REVIEW: A tour-de-force 'Tatlong Mariya' (Chekhov's 'Three Sisters')

A tour-de-force Tatlong Mariya
By Walter Ang
March 22, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

From Facebook of Che Ramos-Cosio
Watching a play by a dead Russian that only literature and theater majors seem to love is always fraught with trepidation. With Tanghalang Pilipino's staging of Anthon Chekhov's "Three Sisters," any iota of boredom and high-brow pretension is chucked out the window, making this world-classic accessible and fun.

In this adaptation directed by Loy Arcenas and translated by Rody Vera, the title is now "Tatlong Mariya," and the siblings are transplanted from Russia to an Ilocos town in the 1970s, making it familiar and touching instead of alien and unrelatable.

Engineers (instead of Chekhov's military officers) are building a dam, purportedly one of the signs of progress under Martial Law. A year after the death of their father, a senior engineer, Maria Angelina, Ma. Josefina, and Ma. Ramona find life drab and increasingly hopeless in the province and yearn for their once happy life in Manila.

Arcenas, also the set designer, transforms the stage of Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (CCP Little Theater) into a theater-in-the-round, with bleachers on stage surrounding a rectangular acting space. The height and expanse of the space (one knows there is backstage space beyond the seating area, one can't actually see it, but one feels it) creates a kinetic energy and a pointed statement for the characters.

Arcenas makes us doubly aware of the exterior life these characters pine for...trapped in the confines of their exile, yet here is all that space (and possibilities) that the audience occupies: we're sitting right in it!

As the lights dim, two large metal frames criss-crossed with wires rumble into place, creating two walls for the living room of the sisters' home. The loudness of the frames' movement is unexpected, charging the air. It immediately sets the tone as it mirrors the tension, corrosion and constriction of the characters' lives.

Arcenas makes us voyeurs and eavesdroppers that completely surround their house, separated only by (an invisible) wall; we are in their lives and we see it all happening. He makes it real for us.

Chekhov's plays are described to have scattered expositions throughout stretches of time to underscore the boredom and dreariness that the characters experience. Fortunately, Arcenas and his actors unfold the action in a steady rhythm that drives the story forward.

The furtive meetings between lovers or the fights erupting between people who are too familiar with each other (and therefore, too conscious with) all retain an authentic pacing.

The characters and their stories are a rich source of all sorts of readings, from socioeconomic to psychological. But these fancy intellectual terms take a backseat because the ensemble's pitch perfect acting lets you get too caught up in their lives to have time to analyze them.

This straightforward storytelling defies being labeled either as a comedy or tragedy: it's both and not; it's real life. Depending on where in your life you are, there will be characters and plot lines that will hit close to home. The comedy/tragedy of it all is how much they mirror our own lives.

It is almost unfair to single out any one name since these actors from different batches of the Actor's Company (TP's pool of resident actors) work in beat with each other on equal footing.

Funny moments abound. The actors imbue their characters with tangible quirks and authentic personalities, like Mailes Kanapi's off-kilter Maria Josefina, with spot on comic timing. Watch out for the way Paolo O'Hara's Victor gazes with giddy schoolboy attraction at Ma. Ramona. Even Kat Castillo, who plays the maid and has no speaking lines, has scene stealing glares that she shoots off at the craziness of the household.

But it is the drama that is really captivating. The ensemble's emotions are raw and unbridled but never exaggerated for effect. You feel the ache of their longing, the pain of their disappointments, and the howling of their hearts.

Dolly Gutierrez's Ma. Angelina has an air of defeated acceptance and woeful resignation about her. Angeli Bayani, who has the unenviable job of being tasked to cry on cue almost ceaselessly throughout the play, is a vulnerable and sensitive Ma. Ramona. Dennis Marasigan as Isidro (husband of adultering Ma. Josefina) delivers his lines with a gravitas that cuts to the heart.

The understated acting is echoed by all the design elements. Arcneas economically places select props, only just so, to evoke the entirety of the setting. Barie Tiongco's lighting design clearly illuminates the action and never calls attention to itself. Jethro Joaquin's sound design provides the necessary layer in creating the mood. The costume designs by Kalila Aguilos do not contain loud prints or extra-wide bell-bottoms for show or distraction, still in 70s silhouettes, they're just enough to situate the characters.

All of the show's elements just work, creating a tour de force production.

TP will be holding summer workshops in acting and other related disciplines in two venues: Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay City and Bonifacio Arts Center, Taguig City. Call 832-3661, 0920-9535381 or 0928-5518645.

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Book captures Palawan at the crossroads of nature and progress

Book captures Palawan at the crossroads of nature and progress
By Walter Ang
March 15, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Palawan is known by ecotourists and travelers for its limestone cliffs, underground rivers, and dive sites featuring sunken World War II battle ships. For businessmen and investors, Palawan is known for providing millions of tons of fish for the country, the Malampaya gas fields, and its pearl farms.

To introduce an overview of these aspects of Palawan to a wider audience and as a tribute to their home, the Provincial Information Office of the Provincial Government of Palawan has come up with a coffee table book titled "Palawan: Land of blessing."

