Monday, March 27, 2017

Real / "real"

Thoughts on Red Turnip Theater’s production of The Nether by Jennifer Haley. (Originally published on GIST)

1.

Say I have a perverted fantasy: dismember a child after intercourse. I rewind the scene each night in my head. Can you call me a criminal?

Say, elsewhere, another person has mutilation fantasies, and we discover a place where the imagined briefly comes to life. There we meet to satisfy, consentingly, our darkest desires. Are we committing a crime?

That imagination and reality share the same space in the mind is the most appealing theme in Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi drama, The Nether. Simply, The Nether is virtual realm. Somewhere in it, businessman Sims (Bernardo Bernardo) has built the Hideaway, a pedophile-slash-ax-murderer’s playground, which superior coding enables a life-like experience (think Black Mirror’s San Junipero).

Detective Morris (Jenny Jamora) is out to get Sims, believing that his Hideaway is dangerous and immoral. For her, when people spend entire days in that space, talking, transacting, being — then it is as good as real. When the corporeal no longer matters, then the imagination must yield to governance. Thought is as good as deed.

Bernardo Bernardo as Sims

Sims and Morris are on opposing sides of this beautiful existential discussion. Red Turnip’s delivery of Haley’s script, however, flows like a one-sided argument. The detective has been given the louder voice — literally, Jamora’s headstrong Morris is quite the nag. For all the horrors it’s supposed to present, what I fear is that the play inches towards the didactic. The audience isn’t given enough chance to savor the narrative’s moral ambiguity and empathize with a man who has created — at least in his judgment — a safe zone to practice the unsafe.

Meanwhile, so much weight is on the shoulders of Junyka Santarin (and alternate Alba Berenguer-Testa), who takes on the role of nine-year-old Iris. Her character demands innocence when everyone in the room knows that she is nothing but an old man’s avatar, controlled with malice. Santarin has to go beyond throwing lines, otherwise the show’s haunting moments fall flat.

Truth is the production appears to hold back from delivering the chills, and has somehow made it hard for viewers to care about the characters, despite strong performances from Bernardo and co-actors Bodjie Pascua and TJ Trinidad.

In a story that features blood-curdling sexual proclivities, the most transgressive idea is that love might actually exist underneath it all — and only in this virtual setting could that be possible: in the real world, a Sims and an Iris would never be together. I merely wish that these tensions between the real and the virtual, the corrupt and the tender have been more pronounced in the play.

2.

Red Turnip’s artistic team proves that limitation is the best friend of creativity. Floor area and budget constraints aside, set designer Ed Lacson and set stylist Marta Lovina manage to transform the very physical space, which is the black box theater into Haley’s electronic landscape. In the sound design department, Teresa Barrozo works her magic. Her background music is just how we like it: not heard but felt.

But it is John Batalla’s lighting that serves as the vehicle that brings the audience into the future. The intersecting lines drawn onto the stage, the colors that wash the actors’ face — these details delight the eye as much as they enhance narration.

Science fiction is barely explored in theater, and Red Turnip has chosen an exciting material from the genre to close its fourth season. If you leave the show feeling as if a dormant part of yourself has woken up, then The Nether has done its job.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I'm a friend of Matthew's

I just admire Matthew Koma. I will always wish him well. The first time I interviewed him (for his first show at Chaos Manila), I was surprised by his wisdom and candor. He says the most practical and at the same profound things. He's witty and chill. My kind of guy.

Last week, March 11 to be exact, he came back for another show, and I did everything I could (which wasn't much, since the people at Chaos were super cool) to score another one-on-one with him for GIST. Matthew was in a better mood. He remembered me!

Told him it was my birthday the day before and that his show was my birthday gift to myself. After the interview, I asked for an updated selfie and told him, 'I want us to look like we're friends,' to which he quickly replied, 'We ARE friends'.

But the best thing that happened that night was he gave me a hug — an actual hug, you know, with pressure.


A post shared by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

Again, he said something about craft that resonated with me. He recently wrote an article about finding your voice — really good read — and I asked him about it. Here are his additional thoughts (a complete, barely edited transcript) on finding his voice in his first solo album:
Finding your voice is something that you’re always doing. I don’t know that you ever find it. You’re always kind of trying to honor whatever truth is inside of you, be it a lyric or a genre direction. You’re always developing, you’re always searching, you’re always experiencing and you’re always channeling that into the most honest version of whatever it is. And I think that voice changes through time just like our actual voice changes through time.

