21 December 2017

Christmas reading

The birthday of the Infanta by Oscar Wilde, from A house of pomegranates

This might be my earliest memory of being sucked into a story, especially an image—the Dwarf's first gaze at the mirror, discovering that the Princess' love for him is only a mockery of his ugliness.
"But why will he not dance again?"

"Because his heart is broken."

"For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts."

01 December 2017

Dolphin love and limits — A companion sketch

From where I sit there's a garden. My eyes on greens and skyward. "Thank you for waiting," says the woman laying down my lunch.

"No, no. I enjoyed the wait."


Inside I'm dancing. If it's any good, a dance song will make you move, and move you while you're sat on a chair, waiting.


Except for flights, classes, meetings and meet-ups, I always arrive late.


Taking my meals this way is the only luxury I can afford. I see to it that I arrive early. To think, to read, to gaze out the window if I were lucky to have that seat. Sometimes I write. Sometimes nothing. If I were truly lucky, I was waiting for you.

Dinner isn't food on plate, it's the only real thing that's also an escape.


(Inspired by Connan Mockasin's Forever dolphin love and the sleeve art Connan made himself for the Erol Alkan rework of the song. Samurai gourmet has also greatly influenced the opening fragment.)

30 November 2017

Dolphin love and limits

I never understood remixes. My literary background had me believing in ultimate, untouchable forms. Any rework or editing is a step toward that final draft. Not to say that I don't enjoy a good remix when I hear one. But now that I think about it, I am fascinated by this open and pliant nature of the song—something counter to literature, in particular the tyrannical art of poetry.


Erol Alkan is making me think about it. Sometime in 2012, six years since its release, I don't feel like dancin' found its way to my player, looped for weeks. Five more years passed till I discovered Alkan's Carnival of light rework. What I heard was something subdued but exciting. How he stretched a pleasant moment, toyed with it, built on it. And when I thought it would simply go on for ever—which I didn't mind—he brought the best bit of lyrics out, leaving me with nostalgic aftertaste.

This month he shared a playlist containing songs in his "Reworks Volume 1" compilation. While The bay (Metronomy), Golden Skans (Klaxons), Congratulations (MGMT), and Why won't you make up your mind (Tame Impala) were instant favorites, Gee up (Kindness) captured my heart completely.

It was my first time to hear it. Naturally I looked up the original, which turned out to be a two-minute ditty. Alkan didn't make it longer, he made it habitable—for me a deliberate and, more importantly, considerate act. I was smiling for seven minutes straight.

The two-and-a-half hour playlist contains many unfamiliar songs (to me). As is my habit, I slept with music I was getting acquainted with. In the middle of the night, a turbulent bass-line, deep and seductive woke me up.


Forever dolphin love makes me think of houses. Outside it's a box. Inside it's a universe. Outside it's plain, inside it's forking. There are rooms and bodies; there are dreams, lives lived and memories.

That's how rich it sounds, and how deceptively linear it seems. Until today the track plays. Sometimes I listen to it the way I re-read a book: simultaneously taking pleasure in what's in front of me and what's to come. Sometimes I keep it in the background, and when I get back to it, I know exactly where the song is, or where I am in the song. In the bar where notes slide off a manic percussion.


Ann Lauterbach has said it before and she couldn't say it any better: "Form, after all, is chosen limits. Limit, as a formal characteristic, is the expression of choice in the service of the possible. The possible is the indeterminate futurity of meaning. Form posits the optimum conditions for meaning to occur." (The night sky: Writings on the poetics of experience. 2005.)

My suspicion is that artists daunted by the freedom they so crave, fearful of the blank space, forget that their job is to create limits.


The best works of art teach you how to regard them. My early dives into electronic music had me baffled over minute-long intros on ten-minute tracks—that or verses that rush to the chorus, or drop or whatever trick's in store for the listener.

I realized that the radio has its own set of limitations as well. Thus the extended versions and radio-edits, terms that once did not make sense to my poetry-worshipping brain.

Listening to Alkan's rework of Connan Mockasin's Forever dolphin love, I learn to appreciate the beauty of a remix done right. When the artist is at liberty to choose his own limits, and chooses well. Then it's not just about giving the song a different flavor or making it danceable; but rather creating out of it another song that stands on its own.

Then you don't notice that ten minutes have gone by because you're offered a full home. If anything, you'll be surprised that you actually want more.


(Read a companion sketch here.)

28 November 2017


Repertory Philippines stages Hair, directed by Chris Millado. The show runs until December 17 at Onstage, Makati.

That was a long first act. When Berger (Michael Schulze) introduced himself—his version of a handshake: asking a kind lady to hold the trousers he just took off—I thought we were off to a good start. Schulze's frenetic ways were captivating, and his openness, infectious. There's a hippie, I said to myself.

Excitement, however, dissolved into dizzying confusion. Tribe leader, Claude (Markki Stroem) entered with faux—not to mention annoying but maybe that was the point—Manchester accent, and Sheila (Caisa Borromeo) convinced everyone that she believes in love. Tried to. More tribe members walked onto and away from center-stage, dropping a thought or two about life, sex, war, race, pills, grass, hair... They rambled on and on until the curtains closed for intermission.


Repertory Philippines culminates its 50th anniversary celebrations with 1960's musical, Hair, directed by Chris Millado. For someone who hasn't seen any of the show's previous incarnations, Hair appears to be emblematic of its milieu and its corresponding idealisms. A re-staging in the here-and-now is tricky: how do you make viewers care about what characters care about in a story deeply entrenched in its social setting?

During its run in the '60s, Hair (understandably) aroused controversy because of its nude scene and high dose of profanity. I could imagine the musical shaking—by way of shocking—people up out of their inhibitions. We are in no age of utopia, and some may argue that we're far worse than we'd like to admit; but boys today can grow their hair long and sex is discussed openly, if frequently. Unconventional is the new normal. What will Hair mean to a shock-proof audience with short attention span?


The book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado suffers from incoherence, and it's further aggravated by the production's weak tone. I wasn't sure what it wanted from me as an audience. From where I sat, it was all freewheeling fun. The joyful, peaceful hippie spirit was there—but it failed to rub off. Even the famous nude scene was rather underwhelming. It arrived with no sense of a journey nor clarity of intention.

Act II was more enjoyable. We got to go inside Claude's drug-addled war-dreaming mind as the tribe went under the influence of hallucinogens. Presented to us were visually attractive, often compelling scenes anchored in the Vietnam War. Ironic how, for a brief moment, the musical gained some sort of narrative structure just when the characters' brains were completely messed up.


Hair's language can be alienating, but its music speaks across generations. Galt MacDermot's score showcases a spectrum of rock, flirts with R&B, and hypnotizes with incantatory hymns. Still, the chance to connect musically was squandered. Whether it was the sound system or opening night jitters, or both, I couldn't tell. The actors' voices lacked the abandon and the urgency of the rebellious young, and were somehow too polished to be irreverent.

By the time they found their footing, the show was drawing to an end. Maronne Cruz powered through the last few numbers, energizing the entire chorus. Then the cast made an up-tempo song with lyrics, "Let the sunshine in" heavy and drab and oh-so satisfying. And till the final heart-breaking scene (that suggested death—of Claude and perhaps their aspirations), Schulze remained a bright spot. He started on a high note and left on a hair-raising one—as if on fire, part-dancing, part-burning.


