Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A long tram ride

Herta Müller. The appointment. New York: Picador, 2010.
Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm.
The appointment reminds me of my daily commute when I was still working at an office in Manila. It’s long, repetitive. I didn't quite like where I was going. The difference between me and the first-person narrator of the novel is that she’s observant of her surroundings, while I’m busy inside my mind. And when she goes inside hers, she dissects memories, while I weave fantasies.

She’s far more eloquent, too. Not to mention her problems are bigger than mine. But those go without saying.

*

I’ve had great experiences so far with Nobel Laureates. Well, that simply meant Jose Saramago and Mario Vargas Llosa. The next Nobel Prize-winning author I acquainted myself with was Herta Müller.

I’m reminded of Saramago, because of the language. Hers is as readily distinct. She doesn’t use quotations and question marks. Her sentences don’t flow smoothly like a water stream, though the narrative — set at a tram ride going to said appointment and moves between the present and flashbacks concerning around five characters — feels like it’s carried out in one swoop, and has the surprise of poetry:

She didn’t grow any younger, but she did stand still as time passed. Apathy makes you neglect your appearance, but she wasn’t like that. Her dishevelment was more on the inside: either she had found pride in her loneliness, or else she was so cut adrift that she was no longer herself. Neither happy nor sad—merely beyond all changes of facial expression. There was more life in a glass of water. When she dried herself she became like the towel, when she cleared the dishes she became like the table, and she became like the chair when she sat down. (p. 75-76)

*

My copy of the book comes with Müller’s Nobel lecture, wherein she has summed up what it means when we say words create worlds:
Where [words] catch the lived experience by surprise is where they reflect it best. In the end they become so compelling that the lived experience must cling to them in order not to fall apart.

It seems to me that the objects don’t know their material, the gestures don’t know their feelings, and the words don’t know the mouth that speaks them. But to be certain of our own existence, we need the objects, the gestures, and the words. (p. 228)

*

Some underlined bits:

Are you disappointed in me, he asked. Or have I changed.

No, were were both exactly the same as when we met. Love can’t go on just running in place, but that’s what our love had been doing for two and a half years. (p. 29)

secrets don’t go away when you tell them (p. 32)

I continued trying on clothes in the hope of becoming so beautiful I would begin to exist. (p. 39)

dancing isn’t work, it’s pleasure, if not an innate gift, a predisposition. (p. 106)

I felt ageless, for the most part I couldn’t tell if I was free or lonely. (p. 150)

That happiness doesn’t need time so much as luck. (p. 164)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The music in 'Agnes of God'

Becca Coates has the voice of an angel — fitting for the innocent, music-loving nun she plays; but it’s the veteran voices of Pinky Amador and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo that make Repertory Philippines’ Agnes of God sing and soar.

Psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Lauchgenco-Yulo) is appointed by the court to examine Agnes (Coates), a 21-year-old novice whose newborn — which she claims to have been fathered by God — is found dead in a wastebasket. At the convent, the doctor is greeted by Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Amador), and what follows is a long argument on science, religion, and the best way to protect Agnes from manslaughter charges.

For a straight play, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God has an amazing sense of rhythm. It moves from Dr. Livingston delivering a monologue, to a pair of characters in conversation (whether in quick-fire repartee, humorous banter, or calm give-and-take), to all three sharing a scene, then back to Dr. Livingston addressing the audience, restarting the cycle. Every sequence unlocks a mystery as it builds a fresh one.

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo delivers a monologue.

The exchanges between Dr. Livingston and Mother Miriam are a particular pleasure to listen to. Amador adopts an aged, rough-around-the-edges timbre — quite a counterpoint to Lauchengco-Yulo’s clinical, sometimes cynical tone. The two throw their dialogues with a toughness inherent in their characters. Both of them convinced of their logic; both of them convincing. They are not, however, a clear-cut yin and yang as you might expect in the beginning. They believe in the power of the mind, but disagree on how to wield it.

