Peta stages 'Skin Deep,' musical about beauty obssession

Skin, voices, melodies 
By Walter Ang
Jan. 28, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

"Write a funny musical on beauty," was the instruction that Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) Artistic Director Maribel Legarda laid down for Vince de Jesus.

Known to theater audiences more as a lyricist, composer, musical arranger and musical director rather than a playwright, De Jesus was challenged by the directive. "When you talk about beauty as a topic, the scope is so huge," he says. After reviewing the other plays that had been performed for Peta's current season, he began to focus the issues he wanted to write about.

"We've had two productions for our 40th season. Walang Himala was about discovering the effects of People Power and Batang Rizal was about finding the hero within the child. I wanted my play to be about discovering your inner self," he says.

De Jesus eventually crafted "Skin-Deep," a story about an internationally famous balikbayan cosmetic surgeon who opens "the world's first one-stop beauty resort here in the Philippines - the Skin-Deep Sancutary!" For its grand opening promo, seven lucky texters win a chance to stay at the resort for a month and avail of all the beauty treatments, procedures and surgeries it has to offer for free.

The winners include "An obese female call-center agent, a troubled married couple, a male model wannabe, a flamboyant florist, an abused housewife burned beyond recognition and the reigning Miss Artificial Beauty," he lists. "The musical revolves around their struggles. How they go through different procedures hoping to become more aesthetically acceptable to the cruel world."

Inner beauty
"I'm not an expert on beauty, but I do know we all have our little indulgences. I get my facials and diamond peels from time to time," he says. "The question here is, to what extent should you go for outer beauty? I called a popular aesthetic center to ask how much butt implants cost. They told me it cost P120,000! I asked for a discount and if it's possible for me to pay only P60,000. They said it was possible, but I would only get an implant on one cheek," he laughs.

He qualifies that his musical "is not a complete attack on the cosmetic surgery industry. After all `walang manloloko kung walang magpapaloko.'" De Jesus does not hide the fact that he actually underwent a bit of cosmetic surgery himself (acne scar reduction) to immerse himself in the milieu of his musical.

"My point is, if you get a procedure done, you should know why you are getting it." De Jesus waxes philosophical on the effects of "media, advertising and companies who aggressively sell their products. Why are we being told that we are ugly if we have dark skin, a flat nose, no boobs or are chubby? Why do the white skinned girls get the boyfriend?"

De Jesus began to play the piano in the second grade and eventually joined Peta's Metropolitan Teen Theater League in high school where he was able to merge his love for music with the performing arts. He soon decided to devote all his energies to creating music and lyrics not just for theater but for television, film and events as well.

One of this notable works is the libretto and music for the staged version of Tanghalang Pilipino's "Himala," which was recently shown in Shanghai, China for the Asian Contemporary Theater Festival. "I'm a crammer!" he laughs when asked about how he creates music. "I go to the beach, I go to the mall. I tell my collaborators that relaxing my nerves is part of the process. For Himala, I did the music only a few days before the first rehearsal!"

He points out that when he is the composer for a show, he has the leeway to adjust and modify the music during rehearsals. However, since he is only the librettist for Skin-Deep and would not have that kind of control over the music, he had prepared a first draft by July of last year. He was assisted in his efforts by the Writers' Bloc, an organization of established and aspiring playwrights, headed by Rody Vera and whose membership included the late multi-awarded playwright Rene Villanueva.

"They [Villanueva and Vera] would encourage me to make the script tougher, to make more of a statement." he recounts. After going through twelve major revisions, the play eventually came together with certain inspirations. "I wanted to evoke `Willy Wonka' and `A Chorus Line.' The ending started out simply as a bittersweet ending, but now it has become dark and open-ended. These people were not perfect when they went in the Skin-Deep Sanctuary, but they will leave more broken than when they entered."

The musical will be directed by Nor Domingo with music by Lucien Letaba, arranged by Melvin Corpin. Costume design is by Kalila Aguilos, choreography by Christine Crame-Santillan and Leo Abaya will design a "a high-tech, futuristic, magical set lighted by Jonjon Villareal," says De Jesus.

Bringing his characters to life are well-known theater luminaries such as pop R&B singer Bituin Escalante, husband and wife team Robert Seña and Isay Alvarez (both alumni of Miss Saigon, West End and Manila casts), and fresh from portraying the lead role in "Himala," May Bayot-de Castro, whom theater aficionados would love to see perform with her sister Lani Misalucha in a musical one day. Other featured actors in the cast members of Kalinangan Ensemble, Peta's resident group of actors.

"As far as I know, no one has made a musical about this topic. There are really so many factors and issues embedded in it: economic, political, cultural, gender issues, sexual politics, body politics, it goes on and on," says De Jesus. "In the end, these characters are archetypes but the audience will definitely be able to relate. We can all relate to being judged, being ugly and, ultimately, surviving scars."

Skin-Deep runs from Feb. 1 to March 9 at the PETA-Phinma Theater (5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. Behind Quezon City Sports Club). Call 725-6244 or 410-0821.

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Mario O'Hara, creative powerhouse, back on stage

Mario O'Hara, creative powerhouse, back on stage 
By Walter Ang
January 21, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Some people know Mario O' Hara as a film maker. Noranians know him for "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos" in the '70s and "Bulaklak ng City Jail" in the '80s. Younger audiences may know him more for the award-winning and critically acclaimed "Babae sa Breakwater."

Others know him as a scriptwriter. He penned Lino Brocka's "Insiang" and "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang." He's also a playwright; he won first prize in the Sarsuwela category of the Centennial Literary Prize back in 1998 for "Palasyo ni Valentin." And he is an actor for film, television and stage.

