Dulaang UP presents 'Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig' -- Jean Genet's 'Prisoner of Love'

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Yay! My interview with Melvin Lee for his involvement with Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' staging of "Bilanggo ng Pag-Ibig" was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer's Feb. 7, 2015 issue.


Dulaang UP presents 'Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig' -- Jean Genet's 'Prisoner of Love'
By Walter Ang

Melvin Lee (left)
"Being an actor in the theater was never in my dreams. I was too shy to be onstage. Stage fright to the max," confesses Melvin Lee, who tackles the role of Jean Genet, in Dulaang UP's (DUP's) "Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig," opening Feb. 11.

"But having seen the value and the power of the medium made me realize that I can probably be part of this very dynamic movement called `theater.'"

Written by Rody Vera and directed by José Estrella, the production caps DUP's 39th season and is based on French petty thief, prostitute, novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and political activist Genet's book "Un Captif Amoureux" (Prisoner of Love).

The book was published posthumously. Genet passed away in 1986, collecting his manuscripts on his encounters with the Palestinian Liberation Army in the Middle East.

The play is set in the last days of Genet's life, holed up in a small hotel in Paris, battling throat cancer while frantically trying to finish writing his last masterpiece. He converses with his friend Leila Shahid (alternately played by Tess Jamias and Dolly de Leon), later to become the general delegate of Palestine to the European Union.

The play seeks to "understand and portray Jean Genet's imagination as well as his controversial insights on revolution, betrayal and deceit, homosexuality, violence and love."

Blanking out and maturing
"I got rid of the stage fright by constantly being onstage doing plays," says Lee.

"I was invited to join the Philippine Educational Theater Association in the '80s by my high school classmate, Angie Cantero, who was part of Metropolitan Teen Theater League, the youth arm of Peta," Lee recalls.

"My first assignment was to be part of the music pool of the play  `Samperang Muta,' directed by Ces Mangay-Quesada. The music was live instrumentation and the musical director, Chino Toledo, had us use junk objects as instruments. I was in charge of blowing on the Coke bottles."

Lee was also tasked to do stage management and production management for various plays. "I received enormous training when I would be cast as part of the ensemble in productions. It helped me mature as an artist," he notes.

"One time in the '80s, I was part of this group scene in a touring production of `Panata sa Kalayaan' that we did in Switzerland. We were acting as different news reporters with his or her own report. I totally blanked out. I tried to save myself but all I could say was, `Mmmmm.' Kaloka!" he says, laughing.

Lee was eventually cast in roles like Inao in "Diablos," Diana Ross in "Kung Paano Ko Pinatay si Diana Ross" and as Chelsea in "Care Divas," among others. For his role as Chelsea, Lee received the 2011 Philstage Gawad Buhay! for Best Actor in a Musical.

Real person
Lee, who alternates with Ernesto "Jojo" Cayabyab III in the role (recent credits include Theatre Movement Bazaar's "Anton's Uncles"), has performed with DUP in the past.

"I did `Divinas Palabras,' also directed by Jose; `Baclofen' directed by Alex Cortez; then the  `Kangkong 1896' remount directed by the late Ogie Juliano."

In preparing for his role, Lee has been reading books and watching as many videos as possible of Genet. "Also, I try to cull from the previous callouses of my life to approximate the complexities of this very esoteric, deviant character named Jean Genet."

On acting as a person who actually existed: "At the end of the day, our task as an actor is to come up with our interpretation based on the text and other pertinent info about the `real' character. We cannot be the real person, but what we can offer is a different insight or try to get the essence of his being. That's the  challenge."

Preparing
Aside from researching about Genet, Lee has also been brushing up on the history of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

He points out: "One of Genet's important `causes' is the Palestinian revolution. Because they were displaced, all of a sudden, this entire race has become refugees. They no longer have land to call their own-hindi ba malapit 'yan sa walang kamatayang conflict sa Mindanao?"

Pinoys, says Lee, "should care about the conflict in Israel because we are indirectly affected by that war: oil, OFWs and the whole concept of terrorism.

"It's worrying when we hear of news about bombings. Our psyche as a people is affected because we know that there's a part in a world where people are dying because of conquest and oppression."

