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A case of ‘Fluid’-ity

A play about  art — the struggles of artists with their work and the temptation to compromise — seems an unlikely subject for an evening’s entertainment. Yet Fluid, staged by Theater Arts students of Ateneo de Manila’s Fine Arts Program, is just that: an intelligent play about art that manages to be fabulously fun at the same time.

Its success begins with a fine script. Written by Floy Quintos, prize-winning playwright (the script copped a Palanca) and multi-talented director whose work ranges from pop concerts and TV talk shows to ballet and opera, Fluid follows three interweaving narrative threads: a poor struggling painter is befriended by an ambitious socialite who wants to turn him into a commercial and critical success; two theater actors who wrangle over the dilemma of doing artsy plays no one will see or going pop and selling out; two coordinators, one managing a wedding, another an orchestra, tussling over what music to play at a nuptial. The play’s first half shows each pair in turns, the characters grappling with art and the concessions one must make to pursue it in an imperfect world. Then all come together in the second half, at the one-man exhibit of the now on-the-rise painter, and the story rises to the frenzy of near-farce.

An even more compelling reason for the production’s success is the quality of its performances. Helped by the intimacy of the Fine Arts Studio Theater of Ateneo’s Gonzaga Hall, the players, a mix of the school’s Theaters Arts students and alums, bring the words to vibrant life in consistently exceptional fashion. Missy Maramara plays the socialite Mira, ambitious of reputation and smelling of condescension, with an easy and sensual arrogance. Interested primarily in establishing a name for herself as a keen judge of talent, she takes on the project of managing the career of the gifted but despondent painter Amir, played with youthful coarseness and resentful intensity by Paolo Galia. Theirs becomes a carnal relationship of mutual predation. The use of the names Amir and Mira suggest that the two are aspects of the same person, inseparable and irreducible to the other, locked in an embrace both exhilarating and excruciating.

Of the two stage actors Alben is the serious one, choosing to perform only in high-brow plays. JJ Ignacio, short and roundfaced, brings a childlike earnestness to the part. His fellow actor and bedfellow, too (early in their first scene they lock lips in a prolonged kiss) is Jom, the tall and hunky one who decides to audition for Rent because he can’t stand playing to empty theaters anymore. Jake de Leon brings a vulnerability to the role that is at once endearing and pitiful. Jom returns in the second act as a popstar in-the-making, and De Leon looks and sounds as if it’s only a matter of time before he becomes one.

Sparks fly like mad when the third pair, Simone, the vacuous high-strung wedding coordinator and Renata, the schoolmarmish liaison of the philharmonic, take the stage and lock horns. Jean Pierre Reniva, who played Simone the first time I watched the show (on September 8, the gala), uses his limber reed-thin frame to burst into gay exuberance at the turn of a heel, or rather a wrist. Diega Villanueva, whom I saw a week later, plays the role as a sparkly-toothed ditz fueled entirely by caffeine and uppers. Both roles could easily be played for laughs, especially Renata, who comes off as just a little off-kilter (someone who perhaps hears a few too many notes in her head, not to mention the voices of long-dead composers). In her monologue on the transportive power of music she declares, in the throes of rapture, “It is religion!” Indeed.

But though Trency Caga-anan makes her predictably prim and dotty, Caga-anan keeps her from turning into a caricature. A wise move, since Renata’s role might be the most important. Not quite an artist (a former second violin), she slips easily and expertly into the role of art critic after Simone gets her fired from her job. She is the indispensable handmaid. She is the critic with the penetrating eye, seeing clearly the joke Amir plays on his well-heeled patrons. She knows that in painting them he captures their emptiness, their insecurity, their need to be admired. Hearing her share this insight brings him to the greatest joy he experiences in the play, the joy of being understood by someone who truly sees what he has created.

Renata is the one who restores Alben’s dream, when she takes him aside at the exhibit where he is merely a waiter, and tells him she remembers him fondly as Alceste in a production of Moliere’s Misanthrope. Alben is moved. “Someone remembers!” he says, his lips curling into a smile, to an incredulous Jom. Suddenly his past with this popstar who revels in the mawkish doesn’t seem to mean so much. He will go back to acting because someone reminded him of who he is.

But here and elsewhere the play refuses to confer its benison unambiguously. When Alben launches into a speech from Misanthrope, it is a snippet of bombast. In that moment the artist-actor becomes social outcast and rebel, yet in the fulsome speechifying the play rejects. In this play artists are not misanthropes nor rebels, merely common folk with uncommon dedication, racked by insecurity and doubt, clawed at by need, toiling at their craft to little or no fanfare (“The Philippine theater audience, all 200 of them!” Jom quips, when he explains to Alben why he has given up on “esoteric” plays and wants to audition for Rent).

The play acknowledges the artist’s need to work for a living, to make ends meet. Yet at its close, as the exhibit fails to meet Mira’s expectations (Amir ultimately cannot play the role of amiable artist), the play affirms the intractability of art and the untamable spirit of the artist. It was a mistake for Mira to try to rein Amir in (“The artist is a wild animal,” Renata counsels her). Alben will have another go at acting. The handsome and snazzily dressed Jom wears the heaviest shackles, those of fame and fortune.

Ultimately it is the play itself that seems to resolve the tension between the impulse to make art and the urge to compromise. From the least promising of subjects, Quintos — as writer and then as director — manages to weave an astonishingly merry entertainment, one in which the performers make their characters funny yet human and true. Art as entertainment: two categories more fluid than we might have thought.

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