For me personally with this record, I feel like it’s one of the first times that I got to really turn inwards, because I wasn’t collaborating with other artists for their vision, or it wasn't for another voice. It was for me to be able to say, okay well who am I and what does this body represent? What am I saying and why is it different than what I’ve said in the context of songs with Zedd or in the context of songs with Alesso? Why is this mine? So for me I got to speak about really personal experiences and really personal angles of stories and how I told them.

I don’t know that you ever find it. I think you’re always kind of continuously finding it, and as long as you’re honoring that truth, it’s okay to go left or go right. It’s a search, that’s what it is. And I think people subscribe as fans to that search and to that voice because they’re searching, too. So if you could represent that for them and you’re gonna always honor them with the truth, then I think it’s a really fun journey to be on together. [emphases mine]
(By the way, trivia, he yawned in the middle of our chat! 'Excuse me, that's what a 27-hour flight does'—and then casually carried on talking.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The incandescent Jef

(Had the pleasure of sitting down with theater actor, Jef Flores. We talked about his career as well his latest play, In the next room. The interview originally appeared on GIST.)

*

Don't call Jef Flores an award-winning actor

“You have permission to slap me in the face if I turned into a douchebag,” actor Jef Flores asks us to mark his words, so here it is on record.

He has every reason to fear it: since making his debut in professional theater five years ago — without any training, save for doing improv and being a musician back in the States where he grew up — Jef has been cast in some of the most successful productions by a diverse set of theater outfits, and in 2015 snagged a Philstage Gawad Buhay Award for best male lead performance in a play.

His latest gig: artist Leo Irving in Repertory Philippines’ In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play. The title may well be a marketing ploy, as Sarah Ruhl’s tale, though billed as a comedy, reads like a domestic drama. New York, post-Civil War, dawn of electricity. Here the vibrator is purportedly used as a medical tool to cure hysteria. The women discover its non-medical wonders. And so does one man. Leo.

“They needed an out-of-the-box guy. The artist character has to be colorful and have this ambiguous sexual energy,” Jef muses on why he was called to read for the role. “People find it difficult to pin down my sexuality, which is very clear-cut as far as I’m concerned.”

But why pin him down when it’s so much more fun to watch him be. This soft-spoken mama’s boy loves boxing, to begin with, and has dreams of becoming a power metal singer (lost his shit at a Dragonforce concert). He’s among the few who still evolve Poliwags in Pokémon Go (Level 33 as of this writing). Give him coffee and the slightest nudge and he’ll tell the craziest stories (once he played Snow White’s prince charming and, in a real-life plot twist, became the one who needed waking up backstage, thanks to insomnia).

Jef is also disarmingly honest. He’ll be the first to say that sometimes he gets the job because of his so-called face value. And sometimes he doesn’t because his Tagalog sucks. Here he is talking more about work — how he landed in Philippine theater, his orgasm problems in The Vibrator Play, and why he keeps his Gawad Buhay trophy inside the liquor cabinet.

Jef Flores as Leo Irving
GIST: You’re everywhere. Never running out of jobs. Where did it all start?

JEF FLORES: I was a musician and a performer in the States, but those things weren’t coming to fruition. So my cousin told me to check out the music scene in the Philippines. When I got here it turned out that there was music, there was art, and the theater scene was seeding something. Repertory Philippines took me in and started me off in Camp Rock. In my first month of just poking around, I was working with Rep, walking for Bench, and got a commercial. Then Resorts World started doing theater. I was one of the boys in toga in Priscilla (Queen of the Desert), but I had no mic, because I was one of the weakest singers. When people go, “Oh look how far you’ve come,” I’d say, “Yeah I have a mic now.” (Smiles) It’s nice to be heard.

Where did you learn how to act?

Everything that I know how to do has been taught to me by the directors who’ve been forced to deal with me. Bart Guingona is definitely a mentor of mine, as is Michael Williams — being with him in Resorts World, I learned so much. Most of the skills I have today also stem from being caught in between Baby Barredo and Bart in 4,000 Miles with Rep. I’ve never done a straight play before. Bart worked me and, as a co-actor, (Barredo’s) not taking any non-sense from me. It was like having the angry lola and the father figure. They were both raining brimstone on me.

You won a Gawad Buhay award for Red Turnip Theater’s This is Our Youth. What does that mean to you?

Whatever. Of course it’s an honor. But I keep the Gawad Buhay award in the back of my liquor cabinet, behind a Johnnie Walker because I don’t want to think about it too much. Once I had it I was afraid that I was setting myself up for a steep fall. Because the only reason I work so hard is that I’m just an actor. And I’ll always like to be just, simply a working person. Because once I become an award-winning actor, then my work’s going to suffer. It’s going to get into my head. It will. Because I’m that kind of person.

