The magic of theater is how a story comes to life right in front of your very eyes. The narrative actual unfolds before you with living, breathing actors enacting all the emotions right there. It’s tangible and immediate. Unlike film, where the camera moves or creates distance or intimacy through its various shots, directing our attention to where we are supposed to be looking, theater recreates the moment and scene for us to witness. Unlike prose, the action is fixed with the dramaturgy -- the presentation on stage from costumes to acting to stage movement and the like -- and is not at the mercy of our imaginations. It’s real. It’s really happening.
But plays have a set plot and there is a story that we are meant to follow. What is most amazing about Floy Quintos’ ‘The Kundiman Party,’ as directed by Dexter Santos and performed by a magnificent cast, is that there are moments when I forget I’m watching a play. The characters, their dynamics with each other, and the dialogue are so rich and whole in its formation that it feels so real and authentic. These characters are actual people we know, and they have a rhythm and a cadence that is so on point that it manages to take us on our journey with a multitude of powerful themes that it tackles and wrestles with such profound clarity.
‘The Kundiman Party’ centers around a retired opera diva, Maestra Adela, and her posse of self-proclaimed “Titas of Manila.” The scene opens with Maestra Adela giving singing lessons to a young lady, Antoinette, who has a day job but is passionate about singing, especially Kundiman songs, which happens to be Maestra Adela’s specialty. The class is interrupted by Helen, Mitch, and Mayen -- former students of Maestra Adela, who have transitioned to being her close circle of friends -- after they have come from a protest rally following the events of the recent midterm elections.
As Antoinette comes to know each of the “Titas of Manila,” we begin to witness a vibrant, authentic world and a solid and true friendship. In a matter of a lively and energetic conversation, Mitch, Mayen, Helen, and Adela share their personal stories while talking about politics, love, and family, and the comforts of middle-class or upper middle-class midlife.
But their world is complicated when Antoinette’s boyfriend, Bobby, comes to fetch her and they are overwhelmed by his activism, as he just came from the rally as well. His presence pushes the Adela and her circle of friends outside of their comfort zones and turns their world upside down as he ignites a spirit of rebellion and resistance from these women with larger-than-life results.
Set entirely in Maestra Adela’s rather lavish home, ‘The Kundiman Party’ finds the intersection of multiple themes, creating connections between the Kundiman, acts of protest, rebellion, politics, idealism, cynicism, generational differences, social class inequality, family ties, and social media. Through its fully-fleshed out characters, the play is in constant motion as it captures the quick back-and-forths of a group who have such a rich history with each other that their lives are quickly disrupted and affected by this huge surge of idealism from Bobby.
The cast is magnificent from Miah Canton’s Antoinette, who does a magnificent job of singing the majority of the Kundiman songs and creating the slight differences in the nuances when she takes notes from Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino’s Maestra Adela. The three other titas, Helen, Mayen, and Mitch are played with such precision by Stella Canete-Mendoza, Frances Makil-Ignacio, and Missy Maramara, respectively. These are titas that we all have come to know, with distinct personalities and quirks that truly define them. Maramara’s Mitch is an explosive performance that needs pointing out.
Boo Gabunada plays Bobby with such youthful exuberance that he comes off as almost like a self-centered millennial with ADHD. He is never swallowed by the sheer talent of the women on stage with him and manages to bulldoze through them. He manages to make you annoyed, even frustrated with his take-no-prisoner idealism but you can’t take your eyes off of him. And in a production with fabulous performances left and right, it’s when Gabunada’s Bobby finally has an epiphany of what he had begun and how high the stakes have become, he goes quiet for one moment and that sudden stillness creates a very human moment for Bobby that made me tear up.
Add to the mix, an unexpected Nonie Buencamino performance that is so strong while being deceptively tender as Bobby’s politician father and Gabby Pagiurigan’s Ludwig, Maestra Adela’s pianist and you’ve got a magnificent display of virtuoso performances playing off harmoniously with each other.
There are so many things to love about ‘The Kundiman Party’ -- from its deconstruction of Kundiman songs, finding the voice of protest from these classic Filipino love songs to the realistic propositions of our political climate. But what hit me most was how real and authentic the whole play felt. There is an element of the whimsical when Maestra Adela accidentally becomes a viral sensation (which incites the major conflict that happens in Act 2) but it is wonderfully grounded in characters and conversations that don’t just feel true, it sounds familiar and true from the words to the delivery.
The power that theater has over film is how it appeals to what is happening now, the present, and ‘The Kundiman Party’ feels that way the moment these characters begin to interact with each other. It’s sobering as it is funny and heartbreaking at the same time. This is a show that must be seen and should be restaged again before the year ends.
'The Kundiman Party' runs from May 24 to June 2, 2019, at The PETA Theater Center, No.5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. Reserve your tickets through the showbuyers in the poster below, or book your tickets online via Ticket2Me (https://www.ticket2me.net/e/2248).