14 February 2018

Staging the skies

Lauren Gunderson is a rather demanding playwright. To put it another way, her imagination demands an equally creative team of artists to translate her decades-spanning, locations-shifting story — that centers on astronomer, Henrietta Leavitt — from the page onto the stage.

Silent sky moves between 1900 to 1920, and back and forth the Harvard Observatory, Wisconsin, Cambridge, an ocean liner on the Atlantic, and a star field. Bridging the gaps in time and space are Gunderson's cinematic directions: "Margaret fades away;" "Peter and the Harvard Observatory are swept away from her as the Leavitt home takes its place;" "The room falls away as they run off;" "Time is passing as the sky fills up in swatches." A curious heroine and compelling script aside, how the set will transition from scene to scene is something to look forward to in any staging of this drama.

Joy Virata takes on the mantle of re-building Silent sky's dream-like world as she directs Repertory Philippines' production of the play. The show, which runs from March 2 to 25 at Onstage, Greenbelt, features Cathy Azanza-Dy as Henrietta Leavitt, with Caisa Borromeo, Naths Everett, Shiela Francisco, and Topper Fabregas completing the small cast.

Joy Virata (middle) directs Repertory Philippines' Silent sky by Lauren Gunderson. In photo with her are (from left) Naths Everett, Cathy Azanza, Shiela Francisco, and Caisa Borromeo.

"It's about a woman doing [what she's passionate about] despite the fact that no one's giving her a chance. When I read it, [I liked the] cleverness of the lines. And my mind could already see the way it could be staged to make it interesting," shares Virata. "I though it was artistically beautiful."

Like Leavitt, Virata has to stretch herself to bring the vision to fruition. "You're working 'without a set,'" she explains. "It is a challenge to figure out how to do it so that the audience understands what's going on."

Set designer Joey Mendoza further pushes the artistic limits, according to her: "I had the script early last year. I sent it to Joey and asked him if he would be interested in doing it. He loved it so much that he did the design [for Silent sky] even before he did Hair's (Rep's 2017 year-ender). He doesn't want anything moved out or in." As such, the stage is almost bare, while transitions will rely heavily on lighting and sound.

"Of course the lights will be very important. We have a very good light designer — John Batalla. I asked him about the possibilities and he was also excited. And Jethro Joaquin is doing the music, and it will signify the change of time," she continues. "When it comes to casting, you can tell that I really need good actors — experienced actors for this play. And as you can tell, I have them."

At the open rehearsals of Rep's Silent sky. Topper Fabregas plays the lone male character in the female-dominated drama.

Leavitt is credited for discovering a means to measure the distance between the stars, and consequently to measure the universe. Without her, we would know of no other galaxies than our own. It's going to be quite a journey — a slice of Leavitt's life, filtered through Gunderson's Silent sky, interpreted by Virata and Rep, and received by hopefully an equally thoughtful audience.

07 February 2018

Beneath the covers: Notes on 'A comedy of tenors'

Opera superstar Tito Merelli pauses midway through opening the bedroom door to eavesdrop on a hushed, rushed conversation between his wife, Maria and another man (who, unbeknownst to him, is Carlo Nucci — newest opera darling and boyfriend of his daughter, Mimi). Tito tarries till he confirms his great fear: Maria is having an affair.

This is not true, however. What Tito has witnessed are passionate gestures, words and escape stratagems taken out of their proper context and into his own unassailable betrayal narrative.

Lorenz Martinez and Issa Litton lead the cast of Repertory Philippines' A comedy of tenors by Ken Ludwig. The show, directed by Miguel Faustmann, runs until February 18 at OnStage Theater, Makati City.

Ken Ludwig enjoys this game of hide-and-seek in A comedy of tenors, currently staged by Repertory Philippines under the direction of Miguel Faustmann. A Paris concert featuring the world's leading tenors — Merelli, Nucci, and Jussi Björling — is about to start in three hours. As farce would have it, Björling has to withdraw from the performance due to his mother’s sudden death, forcing producer Henry Saunders to hire his assistant-slash-son-in-law, Max (whom he has little fondness for) as a last-minute replacement tenor. One problem solved. A million others are waiting to unfold.

Here, truth is concealed in the most direct, even sincere dialogue. That what the characters say are true in their reality and false in the audience's — while remaining intelligible to both — is a triumph of Ludwig's writing, and provides much of the play's hilarity. When Tito confronts Maria, for example, the exchange sounds like the latter's detailed account of her affair, when in fact she's referring to the love between Carlo and Mimi.

Speaking of which, the young couple enriches the story's theme of hiding. When we meet them for the first time, they reveal themselves from underneath the sheets draping the hotel sofa. All along hearing Tito speak to Maria about killing whichever man touches his daughter. Mimi and Carlo, hidden as they may be, are not in the dark.

But the most impressive cover-up is pulled off by bellhop, Beppo (interpreted masterfully by Lorenz Martinez), who's hiding in plain sight. A splitting image of Tito, with a golden voice to boot, he saves the day when the enraged tenor quits the show. Beppo's face becomes the mask that allows him to live out a fantasy he's always had.

Joining Martinez and Litton are Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (Tatiana Racón), Noel Rayos (Max), Mica Pineda (Mimi), Arman Ferrer (Carlo Nucci), and Jeremy Domingo (Henry Saunders).

It's one dramatic irony after another, and while the audience revel in the string of misunderstandings, they are also privy to the unchronicled lives of the celebrity and the producer. Exposed are Tito's insecurities (about old age and a dimming career) beneath his fierce front; the wild ambitions of Beppo beneath his calm, almost meek demeanour; and the heart of Henry, who appears willing to do anything regardless of consequences because the show must go on.

Almost all characters are portrayed as caricatures (shoutout to Issa Litton for her explosive Maria), except for Max (Noel Rayos), making him the humanizing force in the bizarre ensemble. He's simply happy to perform, aware of his talent's limits — or maybe of a dream far more worthy of pursuing. But he, too, has a personal chaos to attend to. Back in the US, his wife is about to give birth.

The story that begins with a death winds down with a birth. Max's newborn and Mimi's pregnancy bring the warring heads into peace. As if Ludwig is saying, What's the point of youth and fame without anyone to call family? Riot aside, A comedy of tenors has a tone of resignation. Tito accepts that Mimi is not a baby anymore and that he is past his prime; while Henry has warmed up to Max.

In the finale, both audience and characters find themselves in the same place: behind the curtain, as the concert of the century is seconds away from starting. Tito, Beppo, Carlo, Max, and soprano, Tatiana Racón have their backs against us. We hear the cheers they hear. Both them and us, for once, agree on the same reality happening when words are no longer spoken.

Top Shelf