For "Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig," Ed Lacson is assistant director, Barbie Tan-Tiongco is lighting designer, Lex Marcos and Mark Dalacat are the set designers,

J. Victor Villareal is sound designer, Carlo Pagunaling is costume designer, JM Cabling handles movement, Sigmund Pecho handles puppetry and Jon Lazam is video designer.

The play runs Feb. 11-March 1 at Wilfrido Guerrero Theater, 2nd floor, Palma Hall, University of the Philippines, Quezon City.

Contact 9261349, 4337840, 9818500 loc. 2449 or dulaangupmarketing@gmail.com. Like on Facebook (DulaangUnibersidadNgPilipinas) and follow on Twitter (@Official_DUP).



Also published online:
http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/183772/dulaang-up-presents-bilanggo-ng-pag-ibig-jean-genets-prisoner-of-love

What do you think about this production? Share in the Comments Section.

Two 'Romeo and Juliets,' in fair Manila.

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Yay! My article on two upcoming stagings of "Romeo and Juliet" was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer's Jan. 31, 2015 issue.



Two 'Romeo and Juliets,' in fair Manila ...
By Walter Ang

Thea Gloria as Juliet and Russell Legaspi as Romeo.
"Two productions, both alike in dignity,
In fair Manila, where we lay our scene.
From ancient source, staged for this century."



Just time for Valentine's in February, two productions of William Shakespeare's timeless classic on star-crossed lovers "Romeo and Juliet" are happening within days of each other in Manila.

Both productions will be using modern elements to bring the play closer to today's audiences.

Assumption College's (AC) Marie Eugenie Theater for the Arts' (Metta) production features Riki Benedicto and Russell Legaspi alternating as Romeo and Benvolio. Both guest actors are alumni of the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors' Company.

Female roles are portrayed by AC alumnae and students. Thea Gloria, a graduate of the college's Theater Arts program, leads the pool of actresses alternating as Juliet. Gloria's recent credits include Repertory Philippines' "August: Osage County" and "Pinocchio."

Metta's staging will use modern music and dance.

"The themes are very apt even in the 21st century," says director Ana Valdes-Lim. "The tragedy of their love story brings home the message that violence and rivalries only end in devastation and bring no peace."

Valdes-Lim has directed for Tanghalang Pilipino and currently teaches at AC. The costume styling is by Miel Abong, with choreography by Chris Nocon, lighting design by Roldan Lozano and sound design by Joseph Andal.

Marie Eugenie Theater for the Arts' "Romeo and Juliet" runs until Feb. 6 at the Blackbox Theater, Assumption College, San Lorenzo Village, Makati City. Tel. nos. 8942681, 8170757 loc. 1162-1164; e-mail marketing.metta@gmail.com; like on Facebook (metta.ac).

Inaugural productionMeanwhile, Issa Litton will be playing Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet, in Manila Shakespeare Company's production directed by the group's artistic director Nicanor "Nic" Campos.

Rachel Coates plays Juliet and Nelsito Gomez plays Romeo in the group's inaugural production.

Coates' recent credits include "Scrooge the Musical" and "Alice in Wonderland" (Repertory Philippines), and "The Sound of Music" (Resorts World Manila).

Gomez was last seen in "Shrek the Musical" (Atlantis Theatricals Entertainment Group), "Grease" (9 Works Theatricals) and "The Glass Menagerie" (The Sandbox Collective).

Campos is setting the story in 21st-century Manila with all the familiar urban trappings: from selfies to suits worn with shades, from swords replaced with guns and knives to cloaks replaced with hoodies.

"The various strata of Veronese society represented in the play will be paralleled by surprising contemporary equivalents in local culture," he says. "Who knew, for instance, that Juliet's nurse was Shakespeare's greatest yaya?"

Campos himself has performed the Bard's characters such as Oberon, King Lear, Hamlet and Richard III. Recent credits include Claudio/Don Pedro in "Much Ado About Nothing" (Upstart Productions), Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" (Metta) and Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" (Ephesus Teatron).

His recent appearances for Repertory Philippines include Horton the Elephant in "Seussical," Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" and The Cheshire Cat/Mock Turtle in "Alice in Wonderland."

Campos says this production will be available for touring for the remainder of the year. The February and March shows will allow educators and groups interested in buying future shows enough time to plan schedules for the coming school year.

