Fat Boy Memories (How You Relate to Food and Weight)


Fat boy heaven. Burger with bacon and mac & cheese. (Photo by Vladimir Bunoan)

I was a fat kid. At around ten or 11 years old, I reached 140 pounds. I had my share of teasing from classmates: “Baboy! Baboy! (Pig! Pig!)” I woke up from bed one day, and the whole world was spinning. I went for a check-up with my pediatrician. The diagnosis was simple: I was overweight. I needed to lose weight. First order of the doctor was to reduce my food intake. I left the hospital in tears. That was a big heartbreak for a kid who loved to eat. The thought of dieting was shattering and cruel.

But even as a kid, I was very determined and driven. I could sum up the strength and discipline to attain a goal. So I went on a diet and exercised like crazy every day. I would get weighed during my regular medical check-ups. What started as a gradual weight loss would become more dramatic in the next couple of months. My family members and school teachers all marveled at the change. I became intoxicated with the high of losing weight.

When adolescence kicked-in, I realized that the body goes all weird. I started eating ravenously again. I couldn’t help it. The surprising thing was, no matter how much I stuffed into my face, I didn’t get fat. All the baby fat just went away. I grew so, so skinny, my family members thought I was addicted to drugs. A well-meaning aunt approached me with a look of grave concern and asked me if I had a problem and needed help. It was amusing.

And so it was pretty much that way from high school all the way to early adulthood. I could eat as much as I want, and remain stick thin. In college, I would eat a full rice meal for lunch. Still hungry afterwards, I would wolf down a cheeseburger. People who witnessed this were livid and envious. They’d ask me, “Where do you hide all of that?” Life is unfair.

But then the reality kicks in one day. As time goes by, your body changes, so does your metabolism. The harsh saying hits you: A moment on the lips, forever on the hips (is this the same as “panandaliang kaligayahan, habambuhay na pagsisisi?”) You start gaining weight by just inhaling the smell of fried chicken. Things aren’t the same anymore. You also become more sedentary when the daily rhythm of work sets in. And as responsibilities of adulthood grow, so do your love handles.

Food as best friend, as enemy

I look back at my relationship with food and weight, and while there were long periods of normalcy, there were also extremes. As an only child, I had no competition when it came to food. When there were leftovers, I had the privilege (or responsibility) of wiping out the dish. I don’t think my brain had the chance to process if I was already satisfied or not. Being done meant licking the serving dish clean.

When I went on a diet, food suddenly turned evil: It made you fat. Avoid at all cost. Pleasure in eating went flying out the window. Self-deprivation became the norm.

But there were also moments when food became a source of comfort — a lot of comfort. It became the antidote to stress, insecurity, anxiety, sadness, boredom, emptiness, despair. On many instances, while working on the late-evening shift, I would come home, the house all dark, and the rice cooker would be my friend. I would eat a full meal at 1 or 2 in the morning, then go to bed right after. Not very healthy.

I am reminded by the runaway bestselling book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano. It’s not a diet book. What would life be to the French without croissants and baguettes, chocolate and Champagne? Food is not the enemy. The key is reasonable pleasure in everything in life, including food. Food should not induce shame or guilt. It must be enjoyed slowly and in the right quantity, preferably using seasonal ingredients that are well-prepared. Eating should also be balanced with lots of exercise.

The struggle for fitness

If there’s a book about French women, I came across an article about a supposed manuscript entitled “The Real Reason Gay Men Don’t Get Fat.”  Why do a lot of gay men go on crazy diets, and spend hours in the gym trying to achieve a well-toned body? The article says that most gay men are essentially in love with themselves. They recreate their bodies into their vision of an ideal mate. And the thinking is that the only way to attract a partner with well-defined biceps, pecs and abs is to have them yourself. Provocative thoughts, arguable for some.

I had put off going to the gym for the longest time. I thought I could not sustain the motivation needed to thrive in these temples of body worship. I thought that I needed a deeper push, something that went beyond the surface.

