REVIEW: 'Wait Until Dark'--sensual, suspenseful, tightly cast show

'Wait Until Dark'--sensual, suspenseful, tightly cast show
By Walter Ang
Jan. 25, 2014
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Upon entering the theater, one notices an annoying crack of light that seeps through one side of a door, glaring at the audience, on the set of Repertory Philippines' staging of "Wait Until Dark."

One assumes it is an ill-measured or poorly constructed frame, until the second act comes along and one realizes the clever, deliberate one-two punch of Miguel Faustmann's set design and John Batalla's lighting design in that shaft of light.

The title of the play specifies what will eventually engulf the characters and audiences. Faustmann's design for this basement apartment unit provides the second hint: There is a ceiling. This blocks Batalla's access to the battens above the stage, leaving him nowhere to hang lighting instruments to illuminate the cast from above.

The production showcases Batalla's deft workarounds to the play's challenges. Not only is he able to allow audiences to still see what's going on when the literal darkness finally comes (with strategic blue washes and occasional orange spotlights), he plays with what lighting opportunities do remain.

It's a cornucopia of techniques for audiences to experience as Batalla calibrates light intensities, colors, shapes and movement (and shadows) throughout the play to show varying interior lighting (lit from within the set) and varying outdoor light streaming into the apartment (lit from the sides of the stage).

Poetic cruelty
Written by Frederick Knott, the play is about three men who attempt to con Susy Henderson (Liesl Batucan) out of a doll of great value that was given to her husband.

Knott adds poetic cruelty by giving her a photographer husband (a stern but malambing Lorenz Martinez) and a child neighbor (played straight by an effective Dani Gana) who wears eyeglasses, highlighting Susy's blindness.

It's been a while since Faustmann designed a set for Rep and, in this comeback where his solid sense of interior architecture is on display once more, he doesn't make it easy for his lead character: Half of the apartment is raised, another step for poor Susy to maneuver.

Jethro Joaquin's rich sound design provides mood-enhancing scoring as well as crucial aural cues that move the plot along: ringing phones, amplified footsteps, crashing cars-although there is mention of rain that audiences don't hear, and the industrial roar of the Hendersons' refrigerator is a bit much.

These production elements create a sensual, oppressive world for the story to unfold and suspense to build.

Uneven script
Helmed by Faustmann, the ensemble is tight and surpasses the occasionally uneven script, such as Knott allowing Susy to notice certain sounds but completely miss others (reinforced with Faustmann making Susy sometimes face who she's talking to, assuming she can hear the direction where the voice is coming from, and sometimes facing at a tangent.)

Witnessing Susy piecing the puzzle together and turning the tables on these gents makes for a fun show. Faustmann moves things along as briskly as he can and maintains the tension, even if Knott keeps on punctuating it with scene breaks.

Robbie Guevara is funny as the comic relief conman and Joel Trinidad plays the sympathetic conman with a nervous, jumpy energy.

Menacing quality
Originally cast to play Susy's husband, Arnel Carrion stepped in to replace Jaime Wilson, who broke a kneecap in rehearsals, as the master plotter. His towering height and wide build have a menacing quality, but perhaps because he'd only had six days to learn the role, the character's oiliness isn't quite sinister yet and comes across as a bit cartoonish (on opening night, at least) instead of chilling.

The characterization still had traces of flamboyant affectation similar to his portrayal of villain Clayton (which fit the role) in Atlantis Productions' staging of "Disney's Tarzan" last year. A strange-looking mop-for-a-wig costume he dons at one point in the play doesn't help, either. Otherwise, he delivers the goods.

Wilson's injury, by the way, is a reminder of the immediacy and real-life dangers of stage fighting and falling (in the dark, no less!). While audiences may be used to close-ups and quick cuts of fight scenes in movies and TV, and while stage fighting can come across as a little hokey, the choreography is always something to be appreciated.

And this production's action sequences seem to work. While some of the twists can be seen a mile away, audiences still gave squeals of surprise in some scenes.

Batucan slays the role of Susy with a steady, unfurling strength, a quiet vulnerability, a "blind gaze" that never falters-and stuntwoman skills, what with all the falling and tumbling she's tasked to do.

She effortlessly showcases a gamut of emotions, from giddy to terrorized, from despondent to triumphant.

She's got the comic timing down pat, too. During a tense scene, when she announces to one of the three conmen that she has something of his in a taunting lilt, it is unexpectedly funny and cheer-inducing.

"Wait Until Dark" runs until Feb. 9 at OnStage Theater, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Call 5716926, 5714941, 8919999; or visit

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'Toilet: The Musical'-a new original Filipino production from Ateneo Blue Repertory

'Toilet: The Musical'-a new original Filipino production from Ateneo Blue Repertory
By Walter Ang
Jan. 18, 2014
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Ateneo Blue Repertory is staging its first original musical this February, written and composed by Ejay Yatco.

