Theater: Manhid

"Manhid"

What price is our freedom? MANHID is set in an alternate present day Philippines where the EDSA revolution failed; this musical features heroes and villains with superpowers, and a people sick with Kamanhiran (Apathy).

I want to heap accolades for Manhid. Mostly because it’s rock opera musical accompanied by ballet. Also because it creates superheroes out of characters from Filipino epics. And because of its history of being conceived by Aureaus Solito, with music from Eraserheads. The whole thing screams epic. And it is epic.

Unfortunately, so was its running time.

This is my biggest bone to pick with Ballet Philippines’ production of Manhid. It was trying to match the length of an epic, complete with side stories and interludes–turning it into a hodgepodge musical confused on whether it wants to speak out against injustice, or if it’s a juxtaposition of two love stories set against the backdrop of a revolution. In a time where short-form social media is king, you would’ve thought the creative forces of Manhid would’ve taken one look at the script and realized that at more than two-hours long, the musical was just too long. And too long not because characters are being developed, and are being loved. It was too long because each now plot twist needed explanation. Each new plot twist needed a backing musical number that tells instead of shows what the story wants to say.

Manhid is a gem–but one that needs to be polished. Just because this is how it was written more than two decades ago doesn’t mean you have to hold the true to the book. Stories like that of Manhid is supposed to reflect the times. And while most of the musical is still relevant today, important devices are visibly outdated now. Like, for example, lead character Bantugan’s job as a writer for a local tabloid. Decked out in a white sleeveless zip-up with headphones and a wrist-mounted computer, Bantugan’s entire personality screams techno-savvy individual. So why is he working as a reporter for a tabloid? No, I’m not looking down on tabloids, but they’ve been passe for some years now. Broadsheets are the new tabloids, and their online presence is way more visible now than ever before. Broadsheets online are the new mass-friendly tabloids with their clickbait headlines. If Ballet Philippines could update Bantugan’s look, why couldn’t they have updated his devices too? You’re not changing the musical, just the way the audience can relate to the characters.

Which, to be quite honest, was a hard thing to do. One, because there were too many characters. Two, because we get thrust into the story of Manhid with barely a brief of what world we’re about to enter. We get a spoken word introduction, and suddenly our lead characters are singing and dancing on stage and we have no idea what’s going on. It wasn’t until halfway through the second song before I realized that factions were being formed, that good guys were being hunted down by bad guys. And I only realized this because lead character Lam-Ang tells supporting character Dilim that the government attacked the club she was working at because they wanted to get to her.

Had the world been established better in the opening number, we wouldn’t have needed the clunky dialogue between Lam-Ang and Dilim. We would’ve just squirmed in our seats as we awaited their fate. As the villains closed in to the heroes. Instead, we scratched our heads at the action unfolding in front of us. The ministry of humanity was enjoying a show when a woman suddenly shows up to disrupt the peace. A fight ensues. And then the woman takes the lead singer of the show. If the dialogue didn’t say that Lam-Ang was saving Dilim, you can spin this off as an insurgent attack on the safety of the government.

And that could’ve been played with. But, obviously, the creative forces wanted people to relate to the insurgents. They want us to feel. Not to be numb. Hence the show’s main title and theme. But how can you care about heroes you know nothing about? Superman started with a destroyed planet. Spider-man had a dead Uncle Ben. Zsazsa Zaturnnah had a love interest whose safety was being threatened by colorful dominatrix aliens. We care about their fight because we know what they’re fighting for. In Manhid, we learn about our lead character’s fight as the first act wraps up. And that is the only time we see actual motivation from our heroes. When, during a musical number on how there came to be super-powered human beings, they fall in love with each other.

I don’t know how important the love story is to the main story arc. I know it’s important for one of the characters, for Allunsina, who you can say is the audience surrogate. But in the grand scheme of things, the love story of Bantugan and Lam-Ang felt shoe-horned. It felt like the creative forces just wanted to give heft to something that just wasn’t working out.

But, to be fair, as the first act wraps up, so does my complaints. Acts two and three had better pacing, and it also had a better grip on showing instead of telling. It also has a better love story between hero Urduja and the villain Radya Indarapata. It was still incredibly long, but time starts to fly faster because the story is now succeeding in absorbing the audience. I mean, there were still times when a break on stage becomes jarring, but overall, the last two thirds of the musical was more phenomenal than its beginning.