Many of Hair's concerns resonate with the present, in a way that many problems are universal. When they cried, "What do we want? Peace!" I silently replied, Yes, I want that, too. But then what? Agreement doesn't equate to emotional and intellectual involvement—the reason we bother with theater anyway.

The bigger irony is that the show invited us to "be-in" without allowing us to penetrate the world of the tribe. At the very least I hoped for a deeper insight into the hippie culture, but instead was assaulted with stereotypes. Throughout the musical, I felt like a bystander at the cool kids' party, alone and befuddled by all the commotion, pooped, deprived of a joint.

02 November 2017

To hunt for Paula's poems

My previous job at an online publication allowed me to interview, and that generally means discover fictionists from the US. One of them was Paula McLain. From the get-go (you know, her aura) I knew that I'd like her. The woman invited respect in me. At some point in our conversation I made a mental note to check out her books. It's her education. It showed. And I must've had this affinity with her because she started out as a poet.

I hadn't read YA in while, so I bought A ticket to ride, thinking here's a perfect chance to revisit the genre; plus, it's her debut novel. The story took forever to take off — and frankly it wasn't hinging on a good plot but rather on atmosphere and a sort of teenage mystique — but I hung on and enjoyed the ride anyway because of said mood and mystery. I finished it without that rewarding feeling, though I wasn't exactly disappointed as well. If anything it served as a charming sampler.

The adolescent narrator is also a protagonist. I can't quite place her in time, how far removed she is from the events she is unraveling. She sounds as if the story just happened in the last couple of years, though her voice is already too wise and detached. That said, Paula's strength is in her narration. She can draw you in with her language and commitment to build up tension despite little action from her characters.

But what I really want to talk about (what got me into opening this computer) is The Paris wife, Paula's blockbuster hit, which I enjoyed very much. You can tell the amount of work she's put into it. The thoughtfulness. Her rhythm is more engaging, each chapter brings a reward, either in terms of insight or plot movement, or both.

Paula McLain. The Paris wife. New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

It stars Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first of four wives.

What made me smile in this book is Hadley's realization that she's not in Ernest's now-classic The sun also rises, despite it being an account of their Pamplona adventures; and that the woman she is jealous of is nothing but a muse — Duff and Ernest are not having an affair, the writer is only using her for his art.

That tickled me a bit because it reminded me of this artist I used to go out with in college. Somehow I made my way into one of his comic strips, one of our exchanges was slightly edited to terminate in a gooey punchline. A common friend alerted me to it and, while I giggled, I didn't take it seriously. I understood early on that we can use real people in our fantasies without us wanting that very fantasy to be real. The panel featuring moi was not an indirect love letter, it was a clever piece of juvenilia.

The Paris wife also heightens my desire to read Paula's poetry. So far I admire her control. She is tender even as she lets the dark in. Her surprise turns of phrase are hints that she must be a great poet ("Now that I knew what I could bear, I would have to bear losing him"). So are her dabs of imagery.

This passage is taken from a chapter on Hadley, Ernest, their child, and Pauline's trip to the beach. The adult triangle is trying to establish a set-up where the three of them can live as husband-and-wife-and-lover. Hadley just went into the water:
I ducked my head and then surfaced, and swam out several hundred yards, where things were still. I treaded water and let the swells buoy me. At the top of one, I could look back at the beach and see them small and perfect, my husband and child and the woman who was now more to us than we could manage. From that distance, they all looked equal and serene and I couldn't hear them or feel them. At the bottom, in the trough of the wave, I could see only the sky, that high white place that seemed not to change much for all of our suffering.

As a kind of  experiment, I stopped swimming and let my arms and legs fall, my whole weight fall as deep as it would. I kept my eyes open as I sank down and looked up at the surface. My lungs began to sting, first, and then burn, as if I'd swallowed some small piece of volcano.

I knew if I stayed there and let the water come into me, come through every door of me, some things would be easier. I wouldn't have to watch my life disappear, bead by bead, away from me and toward Pauline.

The little volcano in me burned, and then something popped, and I knew that even if I didn't want to live this way anymore, I also didn't want to die. I closed my eyes and kicked hard for the surface. (p 285)

22 October 2017

Lullaby singer

Anna Nalick is one of those women whose talents inspire both admiration and jealousy in me. That she's insanely beautiful makes matters worse: do I hate or want to be her?

I've been rediscovering artists I first met in my youth through social media. Recently, I stumbled upon Nalick's Instagram, learning that the 2 AM crooner was about to release a new record. Here and there she'd post clips of her singing what would make up "At now". Then I'd remember how I used to love girls with guitars.

But Nalick has a distinct kind of magnetism, marked by something sexy and poetic and messy at the same time. Her voice is pained but never vulnerable, powerful when quiet yet cracks open an entire world when climbing high notes. She is one of the few lyricists whose words make me pay attention.

When Aura hit Soundcloud earlier, I got excited right away. I just knew that the album would be good. I trusted in the artist, and that time and age would do the trick.

(Photo taken from Anna Nalick's official Facebook page.)

Maybe listening to it at midnight, before sleep has enhanced my experience. She may as well call the LP Lullaby singer (the title of the second track). The songs, though haunting, have a soothing quality about them, like a friend — or your own self — telling you what you needed to hear after a dark day. Lullaby for adults.

My favorite track — and I will not forget the goose bumps I had on my legs during the a cappella humming at the end — is All through the night. It is as much a practice in myth-making as it is in song-writing. With the help of a piano and a metaphor, Nalick unravels her heart in slow waltz.

15 October 2017

Gestes magnifiques

Alain Passard talks obsessively about gestures in Chef's table – France. It's the first time I've heard someone bring that up as a crucial element — if an element at all — in any discipline.

When I was a child, I would mimic adults in unglamorous professions: the cashier swiping a product under a scanner, then hitting a few keys from the till before punching the big one that opens a drawer of cash; or the bus conductor thumbing through a bundle of tickets (the working thumb covered in rubber), after-which reaching for his pouch for loose change.

I didn't know exactly what they were doing back then — how the tickets were counted or what the other buttons on the cash register were for; but seeing them so confident in their actions drew me in. It was their expert gestures that compelled me to imitate them.

"Slicing a shallot can be done 25 different ways. However there is that one gesture to which we can add that elegance, that love," says Passard. Apparently, he doesn't take gestures as mere embellishments in a performance; to him, it's an integral part of the art: "Either we like the gesture, either we like the hand, or we don't. Me, I love it. It might be the sense I like the most. Maybe even more than the sense of taste."

Something might've been lost in translation. The good Frenchman still sounds mystical to me, though I'd like to believe that I understand what he means. "And this hand, if we want it to be more beautiful, more elegant, we must work seven hours, eight hours, ten hours in the kitchen every day. This makes the hand more precise, more accurate and more elegant," he continues. "That's the trick."

Okay, chef.


Muriel Barbery. The gourmet. London: Gallic Books, 2009.

Last August I read The gourmet by Muriel Barbery. It's about Pierre Athens, France's most feared and revered food critic. He's on the brink of death, counting down the days with a painful struggle to recall that singular food that has brought him "raw, unequivocal pleasure".
'A dish? A dessert?' asked Anna, with a sob in her voice.