Manila Shakespeare Company's "Romeo and Juliet" runs Feb. 27-March 6 at Teatrino, Promenade, Greenhills, San Juan City. Tel. no. 0939-5969250; e-mail mnlshakesco@gmail.com; like on Facebook (ManilaShakespeareCompany).



Also published online:
http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/183250/two-romeo-and-juliets-in-fair-manila

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From Tanghalang Pilipino, a Filipino adaptation of `Dangerous Liaisons'

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Yay! My interview with Elmer Gatchalian on his adaptation/translation process of "Dangerous Liaisons" for Tanghalang Pilipino's staging of "Juego de Peligro" was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer's Jan. 24, 2015 issue.


From Tanghalang Pilipino, a Filipino adaptation of `Dangerous Liaisons'

By Walter Ang

Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (seated).
Arnold Reyes and LJ Reyes.


Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) will stage "Juego de Peligro," an adaptation of French army general Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 18th-century epistolary novel "Les Liaisons dangereuses," this February.

Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino is set to play the Marquise de Merteuil/Margarita, a scheming widow who teams up with Vicomte de Valmont/Vicente (Arnold Reyes) in a contest to see who can corrupt the young and virginal Cécile de Volanges/Cecilia and the virtuous and recently married Madame de Tourvel/Teresa.

Tuxqs Rutaquio, TP associate artistic director, will direct and design the set. James Reyes will handle costume design. Music will be by Jed Balsamo and lighting design by John Batalla.

"JUEGO de Peligro," opening Feb. 20 at CCP Little Theater, stars Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Arnold Reyes and LJ Reyes, under Tanghalang Pilipino associate artistic director Tuxqs Rutaquio's direction. Rutaquio also designs the set, James Reyes the costumes.

"JUEGO de Peligro," opening Feb. 20 at CCP Little Theater, stars Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Arnold Reyes and LJ Reyes, under Tanghalang Pilipino associate artistic director Tuxqs Rutaquio's direction. Rutaquio also designs the set, James Reyes the costumes.

Elmer Gatchalian handles adaptation and translation duties.

Gatchalian's past plays include "Ambon ng Kristal" (1994 First Prize Palanca Award for One-Act Play) and "Ang Tiririt ng Ibong Adarna," both staged by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta).

He has also translated Nick Pichay's "Almanac for a Revolution" ("Ang Dalawang Buhay ni Plaridel"), also staged by Peta.

Other versions
Gatchalian first encountered the material when he was a journalism major at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) via Christopher Hampton's play adaptation of the novel.

"I saw a copy of the script of   `Les Liaisons dangereuses,' a very slim book, at the UST Central Library," he says. "I loved the play. And then I saw the film version with Glenn Close, which made me love the material even more."

In the acclaimed 1988 film version, Close costarred with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.

There have been other adaptations of the material. In 1999, it was adapted into the US film "Cruel Intentions," setting the story in a school in New York, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon.

"Untold Scandal" is a 2003 South Korean film adaptation which set the story in Korea's golden-era Joseon dynasty. And in 2012, a Chinese film adaptation starred Zhang Ziyi and transposed the story to 1930s Shanghai.

There is even a Twitter adaptation at www.whatthefrench.com/portfolio/dangerous-tweets.

All of which Gatchalian consumed, among other adaptations and related versions, for his research.

"There is also a 1959 film by Roger Vadim, with the story set in a late-1950s French bourgeois milieu," he notes. "I also watched `Valmont,' the 1989 film directed by Milos Forman and starring Annette Bening and Colin Firth."

From France to Philippines
Gatchalian had previously translated Hampton's play in college ("I was bored," he says) but was tasked by TP to adapt the novel from scratch.

"I bought a copy of the Laclos novel translated by Richard Aldington, making a lot of notes on the pages and highlighting passages that would denote character and plot movements. It took me a month to write the first draft," says Gatchalian.

"Tuxqs didn't want a very modern adaptation of the novel. He wanted to retain the elements that made us love the 1988 film by Stephen Frears: the costumes, the pageantry, and, most importantly, the attitudes and mores of a bygone era," explains Gatchalian.

He transports the story of the novel to Intramuros, Manila, during the last years of the Spanish regime.