Ballet Philippines found a stellar cast to bring to life the characters of Manhid. I’m not completely sold on Lam-Ang, but I have to blame the material more than the actress. Bantugan’s vocals kept getting overpowered by the band, but he was serviceable. Apolaki’s forced conyo accent was funny, and I hope that that was intentional. And Dilim’s voice? Wow. The actors that shone the brightest though was Urduja’s, with vulnerability lacing her every word, even as she shows how strong her powers are; Radya Indarapata’s gray moral compass was conveyed majestically, and was most heartbreaking in his final moments; and Mamalahim-ma. There’s nothing I can say about Mamalahim-ma that will do justice to the power she brings on stage–which is an irony since she’s the only lead actor without an actual power.

And then there’s Allunsina. Played by Gold Villar with a fun abandon, Allunsina captures attention immediately even during the less-than-wonderful first act. I don’t know if some of her lines were just ad-lib, but everything out of her mouth feels natural, feels true to her character, and even at her most scathing, she was the most relatable and lovable in the cast of characters. Probably because her character felt the most true.

Allunsina is the star of Manhid.

Now, I could continue to go on and go on about Manhid, but the bottom line is this: it’s a great musical. It is. It just didn’t live up to the hype, and to my expectations.

But I have to commend Ballet Philippines (and Tanghalang Pilipino) for taking a risk in bringing back this rock opera musical. I hope next time they do, they don’t just update the costume, I wish they’d update the material too.

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Book: Wide Awake

"Wide Awake"

Everything seems to be going right in Duncan’s life: The candidate he’s been supporting for president has just won the election. Duncan’s boyfriend, Jimmy, is with him to celebrate. Love and kindness appear to have won the day.

But all too quickly, things start to go wrong. The election is called into question…and Duncan and Jimmy’s relationship is called into question, too. Suddenly Duncan has to decide what he’s willing to risk for something he believes in…and how far he’s willing to go to hold on to the people he holds dear.

Perfectly weaving together a heartfelt love story and a possible political future, David Levithan has crafted an insightfully drawn novel that reminds us how history is built–one action, one person, and one belief at a time.

I really don’t like Duncan’s boyfriend, Jimmy. I understand that this is a weird way to start my reaction piece, but it seemed right that I should begin with that.

Jimmy is a bully, and I don’t like the book completely because I kept thinking that he doesn’t deserve Duncan who just wants to be loved. Oh, sure, he’s not the only gray character in the book, and we actually have a couple of characters who do worse things. But neither one gets a happily ever after, why should Jimmy?

He did not repent. He did not learn anything. He is being rewarded for being a bully.

And I think it’s safe to say that the book really affected me. At the same time, I think this is David Levithan’s most reaching work. Both in a good way, and in a bad way.

The good: Wide Awake has realistic characters. Yes, even bully Jimmy is a realistic portrayal of someone who is maligned, but feels superior to other people.

The way Levithan writes his characters to deal with reality is exceptional. And inspiring. The good characters, like Duncan and Janna (who you’ll meet within the pages of the book), will want you to become a better person. Their actions reach into your heart, touches it, and tells you that it’s okay to go against the grain, to go for what you believe in, provided that you’re not hurting anyone.

And the bad: the whole thing is wrapped up too cleanly, I think. It’s awesome that good triumphs over evil. But come on, after showing us realistic representations, the outcome could’ve been more realistic too.

I mean, I like the happy ending. But in real life, the opponent would’ve put up a bigger fight. Things would not have been that peaceful. And parents would’ve done everything to get their children back into their homes.

Maybe it’s because I’m not American and don’t really have first-hand knowledge of their culture and how parent-children relationships work there. Maybe. But you would think these so-called loving and caring parents would love and care more about their children who are in a few states over, taking a stand in a political rally that they know could go wrong in so many ways.

Wide Awake is a great dream. So long as you set an alarm for a wake up call.

