Monday, August 17, 2009

Women on Center Stage: Tanghalang Pilipino Marks 23rd Season With Strong Women Characters

Women have always been fascinating subjects in art, and great works are replete with strong and unforgettable female characters. For its 23rd season, Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and one of the country’s premiere theater companies, presents four masterpieces of world drama, which happen to include strong female characters.

With the theme “Women of Substance,” its 2009 to 2010 season, which starts this August, includes Savyon Liebrecht’s Apples from the Desert, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and the highlight, Tennessee William’s most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Veteran stage actor and former vice president of the CCP, Fernando Josef, Tanghalang Pilipino’s artistic director, admitted when lining up productions for the season they looked for a common thread and noticed the presence of strong women characters, thus the theme. He revealed that he has very high respect for women, having been raised by four strong women.

Out of the four plays, A Streetcar Named Desire proves to be the most popular although a tad problematic when it comes to the depiction of women. Its women characters, the sisters Blanche and Stella DuBois, seem to show frailty rather than weakness.

Playwright and TV and stage director Floy Quintos, who will be directing Streetcar, explained that the strength of Blanche DuBois lies in how she clings to her vision, dreams and madness.

“We would like to show how Blanche thrives in the end because of her madness,” he said.

Josef added that the substance may not lie in the character but in the actress because the role is a tough acting piece that will challenge the prowess of an actress and eventually enable her to show her mettle, her substance. The role has brought many actresses to recognition.

The original staging in 1947 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York had Jessica Tandy essaying the role. The1951 film adaptation had Vivien Leigh, who eventually won an Academy Award for best actress. In the Philippines, the role was played by Laurice Guillen, Rita Gomez and Dina Bonnevie, all respected actresses.

This year, Blanche DuBois will be played by film and television actress Eula Valdez. Valdez admitted not having seen the performances of her predecessors. Although having worked in film and television for a long time, she was introduced to theater recently when she starred in Tanghalang Pilipino’s stage adaptation of Carlo Vergara’s popular comic book Ang Kagilagilas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah two years ago. Her experience proved to be enriching and eye-opening that she is continuing theater work, which she got involved in by serendipity.

Valdez revealed that she experienced a crux in her career when got disillusioned and bored for vague reasons although she had projects. She was on her way to the church in Nagcarlan, Laguna, to pray for guidance and enlightenment when a friend Vincent de Jesus, who was to do the music of Zsazsa Zaturnnah, called to invite her to audition for the play. She had no idea what was that all about but said yes although without really committing and knowing she had a taping on the audition date. The taping did not push through though. She had nowhere to go and decided to go to the audition. Valdez eventually got the lead but there was much hesitation and nervousness on her part because she had never done theater. It turned out to be a rewarding experience, opening up a new world to her and working with people who are dedicated and have a passion for their craft for just a fraction of the fee she gets from doing television work. “They are true artists,” Valdez said. Valdez is willing to give up her talent fee or to work for a small fee in support of theater.

Valdez’s A Streetcar Named Desire will be shown in October with Quintos director. Hunky actor Neil Ryan Sese will be playing Stanley Kowalski, played with overt sexuality by Marlon Brando in the film version, and actress Meryll Soriano will play Stella. They will be joined by Anna Abad Santos, Mailes Kanapi and Mario Magalona. The original English will be mounted back-to-back with the Filipino translation of the late screenwriter Orlando Nadres called Flores Para Los Muertos.

The play, frequently considered a landmark one, is about the conflict between reality and fantasy, and the actual and the ideal, represented by its two characters: Blanche DuBois, an aging Southern belle who clings to her pretensions, and Stanley Kowalski, a rising member of the urban immigrant class.

A Streetcar Named Desire is not the only play with a “questionable” female lead. Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children, written in 1939 by one of the world’ greatest dramatists Bertolt Brecht, is not a noble character, insensitive to the war by profiteering from it.

Set in the 1600s in Europe during the Thirty Years' War, Mother Courage and Her Children, said to be greatest anti-war play of all time, tells the story of a canteen woman who loses her children to the war she profits from. For the Tanghalang Pilipino staging, Davao-based theater artist Don Pagusara adapted the play as a paean to the German master. In Madonna Brava ng Mindanao, he made the character “a kind of ubiquitous witness to the rough and tumble wherefores of the Mindanao War.”