You have a big ego?

I’m at this war with myself where ego is important, but — how to control it? The people who are the best at what they do know that they’re the best. Floyd Mayweather has figured out boxing, but he’s a jerk. I’ve been trying to “claim it” but at the same time I’m on an active campaign to keep myself in check.

What’s the harshest criticism you received?

(11-second pause) Ricci Chan. But he has standards, and that’s what’s beautiful about him. I was helping him with the One Night Stand cabaret at 12 Monkeys. We were having a production meeting with Mahar Mangahas. They needed a line-up of six singers, and they needed a guy. Mahar said, “Why don’t you get Jef?” And Ricci went, “I need singers.”

Most annoying audience reaction?

When they laugh at the dramatic, beautiful stuff. (To an imaginary audience) I’m trying to be deep here!

Is it their fault or the actor’s?

(Before we could finish the question) No it’s their fault, they’re weird. People in general laugh when they’re nervous and uncomfortable, and sometimes we work really, really hard as actors to put them in a place, a thought that they don’t like to go to. It’s great when you work up to that moment and they go with you. But you can kind of see them stop at the door when they laugh at you.

What were your thoughts after reading Sarah Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play?

It’s sneaky. It can make you re-think how you want to spend your time. It kind of floats by, and the people who are paying attention will find themselves a little shell-shocked by it.

How did it make you “re-think how you want to spend your time”?

There are a lot of things in the play that talk about life versus technology. Being in it made me think about how addicted I am to the internet. I’m trying to make a career out of being an artist and supposedly you need to have social media working for you — and I don’t care about those things, and so I’m trying to care more about that; but at the same time I’m like, “No, you’re going to ruin your life that way, you’re already Facebooking too much.” Those things have been opened to me in The Vibrator Play. It’s about electricity versus human warmth. This has been driven into the ground: we’re more connected but also more disconnected than ever. And it’s true. I don’t know how to pick up girls — swipe right?

The Vibrator Play is saying, you know, people are real.

Ruhl is very specific about the sound that the characters make when they’re having an orgasm. She doesn’t want it clichéd. How do you guys know when you’re doing it right?

We’re leaving it to (the director) Chris Millado to guide us to that orgasm that fulfills the need of the scene. He’s arching each and every orgasm in such a way that we are telling Sarah’s story. It’s not enough to go up there and say, “Oh, I’m having an orgasm!” (We) need to go through this particular experience, it’s like a monologue.

I’ve been having issues with my orgasm, actually. Chris comes up to me, and he’s like, “Jeffrey we’ve got to work on that.” So we’re all finding it still. We open in (a week). I think it’s going to be a good orgasm.

Who is this play for?

Repressed people (laughs). The people in this play are having orgasms and they’re super apologetic about it. They’re working so hard to be proper. If you are the type of person who doesn’t want your partner in bed to be so polite, you watch this show.

As someone who didn’t plan on becoming an actor, do you see yourself in theater for the long haul?

Yes. At first it was like, step-by-step, day-by-day. And at some point I got really obsessed with it. I don’t see myself anywhere but here. I can’t be a commercial model. I can’t smile and eat crackers. Not after this.

Talk about that moment when you felt, “God, this is so good.”

It was Camp Rock. When we did our curtain call and 800 audience members stood up, cheering. They had the best freakin’ day. I had issues in high school because I was so worried about what I was going to become. That my parents would never be happy with me. I just wanted to be accepted, get a little praise. It’s nice to be in theater because when you do a good job, people clap. And they say, “Hey, we see you.” It’s nice to be seen.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

'Care Divas' is an audacious mess

1.

Every now and then, you will come across a musical that demands attention even as you feel like looking away — one that skims across the repulsive nature of (earning a) living and the twisted wonders of falling in love. Care Divas is such a musical.

The premise is there in the title (mind the font). This is a story of friends who are caregivers by day, drag queens by night. Prepare for unapologetic flamboyance and vulgarity. Expect that the intensity of laughter is commensurate with the pain.

2.

Wiping a geriatric’s ass — a stranger’s at that — to make ends meet and send care in the form of money to people whom you’d rather be with is insane. Imagine being in a room that reeks of urine and other smells that, while not completely alien, aren’t altogether pleasant. This is not to bring down the elderly, but the point is it takes either desperation or genuine altruism to be at their service.

Care Divas outlines this kind of life (at least in the beginning). Each caregiver is shown dealing with their wards, changing their clothes, bathing them, reminding them not to defecate on the floor. The gory images are left to the imagination, making it all the more potent.

