Nicole Asensio and Peachy Atilano

Now, for a few unsolicited suggestions:

    — The other actors would need to step up. Hunching over with your trench coats does not automatically make you starving, derelicts, cool, hip and dying.

    — There should be sexual chemistry/tension in Would You Light My Candle; I don’t understand why Gian Magdangal’s Roger is so disgusted with Mimi’s… goods.

    — The chemistry problem goes on throughout the play, I just couldn’t find myself rooting for these people. (Mark was practically a cardboard, save for his number with Joanne, The Tango Maureen.) Benny could have razed their apartment building to the ground for all I care.

    — Angel was cute as a button, which is a problem. She should be a diva, the star! But that’s hard with Carla being so good as Maurene.

    — Demmit, Will I is my favorite number — please work on this.

    — Audio was awful

At the post-show press conference, I liked the question of Michelle Katigbak (The Philippine Star) because the actors’ responses addressed my nagging thoughts behind the acting snags: for the younger ones, how do you relate to the material?

Fredison answered, by reading books and articles on the Internet.

But Rent is real life, it’s out there.

Meryl Streep will not like.

* * * *

Rent runs on February 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28, at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza

Portrait of an Artist as Filipino

Tony Javier tries his charms on his landlady and potential doña, Paula. (Credit: Repertory Philippines)

Mon and I were supposed to see Love Me Again — that Piolo Pascual and Angel Locsin starrer — when our reluctance to watch the movie brought us to Onstage in Greenbelt to check out what play was running. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that it was Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of an Artist as Filipino, and thankfully, we had 10 more minutes before the show started.

Prior to last night, I knew nothing about this particular work of Joaquin, though I’m sure most of us have heard about it — Repertory Philippines’s show guide describes it as “the most important Filipino play in English.” I’m no theater buff, and thus, cannot weigh the merits of this description, but after having read about and learned the context of “Portrait” — written in 1955, ergo, a few years after World War II when Manila, then confined within the four walls of Intramuros, was reduced to rubble — it was understandable to proclaim it so. “Portrait” is a play that questions identity: Old Manila versus New Manila; and the romantic (but starving) artist vs the pragmatic bourgeois.

At the Marasigan household, Don Lorenzo, a contemporary and rival of Juan Luna, paints his final masterpiece, Portrait of an Artist as Filipino, and bequeaths it to his two unmarried daughters, Candida and Paula, before setting himself up for a life of reclusion in his bedroom. A French journalist writes about the painting and Don Lorenzo’s retirement, thus creating a huge buzz on the painting — and an equally huge price on the painting.

Unbeknownst to the public, Candida and Paula are in dire financial straits. Their richer and married siblings, Manolo and Pepang, reluctantly send money for the upkeep of the Marasigan home. They want to send their father to a hospital, split Candida and Paula between their families as household help, sell the house and sell the painting. Other forces turn out to have a vested interest in the painting and convince the sisters to sell — a hunky roomer, and a poet-turned-senator, who is an old family friend.

It is the painting that eventually acts as a barometer of morality and ethics; it is up to the viewers to weigh in and decide on the soundness of the characters’ rationale behind wanting to sell or not sell. Personally, I wanted the sisters to sell — nothing wrong with being worldly and having a scandalous amount of money if acquired through good means — but this is a micro perspective. If one substitutes Manila for the Marasigans, would one still want to “sell” and become worldly? Joaquin doesn’t seem to think so and here’s where the assumption (or over enthusiasm?) becomes a problem.

Again, this play was written in 1955. Joaquin and I suppose, the romantics of his generation, had high hopes for Manila; waxing poetically about Manila and maintaining a staunch, nationalistic pride was a given. (For the record, I probably would have been too.) The war had ended — there were no Spanish, American or Japanese forces to colonize us. Power had been handed to us Filipinos — it was the time for us to start fresh, and this time, on our own terms.

That was Manila in 1955. The Manila of 2009 — and you can count decades back — is far from romantic, and this needs no explanation. We all are aware of what Manila is like now. Sure, it has its charms, it has its hidden secrets, but charming little secrets can’t make up for its “mismanagement,” to put it lightly.

Let me use the word again; the playscript was charming. It was charming to see the optimism and enthusiasm for the new Manila, and I understand we can all use the same hopes and enthusiasm now, sure. But in the final scene, wherein the narrator made his final, oratorical case for the city, I couldn’t help but feel that history unfolded rather unkindly: until when do we stop hoping for a fresh start?

* * * *

I understand I didn’t exactly review Repertory’s staging itself; I got so absorbed by the material — I do hope that speaks about how beautiful and thought-provoking this play is: GO WATCH IT! Do tell me what you think about the selling and not selling thing, and all its other meanings.

Superb acting by the cast too — we had Ana Abad Santos as Candida (Irma Adlawan-Marasigan alternates), Liesl Batucan as Paula and Joel Trinidad as Bitoy. I had misgivings about Randy Villarama’s portrayal of the hunky roomer, Tony Javier. His character was supposed to be extremely charming but it was easy to see through his insincerity, which makes for an anti-climactic ending. Joel’s final oratorical piece also felt too high school, e.g., as in those declamation contests we’ve all grown tired hearing. I’ve no other complaints with the acting — the second act played host to one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen, whether on- or off-stage, thanks to the Dons and Doñas who shared the spotlight with Candida and Paula.

It was sad to see that there were only a handful of patrons at last night’s show. (Though on one hand, we were fine by this; the seats were awfully small — it would have been uncomfortable if we were seated next to other peeps; we would have felt squished. Also, the performance felt more intimate.)

Ticket prices are very affordable: P550, P350 and P250. Show runs at Osntage, Greenbelt 1 on January 23, 24, 30, 31; February 6, 7 at 8:00pm; and January 18, 24, 25, 31; February 1, 7, 8 at 3:30pm.