One day, during a time when I was seeking guidance and wisdom, a wellness and meditation expert asked me how I took care of my five bodies (I didn’t even think we had five bodies): the physical, astral, mental, emotional and spiritual. I had no answer for the physical aspect. It’s been a long time since I stopped doing cardio exercises at home (hip-hop, zumba, cardio kung fu). I was basically in inertia. You have to work your body, she told me. It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, running, whatever, just do something to be active and make sure you do it regularly and consistently. It works hand-in-hand with your spiritual and general well-being, she said.

So there’s the push I was looking for.

I signed up for gym membership within a week, and to make sure I’m consistent and don’t slide back, I got a therapist-trainer. It is a commitment and a lot of hard work. I find myself panting, grunting, huffing and puffing from all the lifting, pulling and pushing, sometimes about to pass out. But it feels great afterwards. There are psychic rewards to knowing that you can push yourself to your limits – it’s very empowering. And the physical rewards are there – strength, endurance, and losing unwanted fats and pounds.

At first, one of the health consultants wanted to drastically influence my diet. If I had followed him to the letter, I wouldn’t even be able to eat tuna and salmon (mercury content) and bangus and tilapia (chemical feeds). I will only be allowed to eat dalagang bukid, ayungin and tamban. I wouldn’t be able to eat supermarket chicken – only the free-range kind. And I wouldn’t be able to eat sweet fruits like mangoes – only low-sugar fruits like siniguelas.

I decided to ditch this restrictive diet plan and just eat healthier and in smaller quantities, more natural, less processed (unpolished brown rice instead of white rice, low glycemic coco sugar instead of refined sugar, soy milk instead of whole milk, saging na saba for snack instead of pastries). And yes, I do treat myself to a good meal in a restaurant at least once a week, but never gorging on food (reasonable pleasure, remember.) I have also discovered a couple of vegetarian restaurants that serve scrumptious, deeply-satisfying food without the guilt.

After all the love-hate when it comes to food (okay, more love than hate), wellness and body image, I hope that this is the start of more good things to come.


Follow the author on twitter.com/Paulhenson or Instagram @heaveninawildflower


The Pleasures of a Table for One


Savoring a cocktail in solitude. (Photo by Paul Henson)

It doesn’t matter if you’re single, married, with partner, with family or with lots of friends. Dining out alone is something good to do once in a while. Think about it as taking yourself out on a date. You’re not there to please another person – you’re doing it for yourself. If you take the extra mile to show your spouse/partner/date/friend a great time, don’t you deserve to treat you and yourself alone to something special every now and then?

But why is the prospect of dining out alone terrifying? Just the thought of it gives some people cold sweats and palpitations. Most would shun the idea. Mabuti pang mag-take out na lang kaysa kumain mag-isa (better to just grab food to go than eat out alone.) Too embarrassing, they’d say.

You walk up to the waiter to ask for a table for one, and you get a quizzical look. And when you’re finally shown to your table, you feel as if all eyes are on you. And you’re imagining what people are thinking: Poor thing. All alone. No one to share a meal with.

Guess what. They’re not thinking that. You are.

That’s you thinking you’re not special. That’s you thinking you don’t deserve good things by your lonesome. That’s you being afraid to be alone with your thoughts. Well, if you can’t enjoy being by yourself, you won’t be any good in the company of someone else.

There are many benefits to enjoying a lovely meal by yourself. For one, service is faster. The servers are more attentive to you, and when the chef is finished preparing your food, it gets to your table in a flash even before you’re halfway through your cocktail. There’s no need to time the food service, unlike when you’re in a group.

Dining by yourself also gives you the opportunity to disconnect, to be off the grid, even just for an hour or so. It’s a great time to set aside your mobile device and just revel in the bliss of having this personal time and space. You can let your thoughts wander. You can enjoy your food and wine as leisurely as you want. You can even have dessert and espresso. Go ahead… No one can stop you.

Being alone encourages you to be centered, to be in the zone. You set aside distractions and you become one with the moment. This is something that’s so difficult to do in our hyper-connected and multi-tasking world. When you’re free from all the noise, you notice things that you take for granted.

The flavors of the food become more pronounced. You appreciate the delicate balance of sweetness and acidity of the balsamic vinegar, the earthy quality of the truffle oil, the lovely combination of bittersweet chocolate with mint.