The book features photographs by Neal Oshima and contributing photographers that capture "places and faces, coastlines and communities, sea creatures and school children, the mavericks of today and the leaders of tomorrow."

It is a testament and commentary as to where Palawan is now in its history as it straddles burgeoning infrastructure, civic and technological developments against preserving its environmental and cultural heritage. The book's text, written by Alya Honasan and edited by Thelma Sioson San Juan, traces the province's origins, then inventories its resources, peoples, and developments in healthcare, education, and social welfare, among others.

Love letter
But also, it is a love letter from a native son. The idea for the book came from Governor Joel T. Reyes, who was born and raised in Coron, Palawan when "it still had no electricity and the rare arrival of a cargo boat from Manila was regarded as a special occasion."

Reyes followed his family's political lineage and was vice governor of Palawan from 1992 until 2001. He assumed the governor position from 2000-2001 when then incumbent Gov. Salvador Socrates died in an airplane crash. He became governor in the elections that followed in 2001. His third and last term will end next year.

The book's concept had been there ever since he became governor. "I finally had to rush the project when I realized my last term was about to end," he says with a laugh. "I was born and will die in Palawan. I wanted to leave a legacy for my home province."

He knows the land intimately, having overseen its 1.5M hectares and 800,000 people over the past two decades. "It's really a blessing to live in Palawan. It has bountiful natural resources and its location geographically shields it from most of the calamities that pound the rest of the country. We are not exposed to typhoons and we don't get earthquakes. We have an abundance of beauty and peace," he adds.

This husband to Clara "Fems" Espiritu and father of three waxes nostalgic for the outdoor games he used to play as a child, of lighting petromax (gas-powered lanterns) at six in the evening, and of swimming and fishing instead of "the computer games that kids these days play."

While he notes that Palawan's unique location and "isolation" has prevented it from the exploitation of fast-paced development, he understands the need for technological advancement. For example, given the province's 1,700 islands, cellphone service has greatly improved communications. "Modern technology has made Palawan more accessible, not just to the rest of the Philippines but to the rest of the world as well," he says.

This intertwined passion for preserving the past and moving forward has produced the book and amplifies his efforts as chairman of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a position he's held since 2007. "We are a policy-making and regulatory body created to ensure that all projects implemented in Palawan are environmentally sustainable. We have to prevent the depletion of natural resources and continuing environmental degradation," he says. "This is one way where we can take advantage of the benefits of technology and still sustain our culture and traditions."

At the book's launch held in Ayala Musuem, Makati City, pledges were received for the benefit of Heart (Helping Educate At Risk Teens and families) Foundation, a Palawan-based anti-drug abuse organization. Proceeds of the book sales will benefit a trust fund that will be established to help protect the environment in Palawan, specifically, the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park?a world heritage site southeast of Puerto Princesa City under the supervision of PCSD.

Close to a thousand square kilometers, the reef is poised to rival Australia's Great Barrier Reef with its diverse ecosystem that is home to over 1,000 species (many considered as endangered). Aside from being a marine sanctuary, Tubbataha is also renowned for being a bird sanctuary.

For details, call 09175026048.

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REVIEW: Theater of the young, the here, the now: 2010 National University and College Theater Festival

Theater of the young, the here, the now
By Walter Ang
March 8, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The 2010 National University and College Theater Festival organized by the National Commission of the Culture and Arts, titled "Tanghal!," featured the outputs of different school-based theater groups from across the country.

In the shows set in five venues across five days, it was exciting to see what college students (and their adult mentors) are thinking of, interested in, dealing with, and how they process these topics and emotions into performance.

The various forms, styles and methods of the productions gave audiences a chance to become aware of the different ways how production elements (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, etc.) can be used (or not used at all) to tell stories on stage.

Time constraints allowed us to catch only five of the seven showcase productions (marked with an asterisk) and several other participating productions.

We had to leave SamaSining (University of the Philippines-Los Banos)'s twinbill* of "Riders to the Sea" and its Tagalog translation "Sa Sinapupunan ng Laot," a few minutes into its second act so we could catch the latter half of Integrated Performing Arts Guild (Mindanao State University)'s "SugaTula*."

The attempt of "Riders" to use "Irish English" made the cast difficult to understand. But as soon as this story of a mother's fear of losing yet another child to the sea began its Tagalog translation, the production took shape and started delivering the goods. The language made sense, the acting flowed, the emotions came through, and the audience settled in to absorb the story's arching themes of loss and pain.

"SugaTula" set eight poems to movement. The last four poems we caught featured interpretations that used eye catching costumes and props, including a suspended ovoid wicker contraption and a fabric dummy hung from its neck.

The group has coined the term "transcreation" to describe its process of not merely translating, adapting or transforming the poems, but recreating them for the stage. It therefore set itself up for puzzled reactions from the audience since it did not offer much in creating anything particularly new. The spoken components were stilted by an elementary school declamatory style and the video projection of poems in their entirety felt redundant. The group has opportunities to build on their work by exploring differentiated delivery and more varied editing of the projections (for example, projecting words one by one or playing around with the placement of lines).