"As the power of the Spanish conquistadores in the colony began to wane in the last years of the 19th century, Señor Vicente and Señora Margarita are two Spanish peninsulares aristocrats who remain unshaken in their desire to engage in depravity through their vicious games of conquest," he says.

Challenge
Finding the exact time frame of the adaptation was a challenge. Transporting the story to the Spanish-colonial era of the Philippines is not enough; there must be an ideological and historical framework behind the actions and machinations of the two lead characters.

Gatchalian spent two months reading the following books to "absorb the era": "Manila, My Manila" by Nick Joaquin; "Working Women of Manila in the 19th Century" by Dr. Luisa Camagay; "History of the Burgis" and "Turn of the Century" by Gilda Cordero-Fernando; "Crime, Society and the State in the Nineteenth Century Philippines" by Greg Bankoff; "Waiting for Mariang Makiling" by Resil B. Mojares; "Palabas" by Doreen G. Fernandez; "The Promise of the Foreign" by Vicente Rafael; and "Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala," edited by Virgilio Almario.

"I also consulted Dr. Nicanor Tiongson, a well-respected film professor, critic, Philippine culture expert (and my former boss); and Dr. Vic Torres, an esteemed history professor and playwright, regarding the period setting. My adaptation explores the themes of conquest and class struggle during that particular era," says Gatchalian.

"I see their preoccupation with corrupting their victims as some sort of a desperate attempt by Spain to cling to its power and influence over a colony that was slowly welcoming a new alien presence, the United States, while talks of a mass revolt swirl in the background," he says.

"They both regard themselves as `patriots' defending their motherland against threats of revolutionary leaders and new colonizers, but, ultimately, they become harbingers of moral ruin and social collapse, which contribute greatly to the eventual demise of Spanish power in the country," he adds.

Tanghalang Pilipino's "Juego de Peligro" runs Feb. 20-Mar. 8 at Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, Cultural Center of the Philippines. Tel. nos. 8321125 loc. 1620 and 1621, 0905-2544930, 0921-8204155; TicketWorld 8919999; log on: ticketworld.com.ph.

Also published online:
http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/182782/from-tanghalang-pilipino-a-filipino-adaptation-of-dangerous-liaisons

What do you think of this production? Share in the Comments Section.

Period sex farce `The Country Wife' up next from Dulaang UP

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Yay! My news interview with Martha Comia on her role as Margery Pinchwife in Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' staging of "The Country Wife" was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer's Nov. 8, 2014 issue.


Period sex farce `The Country Wife' up next from Dulaang UP 
By Walter Ang


Martha Comia

Who will get pinched when a womanizer who pretends to be impotent (in order to get the married women, of course), meets an "innocent" and newly married woman who hails from the province? Expect a sex farce and comedy of manners to ensue from that premise.

Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas is staging both "The Country Wife," written by William Wycherley, and its Tagalog translation by Nicolas Pichay, "Ang Misis Kong Promdi," starting Nov. 19 at the Wilfrido Guerrero Theater of Palma Hall, UP-Diliman, under Tony Mabesa's direction.

Martha Comia and Sue Prado alternate as the titular character Margery Pinchwife.

The challenge in this production for Comia, as well as the entire cast, is that they all have to memorize two scripts. All actors cast in the production will do both English and Filipino versions. George de Jesus and Tarek El Tayech alternate as the husband, while Jay Gonzaga and Neil Sese alternate as Horner, the womanizer.

Born and raised in Marikina, Comia started dabbling in theater in grade school up until her stay in Miriam College.

"After college, I had a corporate job but I wasn't happy," she says. "Seeing my mentor, Tuxqs Rutaquio, and my high school best friend, Kathlyn Castillo, in professional theater as a director-actor-set designer and as an actress, respectively, pushed me to resign and try my luck in the industry. I auditioned for Tanghalang Pilipino's `EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay in Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson.'"

"That was my first play with a professional theater company," she says. She went on to act in several productions for TP ("Mulan," "Bombita," "Pinocchio") and the Philippine Educational Theater Association ("Noli at Fili 2000," "Ismail at Isabel"). She was also able to join TP's Actor's Company, its resident pool of actors.