Book: Africa United

"Africa United" by Steve BloomfieldAfrica United is the story of modern-day Africa told through its soccer. Traveling across thirteen countries, from Cairo to the Cape, Steve Bloomfield meets players and fans, politicians and rebel leaders, discovering the role that soccer has played in shaping the continent. He recounts how soccer has helped to stoke conflicts and end wars, bring countries together and prop up authoritarian regimes.

A lively and elegantly reported travelogue, Africa United calls attention to the amazing relationships between people and soccer, and to the state of Africa on the cusp of the biggest moment in its sporting history, the 2010 World Cup.

Not a lot of people know that I’m a football fan. Well, not exactly a fan—but I enjoy watching football. Of all the sports out there, football is the only one I can actually see myself playing. Now, if only I had better coordination.

But that’s a subject for a different kind of blog post.

When I saw Africa United, I was intrigued. Reading the back cover, I thought it would be sort of like Pacific Rims—except with football as the sport instead of basketball. And during the time I bought the book, I was still on a Pacific Rims high. (To be clear, this was after I read the book—way, way before the book-signing event last month.) So I picked Africa United up—and bought the book.

Fast forward to some months later, I started reading the book. Three weeks later, I finally finished it.

Normally, I would attribute my slow reading pace to being busy with work, and because I tend to read more slowly when it’s non-fiction. But Africa United was only ten chapters long. And it wasn’t a thick book to begin with.

I just found it really boring.

Each chapter of the book relates to one African country. And I think that’s the problem with the book. Each chapter has its own story to tell, and most of the time, it doesn’t relate to the other stories being told. For a book called Africa United, its stories don’t seem to be very united. Or, at least, it doesn’t to me.

Every time you’d start a new chapter, it feels like you’re starting a new story. And not a very well-plotted one. The author has a tendency to jump through time, detailing football or political history, depending on what he needs to explain, rather than what the viewers need to know. That might sound a little confusing, let me try again:

Whenever the author wants to get a point across, like how good a team was prior to a certain event, he would rail off a few points of historical data—and then go back to his narrative. This was, quite honestly, jarring for me as I didn’t expect that there was a going to be a trip down history lane. Whenever this happened, I had to do a number of re-reading to make sure I didn’t skip a page or miss out on a paragraph. It was definitely disconcerting.

When I started to read Africa United, what I really expected was to learn more about Africa through the sport they play—and the political climate the continent is in. I got much of the latter, but of the former, the only thing I gleaned from the book was this: Africans love football. A lot.

I know I really shouldn’t compare it to Pacific Rims. I mean, one book is about basketball, and the other football. That alone means I shouldn’t compare—but I can’t help it. I’m not a basketball fan, but I saw how author Rafe Bartholomew loved the game through his writing. Steve Bloomfield claims the same for football, but I never felt it through his writing. Reading Africa United was like reading an online news article—except it wasn’t just a few paragraphs long. And it took forever (an exaggeration, obviously) to finish.

Do I regret buying Africa United? Well, not really. Books like this make us appreciate those we liked all the more. But if I could go back in time knowing what I know now, I might have passed on this book.

But, as I always say, these are just my thoughts. Check out what other people have said about the book:
The Scotsman
The Independent
Good Reads

book: pacific rims

"pacific rims" by rafe bartholomewaccording to the time stamp on my inset image, i bought this book last july. and i spent close to two weeks reading the book. does that mean i didn’t like the book? no. it only means i had a harder time than usual reading it.

first of all, i’m not a fan of basketball. the only reason i picked up the book was because i was intrigued as to how the author, a foreigner, sees the philippines. modern-day philippines, and not the philippines in school textbooks. and second, i do take longer when reading non-fiction, than when i read something fictional. i don’t know why.

in the end though, only one thing was important to me. was the book worth buying? yes. and i’m glad i bought it.

