Passion for theater

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

Let’s digress from sports for a moment and delve into theater. I recently watched a local production of “Romeo and Juliet” at Teatrino in Greenhills and was absolutely blown away by the performance of a 14-strong cast that relived Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy on stage in a uniquely Filipino rendition.

Sports fans should be able to identify with theater easily. You can’t get enough of drama from the hype behind the May 2 showdown between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao or the theatrics that basketball players display in trying to “sell” fouls on the court. Athletes are actors on a different stage but there is no script to follow only a gameplan mapped out by their coaches.

“Romeo and Juliet” is an enduring story of love that transcends a bitter family feud. It was first adapted to film in 1911. There have been hundreds of movie and stage versions made in countries all over the world, including Romania, Brazil, Spain, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Japan, Singapore, Germany, France, Italy and of course, the Philippines. Shakespeare’s masterpiece has been performed on ice by figure skaters, depicted in ballet and even retold in animation. It delivers a universal message that love conquers all even unto death.

My wife Menchu and daughter Cristina took me to watch the latest Filipino version. Our friend Mary Ann Gomez’ son Nelsito was cast as Romeo, his first starring role after performing to rave reviews in “Shrek the Musical,” “Grease” and “Glass Menagerie,” among others. Nelsito, 24, was born to perform, an artist and perfectionist with incredible talent. He’s appeared on TV and in movies but never gotten the chance to exhibit his full potential until Romeo came along.

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The play was the inaugural effort of the Manila Shakespeare Company, a fledgling outfit owned by actor-now-director-and-producer Nic Campos. It had a run of three shows last Feb. 27, March 5 and 6. In 2013, “Romeo and Juliet” hit Broadway with Orlando Bloom as Romeo in a modernized setting. The version was later made into a movie. The adaptation presumably inspired Campos to conjure a Filipino edition.

In 1996, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes starred in a modernized “Romeo and Juliet” movie so the 2013 Broadway depiction wasn’t exactly an original. One of the unforgettable “Romeo and Juliet” movies was a classic version in 1968 starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

Campos’ production paired Gomez with 17-year-old Rachel Coates as Juliet. Coates, like Gomez, is no newcomer to stage with credits including “Scrooge the Musical,” “Alice In Wonderland” and “Sound of Music.” Together, Gomez and Coates were a match made for stage if not in heaven. It was like they were real sweethearts, at least in the way they took their kissing scenes seriously.

The dialogue retained the classic Shakespearean lines interspersed with Filipino lingo. The fusion was extraordinarily vibrant. Campos’ innovative approach in laying out a stage where actors and audience were within arm’s reach of each other made for a stirring interaction. At Teatrino, chairs were set up on the traditional stage while the actors spoke their lines from the balcony or the passage way leading to where spectators sat sipping wine around tables. During a party scene, actors shook hands with the audience as if to welcome the theater go-ers as guests.

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For those used to lavish productions, they probably found Campos’ play lacking in quality of sound and light. But this was no lavish production. There was even no attempt at it. Campos assembled a cast that shared his passion for theater with no bounds, a shoestring budget and a love for Shakespeare. It had to be a tremendous sacrifice for the actors, especially Gomez and Coates, to memorize mile-long lines for only three shows. I was told the rehearsals were exhausting. But that’s how it is with artists who love their craft. They do it because they love to do it, not for anything else.

Aside from Gomez and Coates, others who stood out in the cast were the larger-than-life Meynard Penalosa as Capulet, Issa Litton as Lady Capulet, Katski Flores as the Nurse and Micko Yabut as Mercutio.

Campos managed to insert some laugh lines in the dialogue particularly involving Flores and even the Shakespeare purists didn’t seem to mind. The fight scenes with Gomez and Jonas Gruet as Tybalt and Gruet and Yabut were choreographed adequately and the action was somewhat thrilling. Some actors had difficulty enunciating and others overstepped the limits of their roles by overindulging but overall, you couldn’t complain about the cast’s performance. Critics should be sensitive in making reviews so as not to discourage an effort like this. Rather, they should encourage Campos and company for expressing their love for theater selflessly.

For an initial undertaking, Campos must be applauded. He had the courage to call his outfit the Manila Shakespeare Company and the guts to stage a Filipinized version of “Romeo and Juliet” at the risk of courting outrage from self-styled classicists. Gomez was outstanding and his goal of someday invading the West End should inevitably become a reality if there is justice in the world of stage.











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