Monday ∗ 14 Oct 2013

the unedited “Closer” review

NOTE: a version of this review was published in GMA News Online, which begins with a scary em dash that lists down the writer, director, lighting designer and set designer with no explanation as to why, and which uses the word “comparability” — that i never EVER use, because it sounds like … a word Rappler would use (haha!).

what was lost in that edit was the necessary context for this review, which is the premise of Red Turnip’s decision to stage “Closer,” and to establish itself as a theater company. there’s missing praise for Cris Villonco; the discussion on the possibilities for Red Turnip’s kind of theater which is really quite rakenrol was also edited out.   

i also did not say anywhere in this review that there’s a “need” for theatrical patience, as there in fact IS theatrical patience in Closer; neither did i say that Aquino and Abaya were NOT stars of this show, i said that they do not become their characters the way Villonco and Guingona do. 

all sections that were removed or heavily edited are in bold. 

as of October 12, GMA News Online has taken down their version of this review. I have also since resigned from being contributor.


Theatrical patience that is “Closer”
by Katrina Stuart Santiago

There are many reasons to enjoy “Closer,” where obviously there is a familiarity with the text that a spectator can live off, given the Hollywood version of the same. There is also the fact that it allowed for movie and TV actors to take on the roles of Anna and Dan, in the persons of Angel Aquino and Marc Abaya, respectively. This means a sense of familiarity, yes, but also balances the fear many might have about theater being “too difficult” with actors and actresses we do not know.

Of course the other side of this coin is that these two things – the Hollywood “Closer” and the decision to cast mainstream actors –are the undoing of this staging of “Closer.”It is also entirely possible that what it had going against it was precisely the premise of this staging: who is still used to watching straight plays?

The world is this staging
There was an excitement in the air about the staging of “Closer,” not just because it’s the first time it’s being staged in the Philippines, as it is because it’s the first production of Red Turnip Theater. Consisting of theater actors and actresses who lament the lack of straight plays being staged in this country (as opposed to the musical), the motley crew of five decided to take matters in their own hands. They built an unconventional theater company from scratch, and announced that they were staging “Closer” as maiden production.

And they knew to keep the excitement up. The staging was happening at Whitespace, an events place usually used for weddings and largeparties – the possibilities for using it as theater stage were endless. The food happened via stubs, cocktails were being sold, both joyfully rakenrol; when the start of the second act was delayed, we were encouraged to go get ourselves another drink.

The production did away with installing a stage in the hall that was to function as theater. Instead it installed a “set” that consisted of a floor that holds a representation of a map of London’s train stations, framed on three sides by the audience’s seats, and one side by four panels, as stark white as the room’s walls. There was no backstage as such, and it would be the gift of lighting and sounds, that would allow for the shifts in scenes, the changes in set, the movement of the cast, to happen flawlessly.

Every corner of that set was used, and the everyday spaces of the hospital and gallery, park and photo studio, bedroom and living room, were staged with the barest of props and a projector that used the four white panels and the wall behind it. It was all very classy to say the least; this also allowed for the talents behind lights, set design and sound to shine through.

Now about those actors.

The popular actor VS the theater actor
My tendency is to conclude that in this country the foray of popular actors onto the theater stage is mutually beneficial for actor and theater. On the one hand, it’s seen as a level-up for the TV or movie actor; on the other it allows for a theater production to capture the popular audience that the actor would have.

The decision to cast Angel Aquino in the role of Anna, and Marc Abaya in the role of Dan, might be part of this play’s undoing. And it is not because they cannot act, as it is because they are so obviously outclassed by Bart Guingona as Larry and Cris Villonco as Alice. There was a clear disjointedness here, and the differences in terms of performance were stark in everything from accent to volume, stage presence to characterization.