Thoughts to ponder
This is not Comia's first foray into DUP territory. She was cast in its recent production of "The Duchess of Malfi/Ang Dukesa ng Malfi" and had previously acted in DUP's Dulaang Laboratoryo series (where students' thesis productions are staged).

This is, however, her first title role. "I am thankful, but also excited and frightened. My primary concern is how to flesh the character out, and how to play her well with all the other characters. In plays, the actors playing as an ensemble is more important than any one role. The title role is just icing on the cake."

Given that this play satirizes hypocrisy, Comia hopes that audiences, especially the younger ones, leave the theater with a few thoughts to ponder.

"Even if this play was written centuries ago, they'll see that this is how our society is today! It can be an eye-opener for them," she says.

In the meantime, she's having a good time preparing for her role. "Rehearsals are fun and stressful at the same time, but it's a good kind of stress!" she says.

"The process of our director, Tony Mabesa, is different from my past experience. My training was blocking, then scene work, then drop books (rehearsing without a script in hand). With him it's blocking, then drop books, then scene work."

"Sir Tony is very strict, very precise. You need to be quick with your thinking and instincts as an actor. But he is also very witty, and he likes to make us laugh a lot during rehearsals. One time I forgot one of his instructions and he said to me, `Ano ba yan? You used to be bright, di ba? What happened?'" she says, laughing.

"If you're absent at one rehearsal, when you return, he'd call on you during company call and ask what food you brought for the entire company as your apology. So all of our rehearsals are like fiestas!"

"The Country Wife/Ang Misis Kong Promdi" has set design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Eric Pineda and lighting design by Shakira Villa-Symes.

"The Country Wife/Ang Misis Kong Promdi" runs Nov. 19-Dec. 7 at Wilfrido Guerrero Theater, 2/F, Palma Hall, University of the Philippines, Quezon City. Contact 9261349, 4337840, 9818500 loc. 2449, or e-mail dulaangupmarketing@gmail.com.

Also published online:
http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/176549/period-sex-farce-the-country-wife-up-next-from-dulaang-up

What do you think of this production? Share in the Comments Section.

Pinoy theater productions tour Asian stages

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Yay! My news report on Filipino productions being staged around Asia was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer's Oct.4 , 2014 issue.


Pinoy theater productions tour Asian stages
By Walter Ang

Tanghalang Pilipino's Sandosenang Sapatos
This October, the Philippine Educational Theater Association's all-male production of "Haring Lear" will tour Taiwan, while the Full House Theater Productions' staging of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" will tour Singapore. (Full House is the newly established theater company of Resorts World Manila.)

Using a translation by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera of William Shakespeare's "King Lear," the Peta production, directed by Nonon Padilla with set and costume design by Gino Gonzales, will be staged Oct. 11-12 at National Taipei University of the Arts.

Lighting design is by Jonjon Villareal and music by Dodjie Fernandez.

(Visit www.artsticket.com.tw or contact +02-3393-9888.)

Japan
Peta also recently staged "Strong Boy, Deaf Boy and a Girl in an Abaya" in Japan, at the Showa University of Music in Kawasaki, as part of the Asian Gems of the Arts Concert for the Federation for Asian Cultural Promotions.

The production is a nonverbal, multimedia performance that makes use of contemporary and indigenous Filipino music and movement to tell the story of three children-Strong Boy, a street kid who has to work to survive; Deaf Boy, a simple boy living a frugal life until a storm strikes his coastal town; and Girl in an Abaya, a girl caught
 in an armed conflict between rebels and soldiers in the southern Philippines-as they journey to a place where they can live and dream without fear and danger.

This production was originally staged 13 years ago for the International Drama and Education Association World Congress in Bergen, Norway. This led to several invitations and touring performances in the Netherlands, Greece and France.

Written by Nicolas Pichay and directed by Dudz Teraña, this year's staging has been updated to include the experience of children who survived the recent Typhoon "Yolanda" tragedy. Musical direction is by Jeff Hernandez, and set and costume design by Joan Pamintuan.

"Strong Boy." will also have a limited two-show run from Oct. 29 to 30 (twinbilled with an excerpt from Peta's latest season production "FnL") at The Imaginarium Multi-Arts Festival of the Absurd, Peta Theater Center, Quezon City.

(Contact 0917-8996680. Tickets are also available through TicketWorld at 8919999 or ticketworld.com.ph.)