It’s a good time as any to people watch when you’re dining alone, but discreetly, I should say. You notice the nuances of relationships. Those two are just on the awkward getting-to-know-you stage, those two are intoxicated with their blossoming romance, those two have been married for 20 years. Those two dudes are best friends, but those two are secret lovers, for sure. That table is celebrating a birthday, that table is having a baby shower.

You also notice that not everyone in that restaurant is automatically happy just because they’re with someone. It can be a big family, a group of friends, a couple, but they’re not talking. Their eyes are transfixed on their smartphones, fiddling away aimlessly. Or their eyes are just wandering with a blank, expressionless look.

Perhaps the best part of having time for yourself in a restaurant setting is the gift of being able to love yourself. There’s no need to feel guilty or insecure. You deserve to treat yourself because you’re special, and because you are your own best friend.

In that brief period of solitude, you can come face to face with your innermost thoughts and be as light and as whimsical as you want, or as introspective as you wish. And by the time you ask for your cheque, you will realize that dining alone is not so bad after all. It’s actually good, and is something you should have started doing sooner.


(Follow the author on twitter.com/Paulhenson or Instagram @heaveninawildflower)

A visit to Pope John XXIII’s birthplace

A statue of Pope John XXIII in his birthplace in Sotto il Monte

On Sunday, April 27, 2014 multitudes of pilgrims will descend upon the Vatican City for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, descendants to the throne of St. Peter who both shepherded the Catholic Church through the complexities of the modern era.

On this day, a small and once obscure town north of Italy will also be swarming with thousands of devotees: Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, a commune’ in the province of Bergamo in the Lombardia region named after its most famous citizen, who once belonged to a family of peasant farmers, would eventually become pope, and now, a saint.

The residence of Pope John XXIII, now the Museo di ca’ Maitino

Ten years ago, in July of 2004, I had the great blessing of visiting the birthplace of Pope John XXIII. His canonization stirred an impulse within me to dig up old photographs and journals from that trip, in the hope of getting reacquainted with a man who, though not as widely known as Pope John Paul II, made just as much contributions to the Church.

From farm boy to pope

One of the places that I saw was the humble farmhouse where Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli, grew up. The place has since been converted into a museum , the Casa Natale del Santo Papa Giovanni XXIII.

The farmhouse is painted a dusky shade of pink with wooden beams and staircase surrounding the porch. Planters are adorned with bright flowers in season. Inside the rooms are simple furnishings like wooden dressers and simple beddings that give a glimpse of the austere life of young Angelo.

Angelo was the fourth of 13 children, and though he grew up in poverty, his biographical notes stated that his family was wealthy in faith, love and trust in God.

The parish church named Parrochia di Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII

I also visited the summer residence that he used when he was already Pope John XXIII, now the Museo di ca’ Maitino. There are a lot of memorabilia including photographs which show John XXIII often smiling, a glimpse into his warmth and congeniality. One can also visit the Pope’s personal bedroom, his study and chapel.

Inside the parish church named after Pope John XXIII

A statue of Christ inside the parish church

In another room, pilgrims leave behind mementos such as medallions, paintings and pictures that are testaments to John XXIII’s intercession. There were those who were spared from death, those who survived near-fatal accidents like a car crash or falling off an electrical tower or from a tall building. There were photos of infants born of parents who thought they would never bear a child.

A fresco inside the parish church named after Pope John XXIII

I also visited the parish church named after the Pope, Parrochia di Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII. It is a lovely hillside Church, which is a solemn space for prayer as well as a place to admire for its frescoes.


While John XXIII worked in mysterious ways in the lives of many people, his enduring legacy is his work as head of the Catholic Church from 1958 to 1963. Bishop Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 77, and he took the name inspired by three personalities: his father, the patron of his birthplace, and of John, the evangelist of the charity.

He announced the Second Vatican Council in 1959, and when it opened in 1962, the Church took a big evolutionary step by seeking ways to unify Christian Churches, and create an atmosphere of dialogue with contemporary culture in the modern world.

John XXIII also appointed 37 new cardinals during his term, including a Filipino, Rufino Santos.

His 1963 encyclical “Pacem in terris” (Peace on Earth) spoke, not only to Catholics, but to all good willing people, a sign of reaching out to people in peace and solidarity, regardless of faith.