Which is to say that Guingona as Larry is exactly as unlikeable as he should be, where one does not feel for him even as Anna chooses Dan, where he is either distant and removed doctor in the Emergency Room, or needy and gullible man using a sex chatroom on the internet. He is rightfully embarrassed upon realizing that he was eyeballing with the real Anna, and not the dude who was pretending to be a girl in the chatroom. And when he becomes vengeful and angry, when he demands that Anna sleeps with him, when he demands of Alice some sex, when he tells Dan he slept with Alice, Guingona’s Larry is absolutely execrable even as it is clear that it comes from a place of pain.

Villonco meanwhile outdoes herself as Alice, where the cool flirty chick evolves believably into the vulnerable woman in love, to the hurting woman left behind. Alice confronts Anna in the latter’s studio, after Alice overhears the flirtation between Anna and Dan. Alice had asked to be photographed in order to confront Anna. When Alice raises her head, her eyes are filling with tears, none of it drops. This is the gift of Villonco really, and this is only the second scene of “Closer.” At this point it would be clear who would be the star of this show.

And it would be Alice in this actress’ hands that is reason to see this show, where the shifts are all made believable. From the girl flirting with the writer Dan, talking about stripping and being fascinated by animal carcasses; to that one who decides to fall in love and settle down with Dan; from devolving into insecurity and melancholia, to being left behind; from earning her keep and going back to strip-dancing, and finding the confidence to stand up to Anna and talk to her about those negatives. Villonco is Anna. You forget who it is playing this character; you also forget Natalie Portman (from the movie) altogether.

Which cannot be said for Aquino and Abaya. For the most part Aquino was too quiet, too introspective, for the character of Anna to actually fly and become a distinct enough voice. Abaya had his moments, particularly that final scene with Anna, but for the most part it was obvious that it was some TV acting that was at work here, complete with a seeming disengagement with the characters who were on stage with him.

It goes without saying that on any other stage and given another text to work with, Aquino and Abaya might do better. “Closer,” given how it lives off conversation and how the story is told only through the simplest of conversations at that, is not quite the production for first time theater actors.

The lengths one must go
There was a tendency to think this play too long, too tiresome. But I have a feeling that it was not so much the text, as it was the performances that made it seem longer than it actually was.

Which is to respond as well to Red Turnip’s reason for being, where they say it has been the dearth of straight plays given the dominance of musicale. It is easy to agree with this assertion, if what one considers are Atlantis, 9Works Theatrical and Repertory Philippines’s productions, where the straight plays are few and far between, if at all. Even Trumpets which staged a comeback late last month did so via a musicale: the wonderfully original Filipino-written musical in Bluebird of Happiness.

And yet anyone who even watches local theater regularly would know how often it that one will sit through a straight play, in say, Tanghalang Pilipino productions, if not the annual Virgin Labfest. There’s Tanghalang Ateneo and Dulaang U.P., and there’s PETA. Granted that TP had “Stageshow” in its last season, and that PETA will rock your world with productions like “William,” the straight play is something that Tagalog theater does not have a dearth of.

Which of course is to point out how this premise was false from the beginning; yet probably the more important point to be made is that Red Turnip only considers itself within the realm of local theater in English – which yes, might be rarely a straight play, but most importantly is so rarely original Pinoy. It would be wonderful were Red Turnip to think about not just staging straight plays in general, but to stage the local ones written in English that is churned out by say, the Palanca Awards year in year out. This would in the end allow for this spit of a theater company to actually and truly create a niche all its own, if not one that we’ve missed for a very long time.

“Closer”as such has to be a maiden production. Because there’s nowhere to go now, but up.

Closer” is written by Patrick Marber, and is being staged by Red Turnip Theater. It is directed by Ana Abad Santos, with lighting design by John Batalla, and set by Gino Gonzales. “Closer” runs until October 27 2013, with Friday shows at 9:00PM, Saturday shows at 3:00 and 8:00 PM (except for October 12), and Sundays at 3:00PM, with 8:00PM shows for the last two Sundays.

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