Thursday, February 16, 2017

An ideal female friendship

Wicked has a great score going for it. That along with quirky-fantastical set designs and costumes should be enough to make theatergoers buy a ticket. But the musical adaptation of the Gregory Maguire novel refuses to be another song-and-dance extravaganza. At its core are characters ready to be remembered.

While the title suggests an origin story of L. Frank Baum’s green-skinned witch (from his children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), the musical, whether deliberately or not, highlights the bond between Elphaba “The Wicked Witch of the West” and Galinda “The Good Witch of the South.” And it understands female friendships rather well — the insecurity, the jealousy, the preoccupation with appearance.

Galinda is just written to be adored — by her peers for her charm; by the audience for her antics. She’s a smart blonde (It’s not about aptitude, / It’s the way you’re viewed, / So it’s very shrewd to be / Very, very popular / Like me). But as immature as she may be, you cannot question her conscience. On the other hand, what’s admirable about Elphaba’s reinterpretation is that despite being an outcast, no thanks to her color, she doesn’t play victim. Neither is she self-deprecating nor resentful.

The two cross paths at Shiz University, and right away they express a mutual “unadulterated loathing.” Ladies are inclined to keep their feelings to themselves, and as a consequence resort to sly innuendoes and backstabbing when hurt or appalled — even now we somehow celebrate “throwing shade.” That’s why watching Glinda and Elphie tell exactly how they feel toward each other, to their faces, is refreshing.

But it’s during a wordless scene that their friendship begins. In the beautifully choreographed Dancing through life, we get our first glimpse of Glinda’s heart as she joins Elphie in her silly dance. A misstep would’ve made that sequence schmaltzy, but Carly Anderson (Galinda) and Jodie Steele (Elphaba) have made it tasteful and tender.

Musicals can rarely flesh out its characters, especially when it has a lot (plus an elaborate plot), like Wicked. It must be a feat of acting and stage direction, then, when the characters come out convincing.

Not even Emily Shaw’s brilliance, however, can salvage the poorly developed Nessarose, Elphie’s sister who would later be known as “The Wicked Witch of the East.” She turns from a sweet, level-headed girl in Act One into a vile, possessive nutcase in Act Two with no explanation in between, except for a time lapse. It’s not nice to spoon-feed the audience, but neither is it fair to require them to fill a colossal gap when the writer decides to be lazy.

The musical also assumes that the viewers know its source materials. Those who haven’t read either Maguire’s or Baum’s book, or seen the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, will find themselves confusified at some parts of the show. They might ask, why is there a huge metal dragon at the proscenium arch? Or why have thirteen hours in a clock? And, really, what’s the big deal about The Wizard?

All these weaknesses become forgivable — better yet forgotten — once the razzle-dazzle sets it.

Wicked has so much going for and in it — twists, wordplay, humor, drama, politics, love, death, the good, the bad. The best thing about it, though, has to be Elphie and Glinda sharing the stage. Much of mainstream female coming-of-age stories put a premium on “winning” against another girl. Here we have a pair of young ladies who have nothing in common end up with genuine concern for each other. Quite a triumph.

Fans and producers have their reasons for consuming and re-staging this 13-year-old musical (it’s currently on its second Manila run in just three years). We say as long as there’s a dearth of solid gal pal tales, there will always be room for Wicked.

—Originally published on GIST

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Wit conquers all


Miguel Faustmann’s set is inspired. The stage is transformed into a living room straight out of a magazine. Wicker chairs, stone walls, wooden floor and ceiling. Plants, lamps, picture frames. But it’s the slant of light, a convincing sunshine passing through the window, that lends it life. It fools you into thinking that what you’re about to witness is a family drama.

Far from it. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang is hilarious, with gags leaning towards the downright silly. Imagine having a housekeeper-slash-soothsayer, a guy who hates wearing clothes, and an aspiring actress eager to take on the role of a molecule thrown into the mix of characters inhabiting present-day Pennsylvania.

The play, which has won a Tony Award in 2013 and is winning new audiences with Repertory Philippines’ production directed by Bart Guingona, tells the story of three siblings in their fifties: Vanya (Michael Williams) — gay and contented; Sonia (Rosalyn Perez) — spinster, lives and in love with Vanya (she’s adopted!); and Masha (Cherie Gil) — glamorous globe-trotting movie star. Peace is disturbed when the unpredictable cleaning lady Cassandra (played by scene-stealing Naths Everett) predicts disaster, after which Masha comes home with a 20-something boyfriend named Spike (Joaquin Valdes) and thoughts of selling the house.

Rep’s dream cast delivers (there are a few stuttering here and there — forgivable on an opening night): Williams’ Vanya is wry but kind. Reserved yet brimming with ideas. Indeed the type of uncle you’d like to hang out with. The challenge for him is to show real frustration once he unleashes his bottled up emotions.