"Toilet: The Musical" is about the "lives of eight seemingly ordinary students" but each has a "secret to disclose within the cold confines of the toilet walls," says Yatco. "It's a story about the inevitable painful experiences one must go through in high school in order to 'grow up.'"

Fred Lo and Justine Peña, who head the cast, were previously together in two shows last year-as the Prince and Cinderella, respectively, in Resorts World Manila's Full House Theater Company's "Cinderella," and as Topper and Gabbi in Culture Shock Productions' "Sa Wakas."

Yatco arranged the music for "Sa Wakas," a jukebox musical that featured the music of the pop-rock band Sugarfree. His recent credits also include pianist duties for Atlantis Productions' staging of "Disney's The Little Mermaid."

He also competed in last year's World Championship of the Performing Arts and won three silver medals and one gold. Yatco was a member of Ateneo Blue Repertory when he was still in college and handled musical direction duties for its productions such as "Hair" and "Little Shop of Horrors."

Deep, dark problems
"High school is that point in life that many adults consider to be the epitome of shallow problems-pimples, crushes and popularity, as well as a vast collection of other hormone-driven dilemmas," Yatco says. "However, it's also where deeper and darker problems are kept secret."

The musical will touch on topics such as suicide, unrequited love, religious differences, eating disorders, sexuality, and the fear of what the future holds.

"But it will also show the light at the end of the tunnel, and the struggle to remember that there are no real endings, just new beginnings."

Co-directed by Yatco and Bym Buhain, the musical features musical direction by Yatco, choreography by Jim Ferrer, set design by Trency Cagaan-an and lighting design by Miyo Sta. Maria.

"Toilet: The Musical" runs Feb. 12-March 1 at Gonzaga Exhibit Hall, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City. Contact 0917-8782239. Like on Facebook (Ateneo Blue Repertory) and follow on Twitter (@_blueREPERTORY).

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Annie Luis is first Filipino performer at the Beijing Opera

Annie Luis is first Filipino performer at the Beijing Opera
By Walter Ang
Jan. 11, 2014
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Annie Luis
Annie Luis is the first Filipino graduate of the Peking Opera Performance program of the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts. She completed the program in 2008 and proceeded to finish a master's degree in Directing Traditional Chinese Theatre.

"'Beijing or Peking Opera' is how the rest of the world knows it," she explains. "However, this is just a foreign scholar's translation of a Chinese term that cannot really be translated perfectly."

She adds: "It is called jingju (京劇); 'jing' (京) comes from the name of the city, Beijing, where this genre was born; and 'ju' (劇) which means 'play or drama.' The Western definition of drama could not quite include the musical aspect of this genre; hence it was considered a kind of opera, even if opera is hardly the same as jingju."

Hailing from Laoag, Ilocos Norte, Luis grew up "in the part of the woods where arts was a luxury and definitely could not be considered a profession."

At age 10 she had an epiphany when she saw a video of the musical "Annie." She remembers thinking at the time: "You can actually sing and dance and act at the same time? This is theater? Oh, goodie!"

But she had to satisfy her newfound interest with soundtrack cassette tapes and videotapes of live performances since there weren't many shows in her hometown.

Luis flexed her theater muscles in high school. "I was more of a director than an actress because I liked ordering people around," she says, laughing.

"Classical singing came in after I shared an apartment with music and voice majors while studying theater at the University of the Philippines," she recalls.

This was when her fascination with jingju began.

Annie Luis
"I'd always been interested in Brechtian/Epic Theater and the alienation effect that it espouses. After I saw a video of a jingju performance, I was immediately drawn to its apparent alienation effect," she says.

"The whole storytelling, with its presentation of music, song, speech, dance and acting, was stylized yet incredibly engaging. It presented a synthesis of art forms rolled into one unique theater experience," she adds. (She found out during her studies that Bertolt Brecht was actually a fan of jingju.)

After college, she performed with several groups, including the Bayanihan Dance Company. She eventually found her way to Beijing with a grant from the China Scholarship Council.

Luis had to learn the Chinese language for a whole year before she could even begin the performance program.

"I had to put in extra effort to translate lyrics just to understand and properly express what I was singing," she says.

Different techniques
Cultural adjustments were also a constant challenge. "Chopsticks posed a threat to my well-being so I always carried a fork in my bag, just in case," she quips.

To add another hurdle, her background as a singer didn't prepare her for the singing involved in jingju. "The style is different: nasal, shrill, with a different technique for resonance."

She says, "I spent at least one school year just learning the singing, acting, movement and dance for a 12-minute piece. That is how much work jingju requires of a foreigner without previous exposure to the form."

Now that she's back in Manila, Luis works at the International Affairs Office of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts while still dancing with Bayanihan.

"There are some things that I learned in jingju that I am able to use discreetly in my work for Bayanihan," she says. "I hope to teach jingju in the future, and realize a joint production of a Filipino sarswela and jingju with both Filipino and Chinese artists."

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