Sunday, September 11, 2011

From where I'm sitting: thoughts on Philippine cinema and theater

I won't pretend that this is a survey of recent Philippine film and theater since I haven't seen enough. But based on the last two indie movies and five plays and musicals I have seen over the past two months, I am optimistic about Philippine arts and culture, at least in these areas. Without launching into reviews of each of these works, I would like to point out what seems to be working, from where I'm sitting.

There is an audience. Ang Babae sa Septic Tank and Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington are by no means regular studio fare. And maybe that's their appeal. Sure, there are mainstream TV and movie actors in it, but there's more to them than the usual stars. The subject matter and the treatment are brave, unusual and fresh: Babae is a commentary on "poverty porn" seen in Filipino movies that make the festival circuit and Zombadings is about gay zombies. This can be taken for a sign that the local audience (urbanites, at least) is ready for non-formulaic works. Indies have been shown in mainstream theaters before but these two films show that commercial success is possible.

What do Dulaang UP's Rizal X, Entablado's Sa Kanyang Dapitan, Tanghalang Ateneo's Sintang Dalisay, PETA's William, and Atlantis Productions' In The Heights have in common? Make that the first four--the last production is the odd one out. The first four are geared toward student audiences. The first three are university-based productions. The first two are about Jose Rizal since it is the sesquicentennial of the national hero's birth this year. Sintang Dalisay and William are based on the works of William Shakespeare.

What does this imply? Material that is based on or adapted from an existing play can come alive, which shows that one need not have an exact Noli Me Tangere or Romeo and Juliet to talk about the lessons and truths from those works. Certainly new material or new treatment can work. Also, that the student audience is still the most convenient one to market to because it can be required for classes. Not that In The Heights suffers in terms of marketability. It had enough names and the reputation of Atlantis to pull in the theatergoers and benefits from Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning music and lyrics.

Sa Kanyang Dapitan needs a bit of work on the second act but what it proves is that different perspectives can make history come alive. Sintang Dalisay makes a classic even richer with the use of local culture. Transposing Romeo and Juliet to the Muslim South took away some of the lyricism of the lines, but the beautiful igal dancing and gamelan music added more than was removed.

What Rizal X and William show best is that there is a new breed of young standout performers. This is a playwright's dream. Bring on the young characters. William will surely have a touring life for years to come. It made Shakespeare comprehensible to high schoolers with the use of rap Rizal X dared to be experimental, with interesting (and sometimes puzzling) results. It reached out to the young audience with the use of music, an unusual set and comtemporary staging.

So before the attack of the big shows later this year through early 2012--Seussical, Stomp, The Little Mermaid, The Sound of Music and Mamma Mia--let's remember to support original plays and independent cinema. Let's make sure these young talents earn a living and encourage writers to produce work that will cross over to more mature audiences while at the same time get young people interested in the arts. Mabuhay!

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