Valdes is no doubt comfortable in his and Spike’s skin. He’s pitch-perfect as an immature, self-absorbed, always topless, muscle-flexing, multi-tasking, one-dimensional wannabe actor. The millennials might cry, “Misrepresentation!” — that is, if they didn’t have a sense of humor.

Art imitates life in the case of Gil, who is every bit like Masha (even she confesses so). Being known as local cinema’s quintessential villainess has its pros and cons, though. We can’t quite shake off her kontrabida image, but then it adds to the pleasure when we see her in moments that are tender and despairing.

Among the leads, Perez is the most successful at injecting pathos into her character. Sonia is wonderfully described by Durang: “She is unsure of herself, melancholy but keeps on hoping for impossible things.” Perez becomes all that and more. You’ll find yourself rooting for the siblings, but perhaps more sympathetic to Sonia.

It’s tempting to call Durang’s fictional family dysfunctional; but they’re as normal as can be, if by normal we mean feels insecure, pines for the past, craves attention, learns late. Let’s dare say theirs is another love story, only the protagonists are in midlife — a coming of middle-age tale, which, to be honest, we better see more of. That’s where we’re headed anyway.

What makes these characters memorable are their antics and the clever, often bitter lines they hurl at each other (“If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about”). But for all its wisecracking and literary allusions, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike doesn’t pat itself on the back for being smart. Instead it (at least in Vanya’s tirade) bemoans the current confusion between information and knowledge, the loss of blissful innocence, without sounding like a nag afraid of change:

My point is the 50s were idiotic but I miss parts of them. When I was 13 I saw Goldfinger with Sean Connery as James Bond, and I didn’t get the meaning of the character name of “Pussy Galore.” Went right over my head.

Nowadays, three year olds get the joke. They can barely walk and they know what Pussy Galore means.

Yes there’s middle-age angst underneath the laughter. And heart. The play ends (spoiler) with Vanya, Sonia and Masha looking out the window, listening to The Beatles’ Here comes the sun — what a cliche. But Durang isn’t trying to be cool, just hopeful. Youth fades. When we get older, maybe we can still hang on to our wits and turn to the sunny side.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The secret to a good story

The elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was a gift I received in Christmas 2014. I couldn't be more thankful. Each page was gold and upon finishing I vowed to hunt for more Barbery in book stores. Turned out she had only written this other novel, Gourmet rhapsody—which I didn't buy at the time for some reason.

Christmastime 2016, I saw her name again on paperback. The life of elves. Sold.

*

Didn't expect that a fantastical, dream-like tale would come from the same person who wrote a sharp, funny narrative concerning the everyday.

Muriel Barbery. The Life of Elves.
New York: Europa Editions, 2016.
*

Thought of giving up on this book on several occasions, but brilliant bits keep popping up.

Her caste had betrothed her to the role of bored heiress, but fate had made a daydreamer of her, gifted with otherworldly power, to such good effect that in her presence you felt as if a window onto infinity had been opened, and you understood that it was by delving into yourself that you escaped imprisonment.

*

I find the narration difficult to follow. The poetry is too much. A musical line truly sings when supported by straightforward prose. But here, it's like a song full of counterpoints with minimal rest. I couldn't see the characters. The plot points are miles apart for a 258-page novel.

*
"You are good at telling stories." said Clara.
. . .
"Do you know the secret to a good story?"
"Wine?" she ventured.
"Lyricism and nonchalance with the truth. However, one must not trifle with the heart."
The chapters alternate between the worlds of Maria and Clara, two young girls (we're about to find out if they're humans or elves or what) that have a secret bond and are the keys to winning a supernatural battle.

The exchange above comes from the chapters with Clara. She is talking to Petrus, an amarone-loving servant who is gradually shedding light on her identity. If not for Petrus, I wouldn't have finished this book.

He is the only character who is alive. Draws intrigue, interest and sympathy. And it's true. He is a great storyteller and I wish he was the narrator of the entire novel.

*

The life of elves is part one of a two-part series.

In college, I used to bow down to Jeannette Winterson and Anne Michaels because of their poetic language. I still love Michaels as a poet, and I can still quote Winterson from memory (you are easy to love, difficult to love well), but now when I look for a novel, I look for an actual story to bite into.

I will still read the second installment of The life of elves. That's how much I've fallen in love with Barbery at first reading.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The dearth of middle-aged heroines

1.

In a 1994 interview with Charlie Rose, author and actor Emma Thompson shared that her ambition is to write as she gets older, and to write about being older. “Women reach their most powerful and often their most interesting in their fifties and sixties, and I don’t see any movies about women of that age,” explained the thespian. Incidentally, I chanced upon the interview during the time I was reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which chapters alternate between the main story and installments of radio serials featuring “a man in the prime of his life, his fifties.”