In other words, he's a creative powerhouse who slips from one craft to another without much effort. In Tanghalang Pilipino's (TP) "Kudeta!," his latest foray into theater, he plays the president of a Caribbean nation who is held captive after a coup, but manages to turn things around by exploiting his enemies' weaknesses.

Constant presence
O' Hara was thick in the middle of writing a script in Balagtasan style in an effort to update the language for younger audiences when the production was greenlighted.

"I had to drop everything. When you do theater, it occupies you, there's not much else you can do. I wake up thinking about the play and go to sleep still thinking about it. I can't do anything else that's creative in nature," he says. "I can only do manual labor," he adds with a laugh.

However, due to his rich experiences in almost all of the performing-arts disciplines, it was an easy transition from one form to the other.

"I'm used to doing theater. I've done all kinds of productions with companies that had money, some that didn't, productions with large casts, others with small casts."

O'Hara is a constant presence in the theater world. His script for "Insiang" (which had started out as radio play before becoming a TV and movie script), was restaged last year by TP.

As an actor, he was last seen onstage in Peta's "Belong Puti" and TP's "Ang Pokpok ng Ohio" in which he shared the stage with only two other actors. In "Kudeta!" he performs with the entire Actor's Company, TP's group of resident actors.

"There's one upside: I get to rest more! When you're in a play with a large cast, you don't have to be onstage all the time," he says. "When you're on stage with only a few other actors, you have to sustain your energy the entire time, you have to be clear. You need super energy! It's all about voice, emotions, action."

Same tools
These are the same tools that he uses to build his character. In this case, he points out that "My character is a president [of Trinidad and Tobago, birthplace of playwright Mustapha Matura]. Although we all have an idea of what a president's public persona should be, I didn't have too difficult a time creating the personality of my character's private self."

Translated to Filipino by George de Jesus III, the play is about a group of young military officers who is sent by the president abroad for training, but who comes back to lead a coup against him.

"I had to ask myself, `How does a president who is used to power, who is used to being followed, react when people don't follow his orders anymore? How does he deal with people who are not part of his private life?'" he says.

To help bring these situations to life, Tuxqs Rutaquio provides the production design and Dennis Marasigan, TP's artistic director, the lighting design.

O'Hara further crafted his character under the direction of Floy Quintos, for whom he has only praise. "He's great to work with. His mind is very quick. When I get an idea for my character or a scene, I like using the idea right away, otherwise it disappears. Fortunately, Floy allows the cast to experiment during rehearsals," he says.

"But you have to be alert when you're working with Floy. He thinks fast and you have to catch everything. He won't repeat himself. You have to work on his directions until you get it."

Having started performing for radio at the age of 17, O'Hara exudes a calm that only true expertise can establish as he rehearses for the show. "My delivery in theater is strong because of my radio background. I love radio work, I was blessed to be part of that industry during its golden years. I learned discipline from the people I worked with, they had the highest standards."

"Kudeta!" runs until Feb. 3 at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines at 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday; and 3 p.m. matinees, Saturday-Sunday. Call 8919999, 8323704, 8321125 loc. 1620/1621 and 8323661.

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Review of Repertory Philippines' 'Tuesdays with Morrie'

No Toothaches Only Smiles 
By Walter Ang
January 14, 2008 (

Repertory Philippines' latest offering, Tuesdays with Morrie, is the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom's best selling book.

Bart Guingona plays the author Mitch Albom, a sports journalist who reconnects with his old college professor Morrie Schwartz.

Though successful in his chosen career, Albom feels empty and lost. Guingona aptly plays him as a high strung alpha male but is able to show his vulnerable sides.

Sixteen years after his college graduation, events lead Albom to seek out his old mentor, who unfortunately, has developed Lou Gehrig's disease.

Morrie, despite being stricken with this incurable degenerative disease of the nervous system, vows to live the remainder of his life to the fullest.

Albom is the lucky recipient of Morrie's relentless drive to remain a teacher (even if he's no longer an employee of his old university). In a clever move, Morrie convinces Albom to visit him every Tuesday of the week and "manages over the course of the following months to impart to his former student the most important lessons of all."

The premise of the play makes it seem dangerous to stage as it can easily slip into hokey melodrama. Admittedly, there were some dialogue that bordered precariously into giving the audience a toothache, but thankfully, under the direction of Rep co-founder Baby Barredo, the material unfolds without any nonsense and gimmicks. The tension is sustained and Albom's resistance to getting in touch with his "touchy feely" side provides a foil to any possibilities of the story turning into a cartoon.

It is interesting to see Rep using new and popular material for its line-up. Aside from the book, Tuesdays was adapted into a TV movie produced by Oprah Winfrey starring Hank Azaria (as Albom) and Jack Lemmon (as Schwartz). This decision to interweave more "modern" plays with classics (Hamlet is next in Rep's current line-up) may attract more audiences to the theater and build a stronger market for the performing arts.

The revelation of this production is the actor who plays Morrie: Jose Mari Avellana. He has incredible presence onstage and lends much gravitas to the character. His performance is nuanced, gentle, funny, powerful and heart wrenching. Although some of the timing for the punchlines are still a bit off on opening weekend, these two actors carry the story evenly and have a chemistry about them.

When one reads the short biography of Avellana in the souvenir programme, it's no wonder that his past work experience reveals extensive forays into theater, advertising, radio, television and film. Another interesting tidbit: his parents are National Artists Lambert and Daisy Avellana. If not for anything, go watch this play for his performance.

Tuesdays with Morrie runs until January 27 at Onstage Theater, 2/F Greenbelt 1, Ayala Center, Makati City. For details, call 887-0710 or visit Tickets also available at Ticketworld at 8919999 or their website at

Hendri Go of Little Boy Productions will be bringing this production to Cebu City on February 2 at SM City Cebu Cinema. For details about the Cebu staging, please call (63917)815-5794.