I cannot bear to see her like this. I love my wife, as I have always loved the beautiful objects in my life. That is the way it is. I have lived as a man of property, and I shall die as one, with neither qualms nor sentimental indulgence; nor do I regret having accumulated property or having conquered souls and beings as if I were acquiring an expensive painting. A work of art has a soul. It cannot be reduced to a simple mineral existence, to the lifeless elements of which it consists. Perhaps because I know this I have never felt the least bit ashamed of considering Anna the most beautiful work of all — this woman who for forty years has used her finely chiselled beauty and her dignified tenderness to enliven the chambers of my realm. (pp 16 – 17)
After reading The life of elves, I missed Barbery's comedy in The elegance of the hedgehog. Great news for me, the humor is present in The gourmet, and her flair for poetry (overdone in Elves) suits the passionately hyperbolic Pierre. And, consistent with the other two books, her characters' musings are a joy to follow.

No other contemporary novelist excites me more than Ms Barbery, who is also a philosophy teacher (it definitely shows in her works). There's the second installment of La vie des elfes to look forward to, and by the time it comes out, I'll hopefully be bold enough to buy a copy in the original French.

I'm hungry. No, hungrier — for new food, for knowledge, for travel. That's thanks to The gourmet and Chef's table. Soon I'll fly to Paris and get my hands on a bag of chouquettes.

05 October 2017

Suffered plenty

Ernest Hemingway. The old man and the sea. New York: Scribner, 2003.

This slim book is a huge test of endurance for me. At a hundred and twenty seven pages, and what seems to be font size 13, double space, Ernest Hemingway's The old man and the sea has the promise of a breezy, melancholy Sunday afternoon read.

It's so boring. If anything I can relate to the old man in the middle of an endless sea, waiting and fighting for his life and pride. I'm the type who'd deliberately abandon a novel if it doesn't excite. But I choose to stick it out with Hem, thinking I can't be beaten by a novella, and at least I'd know for sure if I hated it or not.

At that point when I feel like completely giving up — page 80 or so — it picks up. I want to know, Okay, will old man Santiago catch his fish or will he die? What will he learn about life? What will I realize for myself? Because it's that kind of book that screams, There's a moral in here somewhere, find it. (Would love to hear the vegans' opinion on the story.)

What I like about it are the glimpses inside a mind going through a tedious task — the different voices in your head that argue when faced with the smallest decision; how we frame situations to ease our heart or uplift our spirit. What I don't like about it is the tedious writing.

Let's end with some nice bits:
Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his detemination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity. (p 75)

A man can be destroyed but not defeated. (p 103)

It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.

"Nothing," he said aloud. "I went out too far." (p 120)

How much did you suffer?

"Plenty," the old man said. (p 166)

28 September 2017

To give way to new books and do good to mankind

I've long given up any pretenses of reading all the books I wanted to read in my lifetime, so I'm not sure why I hold on to books I have fallen out of love with, or have the slightest interest in.

Actually I know why: laziness, selfishness, and my choice of decoration. If I had a huge home, I'd keep every decaying tome, every awful novel until I die. Staring at shelves crammed with things I no longer recognize, however, pushed me to finally clean up.

What I thought would only take an hour took an entire afternoon. Reorganizing and decluttering my humble library gave me a massive headache. But here's the fruit of the labor. I'm giving away these books for free.

When the messages start pouring in (and there are a lot), my heart floats. People are excited. And hearing them talk about how much they love a specific book or author — seeing their value through another's eyes — kind of makes me not want to let go of them anymore. That's how selfish I can be!

Some are surprised that I'm getting rid of them (though I thought this is a common practice). Aside from the reasons stated above, I'd tell them, jokingly, "This is my small contribution to the betterment of mankind."

As I create a list of which title goes to whom, the joke becomes truth. I've made someone look forward to something. Proved to myself I'm not poor. I think I'll do this again.

21 September 2017

An erring lace

One night in 2015 maybe, I was walking with a friend towards a club. I couldn't remember how the conversation went there, but I declared, "I look my best now."

As I write this I think, No. I look my best now;

And think of perfection. My every day has been a deliberate (though not always successful) step towards that. In 2014 I got my own space. When friends would invite themselves in, I'd quip, I want it to be Instagrammable first, give me time. I want my home to reflect who I am, therefore I want it to be perfect.

Although I know there's no such thing and if I ever reached it, What else?

Then I came across this Robert Herrick poem published in Love poems, a collection of poetry read on BBC Radio 4's Poetry please:
Delight in disorder
Robert Herrick

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness.
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility;
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Earlier this month we lost John Ashbery.

John Ashbery. Where shall I wander. New York: Ecco Paperback, 2006.

My favorite poem of his is also one of my favorite poems of all time: Some trees. But going through my copy of Where shall I wander, I find a fitting excerpt about death. Us in another's eyes. That it is not our memory but their memory of us that counts. From Novelty love trot:
In the end it matters little what things we enjoy.
We list them, and barely have we begun
when the listener's attention has turned to something else.
"Did you see that? The way that guy cut him off?"
Darlings, we'll all be known for some detail,
some nick in the chiseled brow, but it won't weigh much
in the scale's careening pan. What others think
of us is the only thing that matters,
to us and to them...
This also reminds me of my other favorite poem of all time, which is about dressing well. It doesn't touch on perfection, but instead on making a lasting impression.

19 September 2017

Techno bliss

Earworms this month are courtesy of a young duo and the widely acknowledged godfathers of electronic music.

The new: At night by Oliver

I haven't heard of Oliver until last week. On August 24, the LA-based DJs released Full Circle, a solid debut album.

It's always the rhythm that wins me. Though largely a song-driven effort, the album's melodic lines (especially those with vocals) are never over-complicated or overpowering; while the sumptuous rhythms are given the extension they deserve — no rushing to the chorus or "the drop". These for me are the very things that make electronic music distinctly enjoyable, habitable.

The tracks also don't follow a single structure, so you'll be pleased with the diversity. Three songs I find extra special are Go with it, Heterotopia, and At night. Am excited for this band. They must be fun to see live.


The old timeless: Music non stop – 2009 remastered version by Kraftwerk

Kraftwerk's "Computer World" has been sitting in my music library for, like, ever. Yesterday I decided to watch a video of their concert, Minimum – Maximum and Woah! The sound was so clean, the production was the total opposite of rave parties. Its laser-like focus on what it wants to do is impressive. Great concerts envelope you with music and energy till you dissolve in the moment, but Kraftwerk's live show seems to prefer injecting the whole thingamabob into your vein till you're aware that you exist.

Next thing I know, I was going through their entire discography on Spotify. And am still not finished.

I usually have no patience with studio albums with 6++-minute-long tracks, yet with Kraftwerk, I didn't notice the time at all. Except for the 22-minute Autobahn. Anyway, this Music non stop remix is currently playing non-stop at home, making me dance like a happy bunny (may the simile make sense).

14 September 2017

Dance is now

Sometimes I think about dance. Not that thing we poor souls do at the club, but that which is conceived by a choreographer and realized by a dancer. How the art form seems to evade preservation and discovery.

Stumbling upon a great modern ballet piece is not as easy as stumbling upon, say, a great novel by an obscure author or great music from a band in the ‘70s. Sure there are licensed recordings of performances available in stores — limited as they may be — and there’s YouTube and other video-streaming services to scour (if you want something recorded by naughty, rule-bending audiences), but my impression is that dance doesn’t bother as much with reproduction and distribution the way other popular art forms do.

