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From the first Filipino adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear to an original Pinoy comedy about a cyber couple's “eyeball” at a pedestrian overpass, from a play that tackles homosexuality and faith, to a musical based on a popular cartoon character—theater in the Philippines is kicking off the first quarter of 2012 to a rollicking start.
Indeed, the theater boom that has been evident in the past few years continues as local groups stage diverse offerings aimed at capturing the fancy of viewers. Haring Lear from the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), Bakit Wala Nang Nagtatagpo sa Philcoa Oberpas from Tanghalang Pilipino, Next Fall from Repertory Philippines and You're A Good Man Charlie Brown are just four of the shows making a bid for the attention of theater-goers—and those who may be looking for alternative entertainment fare.
Even foreign companies seem to be considering the Philippines as a viable stop for international touring productions. Set to open tonight, January 24, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) is Mamma Mia! which is reportedly enjoying brisk ticket sales. Like the smash musical Cats, presented also at the CCP last year, Mamma Mia! may prove to be one of the hottest draws of the season.
A major player that has emerged is an entertainment complex in Pasay which staged a local production of The Sound of Music last year, successfully so that its run has been extended till February. This points to a presence in Manila of an audience (not necessarily of Filipinos alone) ready to spend for costly tickets for quality live theater performances.
Passion for theater
For Repertory Philippines associate artistic director and actress Menchu Lauchengo-Yulo, the overflow in stage productions is a result of one thing alone: “Passion for the theater. The only explanation that really counts for me.”
A point of pride, she points out, is “the fact that most of all the new companies are set up by Rep alumni.” Indeed, while the presence of more groups makes it harder for even established ones like Rep to get sponsors, still, Lauchengco-Yulo says she is happy that theater is thriving locally.
In any case, Rep already stands out from the rest by virtue of being one of the oldest theater companies in the country. This year, it is celebrating its 45th year and 75th season, and remains true to its vision of presenting professional-standard English-language plays. But while it can be said that Rep already has its niche of viewers, Lauchengo-Yulo contends that their audience profile is shifting.
“I feel that we need to infuse new energy into Rep and yet keep the legacy that Zeneida Amador and Baby Barredo began. That's why we always create a season of variety. We have children's theater, dramas, comedies and our big musicals. This way, we reach a wider range of people.”
Rep's current season starts with the light drama, Next Fall, followed by the comedy called Leading Ladies, its 45th anniversary presentation of the musical Jekyll and Hyde, and, for younger audiences, The Wizard of Oz and Camp Rock.
Nipping at the heels of Rep are relative newcomers who have nevertheless made inroads through their high-impact productions, the likes of 9Works Theatrical (Rent, Sweet Charity) and Atlantis Productions (Avenue Q, Dogeaters). Theater Down South, meanwhile, has targetted communities in southern Metro Manila. It must be said, though, that Philippine theater is quite close-knit, with the actors and directors not exclusively tied down to any particular ensemble, such that they end up doing multiple productions across different groups.
Rep alum Ria Pangilinan also sees a lot of potential in marketing and promoting theater shows. Recently, Pangilinan independently produced Nora and Delia Ephron’s off Broadway hit Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Though it only had a weekend ran at the RCBC theater, the local production directed by Michael Williams was well-attended and much-talked about not only for its light and witty monologues on clothes but also for its talented all-female cast consisting of Bituin Escalante, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Liza Infante-Robinson, Jay Valencia Glorioso, and Cathy Azanza Dy. Pangilinan said the play and another production, Defending the Caveman, will be on tour later this year.
Pangilinan says, “I’ve been working in theater for so many years now and I just find so much joy in seeing people appreciate all the hard work that was placed in coming up with a production. Yes, I think that the fact that there are so many theater productions right now means there is a wider audience. Our goal is to be successful, artistically and business-wise, and to provide a platform for our talented actors.”
Having star wattage helps boost ticket sales and it is certainly a tact that some theater companies employ to attract the crowds. Atlantis Productions, for one, is already touting its Lea Salonga-headliner in July, the Tony Award-winning “comedy of bad manners” God of Carnage. As described in publicity materials, God of Carnage begins with two sets of parents meeting up to deal with the aftermath of a fight between their sons. What starts as a civilized discussion between grown adults about the importance of proper behavior soon devolves into a hysterical and very uncivilized session of tantrums, tears, and startling revelations.”
