MANILA -- After reaping awards for his critically acclaimed and well-remembered films, director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna has been focusing his time and attention on theater.
He transitioned to directing plays in 2012, when he did “Walang Sugat,” a zarzuela for Tanghalang Pilipino (TP). In 2016, he was at the helm of “Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-Araw,” the Filipino version of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also for TP.
He joined Virgin Labfest for two years -- in 2017 and 2018 -- and last year, he was back with TP, doing another Shakespeare play, “Coriolano,” the reimagined “Coriolanus,” translated by Guelan Luarca. That was followed by “Katsuri,” a timely adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” written by his wife Bibeth Orteza.
He even made his stage acting debut in “A Doll’s House, 2,” directed by his niece, Cris Villonco, in 2018. He played Torvald, the husband of the female protagonist. “That was my first major role onstage,” Siguion-Reyna said. “When I got to read the script, nakakatakot lang because the script really had long lines.”
He just gave his nod to a British production to be staged within the year. “It’s a great role. I hope it will push through,” he said.
This 2020, Siguion-Reyna makes his directorial debut for Repertory Philippines in Sarah Ruhl’s romantic-comedy, “Stage Kiss,” which opens this Friday, February 7, at Greenbelt's Onstage in Makati. It will run until March 1 and stars Missy Maramara, Tarek El Tayech, Andres Borromeo, Robbie Guevara, Jamie Wilson, Justine Narciso, Mica Pineda and pianist Nick Nangit.
“Since I got in, I kind of feel there were more and more theater productions coming up,” Siguion-Reyna noted.
His latest directorial job presents him with a different challenge. “You’d think ‘Stage Kiss’ is just some romantic comedy, it’s something deeper,” he said. “It’s not a farce, which is really notoriously difficult to pull off. Underneath, there’s a real issue for the lead female character.”
READING UP ON RUHL
When Repertory Philippines’ artistic director Liesl Batucan offered him to direct “Stage Kiss,” Siguion-Reyna was immediately receptive, although he was kind of hesitant as he was not familiar with the work of playwright Ruhl.
He worked with Batucan in “Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-Araw” back in 2016 when she was associate artistic director of TP. She was also in the cast of the play.
Then, Batucan saw “Coriolano” in February last year.
“A few weeks after that, Liesl gave me a call and talked about ‘Stage Kiss’ and asked if I would be interested in it,” Siguion-Reyna recalled.
“I haven’t seen any of [Ruhl’s] her works at that time. I was kind of hesitant because I didn’t really know her work. Then, I started reading up on her. I also read the first director of ‘Stage Kiss’ was a woman [Rebecca Taichman].
“So I told Liesl, ‘Are you sure you want a guy to direct this? They might need a female perspective.’ That was my hesitation. She told me she really wanted the visualization and clarity of ‘Coriolano.’ I took it as a challenge.”
Siguion-Reyna did some reading on Ruhl, including the book, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children and Theater.”
“The book was enlightening,” he said. “Her plays are not mainstream. Most of her works are off Broadway. She did mostly experimental plays. She also edited a book, ‘Radicalizing the Theater,’ new ways of telling stories, new roles for the theater. ‘Stage Kiss’ is considered by some as her most accessible work.”
Even when Siguion-Reyna visited New York a few times the last few years, he hasn’t come across a play by Ruhl. “There were no productions of her play at that time,” he recalled. “And it was winter. Except the one that was done here, ‘Euridice.’ Her plays had been produced and staged here. They’ve also done ‘Vibrator Play’ or ‘The Clean House’ here.”
REALITY AND FANTASY
Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss” is about a woman who goes back to acting for the theater. “She’s not happy with herself in her marriage. She married somebody else. She raised a family. She has a daughter. Then, after a long absence, she returns to theater hoping to recapture some of the magic. She finds out she would be co-acting with her former boyfriend, a Peter Pan figure, the exact opposite of her husband,” he said.
“This [‘Stage Kiss’] is the story of a woman longing for authenticity in herself, in her relationships; the woman who hasn’t quite found her center. This is a romantic fantasy of an ideal relationship. I made sure I honor that intent that she’s not quite sure if she’s in reality or fantasy. Then she finds some authenticity in the end.
“I haven’t seen a previous play or productions of Sarah Ruhl. I’m just mining my own experience of what is fantasy and reality. It’s still, when you take a project like this, you have to make it your own when you’re directing even if somebody else wrote it or directed it previously. You have to make it real for you.”
