Tony Mabesa: A lion at work

Ricky Torre
78-year-old actor-director presents for 2013 Jacobean drama "The Duchess of Malfi" and Megastar 'tawa-serye' "Madam Chairman"

FROM STAGE TO SERYE. Tony Mabesa (R) with Joel Lamangan. Photo by Leanne Jazul 

MANILA, Philippines – Fans of Filipino melodrama would recognize right away this 78-year-old actor-director, from his prolific yet always distinct supporting and cameo performances – as doting father, parish priest, CEO, or RTC judge, among other pillar-type roles in the background.

On the other side of these small yet pronounced appearances in cinema is his standing as a veteran actor-director in theater.

As with cinema and television, Tony Mabesa has also been incredibly productive in the theater scene that is really his home as an artist.

Mabesa’s latest production is John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” which he adapted and directed for his company Dulaang UP, now on its 38th season.

READ: ‘The Duchess of Malfi’: The price of pleasure

On TV, Mabesa is also part of the diverse cast of TV5’s “Madam Chairman,” Sharon Cuneta’s first-ever serye, and a comedy at that – or ‘tawa serye,’ in the tradition of the Dolphy TV classic “John en Marsha” and the Megastar’s own recent excursion to comedy, e.g. Mark Meily’s “Crying Ladies.”

READ: Sharon and cast launch ‘Madam Chairman’

“Madam Chairman,” as its director, Joel Lamangan, describes this serye, takes a comic look at Philippine politics in the micro-level of the barangay. Sharon’s Bebette is a reluctant politician thrust into the divergent concerns of her rather eccentric community. Bebette is obviously the protagonist, but Lamangan explained that there are no antagonists in this story, wherein the plot points “will depend on the given problems in [Madam Chairman’s] barangay,” said the multiawarded actor-director.

But Mabesa’s parish-priest character (another pillar-type role in his already long resume) qualifies as an antagonist, in a way – if very human.

“Kind of a scheming priest, but basically good-natured,” Mabesa explained his character. “He means well, but parang peripheral ang vision, seems to be limited.”

“Parochial, you mean?”

“Parang ganun, almost homophobic,” Mabesa laughed. “I represent the church and Jim Pebangco represents the state, because Jim is the mayor, so I think we represent two points of view, the state and the church. I think.”

Despite the usual disdain among artists toward the clergy (think Damaso, Salvi, and “Dasalan at Tocsohan”), Madam Chairman’s creators said they were mindful to not fall into caricature, however inherent this element to comedy skits.

Lamangan credits the show’s concept “to the creative team of Channel 5 and Joey [screenwriter-film director Jose Javier] Reyes” – the writer of that more epic social tableau, Peque Gallaga’s “Oro Plata Mata.”

“Thank God for Joey Javier Reyes,” Mabesa, in turn, said. “Because he really has a comic sense. Meron siyang [He has this] comic spirit. Not everybody has it.”

Diversity

It was pointed out to Lamangan and Mabesa that this has been a fascinating year in Philippine cinema, with its diversity perhaps also inspiring the teleserye industry (whose writers, by the way, include not a few Palanca-titled poets and fictionists).

Has Philippine theater stepped up too, perhaps ahead of cinema?

“I think we have to take it from the historical perspective,” Mabesa said. “I remember when we were in college, we were with the UP Dramatic Club under Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero – who would later be National Artist – we would rehearse for 6 weeks and we would perform for at most 4 performances. But now, theater [productions] could run up to 21 performances.

“In my time, you could only watch 4 productions – the Manila Theater Guild of the expats, the Barangay Theatre Guild of the Avellanas, the UP Dramatic Club of Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, and the Arena Theater of the late Severino Montano. But now, on any weekened, you can watch two, 3, 4, 5 productions.

“There’s a theater group called Red Turnip, fairly new, and they’re opening tonight with ‘Closer.’ [This interview was on October 4 – Ed.] It’s being directed by Ana Abad Santos, who got the Aliw Award in my production of ‘Mary Stuart/Maria Stuarda.’ I think the thrust of this theater group is to do straight plays, because the musical theater is covered now, quite well, by Atlantis Productions, Trumpets.”

The classics

Mabesa’s earnest wish, however, is to see the classics brought to life again.

“Well, ‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ that’s a Jacobean play,” he said. “I’m talking about the great works of Chekhov, Ibsen. Except for Ateneo and, I think, UP, almost no classical theater is being done – which is not very encouraging. I think we should strike a balance between musical theater, straight plays, and the classics.”

Mabesa’s bringing up the classics took us back in time to certain chapters in his career – such as his participation in Rolando Tinio’s Filipino adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” for Teatro Pilipino in 1976.

Mabesa would play lead on stage but even back then, he was already building on a long filmography.

“I think there are very few of us who are still around,” he said. “Tony Carreon is gone. Ruben Rustia is gone. There are very few of us left. Eddie Garcia is there, of course – the wonderful Eddie Garcia.”

Comedy

“Madam Chairman” marks a reunion of sorts for Mabesa, who has worked with Lamangan on stage and screen, and with the Megastar as her father in many films.

“Si Joel, I was his first critic when he first started directing for theater. Nick Tiongson asked me to help, to look at his work, which I did.  And through the years, he’s acted in my plays. He was in [Floy Quintos’] ‘Fake,’ about two years ago. He was also in [my revival production] of Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero’s  ‘The Forsaken House.’ And earlier, a long way back, ‘Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Alcalde ng Zalamea.’

“And it’s always nice to work with Sharon who’s played my daughter in many, many films at Viva. Wonderful actor and wonderful person.”

Mabesa looks forward to the success of “Madam Chairman.”

“I love comedies. And I’ve done some comic roles. Pero sabi nga nila, mas madali magpaiyak, mas mahirap magpatawa [But as they say, it’s easier to make your audience cry than to make them laugh]. Timing eh. But we’re all very excited about it.” – Rappler.com

Here’s an except of ‘The Forsaken House,’ directed by Tony Mabesa, from SNOWFLAKEDGAERL’s YouTube:

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