The number is intriguing. Terrifying, depending on your mood. There is this expression I learned from childhood and I wonder if it’s still being used today: “Lampas ka na sa kalendaryo.” It implies — as how I understood it back then — that you have reached your thirties without having done anything meaningful yet, such as raise a family. The clock ticks faster.

It seemed worlds away when you were little, until you hit 30 and, Bam! Still no clue what on earth you are doing living with your parents, not identifying as an adult. I’ve always thought that a person’s best years are in their twenties, that’s why hearing Thompson and Llosa talk of much older interesting men and women lifts my spirit a bit.

A bit. Because despite their words and the many who claim, “40 is the new 30, and so on and so forth,” there aren’t enough narratives to convince me (or am I not looking hard enough?). A novelist told me before that Young Adult Fiction is popular because all of us have been a teenager, and we prefer to dwell in younger times. Youth sells. But midlife and old-age are fascinating mysteries as well. What do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s do? What are their struggles, their fears and desires? What is their language?

2.

When Repertory Philippines offered a preview of its 2017 line-up of shows, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang stood out with a promise of everyday, relatable drama interwoven with clever gags. The story revolves around three siblings in the throes of midlife crisis. Vanya and Sonia manage mundane lives, while Masha is an enviable celebrity who has just got herself a boy toy named Spike.

Me and Miss Cherie
Rep’s production stars legendary kondtrabida, Cherie Gil as Masha. “I accepted the part for so many reasons,” says Gil, who describes Masha as “playful” — a departure from the the characters she’s been associated with, even pigeonholed into. “I want to do something different, comedy naman. Here I get to work opposite a young man and touch a young man’s body,” she cackles after racking her brain. “I was never cast in soaps with a leading man because the bitch never gets the man. At least in theater I can be more versatile and play wonderful roles such as this.”

There’s my cue to ask if she agrees that there’s a dearth of good roles for women her age. “I agree” is her quick response. “In fact next year I am co-producing a film with the same producers of Heneral Luna. It’s again a comedy — I want to break the ice and look at things in a light-hearted way — about a middle-aged woman and the journey that she goes through,” shares Gil, believing that a lot of millennials would like to know where they’re heading, “not to give them fear, but to know what they have to deal with in that stage.”

Like undeniable physical changes. “Whatever you do right now, do it to the hilt,” she advises. “Exercise, exercise, exercise. Because there will come a point when no matter how much your mind wills, the the body does not want to cooperate. When you get older, you have more ideas, more space in yourself to want to do things, to share, contribute. If you’re fit and have the stamina, you can still do anything.”

Blessed with an enormous amount of sense of humor, Gil adds menopause to the list of things ladies can look forward to in their fifties: “It is also something that I am embracing. I address it. I’m not in any relationship right now, so at least no man has to deal with that!”

Another reason Gil is eager to be in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is her connection to and appreciation of Masha. Both are actors undergoing midlife crisis to begin with. “It’s great to be able to play around that truth and laugh at it,” notes the star. The parallels between the two, however, go deeper. “We represent the strong woman, standing by herself, without the need of a man. Hey, we’re not gonna lie about this, a woman would love to have a man. And that’s why Masha goes to five failed marriages and a boyfriend. But if she finds herself alone, she will learn to accept that.” She continues with the slightest pause in speech, “I personally would love to have someone to be with, walk with, watch a movie with, have dinners with. But I’ve come to terms with that. I’ve allowed (not having someone) because I guess by destiny and maybe subconsciously this is how I really want to be in my life.”

What’s nice about conversing with a more mature woman is not the wisdom you gather but rather the recognition that you are more alike than different (she only got there first). Gherie Gil is as energetic and fun — funny, actually — as the next adolescent you’ll meet. She’s intimidated by new technology, yet admits to being paralyzed without her phone. She lights up recalling the joys of her generation, while stressing how wonderful it is to live now — even be a middle-aged woman now. “It’s a good time to recreate female roles that are more empowering and it’s a nice period to be born and be in midlife,” she says, “because women are beginning to step up to the plate.”

—Originally published on GIST

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why does it hurt?

Woke up feeling great. Energized. Made delicious brunch, caught an ep of How to get away with murder and my all-time fave, Desperate housewives on cable (would rewatch every rerun of this and Charmed whenever there's a chance). Watched tennis. Yes, Rafa! Played the piano. I read faster. I am better.

Last night I dressed, danced, conjured new moves thanks to Panic! At The Disco and a heartbreak.

Never mind how but I did find out. Did the math. They've been together three years.

Why does it hurt?

Because they weren't together when we met.

I failed.

I wasn't the one chosen.