Paul Ocampo and Chien-Ying Wang perform Equanimity in Ballet Philippines' A Gala Celebration.

From where I am, there’s no better person to ask whether or not this is an actual problem of the industry than National Artist for Dance, Alice Reyes. “It’s not a problem, it’s a fact. It’s something we have to live with,” a fired up Reyes told me during an open rehearsal of Ballet Philippines — the company she co-founded in 1969.

“You have to experience it now. Tomorrow, it’s different. That’s what George Balanchine said, ‘Dance is the art of now,’” she continued. “That’s why the dancer’s and choreographer’s careers are so short.”

How choreography is passed on or saved for posterity is another mystery to me. “It’s hard. That’s why you have coaches. For instance, we have to get somebody to come in who dances the role and coach the new artist dancing it (to arrive at the right interpretation),” shared Reyes. “There’s an oral history attached to the dance… Kung video lang, kung mali ang na-video, yung mali ang magagawa.” Dance notation is also out of the question. “There are still some who are doing it, but it’s so hard. Masyadong mabilis and takbo,” she added.

National Artist for Dance and Ballet Philippines co-founder and artistic director Alice Reyes

For their 48th season, Ballet Philippines runs under the banner, “Quintessence” and welcomes back Reyes as artistic director. “I’m using this season to start our progress towards the 50th. My idea is to tell the story of Ballet Philippines, which has such an incredibly rich repertoire. We can maybe release 10 seasons without doing any imported works,” said the visionary.

The new season kicked off in August with A Gala Celebration, showcasing the companies’ choreographic range and its dancers’ ability to execute any movement. The next production, called Exemplar, is slated for October. Featured here are the classics that came out during the company’s first decade, including Reyes’s Amada.

Ballet Philippines is giving us the chance to catch internationally acclaimed but long-unseen works. And they’re relying not only on traditional but social media to spread the word. Reyes very well knows that ballet isn’t accessible. Still, one of her goals is to drive more people to the shows by cutting down ticket prices — a tall order, considering that live dance and orchestra are expensive to produce. “That’s why dance always needs patrons. Patrons of the art,” Reyes laughed. “That’s THE problem.”

So here’s an invitation. Take a chance on ballet. Experience it now. Because tomorrow, it’s different. Or worse, gone.

07 September 2017

Notes on ‘Blackbird’

David Harrower’s Blackbird takes us right smack in the middle of harsh reality: the office pantry. Suspended fluorescent tubes illuminate a small room, which centerpiece is a long plastic table. Cardboard boxes everywhere. No porcelain, only paper cups. In one corner, trash has managed to spill from a tall bin. All these add up to a hyperreal set that is eerie yet captivating.

Enter a young woman and an older man, dressed like everybody else in the audience — in boring ready-to-wear, maybe soiled by earlier fits of clumsiness or by fresh transgressions. The difference is that our mess are hidden in theater dark, while theirs are exposed by light.

Una and Ray engaged in a sexual affair when the former was 12 and the latter was 40. The relationship lasted for three months and its end meant jail time for the gentleman. Fifteen years later, Una stumbles upon a photo of a smiling Ray in a magazine, compelling her to track him down. Now they meet again as Una finds Ray in his workplace, living a new life complete with a new name.

Bart Guingona and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante are Ray and Una in The Necessary Theatre's production of Blackbird by David Harrower.

Once the initial outburst subsides, you sense a tender pull between them. And it’s not impulsiveness but rather self-control that causes the pair to entertain any residual desire that they might have for each other: the longer they are stuck together, the greater the possibility to see eye to eye and kindle an old fire. An unlocked pantry has never felt so dangerous.

Blackbird’s plotting can sometimes deceive you into thinking that you know where things are heading — partly a result of the playwright’s ability to draw believable characters. Harrower didn’t leave room for the audience to question either protagonist’s motivations. And when you think that you’ve predicted their actions, the play makes an unexpected turn. These twists are never for shock value, and the ambiguities are never forced.

The Necessary Theatre stages this Olivier-winning two-hander, its short run closing out on Sunday (the 10th) at the Carlos P Romulo Auditorium in Makati. The production, directed by Topper Fabregas, features Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante as Una and Bart Guingona as Ray.

Fabregas’ direction is thoughtful, allowing the audience to empathize with both Una and Ray — with both their past and present selves. The play’s overall tone is compassionate as well. It succeeds in refusing to be moralistic without condoning unlawful behavior.

If there’s something missing, it’s somewhere in the acting department. I struggle to connect with the leads on a visceral level. In a crucial, kilometric monologue, for example, Bradshaw falls a little flat. I hang on to her every word because she’s revealing Una’s backstory, though I wish that it’s also because of an emotional grip.

The beauty of Blackbird lies not in its complexity but in its capacity to unload a myriad of complex thoughts and feelings through simple, almost straightforward storytelling. It is smart as it is vulnerable. This production of the play, however, seems to focus on getting its tone right, and somehow overlooks the drama. TNT may have captured Blackbird’s mind; I’m not sure if it has fully captured its troubled heart.

31 August 2017

Road to Justice

Woman Worldwide: Summer Sonic Osaka 2017

18. “The way to get things done [is] to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens,” says Richard in the Alex Garland novel, The Beach. That bit didn’t need underlining; it was stuck in my head since. For the longest time I dreamed of traveling to Japan and of taking a proper vacation: something completely mine, well-planned but also aimless. I never thought that I had the resources nor the guts to fly to a land which language I don’t speak, until Justice announced a world tour, with appearances at Summer Sonic 2017.

19. Last April, Coachella streamed Justice’s full set, giving me a taste of Woman Worldwide. What I digested was theater, where each element — may it be aural, visual, lexical — meant something to another element to another element. Everyone talked and will talk about the lights: because they don’t just dazzle, they communicate.

20. Once you hear the live version of a Justice song, you’ll forget about the original. “Access All Arenas” taught me as much. In this current tour, the duo made Love S.O.S — my favorite from “Woman” — even more special by running its trademark siren from the tail-end of Stress (a nice connection, considering both tracks, despite contrasting moods, seem to pivot on having a heart attack); and then adding a layer of keyboard in the midsection (a tingly surprise). Another masterstroke was ridding Chorus of its chorus for one final bass-heavy, head-banging stretch before the set’s hypnotic Audio, Video, Disco denouement.

21. Summer Sonic is a weekend music festival simultaneously held in Tokyo and Osaka, and between the two cities, the latter feels more like me. Chill. It is also, overall, the cheaper alternative. My initial plan was to backpack to Osaka, watch Justice, have curry and ramen, then go home. But excitement had me packing for a five-night escape.

The Osaka Castle, a tourist spot near my hotel

22. As the plane taxied on Kansai Airport grounds, my mind shot through different directions: How will I find my hotel? How will I find Maishima Arena? What if my credit and debit cards weren’t working? Oh my god I’m really going to see Justice. What if they suddenly got sick and cancelled (like Charli XCX later on)? The first problem I had to solve (at 10pm) was the hotel. Lucky me, the customs officer was chatty and knew some English. He directed me towards the train station. Which was big and intimidating. But not without a friendly face behind the counter. I showed Mr Ticket Seller the address written in my pocket notebook, he flipped through the pages of a railway atlas. Got my route. Arigato. That was pretty much how I survived Japan — short words, miming, the kindness of strangers, Google.