Singapore
Meanwhile, Full House Theater Company's "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" will tour Singapore this October after ending its Manila run at Resorts World Manila's Newport Performing Arts Theater.

The musical, with book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, stars Michael Williams, Jon Santos and Red Concepcion as three gay friends who travel across Australia on a bus they christen as Priscilla.
The show is directed by Jaime del Mundo with musical direction by Inday Echevarria, set design by Jo Tecson, costume design by Edgar San Diego, lighting design by Shakira Villa-Syme and choreography by Nancy Crowe.

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" runs Oct. 16-26 at Resorts World Theater, Resorts World Sentosa, Singapore.
(Visit www.rwsentosa.com.)

Beijing
In November, Tanghalang Pilipino's musical version of "Sandosenang Sapatos" will be the Philippines' entry to the sixth Theater Olympics to be held in Beijing, China.

"Sandosenang Sapatos" is a children's musical based on Luis Gatmaitan's Palanca Award-winning children's book adapted by Layeta Bucoy, with music by Noel Cabangon and Jed Balsamo.

The story is about a shoemaker who dreams of having a ballerina daughter but ends up with a crippled daughter. The TP production, where several kinds of shoes appear as characters in the show, premiered last year and has had several reruns, including a limited 15-performance rerun last August at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

At the 2013 Philstage Gawad Buhay!, it was a finalist in three categories: Outstanding Production for Children in a Musical or Play, Outstanding Female Lead in a Musical or Play (Trixie Esteban) and Outstanding Musical Direction (Noel Cabangon and Jed Balsamo).

The musical was commissioned by the Philippine Board on Books for Young People in cooperation with CCP as part of the celebration of the 28th National Children's Book Day last year.

Celebrated every third week of July, the National Children's Book Day is held to commemorate the anniversary of the publication of Jose Rizal's "The Monkey and the Turtle."

The first musical adaptation of the book, created by the Valenzuela City Center for Performing Arts in 2008 with music by Jesse Lucas and adaptation by Jose Jeffrey Camañag, was recently restaged by Gantimpala Theater.

The Beijing-bound production will feature members of the Actors Company, TP's resident pool of actors, under Tuxqs Rutaquio's direction. Gerald Mercado choreographs, with sound design by TJ Ramos, lighting design  by John Batalla, costumes by James Reyes and Leeroy New, and set design by Rutaquio.

Also published online:
http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/173529/pinoy-theater-productions-tour-asian-stages

What do you think of these productions? Share in the Comments Section.

Tacky, kitschy, gaudy and fabulous queens (Review of 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert')

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Yay! My review of Full House Theater Productions' staging of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer's June 28, 2014 issue.



Tacky, kitschy, gaudy and fabulous queens
By Walter Ang

From left: Jon Santos, Leo Valdes, Red Concepcion.
Let's remember that while Full House Theater Productions' staging of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," a musical about two drag queens and a transgender woman searching for love and acceptance of self and from others, is being shown in Manila this year, countries left and right have been legalizing homosexual marriage while the Philippines remains the only country left in the entire world that has no divorce proceedings for heterosexual marriage.

Now, speaking of a long way to go, if you are looking for a road trip comedy with '70s and '80s disco and radio pop hits festooned with glitter and feathers, this show delivers.

Literary and theatrical purists needn't fret. If, during Shakespeare's time, male actors portrayed female characters who cross-dress as males, here we have a male actor who portrays a trans woman who dresses up in female drag. How's that for a 21st-century twist? Hi, Bill!

Sincere
The musical, with book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, showcases Jon Santos and Red Concepcion in very strong acting form.

The seasoned drag queen, Santos as Ralph/Bernadette, versus the young upstart drag princess, Concepcion as Adam/Felicia: Hilarity ensues. But only because these two work hard at filling in their very high heels with energy, earnestness and fabulousness.

They don't talk with a lisp. They choose an accent they can maintain (no morphing accents here). They don't ape their songs; they sing their songs-with heart. They set up their punchlines with correct timing. They don't put on an affected caricature of their characters; they become their characters.

Concepcion is an unfaltering powerball of energy, cackles and sass. It doesn't hurt that he has a cute tush, too. Santos is not the strongest singer, but audiences don't care a bit since he creates a Bernadette so sincere and believable that her elegance and gravitas shine through to the hilt.