On Sunday, the saints in heaven shall welcome with open arms John XXIII, a man who has dutifully served his flock.

This article appeared on abs-cbnnews.com:  http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/focus/04/25/14/visit-pope-john-xxiiis-birthplace


Obama in Asia: The “savior” comes

This week United States president Barack Obama embarks on a 7-day Asian tour that will bring him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Obama’s visit to Asia intends to send a clear message: the U.S. remains a strong strategic partner of its allies in the Asia-Pacific, a region whose balance is being stirred, even agitated, by China which is increasingly flexing its muscles in territorial disputes in East Asia, and staking its claim as an economic superpower.

But observers say this intended message comes muddled, rather than crystal clear. When Obama announced his “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2011 — an effort to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy direction to Asia after decades of focus on the Middle East and Europe –- the U.S. perhaps did not anticipate an avalanche of crises such as the Arab spring. And even as Obama begins this week’s Asian swing, the U.S. is saddled with the unrest in Ukraine and how to deal with Russia.

Not to be forgotten, Obama’s Asia trip has been cancelled previously because of domestic problems, the most recent was in late 2013 when the White House was locked in a battle with the Capitol that led to the government shutdown. For some onlookers, this begs the question, so where’s this so-called pivot to Asia?

Then again, critics would say, who asked the U.S. to pivot to Asia in the first place?

America and the world

When talking about the U.S. with respect to its relationship with the rest of the world, I am reminded by a question that was posed to me by American Midwesterners at a journalists’ forum at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was a question that would repeatedly be asked of us foreign journalists on our trip across the U.S.: How does your country perceive the United States? How does the world look at the U.S.?

I would realize later on that the question was being posed not from a haughty standpoint. Middle America really had but a faint idea as to how the world looked at them, and they were really curious to know.

In one forum, I said that the phrase “the world’s savior” has been used several times during our trip to describe the U.S., sometimes in a plain and forthright manner, other times, with irony and derision.

Love-hate relationship

As a journalist from the Philippines I have some sense of where this image of the U.S. comes from, as well as some understanding of this love-hate relationship with the U.S. We’ve had a long history, I told our American audience, having been a colony of the U.S. for 45 years.

US-Philippine relations were off to a somewhat shaky start, to begin with, dragged as we were into the fray that was the Spanish-American War in 1898 that initially only involved Cuba (which was fighting to overthrow Spanish rule). Eventually, Spain ceded Cuba, and its other colonies including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, to the U.S. for $20 million.

The Philippines thought that the U.S. would quickly grant the country independence. But that would not be the case because the Philippines was placed under military control for fears that Filipinos were not yet ready for full democracy and unprepared to govern themselves and some foreign power might take advantage, so U.S. presence was necessary (a line that we continue to hear and debate about in today’s events). This began the saga of nationalist revolt against the U.S.

To be fair, I told our American audience, the American occupation did bring many gains to the Philippines: urban infrastructure, system of education, government structure, increase in trade, etc. But historians would also say American politics and party system became a breeding ground for the thirst for power and corruption that has become so pervasive in Philippine politics, just one of the downsides of American influence.

New security deal

When U.S. Pres. Obama arrives in Manila next week, he is expected to announce details of a new security deal agreed upon with the Philippines. Among those already reported by the New York Times and Reuters are the use of Philippine installations by U.S. troops for maritime and humanitarian operations, increase in presence of rotational troops, and boosting the Philippines’ defense capability amid tensions with China. This is a significant step since the U.S. military bases were booted out from Philippine shores in 1992.

Many things are still up in the air as far as the U.S.’s pivot to Asia is concerned. And as history reminds us, in every intervention, you take the good with the bad.


Follow the author on twitter.com/Paulhenson






Lessons from Mr. Peabody, Sherman and Mr. Banks


A boy and his dog father. A scene from “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” Photo capture from Youtube movie trailer.

“I’m a dog, too!”  And with those words, the young boy Sherman, who has been ridiculed incessantly by his classmates, came to terms with the fact that his father is… a dog, Mr. Peabody.

Who knew an animation movie like “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” could teach kids and adults alike so many things about acceptance?

Let’s admit it.  No childhood is perfect, even if you are born in a palace.  Many people carry those buried resentments and frustrations from their growing up years all the way to adulthood.

