Somebody to love

A word about happy hospitality: I must say that my opinion of Tanghalang Ateneo’s newbie play Metamorphoses, written by Mary Zimmerman and directed by BJ Crisostomo, was made slightly more positive at the outset. This was due to the very interesting touch of bringing out the actress who played the Young Girl to give announcements for those waiting outside the theater, and thanking people waiting outside and assuring them that the play would be good.

I must say that if there’s anything I really liked about this production, it was this.

*****

The play Metamorphoses is based on one of the “great books of the Western World,” by the Roman author Ovid, and it takes the question of transformations (which is of course what the Greek word literally means) as its central theme. What happens when one is transformed? Most of the scenes in this play, a compilation of ten of the stories in the book, focus on the transformations brought about by love and its distortions.

I would agree with the capsule review put out elsewhere by Star columnist Alexis Abola that this production did lack one important element: the fantastic nature of the transformations in question. Whether it had to do with budgetary constraints, or the fear that any attempt to literally portray the transformations in some way would turn out to be too tacky, or a choice to view the transformations as much as a metaphor than anything else (hence making a line in the play about these transformations not being metaphorical an ironic one) is something I would not dare speculate upon. However, I would say that it was of little concern for me. It was a weak point, definitely, but not enough to affect what I thought of it.

One choice I made at the outset was to ask whether the actors could convincingly relate these tales afresh. I was aware of very little of the stories, including of course King Midas’s golden touch (which bookends the play), and vaguely aware of others, including that of Orpheus and Eurydice. To answer this query, I had to resolve one key problem I had with the play itself: its origins.

The difficulty I had was that like a few contemporary plays, it started life in the ivory tower. I have nothing against the ivory tower, and in the past have derived some material benefit from it, but the tendency of the play to turn at times into self-reflexive critiques which require, for instance, the inevitable turn to Jungian psychology, became more pronounced especially in the second act. It was to the credit of this production that it was presented, as it ought to be, in a self-deprecating and ironic way, catching out our tendency to read too much into stories and refusing to say that, as all myths go, these say more about ourselves than we care to admit. (Now before I end my own bout of self-reflexivity, I must argue that one of the results of the crisis of modernity was the connection of myth with falsehood, a tendency still seen in a most entertaining way in one Discovery Channel program.)

I would conclude that having said this, I gained a lot from this production. For instance, the origin of “halcyon days” became clearer to me than before (and honestly, I did recall hearing about the myth of Alcyone once but forgot), and I also found out some of the lesser-known stories from the Metamorphoses, including the tales of Myrrha and Phaeton. How they told these, though, was something I found enticing and entrancing, and my attention was held most of the time.

What did bother me was how Act I ended, which was the twofold retelling of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. I found the use of the Rilke poem a haunting and beautiful counterpoint, but the repetition of Orpheus’s tragic lament was for me an off-note. I preferred at this point that the act should have ended with silence. It was just too much.

For me, the proof that they were able to pull it off was the myth of Eros and Psyche, and this was one of the best part of the play for me. (I would say that this and the tale of Baucis and Philemon were the best parts.) Done in a style that evoked the chorus in Greek drama more than any other part of the play, I found it well-acted and well-told, and it helped that the chorus did their parts with almost melodic speech.

In conclusion, this was a play I enjoyed very much. Indeed, they were able to tell these stories afresh. Only problem was, they could have done a little more to remind us that these transformations were indeed more than metaphorical.

*****

I end my two-part series of reviews with a little note on the fact that I really did not intend to go and watch these productions at the outset. If anything, I honestly didn’t know what I got myself into. But I found last week to be an interesting one, and I wonder what the rest of the year will be like.

The choice of this title can be traced to the previous post. Obviously, since I used a Queen song title to name my first review, and since Glee! revived the fortunes of this Queen classic, I just could not resist.

Short pieces between/about reviews

While I haven’t been able to finish writing my review of Metamorphoses, another student production I watched last week, I have decided to make a few notes, looking back and looking ahead:

1. Those who are watching Rock and Rule these next few days should be reminded that it is a jukebox musical. Hence, participation is key and in fact may be helpful in overlooking some things people like me would nitpick about. So brush up on Queen! (The Act II numbers are the occasion for the real singing-along, I’m warning readers.) Last time I was there, only two people sang along, so they were forced to sing snatches of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Your correspondent was one of them, and I’m glad my training singing along to the great falsetto pop groups served me in good stead. If I get word that few are singing….

2. I will begin my review (due tomorrow) with a tribute to one of the best touches TA placed on its newbies show. One of the actresses went out, in costume and in character, to make a logistical announcement and greet those waiting in line. I found it moving, not to mention amusing, because not long before I saw the actress in question reading at the Heights folio launch.

3. By the way, I have been listening to Queen recordings since that musical came out, but Celeni Kristine Guinto, a Gleek in UP Law, drew attention to the Glee cast version of “Somebody to Love,” used in the aforementioned musical, and I found it amazing.