Michael Williams and OJ Mariano, both competent performers, are severely underutilized in this show. Mariano has one spoken line! Audiences would be much better off if either one of them played (or if both alternated) the role of Tick/Mitzi, the character that serves as the impetus for this adventure.

But due to Leo Valdez's ineffectual execution of the role, which drags the show's momentum, the character's dramatic arc now merely serves as forgettable narrative bookends to this fun, fierce journey.

Color and vitality
The look and feel of the production, courtesy of Jaime del Mundo's direction, Jo Tecson's set design, Edgar San Diego's costume design, Shakira Villa-Syme's lighting design and Nancy Crowe's choreography, has a campy, tacky, kitschy vibe that, strangely enough, works!

To wit, there is that opening number with a gaggle of backup dancers twirling their umbrellas, reminiscent of lunchtime variety shows. There are costumes that are (lovingly) inspired by Sto. Niño statues and ati-atihan garb. It's all topped off by a hokey Powerpoint presentation that looks like it was made by a third grader.

Here is a show about drag queens that doesn't quite have the sheen and sophistication of a Vegas or Moulin Rouge showgirl act, but rather, the rawness, color and vitality of the corner beauty parlor that has linoleum floors, pin lights left over from last Christmas and a plastic fortune plant; plus the loudness and pomp of the annual local barangay gay pageant, all mixed in with the gaudy, paid-by-our-taxes, imported street lamps of Roxas Boulevard.

In other words, the aesthetic is Pinoy na Pinoy! And it triumphs because it is unblinkingly (but with false lashes, of course) and unapologetically so.

Strong singing
Musical director Inday Echevaria has guided the ensemble into a strong singing unit and they execute Crowe's pop, energetic choreography with gusto. Take note, these are men who sing and dance in "regular" clothes and drag; and the women, too, are in drag. Androgyny and ambiguity abound.

Pinky Marquez in male get-up and a mullet is a joyful and hilarious sight (this is the woman who showed audiences full back nudity in Rep's "The Graduate"!). Bituin Escalante's powerful voice booms throughout the theater as one of the three divas who provide the drag queens' sync-voices. Listen carefully, Bernadette gives the audience a Drag 101 lesson on why drag queens lip-sync.

The church choir at the funeral in Act One, while fun, feels a tad illogical; perhaps singing mourners in drag instead next time? Unless church choirs at funerals is a thing now?

San Diego's costumes are colorful, though there are a few ensembles that seem ill-proportioned, making the leads look squat, like men in drag instead of real drag queens. He also gives a nod to Madonna (whose songs were used in the Broadway version instead of Kylie Minogue's, which was in the West End version and now in the Manila staging) via one of his costumes for Concepcion.

Cinematic effect
The production smartly frames the very long stage with a false proscenium, focusing the audience's sightlines and the acting space to the center. This also makes the theater's two flanking video screens less distracting (though they seem to have been moved a bit farther to the sides as well). Someone please banish these two pointless monstrosities permanently.

Students who ride a school bus or employees who ply Edsa on commuter buses will tell you that the side panels of the eponymous bus, Priscilla, needs more details (such as rivets and grooves) and paint texturing (to make it look less like plywood and more like metal). But then again, if we're going for kitsch, this fits the bill.

The production employs the theater's video cyclorama to cinematic effect (a wink at the musical's provenance: Elliott's 1994 film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") when it becomes the desert backdrop, moving in sync with the rotating bus. The animation is clean and the perspective is correct, unlike previous ones used in this theater that looked like desktop computer video games from the mid-'90s.

The giant stiletto that appears on top of the bus (in the movie as well as the other international versions of the musical) couldn't be reproduced in Manila due to licensing agreements. However, Del Mundo's tongue-in-cheek, hilarious and very theatrical staging of this scene completely upends the iconic prop. Queens couldn't be any prouder of his fabulous idea.

Full House Theater Productions' "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" runs until July 13 at Resorts World Manila's Newport Performing Arts Theater, and will play in Singapore in October 2014. Visit rwmanila.com or call 9088833.
Also published online:
http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/164451/tacky-kitschy-gaudy-and-fabulous-queens

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