Filipino actors finish ‘SMAK!’ shows in Berlin

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at May 24 2022 08:12 PM

Bullet Dumas (left with acoustic guitar) is Tikbalangay in Khavn's recently concluded 'SMAK!'. Photo by Axel Estein courtesy of Khavn

Filipino actors Bong Cabrera, Rox Lee, Bituin Escalante, Bullet Dumas and other independent artists happily returned to Manila after being part of the much-applauded “SMAK!” performances in Berlin.

“SMAK!” is avant-auteur Khavn de la Cruz’s hybrid theater with the long title “SMAK! SuperMacho AntiKristo: A Headless 100-Act Opera To Mend All Broken Bicycles Of The Universe According To Jarry & Rizal By Khavn, Grand Seer Of The Philippine KKKingdom.”

After a month-long rehearsal that started early March, they finished seven performances from April 13-28. There have been 10-minute standing ovations in almost all jampacked shows at the 850-seat theater Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

“For someone who doesn’t rehearse, doesn’t do pre-production, and shoots feature in a day or three, the one-month theater rehearsal was like making 30 full-length films,” Khavn told ABS-CBN News.

Khavn is director, co-writer, musical director, composer and actor in “SMAK!” Coinciding with the live performances, about 15 of his feature films were shown at the Main Hall, the Roter Salon and the 24-hour Cinema Truck beside the Volksbuehne Theater as part of his film retrospective.

In the international film circle, Khavn is known as the director of the cult favorite “Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between A Criminal And A Whore,” starring Tadanobu Asano. He is also known for “Mondomanila,” “Alipato: The Very Brief Life Of An Ember,” the much-awarded “Balangiga: Howling Wilderness” and his most recent “Orphea” and “Love Is A Dog From Hell,” among many others.

Having finished “SMAK!” he realized how different and more fulfilling it has been while acting and performing on stage.

“Though theater somehow smells the same with cinema, it’s a different sexy beast. The atomic bodies of the actors have to remember every little thing. A public psycho-sexual-emotional intercourse between the cast and the audience. It’s totally worth all the bodily fluids: 10,000 volts of total theater, live cinema, ‘gesamkunstwerk’ elektroshock-shock-shock!!!” added Khavn.

Together with the Filipino actors, artists and musicians, Khavn is just but thankful of the experience.

Though not physically present, John Lloyd Cruz and Lav Diaz were also part of the silent film component produced by Achinette Villamor, titled “Nitroglycerin in the Pomegranate,” which was shown simultaneously with the hybrid live theater.

Bullet Dumas (left with guitar) plays Tikbalangay while Bituin Escalante (right) is MamaMakbet in 'SMAK!' Berlin. Photo by Lilli Nass from Volksbuehne IG account

“SMAK!” is the second theatrical piece for musician and theater actor Dumas. Earlier, he played the titular role of Andres Bonifacio in Tanghalang Ateneo’s rock musical “2Bayani: Rock Operang Alay Kay Andres Bonifacio” in which Khavn was co-writer with Zosimo Quibilan Jr. “2Bayani” started streaming on April 9, as the country was commemorating Araw ng Kagitingan, only four days earlier before “SMAK!” opened in Berlin.

In “SMAK!” Dumas played a major character named Tikbalangay.

In Khav’s description, Tikbalangay “is the lord of the dead. Master of all stringed instruments in the universe. Made a deal with Paganini, Foscarini and Fettucini. Ferries condemned souls to the hemorrhoids of Tartanus. Still waiting for Uncle Jesus Ex Machina to remit his cock fight winnings. Tikbalang is the reverse centaur of Filipino folklore. The balangay is a type of Filipino war boat that has lent its name to the barangay, the smallest political unit in the Philippines that replaced the village and barrio during the 1970s. “

Asked about his “SMAK!” gig, Dumas told ABS-CBN News: “’SMAK!’ was, in every sense of the word, WAZAK!”

“Wazak” is slang for fantastic, great, cool, heavenly, uplifting, a positive experience. It is also Khavn’s favorite expression to praise his actors or anything affirmative on the set.

“There's always magic when you're already exhausted and frustrated and you still want to come up with something. I have never done improv outside of my nest but it has always been a huge part of my music process,” Dumas said.

“Khavn allowing us to do our own thing onstage and on location were either empowering or humbling. ‘Wazak’ meaning wasted, ‘wazak’ meaning crushed, ‘wazak’ meaning apathy, ‘wazak’ meaning nothing and everything at the same time, ‘wazak’ meaning wow, et cetera. It was always up to you to enjoy the ride. And enjoy the ride we all did,” added Dumas.