23. Hello, Chuo Ward. Hello, hotel. (Quiet elation.) Unpacked. Checked my phone, naturally. Justice posted an invitation to a meet and greet at a pop-up shop… in Tokyo. FUCK YOU, GASPARD AND XAVIER. AND PARDON MY FRENCH. I did contemplate maxing out my credit card to get from where I was to where they were, but Sensible Me prevailed. This was how I consoled myself: If I met them, I would have no fangirl ambitions left. Plus, if I went there, I’d be broke and starve to death. I chose to live to tell this tale.

24. My fear of being lost and unfound diminished with every train ride. Everything in the subway is laid out systematically — the stations are identified alphanumerically; the rail lines, color-coded; the exits, numbered. Trains arrive on time. Another person might perceive coldness from this impeccable clockwork, but for someone who’s MRT-LRT-phobic, it is the most thoughtful, humane design. This magnificent underground web, however, is not idiot-proof. Forty-eight hours of exploring the city before the festival gave me enough commute rehearsal. I boarded from the wrong platforms, got off the wrong stations, adjusted fares. Sonic day itself offered a fresh challenge: riding a bus. Well more of finding the goddamn bus station. All along I was looking for a huge terminal instead of an inconspicuous bus stop on the roadside.

At the Sonic Stage, minutes before Justice's set

25. Plotted my sched: Honne at 5:15, Phoenix at 6:30, Justice at 8:40. What I regret: Not squeezing in Blood Orange at 5:50. As soon as Phoenix closed their very groovy, very sexy set, I dashed to the Sonic Stage to secure my spot. At that point I had seen every livestream, every recording of the show on YouTube and Instagram. When I entered the arena, they were setting up the stage. Seeing those four deck stands atop a square platform flanked by stacks of Marshall amps made me giddy.

26. I want to pee. I just peed ten minutes ago. If I peed now I would lose my spot. Okay lights out, can’t pee anymore. (Buzz.) This is it. (Buzz.) Man everything in this country’s on time. Aww, their faces! It’s really, really them, waving. Okay that is anticlimactic. Oh shit.

27. DISCO.

Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay live

28. For a while I was reading the performance like a book, fussing about minute details. I was bummed that Japan didn’t get the production with mobile LED panels (due to venue limitations, I suppose, or logistical challenges), but the substance of the light-work remained intact. What captures my imagination in Woman Worldwide’s staging is the way that light meets metal, passing through slits, or bending — the music’s optic equivalent. Songs in “Woman” are strong and limber. They bang, but breathe elegance.

29. More bouts of synesthesia. I listened to colors, I witnessed notes fold and contract. I was standing still but felt as if I were jumping because everybody else was jumping. I felt alcohol on my skin, because someone splashed her beer. I felt skin on my skin. Gorgeous, shirtless men were pushing their way to the front. Dancing so hard.

30. Alakazam and Fire blossomed into a euphoric remix. From there until the dying bars of We Are Your Friends and Phantom Pt. II, I cannot remember most of what happened. Within that space, I may have left a piece of myself for good.

31. Xavier’s antics, Xavier messing up, Gaspard telling him something, gesturing, “No, no” — these must be mentioned. You might think that attending this concert is an item to be crossed off from some stupid list. No, I want more. Justice didn’t play Randy and Stop (my second favorite from the latest album), so here I am fantasizing about their next tour where I will hear those songs remixed.

Somewhere in Uranamba

32. Paradise for me is a city where I can let my guard down. The night I arrived in Osaka, I climbed out of a subway and into a pitch-black district occasionally brightened by convenience stores. That was the only moment I felt scared and alone in that city. The following morning I had the most boring, most un-Japanese breakfast of bacon and eggs. Upon a friend’s advice, I visited tourist spots and street markets. Umeda was chic, Uranamba was shabby. Dotonbori, I chanced upon after taking too many wrong turns. In a Shinsaibashi café I eavesdropped on two women’s velvet conversation. I haven’t had so much fun commuting and walking on concrete, under the sun. On my last night, I met a local who spoke English — the universe giving me someone to say farewell to. Leaving was tough because I didn’t know how to go back to a life without Osaka’s safety.

33. When Madonna brought her Rebel Heart Tour to Manila, people raised ruckus over the P57,750 SVIP tickets, quickly noting what (better things) an avid fan could buy with all that cash — a MacBook, a year’s worth of tuition at a private university, etc. But as far as I’m concerned, your happiness, your money, your business. I might pay more to catch my idols. Oh wait… A one-day pass at Summer Sonic Osaka was P7,109.49. Including air fare, accommodation, visa application, and daily allowance, the cost of my entire trip was a little shy of P60,000. For that amount, I saw Justice live, grooved to Honne and Phoenix, and took temporary lodging in paradise. What a bargain.


Read Part 1 and Part 2.

28 August 2017

Why I still blog

The short, straightforward answer: Because I want to feel good about myself.

For an indulgent, self-patting and -absolving explanation:

You give me the pleasure of having an audience

My favorite anecdote about writing is this: A poet friend attended a national writers workshop and his poetry was lambasted. Imagine how painful it must be for him, hearing the critiques, pretending to be fine afterwards. To recover, he wrote a poem.

That’s how you know you’re meant to do something. It’s a reflex.

Among the activities that captured my imagination as child, writing was the easiest to do. I wanted to be a pianist, a carpenter, a teacher, a cashier, a swimmer. We had a piano at home, but I couldn’t make noises at night. Swimming lessons, plus the gears, were expensive. But writing, it's cheap. I can do it anywhere, whenever I want to. In my head, I can be as loud as I like.

Following the bait of Language has led me here. I studied Literature, I took jobs as a communications assistant, an English tutor, a travel and lifestyle writer. In college I was thinking in poetry. In the mid-2000s I was thinking in blogs. In 2008 I started thinking in aphorisms — in 140 characters, that is.

This blog, which I created in 2003 (that period between graduating and signing an employment contract), has been a steady outlet for my writing. What began as a space for well-meaning bullshit became a confluence of my writerly selves, my many voices.

While my byline has appeared in publications in every available platform, most ideas I hold dear are here. Thank heavens for technology — for blogs, really, because I would explode if these thoughts didn’t find expression. And at least here it’s less of a one-way conversation.

I’ll do what I do anyway — it’s a reflex, but I would be lying if I said that I have no need for kind words. Writing is that job where you know you’re a rockstar but you don't get an applause. It’s a solitary occupation. Often it feels like talking to a ghost. But when you see the shares, the likes, when someone surprises you with a message of admiration or gratitude, the ghost becomes human. The weather turns warm.

Why I love blogging more than ever

In 2012 I wrote:

"9 years ago I dreamed of becoming a writer. 2 years ago I became a professional one: I write; I get paid. Since then I have loved this blog more than I ever did. Because (cheesy as it sounds) this is me.
. . . .
Before, I was aching to get published and I knew that getting published would feel amazing. It does. It did. It does when it matters. Now, having your work and your thoughts printed and disseminated seems to be the easiest occupation. So my dream has changed, or it has at least reverted to my principal dream, and that is to write well."

