Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Dance in a constellation of possibilities

Last year a widely admired celebrity passed away and someone equally famous and respected said something along the lines of, “In a parallel universe, he is alive and smiling.” It was the least consoling sentence I heard about death.

The multiverse theory, however, has its share of believers, if not “considerers.” Those with big imaginations (fictionists) lap it up. It is easy to divine its appeal: This life sucks. I regret doing that. If only I could turn… If there is another reality in which life isn’t so bad and I make the right decisions, then maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up.

But reality — this time-bound, linear one, save for the vivid dreams and occasional déja vu, where we burn our skin when we play with fire and it hurts like hell — has a way of imposing itself. For now, as ordinary human beings, this universe is all we can care about.
Constellations by Nick Payne. Kindle edition.

A recent and so far successful (based on its glowing reviews) piece of literature that explores the nature of a multiverse is Nick Payne’s drama, Constellations. The play, which follows the story of Roland and Marianne, had its world premiere in 2011 in London and it returned in 2015 on West End and on Broadway (where Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson made their theater debut). In February, the play is arriving to our shores courtesy of Red Turnip Theater.

It’s another boy-meets-girl tale, only we see the couple dance in a constellation of possibilities — realities? Payne’s storytelling is also its own thesis as it mimics how Roland and Marianne’s encounters may play out in parallel universes. Sporadically, Payne even explains the time lapses and loops through Marianne.

MARIANNE: Despite our best efforts, there are certain microscopic observations that just cannot be predicted absolutely. Now, potentially, one way of explaining this is to draw the conclusion that, at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.
* * *
MARIANNE: So you’ve these two theories that are completely at odds with one another. Relativity covers the sun, the moon, the stars, while quantum mechanics takes care of molecules, quarks, atoms — that sort of thing. We’ve effectively asked the same question twice and come up with two completely different answers.
ROLAND: This is really sexy by the way.

For all the intrigue it inspires and the few laughs it draws out, reading the play still feels like going through a chapter in a science textbook, where a short story is used to illustrate an idea. After the last page it’s back to: What now?

Whether or not functioning as a disclaimer, Payne uses a quote from Peter Atkins’ On Being as an epigraph to his book:

Why should the universe have a purpose? The question of the universe is an invention of human minds…We should not impose human-inspired attitudes and questions on material things. There is a considerable grandeur, I think, in the presence of our spectacularly majestic universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose.

That is really sexy. And I agree. Because purpose, meaning, and — no matter how cheesy it sounds — the betterment of the world are dealt in the laboratories of art and literature. It’s a shame that Constellations falls short in placing human emotions against the possibilities (alternate realities?) it presents.

This is not to forget that it is written to be performed. That’s why it’s interesting to watch the live performance, starring Cris Villonco as Marianne and JC Santos as Roland, and which will run from Feb. 12 to Mar. 6 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight in Makati.

Villonco, who is also one of the founders of Red Turnip Theater, told me before that the company chooses plays that “don’t necessarily have the happy endings” but instead “have the real ones.” The question is, can there be endings in a multiverse? On paper, the entire play is neither sad nor happy, only theoretical. We can’t wait to see how Villonco, Santos, and director Rem Zamora will put heart into the cold science that informs Constellations.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sherlocked yet again

Before Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. became THE Sherlock Holmes portrayers for TV and film, respectively, there was William Gillette, who took on the role of the consulting detective on film, stage, and radio in the early 1900s.

In Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot, Gillette becomes the main character of a crime story and gets to “play Sherlock” in two ways: first, as an actor who has recently starred as Sherlock Holmes in a Broadway production; and second, as a gunshot victim off to discover who the perpetrator is and their motive.

The show opens with the final scene of Gillette’s theatrical performance, where he is shot in the shoulder just as he’s about to take a bow. Later on he’s back to his Connecticut house, where he recovers, spending Christmas with his mother, co-actors, and a theater critic. As it can’t be avoided, instead of the usual holiday conversation, they talk about Gillette’s shooting and how it may be connected to recent mysterious deaths.


Repertory Philippines (Rep) welcomes the new year and its 79th season with The Game’s Afoot, with a desire to bring more people to the theater. “Everybody loves a mystery,” says Rep artistic director Joy Virata, who also plays Gillette’s mother, Martha in the show. Like the Arthur Conan Doyle page-turners, The Game’s Afoot is quick-paced, surprise-laden, with twists that are both unexpected and satisfying. Sherlock readers may expect in-depth, scientific discussions among the characters, but in place of these are snarky one-liners expertly delivered by a cast led by Virata, Paul Holme (William Gillette) and Pinky Amador (Daria Chase).

Holme is a grounded yet steadfast Gillette, while Virata is pitch-perfect as the frail, sensitive mother who will not hesitate to get her hands dirty for the sake of her child. And Amador, no stranger to villainous roles, is a nasty theater critic, whom you end up both loving and wishing to be dead.