Bong Cabrera as Pope Mustard with (from left) Mick Mehnert, Rox Lee (in white costume) and Yasmin Saleh. Photo by Lilli Nass courtesy of Khavn

Theater actor Bong Cabrera, who played a major character named Pope Mustard, maximized his time in Europe. Because of “SMAK!” he was able to visit museums, parks, bars and historic churches in Berlin, Venice and Prague.

On a weekend break before the final two shows of “SMAK!,” he went to a memorable side trip to Udine, Italy for a two-day stay. Besides the usual sightseeing, he attended the Far East Film Festival for the screening of Martika Ramirez Escobar’s award-winning “Leonor Will Never Die.” Cabrera plays the son who takes care of Leonor, the titular character essayed by veteran theater actress Sheila Francisco.

“I am just happy and elated with my entire experience with ‘SMAK!’. Meeting different artists and to get to know them more is the thing that I always look forward to in an international project. It was fulfilling to be able to perform on an actual stage again with the warmth of a real audience,” Cabrera told ABS-CBN News.

“The process was entirely different from what I am used to have back in Manila, but it made me braver as an artist and as a performer. Basta enjoy lang always sa mga ganap sa buhay at bilang artist. Nakakagulat din ang mga reactions ng audience all the time, ‘yung tipong they are clapping for 10 minutes during our curtain calls,” he added.

“Lots of learning curves for this project, that is why I am excited to do a play again when I get back to Manila. VLF here we come!” said Cabrera, referring to the Virgin Labfest, the annual festival of new plays at the Cultural Center of the Philippines happening June to July this year.

As of this writing, Cabrera is already in the Philippines, still ecstatic about the “SMAK!” gig and his time in Europe. The first thing he did was feed his cats.

“I managed to catch the first three shows of ‘SMAK!,’ and was able to do cameos during the first and third ones, which enabled me to join the cast and orchestra onstage at the end of the program,” writer turned performance artist Douglas Candano told ABS-CBN News. He wrote the “SMAK!” libretto with Khavn and Homer Novicio.

On opening night, April 13, he participated by eating about 100 German sausages while seated before a table at the center of the stage as the “SMAK!” performance was ongoing. Candano has been participating and winning competitive eating contests in the Philippines prior to “SMAK!”. He has been Yoshinoya Gyudon Eating Grand Champion, Mang Tomas Siga Challenge winner and Eat-All-You-Can record holder for various restaurants in Metro Manila. It was supposed to be easy except the props men forgot to re-heat the sausages but still he was able to eat three dozens.

On his second night, April 15, he said he was able to watch the show in full as part of the audience. For his third night, April 16, before he went home on April 19, he performed again with the cast by eating three chickens onstage. This time, they were roasted.

“Every show ended with several curtain calls, multiple ovations, and loud cheers and applause from the audience. The warm reception that we got made me think that all the effort that went into the play was worth it. I was also happy to have been able to make the trip since I remember having a conversation with Khavn where we talked about how the play format would mean that the SMAK! experience would be mainly confined to memory once the play ends its run,” Candano added.

Khavn, meanwhile, stayed for a few more days in Berlin to record a new album for The Brockas, an avant-jazz-rock band formed two decades ago with fellow filmmakers Rox Lee and Lav Diaz.

It was earlier announced that “SMAK!” will be performed until December this year with all German actors in the cast as part of Volksbuehne Theater’s repertoire but Khavn cancelled all the shows.

“Without the Filipino actors, it won’t be the same. Besides, Lilith Stangenberg isn’t going to be part of it because she has other commitments. I’ve heard in her recent film project, she plays wife to John Malkovich’s character,” Khavn told ABS-CBN News. In “SMAK!” Stangenberg played the female lead Sisa Jarry.

As for “SMAK!” having a Philippine premiere, Khavn said it’s farfetched because it would take a lot of resources to mount a big production like that. The Berlin run was produced by Volksbuehne Theater and the German Federal Cultural Foundation. He cited an amount in Philippine pesos that from our rough estimate could finance almost a two-year-long staging of a local musical or full-length play in the pre-pandemic setup.

“What’s more possible is Volksbuehne’s plan in re-staging ‘SMAK!’ sometime in October this year though not yet final. If not, it could be early next year. For sure, there will be a re-run,” he said.

The stresses, anxieties and worries brought by the recent Philippine elections may have diminished their upbeat mood but they remained thankful of the “SMAK!” experience.

And if there’s a major contribution the “SMAK!” project did to these Filipino actors, musicians and independent artists, it’s giving them opportunities to perform live again before an audience and earn during a period that saw the temporary cessation of traditional income sources in their own country due to mandatory lockdown restrictions and a dearth of public assistance to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on livelihood and dignity.