The story is interesting alright, and the fact that it is also being made into a Hollywood movie with Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet in the title roles, should create buzz. But having the Philippines' own Broadway star Lea Salonga in it almost guarantees that people will be lining up to see it.
Another potential crowd-drawer for Atlantis is Rock of Ages, in its first internationally-licensed production, starring Filipino-Australian Mig Ayesa who played the lead role on Broadway. Ayesa is already a familiar name locally, thanks to his Top 3 finish in an American reality search for the new lead vocalist of the rock band INXS a few years ago. Rock of Ages (which is also being made into a film starring Tom Cruise) is the story of a small town girl and a big city rocker falling in love and along with the tunes of the most popular rock hits of the 1980s.
Over at Rep, another Miss Saigon alum will lend prestige to Jekyll and Hyde. Apart from being the comeback of Junix Inocian (who played The Engineer in London's West End) to the Rep stage, the musical will also feature as guest artist, rocker Jett Pangan, alternating with Michael Williams (incidentally, also part of the original Miss Saigon cast).
Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the CCP, meanwhile fields two veteran actresses of cinema and television—Helen Gamboa and Gina Pareño—in its February presentation of Larawan. The classic story by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin is retold on the stage by multi-awarded playwright Floy Quintos using Tagalog, English and Spanish in the dialogue.
Fernando “Nanding” Josef, artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino, has said that casting pop stars in productions helps enhance marketing and promotional strategies. But they ensure the artistic integrity of a production is not sacrificed by getting talents who may be well-known but not trained in theater. “Ang ginagawa namin, kritikal na pagpili sa mga artista na may commercial value at kaya namang i-deliver ng maayos ang character pagdating sa teatro.”
Tanghalang Pilipino, which is now on its 25th theater season, is currently featuring fresh material through Eyeball: New Vision in Philippine Theater. It is an anthology of the best plays from Virgin Labfest, a yearly festival of new works for the theater. The production, featuring the plays in sets of two, revolves on the theme of “Searching”—whether it is for love, for lost family bonds, for noble ideals, for closure, or for missing loved ones.
Featured are: Bakit Wala Nang Nagtatagpo sa Philcoa Oberpas by Carlo Pacolor Garcia, the story of a man and a woman who decide to meet at the Philcoa Overpass after months of flirting online; Doc Resureccion: Gagamutin ang Bayan by Layeta Bucoy, where a well-meaning doctor runs for mayor only to find out that the community he so wanted to help desires a different path for itself; Maliw by Reuel Molina Aguila, about a mother's dilemma; and Isang Araw sa Karnabal by Nick Pichay, about two former activists, both with missing loved ones, meeting again after a long time and attempting to mend broken ties.
For its part, PETA continues to forge ahead with its own set of interesting productions that stay true to its vision of having a distinct Filipino theater. Another oldtimer (having started in 1967), PETA is riding high on the back-to-back success of last year's Shakespeare rap musical William and the box office hit comedy-drama Care Divas.
Now, it opens 2012 with the Shakespeare tragedy Haring Lear, slated in February, with translation into prose provided by no less than National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera. The epic classic is then transformed into a contemporary family drama by stage veteran Nonon Padilla, featuring an all-male cast led by Teroy Guzman as the aging monarch.
The lure of characters already popular in another medium is obviously factored in by theater groups in coming up with their repertoire. While Shakespeare's King Lear may still be considered highbrow by some, there are mainstream figures that Filipino audiences are bound to be familiar with—like Shrek, the green ogre in the animated movies, that is at the center of Atlantis' musical late this year; and Charlie Brown from the long-running cartoon series Peanuts, who is the lead character in 9 Works Theatrical's upcoming show.
Whether it's a Filipino-speaking King Lear, two teleserye stars in a trilingual Larawan, or a musical that strings its story with the use of ABBA hits, a bountiful harvest is certainly unfolding on Philippine stages. Now it is up to the viewer to enter the theater and partake of this lovely feast.