Both groups stood out with their unique movement vocabulary. Each had a distinct tack on how to move and how fast to do so. Both groups also employed live music that added a rich layer of sound to their works.

UP Repertory Company (University of the Philippines) staged a twinbill*. A satire on a teacher's frustrations with the upcoming elections, "Teachers Act" has a self-indulgent script that uses too much showbiz-theater-swardspeak humor as a device to elicit laughs, therefore losing the audience in its self-referential, self-involved, in-joke manner.

The playbill notes that it is actually the story of three different teachers. Audiences suspected the group's lack of preparation, given the way this piece was staged: two actors reading the script, acted out by three dancers.

Fortunately, the group redeems itself with, "Hello Philippines." A strong commentary on the search for personal motivation set in a call center. It shines in the way it articulates the kind of angst and quarter-life crisis that only Filipinos in their 20s can possess.

With a bit of tightening, allowing for stronger build-ups to the songs (deliberate and uncalled for off-key delivery notwithstanding), this show has the potential to become one of the defining musicals that speak of this past decade's emergent themes: of how Filipinos deal with balancing self identity and self worth against the explosion of the call center industry.

De La Salle University-Manila' Harlequin staged "Rizal is my President*," a musical that features long-dead Filipino heroes pondering on making Rizal the next president. Polished, light and fun, the musical would have ended on the right note were it not for a superfluous flourish involving a gun-wielding character towards the end of the show.

This group has had a Philippine Educational Theater Association senior artist as their moderator for a few years now and there is no doubt that the Peta influence has become heavy handed. The acting style, manner of delivery, music, animation style, use of wooden-boxes-as-set-pieces, among other elements, are all undeniably Peta in aesthetic. It would be nice to see this group find its own voice down the line.

Women's issues were tackled by Dulaang Pinay (Miriam College)'s "Fairy Tale Academy" and University of the East Drama Company's "Miss Philippines."

An allegory on the constructed roles of women, "Fairy Tale" featured colorful, textured costumes and strong songs. However, the cast seemed scared and lost while they were performing; energy and vocal projection were low. Working on these acting aspects, streamlining the text to make its point clearer, and figuring out why the main protagonist looks like Pocahontas instead of a Pinoy heroine should be the next steps for the group.

Clearly, UEDC had fun with its production, which allowed the audience to ride merrily along. Appropriate updates to this play from the late 70s, strong acting, steady comic timing, and an endearing sense of confidence from the students made this show about the (mis)adventures of beauty pageant contestants and their personal battles with society's stereotypes a standout.

Self and others
Tanghalang Saint Louis University tackled tradition and justice framed by a fraternal battle in "Kabsat (Brother)*." The intimate scene (using Filipino, Ilocano and Itneg) was steady and intense (though occasionally hit by bouts of histrionics). Supported by a textured (though overscaled) set design and the most intricate lighting design among all the festival participants, the cast exuded a calm assurance. In a bow to professionalism, this was the only delegation that had its own set of ushers.

Paulino Theater Group (St. Paul Seminary) staged "Playback Theater: Your Story, Our Play," an improv show where they acted out stories shared by audience members. The audience cheered on these future priests even as these young men were upstaged by the animated audience members who told their stories and volunteered for the show's ending activity. Working on their range of expression, imagination and theatricality will put them on their way to better shows.

It must be noted, given the nature of this festival, that one does not expect polish and prowess from the participants (though it wouldn't go unappreciated). Acting skills are at levels expected of the students' age and experience. Production elements like lighting design are par for the course, since everyone has to use the same standard designs. Limited time and resources, the exhaustion from travelling to Manila, and other factors thrown into the mix are what participants have to deal with on top of preparing for their shows.

What one expects and hopes to witness are effort, enthusiasm and, most importantly, sincerity. On these points, most of the groups were definitely up there. But at the end of the day, sometimes all an audience wants is good show.

University of San Agustin Little Theater has done just that: a damned good show. The group's dance drama "Tarangban*" is a based on a sugidanon (oral epic) that tells the journey (in English, Filipino and Kinaray-a) of Prince Humadapnon.

The show is great fun: there is adventure, search for love, magic, monsters, battles. The chanting (by members of the Panay Bukidnon Society) throughout the tight show adds a unique aural texture; the rousing music and sound design is exhilarating.

The choreography hits the right notes with movements that range from sweeping to angular. The costumes use interesting silhouettes and textures: eerie body shapes were created for a gaggle of evil sirens that had masks placed on top of heads instead of on faces, abaca hair, and upturned skirts that became giant hoods.

All these elements come to a whole and create fantastic imagery on stage. One imagines what the show must be like if done with its original five-level set design and full lighting design. (Someone please bring this group back to Manila to perform in a bigger venue with their complete production elements!)

The show is a timely reminder that with several movies lifted from Greek mythology ("Clash of the Titans" and "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief") coming out soon, parents and teachers should (must) ensure that Filipino children (and adults) are aware of and are given the chance to appreciate our very own myths and stories.

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