Review: Red Turnip makes noise with 'Closer'

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Oct 12 2013 12:08 AM | Updated as of Oct 12 2013 11:42 PM

Bart Guingona as Larry and Angel Aquino as Anna in a scene from Red Turnip's 'Closer.' 

MANILA -- How can a new theater company stand out in an increasingly crowded Manila theater scene?

For Red Turnip, which is founded by theater actors Cris Villongco, Ana Abad Santos, Rem Zamora, Topper Fabregas and Jenny Jamora, one quick way to differentiate itself is by choosing the brash British play "Closer" as its debut production and then staging it in an unlikely venue, the events place Whitespace, far from the usual hubs for theater audiences.

That is, after all, part of the reason these five friends, who are all closely associated with Repertory Philippines, formed their own group. They want to "stage the kinds of productions that are in short supply in the country: contemporary straight plays, modern stories with an experiental angle, challenging material with the potential for adaptation and site-specific performances."

"Closer," which premiered in London in the mid-'90s, is exactly that -- modern, challenging for actors and, given the deluge of musicals this year, refreshing for audiences looking for something more than just family entertainment.

Written by Patrick Marber, "Closer" is a play with four characters-- the writer Dan, the photographer Anna, the doctor Larry and the stripper Alice -- whose lives intersect, much like the London subway system, whose map serves as the stage for Red Turnip's production.

It is basically about love and Marber even sets up the characters with cute, love-at-first-sight meetings, not far from the average rom-com. But when the flirting is over, "Closer" exposes a far more complicated and darker tone. Lovers are swapped, deceipt enters into the picture, and snowballs into revenge. Honesty and intimacy are not necessarily the same.

The play is peppered with intimate details, conveyed in the coarsest of language and bombarding the audience with too much information. Director Ana Abad Santos purposely made this into a theater-in-the-round, in part because of Whitespace's own limitations, but also to bring the audience closer to the action. Yet "Closer" remains purposely cold and distant. It's a love story but also anti-romance at the same time.

While "Closer" is no doubt intriguing as a play, the appeal for audiences lies largely on its actors. For the film version, it had an all-star cast with Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. The Broadway version had Natasha Richardson, fresh from her winning performance in "Cabaret."

Red Turnip offers two theater veterans and two TV and film actors making their theater debut. Unfortunately, during the press preview of "Closer" last week, it was painfully obvious who the theater newbies are.

Marc Abaya as Dan and Cris Villongco as Alice in a scene from Red Turnip's 'Closer.' 

As Dan, Marc Abaya, who started as a rocker/musician before venturing into TV soaps, appeared tentative in his approach to his character. There was a lack of chemistry with his fellow actors, and crucially with his partner Cris Villongo as Alice in the first few scenes. He was far more confident in the second act, however, which suggests that he is bound to improve as the run progresses.

Angel Aquino may be an award-winning actress for her movies -- she was terrific in "On the Job" -- but she has yet to master the kind of acting required in theater. Her moves and expressions were far too slight and more attuned for the camera. But what she brings to "Closer" is far more valuable. Her stage presence is just out of this world. In fact, her beauty can be a distraction since she effortlessly commands attention. You just stare at her. And stare some more. And fall in love. When she emerges in that slim black-and-white gown, all eyes were definitely on her.

For Villongco, playing the role of a stripper could be her coming-out as an adult actress. Long cast in ingenue roles such as Maria Clara in "Noli Me Tangere," Villongco seemed to be relishing the opportunity to do something fresh, even if that means doing a strip act in her panties, smoking and uttering profanities. Her Alice is perfectly mysterious and alluring, a mixture of girlish romantic and a free spirit.

Then there's the ever-reliable Bart Guingona as Larry, a role he has perfected through the years, notably with his own group Actor's Actors Inc., whose vision is basically similar to Red Turnip's. In fact, Guingona has played Larry before in an AAI production in the early 2000s with Ana Abad Santos as Alice. As such, it's no surprise that Guingona easily shines, giving "Closer" the kind of bombast it needs as an edgy portrait of modern lust and love in the age of x-rated Internet chat rooms and private lap dance rooms.

Angel Aquino as Anna and Cris Villongco as Alice in a scene from Red Turnip's 'Closer.' 

"Closer" as a production is still in the process of gelling but there is no doubt that Abad Santos and the cast will eventually get there. Just as Red Turnip will, in the years to come, become an integral part of the local theater scene.

Because just like the five actors who make up this young company, there are audiences out there who are also yearning for the kind of shows that made them drawn to the theater in the first place.

"Closer" runs through all weekends of October at Whitespace, Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati.