Philippine theater

The best Filipino theater of 2023

Jason Tan Liwag, Lé Baltar

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

The best Filipino theater of 2023
The best of this year’s theater have remained long after their bows and challenged our current paradigms of being, and were made by artists who are aware of the power of theater as a tool for humanity and transformation

While cinemas are still struggling to attract audiences outside of the festival setting, theaters are having trouble finding seats for its patrons. One need only look at the list of productions in next year’s first two quarters to feel a palpable momentum forming around live theater. Despite the higher price points and the inconvenience of the travel, the ephemeral nature of theater and the allure of seeing where your money goes creates a draw similar to the eventized moviegoing experience of the early 2000s and 2010s. While there are opportunities to watch bootleg slime tutorials online and even serialized TikToks spoiling the work, near-sold-out shows of local and international productions are an affirmation that the theater experience isn’t so easy to pirate.

Year-end lists like these are sometimes the only reminder that such artistry existed. But amidst this celebration is the shameful admission of a critic’s limitations. Critics can’t be everything everywhere all at once and the process of list-making is mired with necessary exclusions. Are we supposed to watch every available permutation of a show? What about the works outside of Metro Manila such as those in Visayas, Mindanao, and other parts of Luzon? How does one criticize works-in-progress change drastically throughout the course of the production? The questions seem unending but the pursuit of answers, even asymptotically, is so rewarding.

Maybe it is why the exercise of writing criticism for theater is far more divisive and exciting than in film or television. While the screen arts require time to respond to the times (an artifact of post-production), theater and its reception is actively shaped by the now. We’ve seen our sociopolitical and sociocultural conditions woven in this year into the work — literally and allegorically. Now more than ever, theater criticism and journalism, especially within campuses and universities that produce so much excellent work and future generations of talent, must match the fervent energy of the audience. That means going beyond press releases masquerading as reviews (of which there are many) and towards alternative ways of seeing deeply.

This list represents the brave few that have remained long after their bows; the ones that dared to be optimistic despite the iron fist of the present; the ones who challenged our current paradigms of being, made by artists who are aware of the power of theater as a tool for humanity and transformation. — Jason Tan Liwag

  1. Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol (written by Andrew Estacio, directed by Nazer Salcedo)

Among all the plays at this year’s Virgin Labfest, Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol is probably the most representative of the festival’s politics and purpose, for how the material makes for a meta-textual mapping of the landscape, the towering forces that propel theater forward or limit it. It’s a play within a play tracking the riotous encounter between an internationally acclaimed dramaturg and a theater group amid a pivotal rehearsal day before their opening night. At once unhinged and critical, sweeping and disciplined, the staging is loads of fun chiefly because it commits to its wry, hyperbolic existence, to its brand of comedy steered by the arresting Adrienne Vergara. Uprooting a subject so stale and familiar to make it look so fresh and appealing is no easy feat, a marker of any great work, which Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol pulls off with such zip and panache. — Lé Baltar

Will be restaged in June 2024.

  1. Bawat Bonggang Bagay (adapted by Guelan Luarca and Jon Santos, directed by Jenny Jamora)

Guelan Luarca has had quite a year, but it is in Bawat Bonggang Bagay that his writing exceptionally shines bright. A welcome departure from his mostly dystopian text, Luarca, in collaboration with Jon Santos, queers and reimagines Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, about a nameless narrator who keeps a list of beautiful, quotidian things as he barrels through a world of depression and hope spanning time and space. Through the command of Santos in the lead role and Jenny Jamora’s directorial acuity, the staging turns into a full-throated, transcendental experience that speaks plenty about mental health without any ounce of shame and comes in close contact with many un-brilliant yet most human parts of ourselves. It feels like a warm, long hug best shared with the people we hold dear — theater as a safe space, theater as therapy. — LB

  1. The Impossible Dream (written by Guelan Luarca, directed by Melvin Lee)

In one of the plays in Melvin Lee and Carlo Pagunaling’s triptych Komprontasyon, playwright Guelan Luarca imagines a fictional conversation between a dictator and his political prisoner, with the former offering the latter freedom in exchange for a false confession. But when Ron Capinding’s unstoppable force cannot bribe or move the morals of Romnick Sarmenta’s journalist-turned-political pawn, the play’s title — The Impossible Dream — begins to sink in. An allegory for our country’s political stasis, Lee draws out every discomforting breath and ounce of humor in Luarca’s text, slowly transforming the seal above their heads into a political guillotine meant to kill the nation before it has a future. The Impossible Dream vivisects how our country relives its past subconsciously through its fixations on binaries of red and yellow. But rather than resting on commentary, Lee and Luarca challenge the audience to imagine a third political reality that has yet to materialize but is fully within reach. It is political theater at its finest. — JTL

Will be restaged on January 18-21 2024. Tickets are available here.

