REVIEW: CAST PH’s Fourth Season shows the various colors of Christmas in three gems
C.A.S.T. PH returns from a three-year hiatus from staged readings. Playing sold-out shows, they continue to raise the bar ever higher with three plays that show how wonderful post-Covid Christmases can still be.
Watching a CAST staged reading is a gift. This is theater at its most ideal, with arguably the best actors and directors today tackling roles and plays for sheer enlargement of the soul and love for the art form. This year, Artistic Director Nelsito Gomez and his brave company took on plays that help post-pandemic audiences search for the true meaning of the season.
Play # 1: The Last Noël by Chris Bush (2019)
A post-COVID Christmas means empty chairs in every home. The first play was a tribute to this silent marker of loss that only amplifies the joy of those who remain, as well as a paean to the lost art of storytelling (and carol-singing!).
It begins happily enough. Topper Fabregas, Jillian Ita-as and Sheila Francisco are uncle, niece, and granny gathered round a table with seasonal delicacies yet to be touched, waiting for a sister/mother/daughter, and telling tales while they wait. But amidst the hilarity of past antics and childhood Christmas tales grown wilder with each retelling, there are glimpses that all is not what it seems, and that the festive lights on the tree keep Life’s darkness at bay as well as provide visual glee.
Cheery compositions were sung winningly, with Rony Fortich’s heroic piano accompaniment that evening being a gift all were grateful for.
The foreign setting and its accompanying jargon served to create some distance between the gifted performers and the audience, and while mostly enjoyable, the first hour passes a bit slowly. You really felt impatient as you waited with them for the mystery guest. But when the incredibly passionate Sheila Francisco sings out “I will wait for you always” towards the end, there is nary a dry eye in the room, as she sings of a love that lights up the night sky, guiding the beloved home.
This play makes one rethink the usual mundane family holiday dinner. For someone’s “boring” is another person’s lost blessing, one they can never hope to experience ever again.
Play # 2: Snowflake by Mike Bartlett (2018)
There is a beautiful British song sung around Christmastime, called “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Undeniably beautiful, its melancholy threatens to break hearts. What a fitting song to be featured in this second play, again from a British playwright. (We’re not complaining, as it’s difficult to beat the English for subtlety and breadth of expression in CAST PH’s language of choice.)
Snowflake means two things. One conjures images of frozen fractals while the other is what folks of a certain age call the Gen Z softies: keyboard warriors fierce when typing furiously on a keyboard, but quick to shy away from the heat of any real-life confrontation (such as actual people debating ideas in person).
The snowflake is Maya, Andy’s college student daughter who has mysteriously run away, and stayed out of touch for two years. In a desperate bid to win her back, he invites her to a Christmas eve dinner in a church hall. Only… the wrong person shows up, setting up a second act of rich dialogue covering Brexit, the unkindness of the modern age, and the cracks showing in the previous generation’s facade of unfazed adulthood. Serious topics, yes, but done with bits of humor and laughter all throughout so that the audience swings on an enjoyably emotional pendulum.
The political is personal, this play shows, and the universal affects the particular as well. Cathy Azanza-Dy directed Jaime Del Mundo (who gave a forty-five minute impassioned monologue in the first act) as Andy, Justine Narciso as the mysterious guest, and Gabby Padilla as the prodigal daughter.
A reality of many Christmas family reunions is the awkward clash of generations and cultures, the older one comfortably telling off the younger ones, with a few of the youngsters lashing out against intergenerational trauma in a manner that has them labeled as rebellious upstarts.
SNOWFLAKE is the play that addresses this clash of the ages: a war of two worlds, and two very different ways to live in it.
While veteran Del Mundo easily maneuvered the hilarity of some lines, he is most majestic in the most pathos-filled moments. This writer’s heart wept with him as he moved heaven and earth to get his daughter back, even just for Christmas Day brunch. Narciso was a revelation, going toe to toe with a theater titan and matching him tear for tear, line by line. A charming Padilla may have been the apple of her stage father’s eye, but the Gen Z heroine is indisputably an incandescent Narciso.
Play # 3: It’s A Wonderful Life : A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry (2006)
While the first two plays were contemporary ones, this last one brought us back to the 1940’s in a vintage radio play inspired by one of the most beloved classic movies of all time.
We were in for something unique when five stands outfitted as old-fashioned microphones greeted the audience, as well as an ON AIR box. Stage manager Katreana Gamban sat onstage, fiddling with knobs and playing post World War II music, calling the radio drama actors in at five minutes to air.
Director Jaime Del Mundo gave the audience several clues about this well-loved movie in his introduction. Frank Capra and James Stewart were giveaways, and we excitedly shouted the title at his cue. To this fan of the 1946 movie, it came as a delightful surprise to find that in many ways, the CAST reading was better than the original film!
Nelsito Gomez plays George Bailey, who begins the play atop a bridge, contemplating death by drowning. Enter Robbie Guevara as George’s guardian angel, Clarence, who learns of his charge’s life: a normal one filled with a hardworking, honest man’s joys and pains.
A financial problem at work tempts George to throw himself off and die, so his family can collect his life insurance. Clarence prevents this by jumping in the river himself (he hasn’t earned his wings yet), forcing George to jump in and save him.
While drying themselves off, George wishes he had never been born so his family could be spared the trouble. Clarence grants his wish, and shows George what life would be like had he never existed. Even the most troubled life, the angel shows, is still a gift.
It was utterly charming to witness each actor play several roles, all by changing their accents and voices. Noel Rayos was both announcer and evil Mr. Henry Potter, while Mikki Bradshaw-Volante alternated every other female character except George Bailey’s loving wife, Mary, who was voiced by Maronne Cruz.
While the entire ensemble dazzled with their skill, the man of the hour-and-a-half was undoubtedly Gomez, who shone the brightest. Gomez fully embodied the charming George Bailey, who sacrifices his personal ambitions so he could make others’ dreams come true. Even when tears were dripping down his patrician nose, Gomez never wavered in intensity and focus: the mark of a truly passionate artist.
By the end of the play, audience members were unabashedly wiping away happy tears (and our fair share of dripping noses) as the cast sang “Auld lang syne.”
And for a magical moment, I felt that we were all one big family united in a common yearning for honesty, for goodness, for a better year to come. Truly, it’s a wonderful life when we have a group like CAST, with the sum of so many incredible talents generously sharing their overflowing artistic gifts with us.
In a busy theater calendar with performances left and right, CAST proves to be unmissable, with each season outdoing the previous one.
Tickets : P400.00 Show Dates: Nov. 20, Nov. 27, and Dec. 4, 2023 (7:30 pm) Venue: The Mirror Studio, SJG Centre, Kalayaan Avenue, Poblacion, Makati Running Time: 90-100 minutes Credits: Chris Bush (playwright of Play 1), Caisa Borromeo (Director of Play 1), Mike Bartlett (playwright of Play 2), Cathy Azanza-Dy (Director of Play 2), Joe Landry (playwright of Play 3), Jaime Del Mundo (Director of Play 3), and Katreana Gamban (Stage Manager) Cast: Jillian Ita-as, Sheila Francisco, Topper Fabregas, and Rony Fortich (Play 1), Justine Narciso, Jaime Del Mundo, and Gabby Padilla (Play 2), Noel Rayos, Maronne Cruz, Nelsito Gomez, Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, and Robbie Guevara (Play 3)