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.

08 June 2017

A stranger who’s a friend

No one is supposed to live in this world friendless. I know the good that friendship does for me but I can’t quite define what a friend is. And the concept grows nebulous — as with all things growing complex — the older you get.

Others have pointed this out. We have no qualifiers for friends the way we’re ever stringent about romantic partners or spouses. A formal declaration must be made for the latter two; guidelines are laid down and regularly revised.

We apply the label to an acquaintance after a warm exchange and maybe laughter over cold beer. Even so, the affection is often one-way, thus we get disappointed or hurt when, in the succeeding days, the other doesn’t assume the shape of our friend mould. The lack of rules negates our right to be mad.

I am interested in the pull that’s felt upon meeting someone for the first time. That connection or the strong desire to connect, even to care deeply. Sometimes we’re happy to be with the same people at a distance. Like the waitress who knows your favorite meal by heart and how you hate chit-chat. Except for taking orders and the check, you barely communicate. You may not know her name but are ready to take a bullet before she does.


“You can love somebody without it being like that. You can keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend,” says Joe Bell about Holly Golighty in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The 66-year-old bar owner confesses to loving but not to desiring the 20-year-old starlet.

The relationship between him and her, and her and the story’s narrator is that of quaint friendship. Either a long-term encounter or a meaningful short-term affair, skimming the surface of romance.


Is it beauty, a shared though unknown history, a sense of safety, or a piece of (or missing from) ourselves that pulls us towards someone? Maybe a familiarity. We just need another human being to share habits — newly formed, ours or theirs — with.

So I look at my own friendships, realizing that I’m lucky to have earned and kept constants — those whose silence and absence aren’t neglect. And that I have had my Holly Golighties.

I want to meet more. I have a feeling I will.

Bought and read Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" (Vintage, 2012)
and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (Vintage, 2008) successively.


Our (your, my, Joe Bell and the narrator’s) knowledge of Holly may be scant, but Truman Capote has cast such a bright light on her character that the littlest detail becomes bigger than any real but dull person.

Her haircut, her clothes. Her armor. I cracked a smile on that part where she’s about to read an important letter. I wouldn’t have understood her behavior had I read the novella in my twenties. The convergence of inner peace and appearance is something I’m only learning today.
“Darling… would you reach in the drawer there and give me my purse. A girl doesn’t read this sort of thing without her lipstick.”

Guided by a compact mirror, she powdered, painted every vestige of twelve-year-old out of her face. She shaped her lips with one tube, colored her cheeks from another. She penciled the rims of her eyes, blued the lids, sprinkled her neck with 4711; attached pearls to her ears and donned her dark glasses… (pp 98 – 99)

Her red cat. She is everyone I pine for. With a presence that is undeniable, and a heart that is ever elusive. Their nearness comforts me because I am reminded of my own search for home.
It’s a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven’t any right to give him one: he’ll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I. I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like. (p 39)


To arrive somewhere you belong. Seems to be the main characters’ journey. Holly, the cat especially — and the narrator, who opens the story with a recollection of his first New York apartment: “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived…”

Both of Holly’s parents died of TB when she was a child. She and her brother, Fred ran off from “mean, no-count” guardians and survived on stolen food. They got caught trespassing on the property of widower Mr Golighty, who, upon seeing the children's puny legs and wobbling teeth, welcomed them to his home. In 1938, at age 14, Holly married Mr Golighty.

Holly took off again. “Home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking,” she says.

The most memorable scene for me is right at the end. Holly, an outlaw by now, meets the narrator and Joe Bell at the latter’s bar for her latest escape. She’s still acting cool, ordering drinks for the three of them. “You’ll only need two… I won’t drink to your foolishness,” states Joe Bell who has already fixed for a Cadillac to take her to the airport. Holly asks Mr Bell to look at her, but instead he yanks a bunch of flowers from a vase and throws them her way. He hates her as much as he loves her.

If I were pressed for definition, I’d say that a friend is someone who eases loneliness. They show that you are not going to battle alone. Their company a temporary shelter.

01 June 2017

Peak of perfection

Bring me flowers. It'll make my day. Perfect gifts, they are: highly symbolic and practical. A bouquet of flowers is a burst of emotions. It's alive and real at the moment — it'll die soon. And so like feelings it must be renewed, reasserted over and over. And so bring me flowers again, and again.

Trinkets are tacky, food is messy, but flowers, you can assign any meaning to them and they unburden the receiver of clutter. Flowers discard themselves by wilting.

Teaching myself the art of arranging flowers, I came across this tip, which makes me think of a princess locked in a castle:

Sometimes people think they should set their vase of flowers in a sunny windowsill since that is where a plant would be happiest. However, cut flowers are actually the opposite of potted plants. They are at their peak of perfection. Sun and heat will encourage them to "mature" and thus quicken their demise. Instead, keep your cut flowers in a cool dark spot if you would like them to last as long as possible.

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