  1. Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera Si Rosang Taba (written by Maynard Manansala and Rody Vera, directed by Jose Estrella, Issa Manalo Lopez, and Mark Dalacat)

We know how it ends before it begins. But when the race happens and the lights isolate into a single strip, strobing to mimic the drama of early Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films, one can feel the audience hold its breath in anticipation. Adapted from Dean Francis Alfar’s children’s book by Manansala and Vera, Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera Si Rosang Taba is filled with both adult gumption and childhood humor. But when Estrella, Lopaz, and Dalacat expand the material into the political and Rosang Taba frees her family using her winnings, the production deepens the material beyond childsplay, exhuming themes of colonial rebellion and female liberation, drawing out every poignant ounce from the text. It is a theater whose ambitions and technical prowess are dwarfed only by its heart and generosity, whose existence is proof that radicality can be infused with joy. — JTL

Will be restaged in April 2024.

  1. Prinsipe Bahaghari (adapted into Filipino by Vladimeir Gonzales, directed by Aina Ramolete)

Prinsipe Bahaghari began as Aina Ramolete’s thesis during the pandemic. Confined to the digital space, this year it leaps into its new home — the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Teatro Papet Museo — in full technicolor. Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is adapted by Vladimeir Gonzales into a distinctly Filipino tale by situating its existentialism in the milieu of a post-Taal Volcano eruption, with its central characters rendered as rattan puppets helmed by the puppet troupe Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas. But rather than focus on the despair amidst ashes, Prinsipe Bahaghari, through its stunning video design and animation of Steven Tansiongco, follows the lonely prince through a plethora of planets where each ruler sings a song of their miseries and teaches him a lesson on living. Immersive and resplendent, Prinsipe Bahaghari is the strongest case to weave Philippine puppetry into the mainstream. — JTL

Will be restaged in January 2024. Tickets are available here.

  1. Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe (written by Tim Rone Villanueva, directed by Naye Hedriana)

Rarely do I encounter a ten-minute show as compact as Tim Rone Villanueva’s Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe, the closing play at this year’s Shorts and Briefs, the independent theater festival organized by Eksena PH holding space for first-time, inexperienced artists. At the heart of the narrative is a wife figuring out on the day of their anniversary that her husband no longer fancies her cooking — a simple premise that shapeshifts into a twistedly engrossing creature, culminating in a scene that exhibits Shannaiah Cabunagan’s excellence, received by the audience with thunderous acclaim. What Villanueva and director Naye Hedriana achieve here is well above par, for how the staging stretches itself and toys with the form with so much confidence and gravity, which only warrants its place among 2023’s best and points towards a myriad of possibilities for Shorts and Briefs in the years ahead. — LB

  1. Nawawalang Gabi, Ninakaw na Araw (written by Joshua Lim So, directed by Banaue Miclat)

Joshua Lim So’s Nawawalang Gabi, Ninakaw na Araw may well be among this year’s underseen and overlooked stagings, given its limited run and niche audience. A world forged through the hollowest of sets, the show fluctuates between scenes of arrestingly quiet, almost numb, introspection, and fraught, delirious sequences as its central characters — two activists abducted by paramilitary forces based on trumped-up allegations — descend into madness. Much of the play works because of the trust and liberty that So and director Banaue Miclat extend to actors Janno Castillo and Johnny Maglinao, whose performances are decimating in how it outlines the interiorities of their respective characters, two souls forever searching for a cardinal point en route to their stolen lives. A study of historical memory and erasure, a caveat on state surveillance, and a metaphor for our current political zeitgeist, Nawawalang Gabi, Ninakaw na Araw makes a mighty case for essential theater. — LB

  1. Nekropolis (written by Guelan Luarca and Tanghalang Pilipino’s Actors’ Company, directed by Charles Yee)

This was the year when Guelan Luarca solidified his monopoly of dystopia in Philippine theater. But of his works that explore this cynical landscape, it is Tanghalang Pilipino’s Nekropolis that sticks out the most. Director Charles Yee takes Luarca’s text and uses all possible components in theater to give body to this ideological battleground and urban decay — with JM Cabling creating choreography to this oppression and Tata Tuviera’s web of wires morphing into a neural network keeping this state of mind alive. Most crucially, Yee and Joyce Garcia use projection to obscure identities and reveal the traumascapes within those perpetually violated and at risk of death under the city’s eye. While Luarca and Yee reference Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” and Vicente Rafael’s “Sovereign Trickester,” Nekropolis concludes not with just chaos and confusion but with optimism, romance, and understanding. If Tanghalang Pilipino is to remain the bastion of theater in the country, spaces for such experiments filled with bravery and recklessness must be nurtured. — JTL

  1. Regine: The Fairy Gaymother (written by Chuck Smith, directed by Mark Daniel Dalacat)

Few theater materials make ideas so thrilling and entertaining, yet Regine: The Fairy Gaymother triumphs. Playwright Chuck Smith and director Mark Daniel Dalacat generously draw from the discography of Regine Velasquez to wrestle with a coming out story that also stretches beyond this premise, without yielding to didacticism. Steered by a terrific ensemble and its playful framework merging fantasy with lived reality, the staging creates a compelling portrait of acceptance and private celebrations, of tension and tenderness, and of queerness existing in a spectrum. It may be excessive at some points, but it is the kind of excess you root for, just for the wealth of meaning and life it offers, a work that, more than anything else, deserves to be revisited. — LB

  1. Sandosenang Sapatos (adapted by Layeta Bucoy, directed by Jonathan Tadioan)

When I watched the matinee show of Sandosenang Sapatos during the closing weekend, there was not a dry eye in the audience. Maybe it’s the way that Paw Castillo and Marco Viaña have designed the production to tap into the very roots of our collective childhoods, dressing the ensemble in whimsical apparel and using the motif of the butterfly to signify the transformations in Susie’s life but also the presence of her father long after his death. Maybe it’s also the way that Felicity Kyle Napuli, in one of her two standout performances this year, continues to sing beautifully despite whatever powerlessness her character experiences. Maybe it’s the relentless tenderness felt through Jonathan Tadioan’s direction. Or maybe it’s because most of them were just high school students. Who knows? What is certain after Sandosenang Sapatos is this: theater, at its best, returns us to ourselves in full. — JTL

  1. Ang Tuyom (written by M. Manalastas, directed by Gio Potes)

At first, I was inclined to say that M. Manalastas’ Tuyom is the closest I’ve seen to psychosis represented onstage. But to talk about the play as an allegory for mental health is to kill its potency. Just when one thinks they’ve had a hold on Tuyom, it transforms. Much of it is an attempt at wrestling with the mess of the dramatist’s identity, familial relationships, romantic slipups, and personal histories. Manalastas and director Gio Potes draw from various forms of art — moving images, dance, theater exercises, stand-up comedy, and more — and use repetition, reconfiguration, and endless references, even code-switching between Filipino and Bisaya, in the hopes of gaining insight from this hoarded mess. But the process of sublimating trauma into art seems irreversible and Tuyom demonstrates the difficulty of wading through memory and trauma without a map. The result is this year’s greatest theatrical puzzle and in choosing not to revisit it, Virgin Labfest lets go of its most interesting and promising risk. — JTL

  1. Walang Aray (written by Rody Vera, directed by Ian Segarra)

Walang Aray should be sweeping all the awards this season, for how can one overlook the towering production that it has mounted this year? The material sharpened by writer Rody Vera, composer Vince Lim, and director Ian Segarra not only breathes new life into Severino Reyes’ Walang Sugat but expands its world and scope to discourse on the personal and the grand, on our ever-fraught colonial history, replete with romance and comedic panache, while keeping its trust in its audience. In every iteration of the show, helmed by different alternating leads, it cements a wellspring of possibilities that makes the amount of research, rehearsals, and experimentations astoundingly captivating onstage, often culminating in a roaring acclaim from the audience. Oscillating between a hearty exhibition of the magic of theater, an excavation of our nation’s political landscape, a critique on class demarcations, and a critical peek into the state of local art and entertainment post-pandemic, Walang Aray is above all else storytelling gold. It is one hell of a comeback. — LB

Best performances

Cholo Ledesma in Tanghalang Ateneo’s Ardor

After a charming return earlier this year in underseen Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala, Ledesma delivers a volcanic performance in Ardor as a child turned prophet that leaves the earth behind him scorched and no eye in the audience dry. At once hilarious and  disturbing, innocent and evil, Ledesma transmogrifies every honest interaction into a duplicitous game where revolution is at stake and God is nowhere to be found. He is this year’s most indelible performer; a stage presence that is as addicting as it is irreplaceable. — JTL

