Review: Art Theater Manila makes flashy debut with futuristic 'Mahabharata'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 18 2017 11:22 AM

Sakuntala and Dushyanta share an intimate moment while Bharata looks on in this scene from 'Sakuntala.' Photo by author

MANILA -- I did not hear anything about new theater company Art Theater Manila nor its maiden production "Sakuntala" at all, by any media. Then suddenly last week, there came the rave reviews from those who saw the play on its first week which were posted on social media with some very attractive photos from the production. Lucky for me, they had afternoon shows so I could go see it for myself. 

The story is based on a Sanskrit legend as written by Kalidasa in his epic masterpiece, the "Mahabharata." However, in this Filipino translation by Allan Palileo, the setting was shifted to a futuristic dystopic society in the year 2080. King Dusyanta was hunting in the forest one day when he stumbled into a peaceful community of hermits. There he was smitten by the beauty of the hermit's adopted daughter, Sakuntala. When the two lovers decide to get married though, the demon Durvasas casts a curse which tore them apart.

The technical aspects of this production were impeccable. The vibrant lighting design of Meliton Roxas added so much to the drama and dimension of the basic scenography by Ohm David. There was an interesting scene featuring puppetry of an illuminated fish set to swim in the green-lit abyss. The costumes and make-up by Raqs Regalado and Jody Carig were imaginatively dystopian yet distinctly Asian. 

As the play began, the exotic tribal music by Gian Gianan filled the room. The acoustics were perfect in the warehouse-like venue, making the music heady and even intoxicating to the senses. When the lovers were dancing together to the sensual choreography of JM Cabling, the music took on a life of its own creating a raw erotic wall of sound all around the audience. The final group dance for joy had such an ebullience and infectious energy.

The title character may have been Sakuntala, but the more challenging role was that of the king Dushyanta. Vincent Kevin Pajara was magnetic in his portrayal of this regal character with his strong stage presence and smart carriage. No matter how cheesy his pickup lines were in the name of love-at-first-sight, Pajara pulled them off with charm and charisma. His delivery of his kilometric lines was solid. His dancing skills also did the choreography good. His character also had to sing, and this triple threat delivered well on that as well. (Paul Cedrick Juan alternates in this role.)

As the titular fair maiden Sakuntala, Chase Salazar could have played her to be the weak pathetic victim Kalidasa may have written her to be. Instead, the confidently modern Salazar gives her unfortunate character spunk and spirit. She was the first to declare her feelings for the man she admired. She did not shirk to express her anger and indignation when she was denied her rights. Salazar's dramatic singing voice was showcased when she sang her Dushyanta a robust love ballad. Her chemistry with Pajara was so rich and palpable in those intimately choreographed pas de deux their characters shared. They definitely made a beautiful pair together. (Matel Patayon alternates in this role.)

Vincent Pajara, Chase Salazar and Paul Santiago at their curtain call. Photo by author

Sakuntala's two loyal but naughty ladies-in-waiting Anusuya and Priyamvada were delightfully played by Lei Ann Quinquileria and Sarina Sasaki respectively. Dushyanta's best friend Madhavya was played by Al Angcoy, who also had to deliver lengthy complex lines as the play's narrator. The main antagonist Durvasas was played with flashy fuchsia flamboyance by Paul Santiago. 

The most elaborate costume of the show, a truly cyberpunk outfit with a metallic stylized helmet, rose cape, chains and tubes, was worn by Jacques Borlaza as Sakuntala's adoptive father, the hermit Canwa. Ronnie Martinez played the serious Lead Hermit with the long white hair. Diane Formoso showed fortitude of will as Sakuntala's mother Gautami. Fritz Esase portrayed Bharata with youthful playfulness

Congratulations to director Joey Ting for his grand vision had been fulfilled so cleanly with admirable polish. Despite being a new company in a new venue, there was nary any technical glitch noticeable as everything went on without a hitch. The sound quality, a problematic matter even the most experienced theater groups have issues with, was so remarkably crisp and clear despite all the movements the actors were doing. 

There may have been only a handful of people watching when I went to watch a Thursday matinee show. However, the level of energy in the actors' performances remained at full blast! With such an auspicious and audacious maiden production, we wish for nothing but the best, artistically and financially, for this fledgling theater company, Art Theater Manila. 

"Sakuntala" runs until October 21 with two shows, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The venue is at Studio 72 Black Box Theater, 72 Kalayaan Avenue, Diliman, Quezon City.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."