Why am I so messed up because of my parents?  Why can’t they accept who I am?  Why don’t they have faith in me?  Why did they bring me up that way?  Why do they keep on treating me like a child?  Why don’t they just let me be happy and free?  The list goes on and on.

Ah, childhood baggage.  The issue popped into my head as I watched all in one week two movies and a play which all toyed with aspects of the theme.

In “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” although Sherman loves and adores his adoptive father Mr. Peabody (a brilliant scientist and industrialist) very much, the little boy was nursing a secret shame at the unconventional set up.  How can his dad be a dog?  In one school lunch scene, a bratty classmate threw Sherman’s sandwich on the floor and shouted, “Fetch!”

In another scene, the same bratty girl tells Sherman to show her Mr. Peabody’s time machine.  Sherman refuses saying his father forbade him to.  “Do you always obey Mr. Peabody’s orders?” the girl asks.  “You know what that makes you?  A dog,” she says.


The jolly Hollywood impresario meets the feisty author. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in a scene from “Saving Mr. Banks.” Photo capture from Youtube movie trailer.

The other movie is the Tom Hanks-Emma Thompson Disney starrer “Saving Mr. Banks.”

The film is about feisty “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (played by Thomspon) and her contentious professional relationship with jolly ol’ Walt Disney (played by Hanks).  Disney has been trying to buy the rights to her book for the past 20 years and make it into a movie.

Travers hates the whimsy of Disney films, and puts her foot down on everything presented to her – from script, music, lyrics, set design, costume to choice of actor.  The film cleverly flashbacks to key moments in Travers’ childhood, particularly her relationship with her father.

Travers adored her father very much.  He was actually a drunkard who got fired in every job, but treated her daughter with so much love and tenderness.  He taught her how to dream, imagine and think freely.  But for all the faith that she had in her father, Travers also experienced disappointment when her father died early on, broken and with no wealth, and not even his dreams could save him.


A scene from the play “Games People Play.” Photo from the production’s Facebook page.

And finally, the play I watched was “Games People Play,” the Palanca Award-winning piece by Glenn Sevilla Mas, staged by Ateneo Fine Arts at the Blackbox Theater, starring Abner Delina, Thea Yrastorza and Kalil Almonte, directed by Ed Lacson, Jr.

The play opens with the three characters, Diego, Julio and Luna talking to the audience about fairy tales and fables, but the stories are a bit warped.  Snow White is a boy.  Prince Charming is nowhere in sight to kiss Sleeping Beauty awake.  And there’s something lewd in the story of the lion and the mouse.

Among the two movies and the play, it is the play that is most disturbing in its exploration of the brokenness of its characters.

Diego suffered neglect from an emotionally distant mother and abandonment issues from his father.  Luna associated sex with feelings of shame because of abuse and her mother’s brand of religiosity.  Julio grappled with homosexual tendencies while trying to win the approval of his mother.

There is humor in the way the play approached many scenes (there are only three actors playing the kids so they do multiple roles including their parents).  The intimate scene between Luna’s drunk father and ultra-religious mother (played by the two male actors) is riotous.

But such laughs only serve as a foil to the drama as the characters come full circle into adulthood.  Luna becomes a nun. Diego is a family man.  Julio has come out of the closet.  And yet they are all still broken.

Why the play decides to beat the characters up for their psychosexual conflicts (think Freud and the idea of shame and morality in a child’s latency period) is both interesting and disturbing to me.  Is it a universal or culture-specific thing?  Is psychosexual conflict the single, strongest, overriding conflict in the characters’ psyche?  These are subjects worthy of discussion.

So what can we learn about getting over childhood baggage?

In the film, P.L. Travers had the opportunity to purge herself of her childhood baggage through her writing.  But it is also because of her childhood resentments that “Mary Poppins” almost didn’t make it to Hollywood.  She was ashamed, cynical, afraid.  How will Mr. Banks (depicted in the film as drawn from the image of P.L. Travers’ father) be depicted in Disney’s Hollywood movie?

Eventually, the book made it to film, but we all know not everybody gets a Hollywood do-over.