It also highlights OFW woes. That constant fear of losing your job and being deported. Kyla (Gio Gahol) goes from employer to employer and, when he couldn’t anymore find the next master, gets caught as an illegal migrant worker. Gahol, who is both charming and laugh-out-loud funny as Kyla, delivers a heart-rending number while escaping authorities. He’s the clear star of Act One.

3.

Something interesting happens during the second act. The musical decides to be a love story. Chelsea (Melvin Lee) — the warmest, most level-headed among the care divas — meets a sketchy guy named Faraj (Jef Flores).

Before I continue, I would like to borrow writer Liza Magtoto’s notes as a personal disclaimer: “Hindi ako overseas worker, wala akong masyadong alam sa Israel, at hindi ako bading.” Care Divas is supposedly set against an intifada backdrop — something that would go right over my head had I not read the souvenir program. The atmosphere — for which we must factor in set design, music, language and the actors’ indecipherable accents — is still very Metro Manila, and very much safe. The alienation (for being foreigners and gay) isn’t as palpable as the libretto may have intended.

Back to Chelsea and Faraj. Their entanglement escalates from cute to serious in a matter of maybe two, three scenes. Faraj seals his love for Chelsea with a kiss. The audience’ reaction (which is as fun to listen to as anything being said or sung onstage) goes from shocked to kilig to scandalized. It tells us that on the one hand, we’re suckers for romance; and on the other, that we’re still uncomfortable with same-sex displays of affection. Whatever gauge of homosexuality tolerance I’m missing from the stage, I’m getting it from the audience section.

4.

If there’s anything that makes me uncomfortable — in a bad way, it’s the sudden disappearance of its major (read: round) characters. We don’t get to hear back from Kyla. And Chelsea… One of her (his? — I’d say her) friends quips that it’s pretty exciting if Faraj turns out to be a suicide bomber. Guess what, he’s not; but Chelsea, in running after Faraj who is running away from the police, becomes a casualty of suicide bombing (how convenient the timing of the explosion). If that’s an attempt at tragedy, the results are feeble. She’s earned our trust (hats off to Lee) and for that she deserves a heroic exit, something directly influenced by her actions.

The worst part is that her death also signals the end of the story. Whatever problems the care divas have — individually or as a group — are set aside. Instead we get a flash forward wherein the friends catch up on each other’s lives by way of voice over. They’re fine. And we just have to accept that.

5.

The cast comes out on stage in the most ridiculous (in a good way) costumes. You want drag? Here’s your fucking drag, they seem to say in the grand finale with the help of a mean bubble machine.

Bubbles. Quite the metaphor for Care Divas — the cheeriness, how they invite you to step outside your comfort zone, the dreaming and scheming. Above all, transience. It’s raining bubbles inside the PETA Theater. As if they’re telling me to relax, it’s just a musical. Don’t try to wrap your head around this. Life is short. Be good, have fun. Before it goes pop.

My poor attempt at capturing bubbles.

—Originally published on GIST

Saturday, March 4, 2017

See you in heaven, hell, or The Nether

The Nether, written by Jennifer Haley, is a kind of play that is a pleasure to read and begs to be reread. It compels you to turn the page on certain occasions, while on other put it down and pace around the room to ruminate.

“We want someone to run with us to the dark side.” That is, satisfy a fundamental desire to have someone truly understand and accept us — flaws and perversions notwithstanding. The play revolves around this truism while touching on themes like playing God, imagination and reality as a shared space in the mind, and online privacy ethics.

A detective is set to track felonious affairs (one of which involves men and children) that might be happening somewhere in The Nether, a place which can be described as both a paradise and the darkest corner of the Internet. It may not sound ground-breaking — sex crimes and cyberspace, what’s new? — but Haley’s plot and philosophizing, how far she dares explore these aberrations without compromising artistic integrity, make it an irresistible ride. Like any good story, it has characters that are at once unique and familiar; and like any good storytelling, it will have predictable twists that will shock you anyway.

To close its fourth season, Red Turnip Theater is staging The Nether, featuring Bernardo Bernardo, Bodjie Pascua, Alba Berenguer-Testa, Junyka Santarin, TJ Trinidad, and Jenny Jamora. Ana Abad Santos takes on directorial duties.

It’s the next level of thrill for me: to see the story on paper unravel onstage, more importantly how the virtual, futuristic landscape will be translated in theater. As Santos says, “[The Nether] bravely dives into the horrors of man, the unspeakable, and still makes sense of it. It’s about our present journey into the big unknown, that other world we call the Internet. And to present this advanced concept on a very basic traditional medium, which is the stage, is so exciting.”

My expectations may have just skyrocketed.

—Originally published on GIST