The set design is deserving of recognition as well. When the lights turn on, revealing the Gillette mansion, there’s an almost inaudible gasp from members of the audience. As if the adults in the OnStage Theater seats have just witnessed something magical.

The Game’s Afoot ticks every box required to please theater-goers, whether newcomers or long-time aficionados. It is intelligent, plot-driven, and packed with verbal and physical humor. It reminds us as we laugh that everyone, including ourselves, is suspect. Let’s not forget that it also has the soul of a beloved fictional character.

That every generation has its own Sherlock star — and in our case more than two (add Johnny Miller and Ian McKellen) — speaks of the detective’s timeless appeal. “I suppose Sherlock Holmes still holds a special place for us today because he was the man of Conan Doyle who realized the importance of physical evidence,” mused Holme. “The CSI stuff that we see on television today is really a continuation of everything Conan Doyle (began) in his Sherlock Holmes mysteries — having a very precise and observant eye for physical details. I think that’s why he’s with us still.”

A great mystery is irresistible and more so is Sherlock’s allure. If Repertory Philippines aims to make theater a habit, then they may have taken the right step with The Game’s Afoot.

—Originally published on GIST

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Artisan voyeur

Inside each of us lies a voyeur, furtively glancing at a stranger, wondering what’s underneath, if not imagining stories of their life from the little details available to us. Someone stands out in a crowd — because of his expression, because of her hat, because he reminds us of an old friend, because she acts like a character from a book.

Not many of us manage to get closer and so we remain a curious observer; yet some, who are ingenious enough, cut the distance. Self-described “artisan voyeur” Luc Fournol rubbed elbows with the greatest people of his — and to some extent our — time: Louis Armstrong, Pablo Picasso, Yves Saint Laurent, Ernest Hemingway, Sophia Lauren. As a photographer he captured images of these artists outside of a studio and in their own workshops and homes. “It is the subject who interests me. The technique is secondary,” he said.

Fournol had taken black-and-white portraits of icons of the 20th century but died before he could gather them for an exhibit. Now his friend Cyril Clement, to whom he entrusted these photographs with, allows the public a viewing of his works.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on


“Faces of the Century,” an exhibit featuring Fournol’s portraits, is this generation’s rare chance to look at Truman Capote in the eye as if he is there breathing in front of you. Or smirk at Salvador Dali, say, “What the hell is that?” as he dangles a funny thing — with eyes — in your face. Looking at Fournol’s photos is also an occasion to know artists you haven’t heard of before. Through Fournol’s lens, these celebrated men and women become less of a stranger.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dwarfed by the Islands of Giants

We laid the pebbles and seashells on the bamboo table for a final inspection. My friend had what seemed like a semi-precious stone — a jade — though, too translucent, it might only be a shard of glass. “That’s a shard of glass,” said island caretaker Maruja. “But it’s not jagged, it’s smooth,” I protested, as if I knew what I was talking about. Maruja, without calling me out for my ignorance, explained that it was a sea glass, “It’s a piece of broken glass polished by the waves.”

It wasn’t the first order of business to comb the shoreline for mementos to take back to Manila, but the island’s calm, iridescent waters beckoned us to look under and claim whatever we could carry with our two hands. A day’s worth of island-hopping had us looking under, above and beyond until we found things we could no longer tuck in our backpacks — larger rocks, limestone formations, a long stretch of sandbar, a green lagoon. Until we were struck by a splendour we couldn’t wrap our heads around.

Islas de Gigantes, a chain of islands in Northern Iloilo, Western Visayas, may not be the first destination that comes to mind when someone cries, “Beach, please!” But the photos should be enough to send you packing. I myself was compelled to book a flight after seeing a snapshot of Cabugao Gamay Island, or Maruja Flora’s Island Paradise Resort.

From Manila, a quick route to it is by way of Roxas airport in Capiz Province, then an hour or so boat ride from Bancal Port in Carles, Iloilo. Once there, you’ll concede that photographs, no matter how breath-taking they are, never do nature justice. And by the manner this piece is going, neither do words.

Cabugao Gamay on one end has a lush hill and on the other end a twin beach with a tall rock formation and sandbar at the tip (where we searched for souvenirs). Somehow it’s a shame to call it paradise, for the many places that attach themselves to the word don’t even begin to compare. Beautiful as it is, the island and resort are still recovering from the Typhoon Yolanda beating, but as Maruja pointed in the beginning, that’s what nature does, if not destroy what men have built, transform them, and during the course reshape its own land and seascapes. “Every day, the sea looks different,” the lady said.

