Irma By Daylight
- Juaniyo Arcellana () - August 21, 2005 - 12:00am
A SIMPLE MISPRONOUNCED WORD LED IRMA ADLAWAN into the world of theater. She and a friend were talking in a corridor between classes about the recent grand wedding of the youngest Marcos daughter, when who should come walking up for his class and overhearing the conversation but director Tony Mabesa.

The year was 1983, and the undergraduate Adlawan, it turned out, mispronounced the word "ceremony," when she asked her friend, "Napanood mo ba yung ce-Re-mo-ny?" putting the accent on the second syllable instead of the first.

Mabesa admonished the young student, "What do you mean ce-Re-mo-ny? CE-re-mo-ny. You come to me and audition. And you claim to be a speech and drama and major?"

It was 1983, and the encounter started up Adlawan’s acting career, which has lately branched out into the world of independent digital film. In UP Diliman, the ingenue starred in a number plays under Mabesa’s tutelage at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero theater at the 2nd floor of the old AS building: from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Chekhov’s Three Sisters and a play called Misanthrope whose French author she can no longer recall over lunch at Grappas by the CCP, looking out to the yachts in Manila bay, some 20 years after she did those plays.

These days, as can be expected, there is much excitement about Irma, who is already being hailed as the queen of Filipino independent digital films, a title she takes with a grain of salt for her pasta. She has three films coming out or already showing, from the much anticipated Mga Pusang Gala by Ellen Ongkeko to Sa North Diversion Road under CinemaOne directed by her husband Dennis Marasigan, to Cinemalaya entry ICU Bed #7 directed by newcomer Rica Arevalo where she plays a supporting role to Manoy Eddie Garcia’s lead.

In mainstream cinema she has also played supporting roles, from Jeffrey Jeturian’s Tuhog to Mga Munting Tinig.

On Fridays she drives the long route in a station wagon from her home in Kawit, Cavite to her acting class in the afternoon at the CCP, where she has 11 students, "just the right size." She’s back in acting as well as working at the CCP, after several years’ leave to concentrate on motherhood. From 1991-1998 she was with Tanghalang Pilipino under Nonon Padilla, and among her fellow actors at the time were John Arcilla, her co-star in North Diversion Road, and Nonie Buencamino, Olga Natividad, and the late RJ Leyran.

She and Arcilla had done the Tony Perez play onstage before, sometime in the mid-90s, which is why they were again tapped to play those roles of couples coming apart in the Marasigan-directed digital bankrolled by CinemaOne. They finished it in four days of intense shooting, well within the P600,000 budget.

Adlawan says that Ricky Davao, her co-star in Pusang Gala, had wanted to play the Arcilla character in North Diversion, but Marasigan decided on Arcilla because he was already familiar with the lines and they would just be transposing their stage work onscreen, in itself already a tricky business.

It’s not the first time she was directed by her hubby Dennis, who also called the shots in the early ’90s stage production, Buhay Pelikula.

The budget for the Cinemalaya productions, Irma says, was slightly smaller than that for CinemaOne, P50,000, but in the former the director-filmmaker retains copyright and distribution rights, unlike in the ABS-CBN creative digital arm which assumes copyright and distribution of the finished film.

"The CinemaOne film fest was supposed to be held at the same time as Cinemalaya," Irma says, but due to delays in the production of some CinemaOne entries, the Megamall run was pushed back by a week or two. One entry, Topel Lee’s Dilim, made it down the wire on premier night after missing its preview date with the Cinema Evaluation Board.

Comparing the directors Arevalo and Ongkeko, Adlawan says her ICU "direk" being the typical young filmmaker was more laidback, "she lets us be," while the Pusang Gala direk was more meticulous, where all scenes "must be rehearsed." Ongkeko had seen her in a play and asked Adlawan to audition during casting for Pusa.

She was originally tapped to play the younger daughter of Manoy in ICU Bed #7, had the actress tapped to play the other daughter been more or less her contemporary, like, say, Rio Locsin. But since it was Angel Aquino who was to play the other daughter, Irma admits that no way could she look younger than Angel.

But she relishes the experience of working with Eddie Garcia.

"He just sat there quietly reading his lines between scenes, walang ere, wala man lang bodyguard, just a driver," she says. Pusang Gala, whose commercial run is slated mid-August, Adlawan says is a sexy, non-exploitation film, something which won’t have the fist-waving women’s movement waving their fists again. "It’s a redefinition of bold," the indie actress says.

There’s some nudity, sure, but all done central to the story of friendship between a gay man and a career woman, neighbors in a duplex who are both unlucky in love. Some raunchy scenes were trimmed down to reclassify the film into at least R-13, to make it qualify for showing in the more wholesome "family-oriented" theaters.

The director’s cut, though, narrowly missed getting an A grade from the CEB, one of those votes that went down the wire.

"Mukha nga," Irma says, when told that advance reviews for Pusang Gala have all been favorable, and that there was much anticipation for it. Some critics even went so far as saying it could define Adlawan’s career.

She had wanted her kids to watch Pusang Gala, but they declined. She has four, the first two twin girls in their 20s.

"I told them, ‘But you’ve seen me kissing onstage before’, but they would have none of it. Somehow kids can’t imagine their parents doing these things."

Between indie projects she teaches and acts in telenovelas such as Enkantadia. A teleseries directed by Joey Reyes for GMA 7, Noel, is currently in the can.

Somehow she can’t picture herself crossing over completely into the mainstream, "nakakailang pa rin when some people recognize you in a public place and talk about you, nakaka-paranoid." Rest assured then a part of her will always be indie.

She mentions something about "the beauty of acting," in context of the rehearsal of lines and the give and take between actors during scenes, how she tries her best not to review her lines in her head while the other actor is still speaking, because this anticipation might show in her face and destroy the spontaneity and freshness of the experience. She says if the other actor is giving and generous, more so should she live up to the challenge to seize the moment, a quicksilver, elusive chemistry that only one born to the stage and screen would be worthy to explain. Indeed, how but in custom and ceRemony are innocence and beauty born?

After the Czech beer, sausage and pasta, we repair to the seawall for some pictures, and in the daylight under the rather cloudy July skies she looks a bit different, not a stray cat at all. She remembers Susan Valdez, her co-actress in UP now in New York with family, her daughters who once watched a French film in school that presaged "Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros," and looks out to the yachts in the bay, under the Adlawan sun. It is time for her class of 11, and she gets into her station wagon, which seems to have driven straight from the North Diversion Road, only later it will take the Coastal Road to Cavite, southbound and into the night of sweet indie digital dreams.

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