Monday, November 5, 2012

The half-life of the stage performer

For The Phlippine Star, 5 November 2012, in Art & Culture.

Because of a mixup, the version that was printed and posted online was an earlier draft I sent in. Here is the most recent version. The two are substantially the same except for stylistic differences, most visible in the last five paragraphs. 

Also, the print version mistakenly identifies Mario O'Hara as the director. The play is directed by Chris Millado.

Shows about shows are nothing new. Movies about movies or plays about plays often contrast the world of celluloid or stage with a usually more grim or banal reality. Tanghalang Pilipino’s Stageshow offers a vivid version of this concept, this time depicting a band of performers and their off-stage lives.

Written before his untimely death in June this year, Mario O’Hara, who made an indelible mark in radio, theater, and film as writer, actor, and director, intended the play to be a tribute to the performers he knew and learned from in his youth, bootstrapping men and women who sang, danced, told ribald jokes, acted tear-jerking skits, and even did magic tricks. Close kin with bodabil, stageshow was supposedly where entertainers such as Dolphy, Elizabeth Ramsay, and German Moreno got started.

As its title suggests, TP’s Stageshow has a simple heart, with no greater ambition than to entertain with modest means while remembering the people who spent their lives doing so. And it succeeds smashingly.

The story follows Ester, a singer and dancer, after she falls in love with Tirso, a band conductor. The fun results from giving her life story the stageshow treatment: it unfolds in skits, dance numbers, songs, lewd jokes, and other stock elements of the form. Scenes whiz from drama to comedy, from real life to stage illusion as quickly as dropping a toy baby to the floor after you’ve just pretended that it was real.

Because the play is also a tribute to a long-gone past, the proceedings are suffused with nostalgia. Quickly after it begins the story begins to flit forwards and backwards in time, showing us what has become of its characters. Ester once sang in a trio called the Tres Dahlias, and we find out how the women turn out when they are just blown roses. The likably lurid Chabeng (Angelina Kanapi) is a freakshow attraction (Ang Babaeng Gagamba) while the modest Magdea (May Bayot) gives handjobs to gents in darkened cinemas. In fact, everyone comes to a bad end; penury is their destiny. Even when, near the play’s close, Ester and Tirso have grandkids the talk that grinds the family’s gears is about money. 

The Tres Dahlias: Angelina Kanapi, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, and Mae Paner. (Photo taken from the Tanghalang Pilipino Facebook page.)
If only they could just perform. And perform they do, because the play’s way of remembering isn’t somber but joyful, washed in shimmery colors. The Tres Dahlias open the play by singing “Mambo Magsaysay” in flouncy dresses of rich blue, red, and yellow, then follow it with naughty patter. It’s the 1950s, and matinee idol Bobby Gonzales (Rody Vera) struts in—white suit, ruffled shirt, besequinned cummerbund—and launches into song. And so on. On one level the play is a parade of the long dead brought back to life. Even Tony Casimiro, introduced as his father Bayani, the “Fred Astaire of the Philippines,” shambles in unassumingly then tap-tap-taps his way through a solo number with remarkable vigor for someone in his eighth decade. (The songs, hand-picked by O’Hara himself, stamp the story with both historical and personal authenticity. I just wish a song list had been included in the souvenir program.)

The man Ester loves is unfaithful, but Ester is, as most everyone is here, a type everyone knows. She is the eternally forgiving martir. Their relationship unfolds as all-too-familiar melodrama, with the requisite emotional swoops and improbable turns. Long after he has left her, she chases after him from place to place and discovers him a beggar. Of course she takes him back, and they sing and dance their weepy reconciliation.

Heading a strong cast is the real-life couple of Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino and Nonie Buencamino, the closest we might have to theater royalty (if only we treated our theater actors like royals and not paupers). Buencamino’s Tirso flashes an insistent, masculine grace that suggests an eternal teenager inside him. Centenera-Buencamino’s Ester likewise evokes both youth and maturity, pulsing with girlish vulnerability then strength. 

“If Stageshow provokes wistfulness for a simpler time, it also stirs yearnings for an audience that cares, that remembers, that honors.”

If there’s anything to complain about, it’s the “Titina” segment, Ester’s nightmare about Tirso’s philandering. Five chorus girls in baby-doll nighties parade and gyrate for the band conductor, who plays them like musical instruments and slaps their behinds as if they were bongoes. It’s a girlie bar fantasia that strikes the wrong notes.

Also, the CCP’s Little Theater seems too grand for the show’s spirit. Better perhaps might have been the humble Studio Theater. After all, stageshows took place, director Chris Millado’s notes tell us, not in “famous entertainment palaces” but on “the makeshift stages of the lowly fiestas in the provinces.” A more modest space might have more strongly summoned the genre’s rough-and-ready ethos.

Nostalgia doesn’t come without pain, and despite the show’s unabashed joy a current of sadness runs through it. Some of that pain comes from an awareness of what is happening elsewhere in the very same building: a foreign musical plays in the main theater of the Cultural Center, our national temple of the arts, imported lock, stock, and tax-free barrel, charging a perfumed arm and leg, packing the house night after night. If Stageshow provokes wistfulness for a simpler time, it also stirs yearnings for an audience that cares, that remembers, that honors. If the script calls for the recitation of many names, it does so as litany. Most of them belong to the dead, and they live on in memory. Not everyone remembers.

Its nostalgia is also a theatrical one, a desire for the perdurance of the illusion. One is keenly aware that the actors are acting, that the impersonations, no matter how sharp, are only impersonations. Tony Casimiro is not his father, say, nor is Rody Vera Bobby Gonzales or Bentot. We become aware of the gap between actor and act, the dancer and the dance. The live performer desires that the moment on stage stretch into eternity, that the present be ever-present. He inverts Shakespeare: the stage is all the world.

By this logic death is easily evaded. The old and hobbled Tirso rises from his rocking chair and declares to his squabbling kids, “Hindi pa ako mamamatay!” then launches into a rollicking number, declaring “I’m going to live, live, live till I die!” But the song ends, as songs do. The music stops, the lights go out. The audience leaves, or just stops showing up, and they move on to the next thrill, the next show. Actors get old and die. And crueler than death is oblivion.

There’s a big song and dance number at the end, with lots of color and bright lights and everyone on stage, and it looks like a rousing finale. But when it’s done the performers exit. A solitary man pushes a kariton onto the dim stage and taps a row of vividly colored bottles, a kind of candy-colored chimes. The plangent notes ring in the air, the lights go out, and all that’s left is their ringing.

In the darkness that comes at the end of the lives of all these showmen and women, their names ring still, for as long as they might, in the hearts of those who remember them. Stageshow passes on their legacy to a new audience who, one hopes, will not let the sound die just yet.

* * *

The run of Stageshow has ended, but it will open the National Theater Festival at the CCP’s Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (or Little Theater) with performances on November 7 at 8 pm and on November 8 at 3 and 8 pm. Tickets: 891–9999 (Ticketworld) or 0917–7500107.

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