Jon Santos in The Sandbox Collective’s Bawat Bonggang Bagay

Jon Santos’ storied career blends so fittingly with the character he embodies in Bawat Bonggang Bagay, for how the central role’s journey through life parallels his own, suffused with meaning and color. His work in this staging is not the most gargantuan, compared to other performances this year, yet it is effective because it is spontaneous and earnest in equal measure — the enormity of emotions rendered into its barest, most raw that is only possible in the hands of a living legend. — LB

Adrienne Vergara in Virgin Labfest 18’s Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol

Of all the works that Adrienne Vergara has become part of this year, it is in Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol that her artistic eye and range, nurtured through the years, is on full display. Her portrayal of a two-faced yet hilarious director, often opting for the large gestures, reveals how people in venerated positions can mangle truth and power under the guise of artistic control. Vergara is a true maverick whose work, however small or grand, is always worthy of anticipation. — LB

Honorable mentions:

Aggy Mago, Lhorvie Nuevo, Marco Viaña, and Toni Go-Yadao in Ang Pag-Uusig, Shannaiah Cabunagan in Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe, Ron Capinding in The Impossible Dream, Gio Gahol, Marynor Mademesila, and Neomi Gonzales in Walang Aray, Felicity Kyle Napuli in Sandosenang Sapatos, Maliana Beran in Tartuffe, Jude Matthew Servilla, Earvin Estioco, and Miah Canton in Tabing Ilog, Kiki Baento in Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera Si Rosang Taba, Kim Molina and Kakki Teodoro in Zsazsa Zaturnnah The Musical…yun lang!, Gab Pangilinan in The Last Five Years, Shamaine Buencamino and Rissey Reyes-Robinson in Tuloy ang Palabas, Adrian Lindayag, Ron Capinding, and Tex Ordoñez-De Leon in Regine: The Fairy Gaymother, Joel Saracho in Dominador Gonzales: National Artist.

Best technical work

Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba

No other production comes close to the standout work of Rosang Taba, who assembles some of the best currently working in theater for its direction (Jose Estrella, Issa Manalo Lopez, and Mark Daniel Dalacat), lighting design (Barbie Tan-Tiongco and Mykee Ababon), costume design (John Carlo Pagunaling), scenic design (Mark Daniel Dalacat, scenic painter Lupo Adolfo Lasin), and music (Angel Dayao), all of which are rooted in solid dramaturgical practice (S. Anril Pineda Tiatco and Jonas Gabriel Miguel Garcia) — JTL

Honorable mentions:

The light musical period fantasy of Walang Aray would be nothing without the combined efforts of Ian Segarra (direction), Julio Garcia (production design), Jaylo Conanan (costumes), Gio Gahol (choreography), David Esguerra (lighting design), and Vince Lim and Haps Constantino (sound design).

The decrepit world of Nekropolis is made tactile and believable thanks to the artistic collaboration between Charles Yee (direction), Tata Tuviera (production design), D Cortezano (lighting design), Joyce Garcia (projection design), JM Cabling (choreography), Arvy Dimaculangan (sound designer-engineer), Dominique La-Victoria Parker (dramaturgy), and Soc Amon (deputy stage manager).

Vincent de Jesus’ music and sound design, Ohm David’s set design, and Bene Manaois’ scenic video projection in Tabing Ilog are a noticeable improvement from its 2020 staging, while Joey Mendoza creates a beautiful bridge across time through production design for The Last Five Years.

Apart from Marco Viana and Paw Castillo’s childhood-inspired production design, Gabo Tolentino’s dreamlike lighting design for Sandosenang Sapatos creates its two distinct worlds between fantasy and reality. Similarly, Jana Jimenez creates a lucid backdrop to the horrors in Sidhi’t Silakbo through video design.

Blind spots

Alice Reyes Dance Philippines’ Rama, Hari, Sandbox Collective’s Lungs, The Necessary Theatre’s RED, Barefoot Collaborative’s Pride Plays, Ateneo ENTABLADO’s Nawantutri Tayo, Tanghalang Ateneo’s Elias at Salome, FEU Theater Guild’s Unang Aswang, MINTeatro’s St. Joan, Virgin Labfest Visayas, and The Secret Lives of the Negrenses. – Rappler.com

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.
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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.