I lost to someone whom I didn't think was competition.

"...the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts adds up to you got stamped REJECT by the one you love."

The other was better.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Or the night we bathed in laser lights

David Guetta takes a pause from his awe-inspiring, albeit mild seizure-inducing, concert to express his love for sports and music: “These are two of my favorite things because they bring people together,” says the French DJ, whose This one’s for you is the official UEFA Euro 2016 theme.

He’s not exactly right, though. Sports spark bitterness, if not among competitors, among loyal spectators from opposing sides; and music, especially pop music, is rife with rivalries, with fans ready to bite each other’s head off as they prove who’s better than whom, why this or that genre should cease to exist, and which era is superior of them all.

But we know what he means. And that kind of over-thinking and negativity displayed above disappears once you hit the dance floor and lose yourself among the crowd and to whatever song the DJ dishes out.

“I’m happy that we get to start the year together,” Guetta tells the ravers at the Araneta Coliseum last night. He’s quite chatty for a DJ, and you can hear him smiling. In one of his most engaging numbers, he asks that all the lights are turned off. “If you like it dark and sexy like me, make some noise!” he pleads in his unsexy English. But never mind his accent; he’s playing a rhythmic patten that makes the shy gyrate. This stretch of musical foreplay culminates in a drop that’s matched by a crazy spectacle of lights.

For someone who welcomed 2017 locked at home, afraid of firecrackers and stray bullets, Guetta’s Unity Tour in Manila is a belated New Year’s celebration. His remixes and light-works are the noise and luminance I dig.

It is also GIST’s first major event in the calendar. Coming from a long holiday break, and a longer break from covering concerts, I fear that I may have forgotten how to do this. Seeing the pile of huge cases labeled ‘LASER’ as we go inside, however, is enough to excite me. The walk along the dim pathway is a walk towards home.

We’re back to the grind.



It’s naive to think that having a good start means having a good run. But that’s what euphoria does — it gives you some positive energy to carry on, and an easy way to reach that state is through music. So long as artists like Guetta keep visiting, providing reprieve from the daily stress and the saddest state of affairs, then we should be fine.

As chart-toppers Bad, Titanium, and Without you blast in the big dome, I get out of the zone and realize, “This is David world’s-highest-paid-DJ Guetta spinning for us. How lucky are we!” Welcome indeed, 2017. And thank you, David Guetta for being this year’s superb opening act.

—Originally published on GIST

Monday, January 9, 2017

(National) Artist and muse

1.

Reunion—that which excites and agitates me.

Things have changed since we last saw each other that there are stuff I (a) feel uneasy and (b) can't wait to share.

Mich, Alts, Jen, Allan, Me

2.

It had probably been a decade since I went to this house, but as soon as I saw its facade, all the memories, its finer details, came back.

I thought he wouldn't remember me, but I learned he did when he called my name.

And when the pleasantries were over, we sat down at the table, had lunch, warmed up, eased our way to our usual conversations.

Is this the same cat from some ten years ago?

3.

I became Dr Cirilo Bautista's student during his mellowed-down phase. Mellow didn't mean kind, however. He was blunt and all the same had no patience for stupidity.

What I remember most about his classes are the poems on newsprint, and among those poets, Philip Larkin stayed with me until I grew up: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.'

And, of course, those jokes that were too corny they're funny.

At his age now, he could still crack them. We asked for a peep at his National Artist medal. He said, sure, for a fee.

Well.

4.

All his books are dedicated to Rose.

Once we met her, we never stopped talking about her. The girls love her. 'Find a partner-slash-archivist'—we say, referring to Rose's role in Cirilo's life.

But to me, she'll always be the muse.

I remember another Cirilo joke, no another bluntness. In one class he was recalling how he'd write love poetry for money. His clients: friends who wanted to woo the ladies. He said he'd ask for a photo of their beloved for reference, and added that it was so much easier if the girl was beautiful—'You'll just write what you see', but a quite burden if the girl was ugly.

(National) Artist and muse

5.

It's always a field trip when our group get together. And in the spirit of field trips, we had Doc Bau's new library at home to explore.

Inside the library

6.

Already you write like a master: with genius in language and genius of imagination. No poet in contemporary America or Britain has your magnitude.

Therefore, to salute you is my honor.

—Jose Garcia Villa to Cirilo Bautista

Villa and a very young Bautista

7.

In all honesty, when my classmates-turned-friends mentioned that there's a lunch invitation by Doc Bau, I was eager to join because I thought time was running out for him. 'The neighborhood knows me, and why wouldn't they, the ambulance always comes for me,' he said.

The same goes for me. After I publish this I might be hit by lightning or a speeding bus. So any chance of another meeting with those who have energized me so, I'm there.

(National) Artist and (maybe someone's) muse