In rehearsals, Siguion-Reyna said they are constantly exploring and searching. “The way I’m looking for tension or conflict, high level or low level, there are still basic dramatic principles there in every scene,” he explained.
“The hardest, the most difficult, is always the first two scenes. Setting up the intention, friction and conflict. If that’s properly set up, the climax will take care of itself. You have to look for what it is really. What is the issue in the material.”
The veteran director rarely gets mad on the set, although he used to be more controlling. “In films and even in theater to an extent, I’ve gotten to realize if you have a good cast, you could be controlling,” he said. “I’d find it really helpful if they are open and make a collaborative atmosphere. If they have ideas that are better than mine, I’d use it. It could enrich the project.”
Even in the movies he directed, Siguion-Reyna does not welcome a “tensed set” while working. “I never believe in a tensed atmosphere, because I think it blocks up creativity,” he reasoned. “Everybody is so concerned with being correct. I’d rather have some mistakes, but the enthusiasm is there.
“Creative things sometimes can lead you to a blind alley. I don’t think it helps spontaneity. It makes everybody so robotic. I have my own ideas, my own plan, but if somebody has a better one, why not? If someone else can enrich it and layer it with other people’s ideas and make it more real for them, that’s better.”
What he really enjoys in theater is the long rehearsals period. “We can go from four to as long as eight hours, depending on the demands of the play,” Siguion-Reyna said. “Theater experience has been more rewarding for me [now]. We get to rehearse for a long period. You don’t get to do that in film. Then, I also get the chance to act onstage.”
Acting is not totally new to Siguion-Reyna. In grade school, he played a priest in “Ibong Adarna.” Then, he was cast as a bishop in “Prinsipeng Hindi Tumatawa,” an original material.
In 1991, he acted in the “Larawan” spoof sequel directed by Paul Dumol and written by Nonon Padilla. His mom, Armida Siguion-Reyna and aunt, Irma Potenciano, were Candida and Paula, respectively. Mario O’Hara played Tony Javier.
“What we did was a comedy spoof of what happened to Paula, Candida and Tony Javier after Nick Joaquin’s ‘Larawan’,” Siguion-Reyna said.
In the early ‘90s, Siguion-Reyna played the son-in-law of Robert Arevalo in an episode of TV’s weekly drama anthology, “Lovingly Yours, Helen.”
His dream theater production is “A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder,” a musical-comedy by Robert Freedman. It was based on a 1907 novel, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” by Roy Horniman. The novel became the basis for director Robert Hammer’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” a 1949 black and white comedy, with Alec Guinness in the lead.
“He [Rank] was the ninth in line to inherit the family’s fortune,” Siguion-Reyna said. “That’s why he killed everyone. That showed a very strict hierarchy of the British class system. That’s a very good material for a Repertory Philippines production.”
In films, Siguion-Reyna shared that he’s working on a few projects this year. The last one he directed was “Hari ng Tondo,” shown in 2014. His son, Rafa and niece, Villonco, were among the actors.
Part of Siguion-Reyna’s important things to accomplish this year is to finish the restoration of Reyna Films movies. So far, they have finished six. There’s one more, “Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin.”
“All the other six were negative. This last one was in print because the negative was in Los Angeles. There’s another one, ‘Kahapon May Dalawang Bata,’ done in 1999. The films are placed in a vault in Los Angeles. But I’m not too worried and not in a rush, because the temperature and humidity conditions [in LA] are okay.”
A year after his mother passed away, Siguion-Reyna is again at the helm of another play, though not a tragedy, like TP’s “Coriolano,” which he was directing when Armida passed away on February 11, 2019.
“We’ll have a simple lunch, then we’ll visit her crypt in the crematorium at Sanctuario de San Antonio. I still don’t feel she’s gone. I feel she’s still with us. We’ve kept ourselves busy," he said.
“All of us, her children and grandchildren, we’ve taken things from her. She was very generous with life lessons she had imparted. I feel she’s still with us. I wouldn’t say we miss her.”
One important thing that he always chooses to remember about his mom is the obsession to do a good job with whatever he’s doing, “I saw that and I always feel that from her, even if she passed away. That was always a good example. That’s why I don’t really feel she’s gone,” he said.