For young boy Sherman, letting go of baggage is a decision.  He decided to stop punishing himself for what other people think.  So his father is a dog.  So what!  Sherman realized that no amount of bias from other people can equal the love and sacrifice of Mr. Peabody to raise him the best way he knew how.  So Sherman decides that if that makes him a dog, then so be it. Indeed, a boy with a loving dog for a dad is infinitely better than someone with no love at all.

True, not everyone gets a Hollywood redemption.  But we all have the power to write the story of our lives when we forgive our past, accept the present, decide to love ourselves and carry on.

Provocative play “Cock” pulsates with emotion

Topper Fabregas and Niccolo Manahan in a scene from “Cock.” Handout photo by Raul Victor Montesa










MANILA — I can think of so many puns to spin the title of this play by British playwright Mike Bartlett. It’s really hard not to run crazy with the title “Cock.” Although the title stimulated my curiosity, it was the story that got me quivering with excitement to watch Red Turnip theater company’s latest production.

Here’s the lowdown: John (played by Topper Fabregas) is in a longtime relationship. They hit a rocky patch. They break up.

John meets someone new and quickly falls in love. But John gets scared and has second thoughts. He must decide: Does he wants to get back together with his longtime partner or move forward with this new relationship?

So goes the basic plot of this Olivier award-winning play. Heard this tale before? Not quite.

Here’s the thing: John is gay. As gay as butterflies, rainbows and Cher. John has a boyfriend of seven years (played by Niccolo Manahan), but he’s unhappy. They decide to cool off.

A casual encounter with a woman (played by Jenny Jamora) leads John towards unchartered territory. The friendship turns into something intimate. Scary at first, then, to John’s surprise, intoxicatingly wonderful.

John’s boyfriend is flabbergasted, and the whole messy affair blows up in one awkward dinner where all three of them meet to slug it out and force John to make a choice.

It’s a brave, modern and witty play, and a good choice for Red Turnip, a young local company, to gamble on. The play examines the labels that we ascribe to people with respect to who they choose to love. On the surface, the conflict is about going gay or straight, choosing gay lover or female lover.

The play is performed on a big, bare circle on the floor, with the audience surrounding the actors, as it was staged by The Royal Court Theater in London. It is discomfiting to see the faces of audience members across you, a nod to the voyeuristic nature of watching the lives of the characters.

Rem Zamora, in his directorial debut, put together a talented cast of actors.

Topper Fabregas, Niccolo Manahan and Jenny Jamora in a scene from “Cock.” Handout photo by Raul Victor Montesa











Fabregas is good in the role of John (it is interesting to note that John is the only character with a name in the play), who is the younger of the two male lovers. He does have a tendency to play his doe-eyed but tortured character to the hilt oftentimes, but he is worthy of empathy as he tries to extricate himself out of this conflict.

Jamora as “W” brings a breezy quality to the role. But what appears as fragility, at first, is replaced by a feisty woman who thirsts for love and will fight for her man.

Manahan captivates the audience with his thoughtful portrayal of “M.” Though a bit pompous with his characterization at times, Manahan is a strong, polished actor with a velvety voice, and his “M” is a delicate balance between endearing and vulnerable, on one hand, and domineering and condescending, on the other.

Audie Gemora. Handout photo by Raul Victor Montesa










There’s a fourth character, “F,” the father of M (played by veteran actor Audie Gemora) who joins the uneasy dinner to make a case for his son. Even without the bold, at times excessive gesticulations of his younger co-actors, Gemora hooks the audience with his solid, nuanced portrayal of a father who has come to accept, even support, his son’s life choices.

While the title of play is risqué, the delicate scenes are stylized innovatively. There are sex scenes but absolutely no nudity. This allows the viewer to focus more on the playwright’s intent, and the most that you would see is two guys in a tender kiss.

When you take away the labels we ascribe to people, the play explores the dynamics of any relationship, gay or straight.

Ultimately, the conflict is something that most people will relate to: What is one’s measure of happiness in a relationship? Does one go for something unsettlingly familiar, or gamble on something frighteningly uncertain?

“Cock” runs until April 6 at Whitespace in Makati City.