The character is described thus: “Madonna Brava is absolutely Bisaya. She dons the cultural trappings of a genuine Cebuana and articulates with the sharp tongue of an Annabelle Rama. But she is a true daughter of Mindanao; she knows the Island like she does the roadmaps on her palms. Her children separately descend from the ethnic lines of a Muslim Maranao, a Lumad Subanen and a Christian Filipino settler….

“She follows its warpaths with the flamboyance of a trader and the bravado of a woman who needs to survive her family in a milieu of uncertainty, terror and death. Her multicab, a veritable mobile mini-bazaar loaded with an assortment of stuffs and wares that cater to soldiers, takes her and her tri-ethnic brood—Moro Nharon, Christian Tom and Lumad Natalia—to long distances and unseemly spaces of war-torn Mindanao….”

“She trades not so much her sellable stuffs as how deftly she confronts threatening circumstances with the sway of her wit. But, sadly, the war itself is like a mother who has its own claims on the fates and lives of the people of the Island, especially—and most especially—Madonna Brava’s own children.”

Slated for September and October, Madonna Brava ng Mindanao will be directed by another Mindanaoan artist, Nestor Horfilla, founding artistic director of Kaliwat Theater Collective, Inc. of Davao. Madonna Brava will be played by award-winning actress Shamaine Centenera Buencamino. The Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company will join her.

These two “heavy” and serious productions are counterbalanced by two plays with comedic attributes: Apples from the Desert and Three Sisters.

Apples from the Desert is the season opener. Written by Savyon Liebrecht, daughter of Holocaust survivors and one of Israel’s notable women writers, the play is about “the conflict that erupts between an independent-minded daughter and her Jewish Orthodox parents, as she discovers love and life beyond the confines of her highly-regimented life,” and “reveals the impact of larger social and political conflicts within the private worlds of home and family.”

It will be staged in English, as well as in Filipino, with the translation of playwright Liza Magtoto, Mansanas ng Disyerto. Tess Jamias, contemporary dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, and teacher and alumnae of the TP Actor’s Company, and featured actors include Sherry Lara, Leo Rialp, Rody Vera, Peewee O’Hara, Roeder CamaƱag, Amihan Ruiz and Olive Nieto.

Ending the season is an adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which is described as “a magnificent tragicomedy about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world.” Its characters Olga, Masha, and Irina are refined and cultured young women raised in Moscow but have been living in a small town for 11 years. They hope to return to Moscow upon the death of their father, but that hope clashes with reality.

Playwright Rody Vera adapted Three Sisters, a favorite since it was first performed in 1901, into Tatlong Maria, “about the slow destruction of a family once regarded as one of the most respectable in society,” transferring the setting to a remote small town in the Philippines during the first decade of Martial Law. New York-based director and designer Loy Arcenas will direct actors Mailes Kanapi, Diana Malahay, Angeli Bayani, Cheryl Ramos, Nonie Buencamino and Paolo O’Hara.

In addition to its regular repertoire, Tanghalang Pilipino will be staging an adaptation of Lope K. Santos’s substantial novel Banaag at Sikat for the Ikaapat na Tagpo: The 8th National Theater Festival this November at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It will be a musical with a libretto by Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for literature, music by Lucien Letaba. and direction by Lutgardo Labad.

Since Tanghalang Pilipino’s establishment in 1987, with aims “to promote Philippine theater that is rooted in centuries-old Filipino culture and history while being responsive to evolving contemporary society,” it has given us a bounty of theatrical productions that enriches us. It has presented more than 200 full productions for 22 seasons and maintains a pool of professional theater actors known as the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors Company. Despite dire times, Tanghalang Pilipino still manages to mount productions. Josef said that they are thankful for the patronage of the chairman of its board of trustees, businessman Antonio Cojuangco, who has been generous to the company. With this new season, we are gifted with the magnanimity of the art of theater.

Apples From the Dessert runs from Aug. 7 to 9, 13 to 14; and Sept. 4 to 6 and 11 to13, at the CCP Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater). Madonna Brava ng Mindanao is slated at the CCP Tanghalang Huseng Batute (Studio Theater) from Sept. 18 to 20, 25 to 27; and Oct. 2 to 4, 9-11. A Streetcar Named Desire will run from Oct. 2 to 4, 9 to 11; 16 to 18; 23 to 25, at the CCP Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater). Tatlong Maria runs from Feb. 19 to 21, 26-28; and March 13 to 15 and 20 to 22, 2010, at the CCP Tanghalang Aurelio Toltino. For more information, call Tanghalang Pilipino at 832-1125 locals 1620 and 1621, telefax 832-3661, e-mail or visit Web site

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