Making a career out of your passions can bring you to an identity and integrity crisis. When I was hired in the marketing department of a local newspaper five years ago, I thought in advertorials. I understood what “culture shock” meant when I entered the publishing industry. Writers put their names on barely edited press releases and call it a day. You’d be asked to state something you didn’t believe in. Because everyone was doing it, you’d figure it was okay.

There are stuff that are very not okay, however. I still can’t get over seeing my name on heavily revised articles, and articles that are almost entirely written by another. I still sometimes beat myself up for allowing these to happen.

And so this blog has also meant that. I’ve learned a lot, which means a lot must be unlearned. This is my constant attempt to write well and be a person of integrity. This is all me: the good, the bad syntax, the ugly.


Today is the blog's 14th birthday. Consider this entry a form of celebration.

16 August 2017

Notes on Rep’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Rep's "Beauty and the Beast" runs until December 14 at OnStage, Greenbelt.

An audience member asked on opening night why the iconic (her word) Beauty and the Beast theme was left out of the Repertory Philippines production of the musical. She was, of course, referring to the Alan Menken hit from the Walt Disney label. Rep could sigh in dismay, having categorically stated that their show adopts a different version of the fairy tale; but maybe, just maybe, no one would miss the popular movie tracks had the Michael Valenti score been equally enchanting.

The Laughter Song has got quite a hook (that’s still lodged in my head). As for the rest of the songs, they barely excite the ear, however pleasant-sounding. It doesn’t help that the cast — led by Alana Vicente (Beauty) and Jos Jalbuena (Beast) — seem to be in short supply of energy, unconvinced themselves of what they’re crooning about.

What Rep’s Beauty and the Beast has going for it is: everything else. Bonsai Cielo’s costumes are visual puzzles (Do you put on, slip or morph into a table dress? Is that actual fire on the walking candlesticks?); while John Batalla’s light design is a sustained magic trick. As if the artistic and production staff are giving their own “This is How You Do Theater” lesson to children, while wowing adults on the side.

Do you put on, slip or morph into a table dress?

Peter Del Valle and John Ahearn have written an interesting book as well.

Here, Beauty has two egoistic sisters named Mimi and Fifi, who think she’s boring. And they’re right. Beauty lacks dimension. Thank goodness there’s Mimi and Fifi, and their pompous suitors, Jacques and Pierre to bring the much-needed color and humor to the show. Seeing them prance around, hearing their mannered speech, is a delight. Watch out for their riot of a number somewhere in Act One.

The story takes off when Beauty’s father finds a safe refuge in the middle of a storm, then wakes up in a wondrous garden. How lucky of him as he promised his daughters gifts when he returns home: a tiara and a cape for Mimi and Fifi, and a rose for Beauty. So he plucks the prettiest flower in sight, but no sooner than he can admire it, a mad voice booms at him. Beast. In exchange for his prized possession, he demands that Beauty lives with him, else he will claim the old man’s life. Funny how an innocent wish — a single rose — leads to great dangers.

Awesome foursome: Mimi, Fifi, Jacques, and Pierre bring color and humor to the show.

When Beauty and Beast meet for the first time, they discuss the situation rather calmly. The absence of aggression from both sides is refreshing — and the scene isn't any less intense because of it. With our main characters quickly arriving at a compromise, we wonder what new conflicts will unfold.

Trespassing and possessiveness are some of the show’s nicer points for reflection, even if it is, for the most part, a story of Mimi and Fifi unlearning greed; and of Beast relearning to laugh, and that love reads through facades.

Another audience member asked how they could entice their sons to catch the musical. Men are as afraid of being judged by their appearance as women are. If young boys saw Rep's Beauty and the Beast, they might realize that looks alone doesn’t make or break a person. But they would have to ignore the girls in a rapturous fit the moment Beast turns back into his human, handsome face.

31 July 2017

Breaking into dance: Notes on ‘Newsies’ and ‘Your highness’

My mistake was electing to sit at the front row despite knowing that Newsies — the stage adaptation of the Disney film of the same title — would be a visual spectacle. Rights to the award-winning Christopher Gattelli choreography weren’t granted to the show’s local production (as I later on learned); but PJ Rebullida, with a little help from Yek Barlongay, created a choreography that, based on audience reaction, was every bit of a winner.

Co-producers 9 Works Theatrical and Globe Live harped on this dance excellence — a clever decision as the musical’s paper-thin characters and storyline would hardly please the discerning theatergoer or keep the casual fan awake. The narrative was standard Disney: an all-too safe journey between plot points leading to a saccharine resolution. A happy ending lurked from the get-go, and conflicts that arose along the way failed to arouse any sense of danger.

Instead the danger was in the dance. I had seen some of these actors before though not in this form. High-flying that is. Almost literally. And so I was impressed and at the same time stressed out as I watched them nail one daring routine after another at breakneck speed. Even Ed Lacson’s industrial set, composed of tiered, moveable pieces, gave its own restless performance, rolling and transforming in every scene.

A post shared by Razel Estrella (@razelibrary) on

Adrenaline rush, I guess, is the perk of being three feet away from the stage. So close to action, you could hear the dancers heave. Your imagination grows wilder, too. Please don’t fall flat on your face, I kept thinking with every jump and back flip. I was also worried that the towering set piece in front of me, which I swear was swaying, might topple over.

Three musicals in and I’ve developed a fondness for the ragged charm of Globe Iconic Store at Bonifacio High Street Amphitheater. As an open space it will always compete with natural elements, as well as the commercial property’s noises — aural and otherwise. The night I saw Newsies, it was raining heavily, microphones were malfunctioning; yet these somehow made the experience special, like elevated community theater. Given the venue’s design and the partnership’s goals, I wonder if 9 Works Theatrical and Globe Live will continue to favor loud, bombastic productions, as with American Idiot and A Christmas Carol.

(Side-note: What I have zero fondness for is tardiness and condescension. The show started 20 minutes late, and was further pushed back with a speech from the producer. I watched on the third weekend, so I was surprised by the intro, which I thought only happens during gala and press nights. There’s no point for a hard-sell pitch; we already bought tickets for chrissake. I understand that you’re proud of your product, but please let it do the talking and let the audience be the judge of whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth. Whether or not the cast and crew deserve a standing ovation, let alone an applause.)


Anyone can appreciate a good dance routine. But dance, when it tries to tell a story — divested of narrator and dialogue — can be difficult to penetrate. Such is the challenge of Your highness, the second part of Eisa Jocson’s Happyland series, produced by Ballet Philippines.

The ballet’s first and easiest entry point is (surprise!) Disney. Five dancers dressed in the usual tights and tutus take the stage. They proceed like well-oiled robots, naming every repeated movement (fondu, fondu, fondu… échappé, échappé… arabesque…), until they find fluidity, looking less mechanical by the minute and more like dolls. Each performer then dons garments allusive to royalty. Added to their recitations are familiar lines from Disney tales: I can show you the world…

Towards the latter half of the performance, the dancers slip into animal body suits, covering all corners of the stage with erratic moves and wild grunts. Finally they adopt the choreographies of the Filipino fiesta, their voices (as with their stances) more powerful, yet it's hard to tell if they’re conveying happiness or anger, or something completely unknowable.

At the open rehearsal of Eisa Jocson's "Your highness"

While the dancer has become a symbol of grace, one can only imagine the pains that come with the discipline, and the industry. Your highness allows a glimpse at these struggles — the struggles of the body, of the mind, and of the heart elsewhere.