PACIFIC RIMS reads a little like an underdog novel. you are introduced to your main characters, the ‘losers’ so to speak, and then you join their journey to become champions.

rafe bartholomew, the author, spent three years in the philippines to experience first hand the “unlikely love affair” the philippines has with basketball. having lived here all my life, i don’t actually get the “unlikely” part of the love affair. i’ve lived knowing that filipinos love basketball. i’ve never taken a liking to it, because of my ineptitude in sports, but i’ve seen enough of it to know that it’s a very filipino sport.

how so?

basketball is like a short soap-opera. you have heroes, antagonists, powers-that-be, all mixed with talent and chance. it’s a live theater production that people can relate to because it has simple rules. it’s entertainment in its purest form.

and like most popular soap-operas, it’s free to watch on television. and for a price, you can watch the magic live.

reading PACIFIC RIMS, i was amazed to find myself getting sucked into the world of philippine basketball. as i already mentioned, it’s an accepted part of life. i was just never a fan. and i’m not claiming that the book converted me into one. it hasn’t. but for the days that i’ve been reading the book, i felt part of that world.

i guess i should credit that to the author’s way of writing. it’s very inclusive. when you read mr. bartholomew’s accounts, you’re not just reading about his experience. you feel part of the action. also, the book doesn’t romanticize the sport, but you can see just how the author loves it. it comes off in the writing.

the best part? the actual games. i’ve seen a few basketball games, so i remember the exhilaration of watching it live. and the author was able to put that exhilaration into paper. you can really see (and feel) rafe bartholomew’s love for the game through the words. and because of that love, the words transform themselves into an experience you feel while reading his accounts.

and then there are the segues. basketball being an intrinsic part of filipino culture means it touches upon other parts of the filipino psyche. the author touches on some of them in the book as well: from how politics had involved itself in the game, to the integral part it plays in societies–it even has part of a chapter set in the world of entertainment.

the book trailer i’ve seen of PACIFIC RIMS mentioned that it’s not just a book about basketball, it’s a book about the philippines. and i agree. i can also say that it’s one of the most accurate description i’ve seen of the philippines in print. then again, most of the things i’ve read about the country are either praise releases, or condemnations. so i salute rafe bartholomew, a foreigner who is more filipino than most of our celebrities, for writing about the philippines without prejudice and bias.

but before i completely end this post, i just have to mention something. rafe bartholomew’s haunts in the book, ateneo de manila, araneta coliseum, and even his stint in BAKEKANG, a local soap opera, where the places i’ve been to during the same time. his first year in the philippines, when he was researching at the ateneo library, was my last year of school in ateneo; BAKEKANG was one of the first shows i handled during my time as a features writer for a local entertainment website; and as for araneta coliseum? i’ve never been there during pba games, but i’ve been there (and around the area) for so many times because of events i had to cover.

why do i note this? because throughout rafe bartholomew’s three years in the philippines, while he was moving around the same circles i was, i never saw the things he saw. for me, that time was a new chapter in my life, but everything was pretty much same old, same old. but for him, it was a whole different ball game. pun, not intended.

feed

"feed" by mira granti love zombie-anything. really. being of the queasy nature, i actually have no idea how i fell in love with the concept of zombies. maybe it’s the fact that you can actually kill zombies. goodness knows i’m useless when it comes to ghosts.

okay, now that we’ve established that, on to FEED:

i found out about this book through another book blog, one that held a competition to give away a copy of FEED, because the blogger enjoyed it so much. this being a book on zombies, and seeing (reading about?) someone else enjoying it so much she’s willing to give a copy away had me intrigued.

having tried the e-mail us option of FULLY BOOKED, i asked if they still have a copy of FEED locally–and where i could find it, if they did. they told me they had one last copy at their rockwell branch, and that they would be willing to transfer it the branch nearest me. so i thanked them and moved on.

i got the book last monday, and i’ve read it every chance i got. it hooked me, definitely.

the good news: we survived. the bad news: so did they.

the story is pretty straight forward. we follow three bloggers as they themselves follow the campaign trail fo a senator hoping to become the republican ticket to the presidential elections.

that in itself is interesting topic, seeing as blogging is (right now) a non-traditional media. and you can never really censor what a blogger would say about you or your campaign.

now, set the whole thing in a post-apocalyptic world, where the apocalypse was brought about by the introduction of zombies.

suddenly, the game is different. on top of the probably intrigues that will crop up, there is now also thrills and danger, and the inevitable deaths that will come as soon as the zombies arrive on the scene.

FEED is an adventure set in a political background with tinges of espionage. it’s a page-turner, and it definitely kept me reading way into the night, even when i’m to have an early morning the next day.

so do i recommend this book? hell, yes.