Other islands in Gigantes (to give it a nickname) are not as popular, though are every bit as idyllic as Cabugao Gamay. Going to four or five of them will only take a couple of hours. I suggest you don’t. One island is enough to blow the mind. But do stop by Pulopandan or Gakit-Gakit, a tiny island that used to be inhabited by three coconut trees until the typhoon uprooted the other two. Keep the lone tree company.

Gigantes is also known for caves and story has it that when the Spanish settled in, enormous corpses were discovered within its caves that people believed giants walked on its grounds. Thus the name Islas de Gigantes. We saw the mouth of a cave (not giant, no) in the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon but dared not look further. In retrospect, there was no reason to be scared. When Typhoon Ruby battered the Visayas in 2014, residents were reported to have taken refuge in the Gigantes caves. Meanwhile, adventurers go to caves like Pawikan to hunt for treasures. There’s even an enticing myth that all of Gigantes’ caves connect to the provinces of Capiz and Masbate and the municipality of Pilar.

On the boat ride from Tangke back to Cabugao Gamay, I observed the islands — amazed at how close they were to each other — and wondered how they must look like joined underneath the ocean. Where do they stand? And still deeper, what’s there? When I shared these thoughts to my companion, there was a glint in her eyes and she exclaimed, “I was thinking the same!”

Then more questions came. Like how a single tree can survive on an island, how sandbars shift, how caves can be both graveyard and sanctuary, how water turns sharp glasses into the smoothest of stones.

There must be answers somewhere — in textbooks, on the Internet, but they were out of reach. And there was something about the sea and sky, that blue embrace that make you revel in mystery, resign to your smallness and flirt with the idea that maybe some giant, too big to be seen, is holding this entire world together.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Monday, January 11, 2016

Death on Twitter

Elsewhere, a mourning contest.

Death as an aside.

Thin line between eulogy and clickbait.

Thoughts on the abominable bride

If you think about it, retellings and adaptations are fanfics written by professional writers. And no two Sherlock fanboys are better at tickling the fandom’s imagination than BBC One’s Sherlock co-creators and writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

You can tell that Gatiss and Moffat are the ones giving themselves a holiday treat in the series’ special, The Abominable Bride, aired on New Year’s day — after two years of no Sherlock. The tandem previously expressed their desire to see Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) in the milieu that Arthur Conan Doyle had placed them in.

They’d been itching to do it. We’ve seen how they managed to make their modern-day iPhone-carrying Sherlock wear a deerstalker hat before. Now, in The Abominable Bride, they’ve gone full-on Victorian, with Sherlock carrying a pocket watch, smoking pipe, and uttering the classic lines “The game is afoot” and “Elementary, My dear Watson.”

Not only did the show runners got to inject references from the Conan Doyle canon, the series’ past episodes, and even the movies (“Elementary, my dear Watson” was popularized by a film adaption), they also got to weave Victorian Gothic horror in the story, just how we prefer our Christmas tales.

If it sounds like the one-off episode is an exercise in self-indulgence, don’t worry, it isn’t. But indulge away. The compelling storytelling, sharp dialogues, unexpected warmth, quirky humor, solid cast chemistry and, before we forget, crime-solving — things that made us fall in love with show in the first place — are all there. And then some.

The Abominable Bride hits the sweet spot when the sleuth and his Boswell got at the heart of the crime. We never thought it would be about women claiming their rightful place in society. Gatiss and Moffat — if great stories must be representations not of what something is but what it ought to be — gave women in the Victorian era their voice. When Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs, bless her), said to Watson, “I’m your landlady, not a plot device” in the beginning, it was more than just a clever remark on why she hates Watson’s columns. Meanwhile, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealy), who disguised herself as a man to keep her job in the mortuary reminds me of George Elliot, who had to adopt a male pen name to be taken seriously in the field of arts and letters. In this crucial aspect of the story, Mycroft proved to be the wiser brother, recognizing that these women must win the war “because they are right.”

From hereon, however, the show shifts to a wild gear. We found out that everything that happened so far, happened in Sherlock’s mind. Not exactly in his dream, but in his mind palace. Did it feel like a cop out? No, but it sure was crossing a foot on the side of over-indulgence. Especially when a corpse did move of its own accord, when Moriarty (Andrew Scott) kept showing up, and when Sherlock was suddenly transported to the Reichenbach Falls (though it was a pleasant visual nod to The Final Problem) and fell — or flew. Sherlock was re-examining an old case (Hurray for a chance to have a Victorian-themed episode!) to unlock the current case involving his arch-enemy, Moriarty; thus the trip way down the mind palace. It got a little bit Inception-y.

Like the drugs Sherlock took to stay in his mind palace, The Abominable Bride will get you high. Not the standalone (though clearly a standout) episode we expected, it drives the narrative forward, leaving the audience with bits of answers, a few more questions, and some clues here and there.

Sherlock returns in 2017. The waiting game is on.

—Originally published on GIST