“The previous artistic director of Ballet Philippines invited me to work with them. I told him that I have this project and it’s perfect for BP, because every year they lose some of their lead dancers, who either work in cruise ships, Hong Kong Disneyland, or foreign dance companies. Which is better, in a way, because they continue their artistic practice. But there’s always people leaving,” Jocson shared with me during their open rehearsal.

She also indulged me when I asked how dance can communicate a complex socio-political idea, such as that which informs Your highness. “I want (the audience) to experience the (message) as opposed to ‘get it’; to feel this question or proposal. The work hopefully gives space for that reflection,” she offered. “It’s important to understand and experience the work in different layers, not only on the social and political levels, but also on the aesthetic and reflexive levels. Depending on who is watching — if they’re a dancer or a teacher — they would see things differently. If the person is a musician, then they would be attuned to the musicality of the piece; which is quite interesting because it’s like a chorus, it’s like a concert.”

With that she answered a question I hadn’t brought up. Throughout the show, I read the performance as a literary form — from a short story (a default), to an essay (due to its apparent desire to make a statement), to poetry (given its patterns and lyric expressions). “The voice is part of the body,” Jocson reminded us. And the words I hear in Your highness are pleasurable sonic effects rather than carriers of unequivocal meaning. In short, I forget that dance is its own language, which I have yet to learn to think in.

26 July 2017

Serious talks

My latest hobby is revisiting tried-and-tested literary titles. The classics. I think that I’m a better, though slower, reader today; and so, in a way, better able to give them the reading that they deserve. Besides, adulthood can be an amazing filter.

Raymond Carver makes so much sense to me now. Stories in What we talk about when we talk about love aren’t exactly slices of life, but more like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. Carver zooms in on an dull moment until he catches characters in a profound split-second. He barely gets into their psyche. The images he uncovers are real enough to cause a jolt of recognition.

Raymond Carver. What we talk about when we talk about love. New York: Vintage, 1989.

What stood out for me in the collection is A serious talk. Burt visits his wife, Vera on Christmas day. The two have children but appear to be separated, at least not living together anymore. He came over to have a serious talk with her — which never happened.

Instead they spoke but skirted anything of importance. In the middle of their non-conversation, Burt lit a cigarette then scrutinized the ashtray on the table.
He studied the butts in it. Some of them were Vera’s brand, and some of them weren’t… The ashtray was not really an ashtray. It was a big dish of stoneware they’d bought from a bearded potter on the mall in Santa Clara. (p 109)
Later the phone rang and Burt answered it. The voice on the other end of the line was looking for a Charlie. Vera took the call in a different room. While she was away, Burt searched for a knife then cut the telephone cord. After realizing what her husband had done, Vera screamed at him and swore that she’s going to get a restraining order.

Burt picked up the ashtray and attempted to throw it, but Vera pleaded, “Please, that’s our ashtray.”

He left.
He was not certain, but he thought he had proved something. He hoped he had made something clear. The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about… He’d tell her the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish, for example. (pp 112 – 113)
Oftentimes I'm Burt, orchestrating that serious talk but failing. And in failure I reach for an ashtray to break or a knife to carve my way back to someone's attention.

My friends and I — and I’ve observed this with colleagues as well — still resort to composing letters when we want to express something important. Obvious reasons are: Emotional sobriety. Writing allows a calming down. There’s time to weigh feelings and opinions, and therefore make sure that nothing aired will be regretted. Things are recorded, so it may be reviewed again and again, diminishing the chances of misunderstanding.

And that illusion of finality. Having said everything you wanted to say the way you wanted it said makes you feel like you’ve had the last word on the matter. That’s why as much as I appreciate the act of letter-writing, I find it a weakness when talking face-to-face is an option.

Everyone is quick to prescribe communication when forging a healthy, lasting relationship. And it’s hard to disagree. It’s also hard to admit that we don’t know what that means. We’re told to communicate; we aren't taught how.

22 July 2017

Notes on Broadchurch

1. Like any other teenager during my time (not sure what fills teenagers' heads nowadays), I fantasized about having a family.

2. The fantasy gave way to other things as I grew older, until it went on reverse: it became the last thing on my mind. Currently, unimaginable.

3. I'll admit. I jumped on the Broadchurch bandwagon because of Jodie Whittaker. BBC announced that she will be the next Doctor in Doctor Who. Not having heard of her before, I googled her works. Broadchurch happens to be available on Netflix, so I binge-watched the series and finished three seasons in two days.

4. I'm excited, by the way, to see a female Doctor. For the simple reason of novelty. I remember enjoying the David Tennant and Katherine Tate combo because the latter isn't the typical young, pretty companion. Am looking forward to this new dynamic between the leads. (Speaking of the show — a by the way within a by the way — Michelle Gomez's Missy is oh-so-fine!)

5. This is very strange. After watching Broadchurch, I kind of want to raise a family.

6. The story begins with an eleven-year-old boy named Danny found dead on the shore. Jodie plays his mother.

7. Okay, wow, I'm going back to Doctor Who. I believe the episode was A Christmas Carol. The details won't be precise but the mom (guardian? — an important, lovable woman) passed away, then towards the end, by some magic or timey-wimey manipulation, she was brought back to life and everybody was happy.

I was disappointed, not just because it felt like a cheap trick, but because... wait I tweeted about it before (getting used to quoting myself; repetition bulldozes the message home):

8. In Broadchurch, the parents take their son's death as their failure. That's the word they use repeatedly. Fail. I failed. I'm a failure. Jodie in an outburst says her job as a mother is to prepare Danny for life, and she fails at it.

9. Whenever I (adult me) would sit down and think about having a family — why I may or may not want one — I would discover that, among other things, what's stopping me is that fear of failure to protect (which I've explained better here).

10. I'm sure I've come across other stories with characters meeting death head-on. But Broadchurch has made such an impact on me because it's simply well-made, what else?

Other stuff I like about the show:

11. Acting and casting. Special shoutout to Olivia Colman! The people of Broadchurch look like people in a real town. The only miscast actor for me is Arthur Darvill, whom I feel is too baby-faced for the role of the reverend.

12. The reverend. Darvill's fluffiness aside, the show makes a case for keeping our Faith, capital F. It paints the church kindly, as a sane institution.

13. Death is not the only horror in Broadchurch. It's a hugely horrific show that inspires me to live. Because the good people persist despite personal failures and failed systems. They don't win against criminals or change corrupt institutions, but they somehow find ways to overcome them.

14. I'm sleepy, I'll end here. All praises to Broadchurch. I already like Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker (leftmost) is Beth Latimer in "Broadchurch" and future Doctor in "Doctor Who". (Photo via @BroadchurchTV)

07 July 2017

(Not) just like the movie

Early in the Second Act, three thugs discuss breaking into a convent, their entire strategy hinging on wooing the nuns to let them through without the slightest hesitation. In a rhythm and blues number called, Lady in the long black dress, the men take turns in telling the others how to really do it. “My name is Bones and I’m a Libra. I dig sunsets and strolling on the beach, and loving my neighbor as myself; and right now, baby, I’m standing next door to you,” goes Bones, adopting an ‘80s boy band suavity — husky voice, calculated smirk, and the gait of someone who might be having an upset stomach.