(This article was originally published on abs-cbnnews.com: http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/lifestyle/03/03/14/review-cock-pulsates-emotion )


A scene from “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.” Photo by Vlad Gonzales

MANILA — How does one recreate the great Indian epic “Mahabharata,” described as the longest epic poem ever written, into a two-act stage musical in Filipino? How does one capture the layers and complexities of Indian tradition without being contrived?

And how does one fuse all of the epic’s philosophical musings on love, war, family, duty, divinity and spirituality into a tight and cohesive piece?

Throw in the fact that Dulaang UP’s staging of “Ang Nawalang Kapatid,” based on the “Mahabharata,” features an all-student cast and crew, and you have a recipe for one big pseudo-Bollywood hot mess.

Thankfully, playwright and lyricist Floy Quintos, director Dexter Santos and composer Ceejay Javier acquitted themselves and came up with an elegant and regal Filipino adaptation.

Quintos distilled the epic poem and focused on themes that Filipino audiences can easily connect with: the warring saga between the royal clans of the Pandavas and Khauravas, and the moral dilemma of the “lost brother” Karna if he will uphold family ties and blood lines or his obligations to self and state.

Highlight other elements such as kings and queens consumed by vanity and punished by gods; and children born out of “mysterious” circumstances, given away and then found again after several years, and you have one gripping teleserye-like tale.

In this adaptation, Karna — born as a curse to his mother Queen Kunti for having slighted a goddess — is thrown away as a baby. He grows up to be a good warrior under the care of monkey king Hanuman.

When he comes of age, he travels to a distant kingdom. Because of his fighting skills, Karna is taken in as a brother by Kaurava prince, Duryodhana, who in turn is in a bitter battle against his cousin, Yudhisthira of the Pandava clan over the love of princess Draupadi.

Because of madness and lust, the battle over love escalates into a full-blown war over the kingdom. It is in the thick of war that Karna discovers that his enemies, the Pandava brothers, are his brothers, too.

A scene from “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.” Photo by Vlad Gonzales

Santos’ breathless direction from start to finish was a daring move. The pace is kept tight and gripping, with nary a dull moment. The opening number, “Dakilang Kasaysayan ng Sangkatauhan,” which establishes the entire back story of the birth of the royal cousins in one big sweep, is a feat in itself.

It took five choreographers (Santos, Jeffrey Hernandez, Albernard Garcia, Vincent Kevin Pajara and Stephen Vinas) to stage the numbers, and I can understand why. The long numbers are a test of stamina for any performer, and the styles run the gamut from tribal to Asian, from graceful to acrobatic. Even the scenes with spoken dialogue are imbued with courtly, balletic gestures.

The show is rife with vivid imagery. Among them, the birthing scenes of Queens Kunti and Ghandari, and the “disrobing” scene of princess Draupadi where god Krishna intervenes and spares her from shame by weaving an endless trail of cloth.

But the most stellar visuals in the show come from the climactic battle scene where blood, earth and rain create an intense tapestry of violence and death.

Javier’s music is not your expected Indian cliche. The sitar is used sparingly, mainly to punctuate spoken lines, but the rest of the songs have that world music, pop rock, tribal Filipino feel. But with all the heavy panting in the show, it’s the ballads such as “Lukso ng Dugo” which give audiences (and the actors) the breathing space.

The ladies in the show shine with their presence and voices, namely Teetin Villanueva as Draupadi and Ronah Adiel Rostata as Reyna Kunti (though Rostata needs to hone her technique. Performing with a hoarse voice in Act 2 could damage her vocal chords.)

The gentlemen in the show are balls of energy. There’s a propensity, though, for most of the male actors to equate urgency of dialogue with speed and volume, much to the detriment of clarity and nuance. They will grow into more refined performers with more training and technique. Still, there were good moments from Jules dela Paz as Vyasa, Ross Pesigan as Karna, Jon Abella as Yudhisthira, Vincent Kevin Pajara sa Duryodhana, Mark Dalacat as Haring Pandu, Marvin Olaes as Dritarastra, John Paul Basco as Krishna, and the rest of the male cast.

“Ang Nawalang Kapatid” is on its final weekend at the Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero Theater at the University of the Philippines.

(The above post was originally published on abs-cbnnews.com: http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/lifestyle/02/20/14/review-dulaang-musical-breathless-start-end )