On the other hand, Coates still has to find her mark, especially in the quiet parts of the show. But how she shines during its grittier moments; that despite the predictable revelation of her child’s father, she manages to send shivers down the spine.

From the opening down to the last lines, there is a sustained, disconcerting intensity, thanks to the actors but more importantly to John Batalla’s eloquent lighting and Jethro Joaquin’s creeping soundscape. The drama makes great use of pauses, as well — even the audience’ silence, as they strain to hear the next word, adds to the tension in the theater.

Joey Mendoza’s set is another mute element in this production. On stage are but a coffee table, two chairs, and nine cascading panels. “You can’t anchor it in a specific location or time, and it’s easily accessible to flashbacks,” explains technical and assistant stage director Jamie Wilson. Above all else, it proves that discussions on faith, religious or otherwise, don’t pick a location or time — it is always relevant.

Rep’s Agnes of God, directed by Bart Guingona, runs until March 12, 2017 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Will it convert you? Not a chance. Will it shake your beliefs? That’s highly doubtful. What it will do is tease you; because Agnes of God is essentially a thriller. You’ll have a plot and trains of thought to follow. Constantly you’ll ask, Where is this going? What’s her comeback to that? Whose truth will be broken?

—Originally published on GIST

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Rex Navarrete on offensive jokes

Rex Navarrete
Glad to have met Rex Navarrete. I've always wanted to catch him live since hearing SBC Packers and watching Hella Pinoy online (that Sto Niño joke!). Here's the short Q&A I had with him when he was promoting his last show in Manila, Extra Judicial Kidding. This was published on GIST.

*

GIST: What makes a joke?

REX NAVARRETE: There’s got to be a story in there. Most of the time it helps that it’s based on reality. But what goes into a joke? It’s got to be funny. It can be deep and have so many levels to it, but it still has to be funny. You still need that laugh to let you off the hook, especially with political writers, people who write about touchy subjects. There always has to be an exit plan and it has to be funny to stick with you. And they have to have a purpose — why am I talking about this? Why is this important?

Is there such a thing as an offensive joke?

Yes. A lot.

Do you tell these kinds of jokes?

No — I mean, it depends on who you are. Some people can take (my critical jokes) to the extreme and say, ‘Wow, I was so offended that you talked about that, because that doesn’t bring us together.’ That’s not my job — I’m not supposed to bring us together. Sometimes I have to take a stand, pick a side.

In these times you need comedy. You really need satire. This is the only thing that’s getting me through every day with the new president back home in the States. Because every day is a ten-year step backwards. We worked so hard as a country and now we have this guy who wants to dismantle everything, and it’s and not just affecting our country but the world. It’s not a simple position he’s holding, he’s holding the most powerful position in the planet. As a satirist, I have to be part of that voice.

What is ‘Pinoy humor’?

It’s hard to pin it down because we’ve had the ability to have so many levels of how we laugh. Comedy and sense of humor are tied to who we are as a society. The Philippines is no slouch. We have a rich history of thinking for ourselves. And we’re not afraid to share our opinion with anybody. We’re the first republic in this part of the world and we fought hard for that. And we’re finding out that in the past decades, the voice of opinion has been squashed. But that makes the people sharper. People are really smart here. We enjoy simple street humor all the way to savvy political satire.

What’s the bravest joke you’ve told?

I guess anything that deals with the establishment that we’ve grown up with — our government, our church, our parents. I always try to see how far I can go talking about how we’re raised as Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. And what the power structures are. That’s one of the privileges of being a comedian — people will allow you that freedom to question. If you don’t agree with (the comic), give them silence; and if you do, laugh. A room full of laughter is a room full of agreement.

And so it’s instant democracy right there. I’m not forcing you to laugh and I’m not forcing you to be quiet. I’m just putting it out there. And however you respond is (who you are). That’s what I hope people bring when they come to my shows — their honest selves. Laughter is the true indicator of where you’re at.

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.