That scene pretty much defines the nature of Sister Act, the stage adaptation of the 1992 blockbuster film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Its intention is clear: to charm. Not exactly to wow. The storyline is straightforward, with no converging plots, twists or flashbacks; and the characters sit somewhere between stereotypes and caricatures. It’s only a question of, Will they pull it off? Will they manage to turn the charm switch on?

The Goldberg-produced musical debuted in the mid-2000s, over a decade since the film’s release. Now it’s enjoying an international tour, with a two-week run in Manila that closes on July 9th at The Theater at Solaire. The time gap doesn’t matter, apparently. Sister Act the movie has made such a huge impact that its appeal remains strong 25 years later. All it takes is the title and the promise of kooky singing nuns to get people interested in its stage counterpart.

Someone asked me, “Is it as good as the movie?” I think it’s never fair to compare an adaptation to its source material, though one has to wonder what the new medium has to offer.

Caught the gala performance of "Sister Act" the musical last June 29 at The Theater at Solaire.

You might imagine that with the powers that be at the helm of this production, you’ll find a glorious, jaw-dropping set design and costumes. Not quite. The stage is rather bare except for a towering, not to mention rotating — and glittering — figure of The Blessed Virgin Mary. In an era where theatergoers have witnessed actors fly onstage and gotten wet with fake rain, a 16-foot glammed-up Mama Mary doesn’t impress.

Then again, visual spectacle is the least of the show's priorities. Anyone who has seen the film may have already forgotten bits and pieces of the story, but I bet that, along with the harmless naughtiness brought by a colorful soul into a nunnery, they remember the music and how it made them feel. As it was onscreen, so it is onstage. Music continues to be a strong selling point. Those who’ll catch the musical to hear their favorite numbers from the film sung live, however, will be disappointed. Or not: Alan Menken’s original score and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are equally infectious.

Watch out for Rebecca Mason-Wygal (Mother Superior) and her interpretation of Here within these walls. Arguably the brightest spot in this limited run, Rebecca brings humanity to her character that her scenes are some of the show’s most touching. As a leader she’s stern yet confused. She remains the voice of reason, even as her internal voice doubts God. And boy can she crack a joke! If Sister Act is going to be memorable, it’s all up to the performers. The melodious songs are there; the script, intended to tickle and tug at the heartstrings, is there. The ensemble only has to show up with a little more fire.

What’s gained in this theatrical translation is that church vibe. Regardless of your faith or musical preference, you can’t deny the pleasures of listening to a choir and singing along with a community, smiling on the side. You’ll have that here, for sure — and then some. But nothing more to elevate the spirit to high heavens. This weekend, attend mass if you want to contemplate God and watch Sister Act if you want to have a good time. If you're looking for catharsis, search elsewhere.

30 June 2017

I’m your audience for ever

The title of the play along with its entire story escape me now, but here's what I remember: onstage is a round wooden bath tub where two men are talking. Naturally they are naked, or at least the bare torsos and the show's daring mood suggest nudity all the way down there. One of them says, "Aalis na ako" as he gestures to leave. Behind me a male voice, hushed but panicked: "Huwag!" Then a snigger of relief — from him and his companion, I assume, when the scene ends with neither actor getting up.

That was in college, when watching stage productions was a course requirement. That was also my first experience of a pleasure unique to live performances. Whatever transpires in the audience section is, for better or worse, part of the entertainment. When I saw A little night music, people were singing A weekend in the country to themselves as they wait for Act 2 (Great, the song is stuck in their heads as well). In an attempt to acquaint myself with opera, I accepted an invitation to La Boheme — didn't understand a thing, and the kissing couple in front of me wasn't helping.

What's serious becomes tense when everybody's dead silent. What's funny becomes funnier when you hear all these strangers' laughter. Enter the theater and confront a feeling that, because shared, is amplified.


In 2007 I got a full-time job at an office along Ayala Avenue. The location meant I was a building away from the Carlos P Romulo Auditorium, and at a walking distance from OnStage, Greenbelt. Which meant that I would have to appreciate in retrospect my student discount, because tickets to plays and musicals don't come cheap. A financial knot aggravated by the fact that there's a Starbucks on every corner of the district and I love coffee the same way I love theater.

But that's why we work hard.

OnStage is home to Repertory Philippines. Many weekends were spent consuming whatever they were dishing out. One Saturday afternoon in 2009, I was at the Greenbelt ticket booth. An old man came up to me and asked what was showing. "A portrait of the artist as Filipino." It was a mouthful to say but the man understood my mumbling and was rather pleased. "That's a wonderful book," he said.

I didn't count but surely there were less than ten of us watching the matinee. I've always wondered how actors feel when that happens. If it's as uncomfortable for them as it is for me. Discomfort aside, I felt right at home.

Some proof that Repertory Philippines has been taking my money in the last 10 years.

The last Rep production I saw was pretty special. Their golden anniversary concert. That night at The Theatre at Solaire they made a fond recollection of their very first performance, attended by seven people. None got paid, we were also told. It must've been hell to go through, but thank heavens they didn't stop — even if audiences were, are, and might always be hard to win.

In the same year that they staged the Nick Joaquin drama, they brought Sweeney Todd, a musical I wanted to but never thought of seeing in Manila. It was so amazing I caught it twice, on succeeding Saturdays. "They did it?" My friend couldn't believe that it was mounted here. "With the pie shop and barber shop and murdered customers sliding down to the furnace room?" Yes, yes, all the works.

I'm on the "as if nothing is a miracle" side of things. It's not the magic itself but the clockwork behind it that's magical. I admire actors for having the physical and mental toughness to perform, but they're only part of a greater whole. To this day am blown away by the chilling soundscape Jethro Joaquin has crafted for Agnes of God, as well as Ohm David’s symbolic set design for The secret garden. And to whoever made the contraption that lets Sweeney Todd's victims fall from the barber chair into their delicious death, good job.

In their anniversary extravaganza, Rep celebrated in a Pippin-inspired number theater's faceless heroes, or shall we call, magicians. Them who work behind the scenes, and even further behind. "We've got magic to do," the artists sang, and magic they did — have all been doing.

A performance of "Magic to do" in Rep's 50th anniversary concert, held on June 11 at The Theatre at Solaire.


You can't argue against what you see. Damn difficult, at least. And for me that's what makes theater powerful: actual, breathing human beings in front of you living out a story. Oh how many filters have been removed between audience and action! This quality lends not just an urgency but a realness to whatever the performers do. They can turn your suspicions into truth and convince you that the impossible is, no kidding, possible. And then shatter everything you believe in in a heartbeat.

Which brings me to what I really, really like about theater. It is that place where you can see someone like you take the spotlight. Where (political correctness aside) you can see someone ugly kiss someone beautiful or someone beautiful kiss someone ugly. Where the fat lady with her cellulite is the most seductive person in the room. Where the old and the middle-aged aren't relegated in the fringes.

For these reasons and more I keep coming back to the theater and wish a longer, bolder life to performing arts companies, especially the pioneering Rep and PETA. (Happy 50th, too, PETA! So, so sorry that you're an aside in this piece. I haven't seen much of your shows, since I live in the South; but I'm an adult now and I vow to change that because I know it's my loss.) Thank you. Don't ever stop giving us something worthwhile to talk about.

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