Review: Shakespeare goes showbiz in PETA musical

Posted at 02/06/13 6:50 PM

Cris Villonco and Chrome Cosio as the title characters of PETA’s “D’ Wonder Twins of Boac.” Photo from the Facebook album of GR Rodis

MANILA, Philippines – In the past two years alone, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) has made William Shakespeare accessible to teens with rap music in “William,” then took an avant-garde turn with the Filipino translation “Haring Lear.”

This time, the Bard gets the Pinoy showbiz treatment in “D’ Wonder Twins of Boac,” playwright Rody Vera’s musical reimagining of “Twelfth Night” set in the Philippine movie industry in the 1960s.

Like the Shakespearean comedy, “Wonder Twins” tells the story of Viola, who is separated from her twin brother Sebastian in a shipwreck. To find work, she disguises herself as a man only to find herself attracted to her master, Orsino, who in turn is in love with Olivia, who herself falls for Viola not knowing she is a woman. Even the subplot, involving Olivia’s pretentious steward Malvolio who becomes the subject of a cruel joke, is left intact.

But instead of dukes, servants and fools, Vera transplanted the story to the Philippine movie studio system of the 1960s, with Orsino as the chief of the thinly veiled Campanilla Pictures, while Olivia owns the rival BLV Studios. Orsino’s courtship of Olivia is more than just romantic as he is also proposing a merger of the two film studios.

Malvolio and Feste – re-named Luciano in the PETA version – have become rival film directors, allowing Vera to debate on the so-called “bakya” films of the gay Luciano versus the artistic cinema that Malvolio favors.

Viola, meanwhile, is turned into Orsino’s boy Friday, who dreams of becoming a star, as does her twin brother. The confusion involving mistaken identities erupts when Viola (disguised as the Elvis Presley wannabe Cesar) is cast in a big-time movie, with Bastian as her stunt double.

The wonder of Vera’s work is that it can be appreciated by Shakespeare fans, as well as those who have no idea about “Twelfth Night.”

The language and situations are very much in tune with Filipino sensibilities, with period and pop cultural references to old movie stars and Filipino society in general during that time. Even the gender switches and mistaken identity draw parallels to Pinoy film comedies from Dolphy’s “Jack and Jill” to Vice Ganda’s “This Guy’s in Love With You Mare”

Yet those with a background on Shakespeare would appreciate Vera’s pops of lyrical dialogue – or monologues – without losing the overall pop flavor of the play. The twist at the end, as well as the epilogue, may be quite puzzling to Shakespeare readers. But taken as a whole, and in light of the play’s interrogation of the country’s movie industry, the dark ending seems an apt statement on why Philippine showbiz evolved into what it has become today.

Fun direction

“Wonder Twins” also benefits from Maribel Legarda’s affectionate and fun direction. The theater in the round design, with the cast performing on circular stages designed as film canisters, not only locates the audience in the middle of the action, it is also a nod to the way movies were shot in the ‘60s in indoor sound stages.

As if to emphasize the play’s connection to the movies, some of the scenes acted out onstage were also shot in black-and-white film and shown in video monitors – although too small to be that effective – hanging above the stage.

For the scene changes, Legarda cleverly makes it appear that a movie crew is setting up, with an actor shouting out orders.

From Jeff Hernandez’s period-sounding pop songs to John Abul’s kitschy costumes and Carlon Matobato’s cheesy choreography, “Wonder Twins” is a more cohesive – and ultimately more successful -- presentation of a bygone showbiz era, compared to the similarly nostalgic “Stageshow” and “Katy.”

Then there is Cris Villonco as Viola. Usually cast as ingenues in musicals from Maria Clara in “Noli Me Tangere” to Anne Egerman in “A Little Night Music,” Villonco showed a different side with her gender-bending performance. She even traded her soprano for a more pop vocal style reminiscent of the jukebox hits of the period.

Cris Villonco disguised as a boy with Shamaine Buencamino in a scene from PETA’s “D’ Wonder Twins of Boac.” Photo from the Facebook album of GR Rodis

Villonco actually did a bit of Viola in a short scene in the Repertory Philippines’ comedy “Leading Ladies” last year. But with “Wonder Twins,” she really went the extra mile. As Cesar, she emitted a boyish innocence whose soft side didn’t come across as effeminate -- or butch. And in her scenes with Orsino (played by Lex Marcos), Villonco showed a knack for physical comedy without being too broad. It’s a truly winning performance and one of the chief reasons why “Wonder Twins” worked so well.

As her twin, Chrome Cosio deserves more stage time. Although the play is tight as is, Vera could have added a few more early scenes with Bastian, who is, after all, Viola’s template on how to act like a man. Cosio has a natural intensity as an actor and he was able to convey this in his few scenes.

But despite Villonco’s performance, “Wonder Twins” is really an ensemble effort and most made the most of their time on stage, notably veteran actress Shamaine Buencamino having fun with her donya-turn as Olivia, comedy bar comedian Phillip Lazaro showing restraint in his theater debut as the pragmatic Luciano, and Gie Onida as Olivia’s drunken uncle Toma.

“Wonder Twins” is a perfect closer for PETA’s movie-themed season.

“D’ Wonder Twins of Boac” runs at the PETA Theater Center in Quezon City until March 3.