Friday, September 22, 2006

The Play’s The Thing

Last Saturday I was asked, along with four other TA alumni, to be a judge in Starting Five—Iba ‘To, the production showcase of the TA applicants’ theater workshop. It consisted of five short productions showcasing the acting prowess of TA’s new recruits—as well as the directing capabilities of five senior members and the playwriting efforts of two members. It was a very interesting set of productions. I was particularly struck by how dedicated and passionate the new kids were. And the level of production was a lot better over-all compared to previous years. All these bode well for TA in the coming seasons.

Our unanimous choice for best play was “Kulay Rosas Ang Dapit-Hapon Minsan Sa Isang Taon” while “Trabaho Soliloquies” and “Mga Guhit Ni Magdalena” alternated between second and third place.

I will explain the reason behind my choices. I speak only for myself and not for the other judges. Besides, a unanimous vote means the winner deserved to win hands-down. So anything I say here will not change our decision.

For me, “Rosas” was the runaway winner. I would even give the two leads, Exzell Macomb and Regina de Vera, the awards for best actor and actress respectively, while JJ Ignacio gets my vote for best direction. “Rosas” rose above the rest because of material, over-all execution and over-all impact.

“Rosas” is a foreign play adapted to Filipino by a fellow TA alumnus, the late RJ Leyran. Of the five scripts it is the one that’s been tried and tested. In fact the competition clearly showcased the importance of having great material—the better the material, the better the over-all production.

The subject matter of “Rosas” is really nothing new, but then so are the ones of “Soliloquies” and “Magdalena.” Boy and girl meet cute, fall in love but cannot be together, continue to meet cute in their idyllic hideaway (in the Manila Zoo), until reality steps in (in the form of the wife) and their fantasy world is brought to a bloody end. What lifts this piece is the tightrope act between the characters of Macario Sebastian III and the nameless Babae, as efficiently written by the playwright and as ably essayed by Exzell and Regina.

Exzell’s Macario was alternately sweet and scary; one couldn’t be sure if he’s really telling the truth or if he’s lying all along. To make a possible stalker appear sympathetic requires a delicate balancing act, and Exzell successfully—though sweating too profusely—pulled it off. And Regina matched him line per line; her Babae was believably naïve. The interplay between the two was a joy to behold. The two made us feel the push-and-pull of want and wariness; it was engaging to watch the two circle around one another, coming closer, pulling back, only to come closer again.

Also, the beauty of “Rosas” was that the blocking did not call attention to itself (unless on purpose) but served the story fully. “Soliloquies” and “Magdalena” had busier blockings, but their efforts showed; in contrast, the blocking of “Rosas” seemed seamless.

But for me what really clinched it for “Rosas” was the entrance of Macario’s wife. The premise of “Rosas” already had a hint of the unreal—how come she agreed to continue seeing him under curious circumstances? However Exzell and Regina were playing it real, so it was easy for me to believe in the situation. So when Macario’s wife Rose entered in all her surreal glory, it totally floored us judges. You see, Rose was played by a man playing a woman, but the production didn’t bother disguising it at all. In fact, it reveled in the sight—tacky wig, barely disguised dark manly skin, badly painted lipstick, and a man-voice pitched to an awkward and false falsetto (John Rabelas was inspired casting). That lifted the play to a whole new level of surreal. Now that’s impact.

And more importantly, it was a totally unexpected choice that did not feel gimmicky at all. In fact, in a twisted way it made sense (no wonder Macario couldn’t tell Babae about his wife). And if that weren’t enough: upon spotting Macario with Babae, Rose turns around in one big, unnecessary, unwieldy but ultimately fitting scoop, steps up on a bench and nonchalantly shoots her husband dead. How much more unexpected and surreal can one get?

“Trabaho Soliloquies” is about four individuals waiting for the results of a job interview; all of them are gunning after the same position. “Mga Guhit ni Magdalena” is about the oppression of women, as seen thru the eyes of three women from different generations.

“Soliloquies” and “Magdalena” are additive inverses of one another. Structurally they’re alike; both showcase ensembles with moments of soliloquies for every character. But while the former is light and funny, the latter is dark and serious.

“Magdalena” is the better executed of the two: the acting—both individual and ensemble—is more consistently excellent over-all, and the direction and blocking are more inventive. Ultimately it suffers because of the material. There’s nothing new being said; plus the play gives away its insights too early on. And while I applaud BJ’s direction over-all (his was the most inventive of the three), the onstage disrobing and faux-rape are, to quote Ate Vi, “been there, been that.”

“Soliloquies” also had nothing new to say; the joy in watching it is to see the actors pull off the comedy. Unfortunately comedy’s a lot harder than drama, and it showed. The acting was more uneven here, and while I applaud the effort and energy they bring to their roles, the individual actors weaknesses were more evident when they broke off into soliloquies. Still, their enthusiasm and discipline were engaging and infectious. And Trency Caga-anan’s was sure-footed and energetic. “A” for effort.

All three deserved the applause they got, but only “Rosas” managed to make my jaw drop—and ache because of all that laughing. For managing to charm, impress and ultimately surprise us jaded judges (and for making the line “Bear!” extremely funny), the play deserved the top spot.

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