Socially aware entertainment and theatrical spectacle

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It truly feels like prepandemic days when you have to juggle two (or more!) theater events in a day. And at this moment, campuses are leading the charge: Blistering heat notwithstanding, it’s a highly satisfying shuttle between venues on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Dulaang UP’s “Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba” (a mouthful of a title!), which seemed a far cry from the seriousness of its last offering (“The Reconciliation Dinner”). Indeed, the material originated from a Dean Alfar children’s fable, presumably simple and lighthearted in spirit, but from this, without abandoning the fabulist framework, playwrights Rody Vera and Meynard Manansala highlighted themes of colonial-rooted social inequity, gender solidarity, and body-shaming mindsets.

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But what transformed the modest story into an engaging theatrical experience was the wonderfully inventive staging by the directorial collective of Jose Estrella, Issa Manalo Lopez and Mark Dalacat, employing deftly shifting time-frames, imaginatively multiple roles for its core cast of six, and infusions of sly humor (I loved the “prompting” of the governor-general by his wife!). 

The star of the show was, of course, Kiki Baento in the rollicking title role, but I also found particularly delicious Skyzx Labastilla and Jojo Cayabyab as a cleverly nuanced alta socieded couple. (I did think the material could have been played for more complexity beyond a pleasing morality tale, but I guess that may have gone against the essential spirit.) All in all, it was a compact bundle of socially aware entertainment.

In contrast…

What a contrast to “Rosang Taba” Ateneo Blue Repertory’s “ZsaZsa Zaturnnah” was—a sprawling, 3-hour fest of outrageously glittery costume, campy emoting and frenetic gyrating! This very gay musical has entered local theater lore with its monster-hit run almost two decades ago. I had watched it on a rerun after hearing all the raves, and I remember feeling guilt at being one of the minuscule few then not to have been overwhelmed by the show, finding at least the performance I caught too “playing to the crowd.”

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So, especially given that this was a campus production, I was managing expectations. Well, this time the actual experience went the other way, because I found myself thoroughly enjoying the three hours.

I would not call it perfect theater: The sheer exuberance and flamboyance sometimes felt untidy, the narrative logic occasionally escaped me (such as the wild finale of the ZsaZsa-Femina battle), and I thought the resort to “current events” references was not always effective. But these were quibbles to the sheer FUN I had, and director Missy Maramara managed to play off the camp against the more affecting human emotions with skill and empathy.

Given my not liking “playing to the crowd,” it was ironic that I felt a major credit for the show’s rousing success went to the rapport with the hugely appreciative, jampacked audience, which greeted virtually every musical number (as the showpiece turns of the Amazonistas) with cheers and applause, and clearly the energy and verve of the ensemble fed off this response. 

It has been noted that the production felt largely student-driven; well, yes, but this could well have been a large part of the appeal. I may note that after the show I chatted with folk who were watching for the second time in the same day (!) to be able to compare alternative casts, and they actually preferred the previous performance for its MORE student (less “polished”) flavor. (This makes me look forward to my scheduled second viewing with an alternative cast.)

Whatever. I was perfectly happy with the cast I caught, mostly “pro” talents belting out the camp with panache: Kakki Teodoro as Femina, Phi Palmos as Ada (who also provided most of the lovely tender ballast to the play), Juan Carlos Galano as Dodong. Kim Molina was a revelation as ZsaZsa. But I would personally single out Joshua Cabiladas for a truly bravura Didi.

I have read thoughtful comments on the more “serious” side of “ZsaZsa,” especially its take on gender perspectives, its technical virtues and flaws, and, more recently, its music genre. These would, of course, play into an overall assessment of the production, but personally I prefer to focus on the theater spectacle that had me joining the full-throated standing ovation at its close.

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