4. And one more thing about Metamorphoses: I got to see the trailer TA produced for the Ateneo cafeteria’s video wall, from a distance. It was interesting and intriguing, but having watched already, it was enough for me to say, “Oh, okay” and then move on.

5. Finally, I found last night’s tribute to the Gawad Tanghal ng Lahi awardees to be a most impressive show of musical talent. Hearing Rolando Tinio’s version of the most difficult aria in the operatic soprano repertoire was really worth the trouble getting there.

So that leaves me to say that tomorrow, my review of Metamorphoses will be up, and then there’s just one newbie play more–but that won’t get a review.

Under pressure

Today, I am beginning a two-part series of reviews of student productions in Ateneo, and I will begin with a review of a musical based on the work of a certain rock band. Rock and academics go well together. In fact, a noted guitarist from Britain, Brian May, is one of the few rock stars I know with a Ph.D., obtained only after some thirty or so years. It was interrupted due to his work with some rock band.

Your correspondent decided to watch this musical on a whim, after seeing the promo posters on Thursday afternoon. In so doing, he was curious to find out the answer to this question: can Missy Maramara direct musicals? More specifically, can she pull off a jukebox musical, the most notable example of which is Mamma Mia? All I can say now is that she has done her best with the resources she had. More on that later.

Rock and Rule is this year’s traditional newbie showcase play for Blue Repertory. (It is technically a “workshop play” in all but name, as I will explain later.) I understand that this somewhat longish libretto work, filled up with some of the more obscure songs from the Queen catalog alongside their 80s anthem favorites, was a technical and artistic challenge to pull off. It hit all the right notes at the end, literally, and the way the story/narrative and songs were integrated was not really as consistent as I expected. However, I was reminded that as a jukebox musical, the key was the use of the music, not necessarily the plot. (Case in point: Mamma Mia, especially the movie.)

I found Act I pretty slow going, as there was a scene or two where I felt less carried off than I expected. The scenes in question did involve some musical performances, and I felt they went on for a bit longer than needed. There were some very good set piece dance numbers where the campy villains stole the show. I found “Under Pressure” one of the best performances of the musical—notwithstanding my unhappiness with the way it was too hastily introduced. I wish the bass line came in a line or two earlier… probably as incidental music.

Act II, however, was less problematic; it was shorter, and had more of the stuff people really recognize. Of course, it did not help that “Who Wants To Live Forever” was used as a love theme; I only thought of those immortal (pun intended) words, “There can only be one.” Singing-wise, this was one of the sourest notes, because the female lead had to sing the first stanza in a lower key and the effect was not good at all. Sadly, one of my favorites was not in the musical, “Love of My Life,” but the orchestration was not available. (It demands a harp, a piano, and a string section.) Here was what convinced me that the two heroes were really the best performers in the play, acting-wise. In the first act, they were introduced as ciphers, but their dynamic as a couple really shone in this act, with swings in mood that helped keep me entertained.

From a technical standpoint, I think Blue Rep did not do well in the sound department. It was a problem I have seen before.  Microphones were off, or sound was not mixed properly at crucial moments in song and dialogue, thus rendering things inaudible or making them sound off. This was a problem in Bat Boy, the last production I watched, where sometimes the chorus overwhelmed the leads. Otherwise, lighting and set design was not a problem, as it did not distract me.

To answer the question I asked at the beginning, it may help to say that the director decided to bring up the political point of the play, one which is familiar to readers of Hardt and Negri and their grave concerns about the global capitalist system. Anyone aware of Missy Maramara’s past directorial work would recognize that she does not shy away from bringing up the politics of the thing, whether explicitly or implicitly. That, I think, is her biggest achievement.

Moreover, she has the benefit of a very good team working with her. For example, her AD, Sab Jose, was one of the leads in Bat Boy, and past readers will know what I had to say about it. I believe this was of benefit in working out the performance dynamics of musical theater, which is very different from, say, Comfort Woman. I think the decision to credit the entire senior creative team in the promo posters was wise, because it helped to highlight the collegial nature of the entire project.

Finally, given that this is a “workshop” play in all but name, it proved to be a learning experience for everyone. The newbies got their chance at working with one of the best theater performers of my generation, and the director got her first shot at working on the unfamiliar genre of the musical. I believe the actors know that it is difficult to both sing and dance at once properly, and they will get some practice as time moves on. I think Missy now realizes that the trick to handling a musical lies in pacing, in making sure that the build-up does not screech to a halt even if it requires trimming some parts at the slight cost of fidelity. In a musical whose emotional climax lies in the songs I (and other brave souls) would love to belt out, the wait should not be too long. The joy of belting out “We Will Rock You” is worth it.

Hence, my answer to the question is: Missy, you almost got away with it this time. Now let’s see you try another one. Meanwhile, I will be listening to “Under Pressure” on my MP3 player.

“Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night

and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves….”

– David Bowie and Queen, “Under Pressure”