Mar 31, 2011

[Theater] Care Divas (PETA)

Updated November 24, 2011 with new show information.

Care Divas (PETA)As I was sitting in the PETA Theater last March 13, it struck me that I had never actually seen one of the shows from this group. PETA, which stands for the Philippine Educational Theater Association, is one of what I would term as the major theater groups active in the country with a greater focus on plays conducted in Filipino / Tagalog, naturally.

Of course knowing that, it explains why I haven't seen many of their shows as of this point. Yeah, yeah, boo on me for being bad at handling my native language, but it's a natural consequence of my upbringing. My family has always been a predominantly English-speaking household, thus explaining why (1) I've done very well in the call center industry and (2) why this blog is entirely in English despite my nationality and citizenship. It's who I am, so deal with it.

But by some strange coincidence, I to end up watching certain types of Filipino plays - and more often than not they're comedies that tend to focus on LGBT themes. Go figure - comedy is comedy but it's even better when in celebration of the pink nation. Or something along those lines - it's hard to pin down what precisely it is that draws me here.

At least I'm watching these kinds of plays, and I'm still working on my mastery of the language.

Sort of.

Care Divas is an in-language musical comedy directed by Maribel Legarda. The play was presented by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA - not the animal group) and ran from February 4 - March 13, 2011 with subsequent runs in from April - July. They've recently announced a new set of shows for December between December 1-9, 2011. For tickets, contact (02)7256244, (02)4100821-22, 0917-5642433,

The play focuses on the lives of five transvestite overseas workers in Israel during a period of tension between the Israelites and the Palestinians. In the day they all care for their respective patients, who are typically older or even disabled Jewish men. On their nights off, the group perform together as a 5-women drag group more for their own enjoyment and fulfillment than anything else.

Our protagonist of sorts is Chelsea (Melvin Lee), who seems to be the luckiest of the group since she has one of the kinder employers, Isaac (Paul Holme), who is even going the extra mile of teaching her Hebrew. In contrast, Shai (Vincent de Jesus) keeps hearing her mother's voice condemning her sexuality and Kayla (Jerald Napoles / Ricci Chan) is struggling with the daughter of her patient who seems to find fault in everything she does. Other members of the group include Thalia (Jason Barcial) and Jonee (Buddy Caramat / Phil Noble) who do their best to share the limelight with the others.

Things shift when a chance to perform at a larger club in Tel Aviv comes up thanks to Nonah (Angeli Bayani) and her boyfriend Avi (Dominic Miclat-Janssen / Eric Dela Cruz). At the same time, Chelsea begins to get courted by the mysterious Faraj (Miguel Hidalgo / Myke Salomon), who has his own share of secrets. Kayla is having an increasingly difficult time with her employer's daughter (Cecilia Garrucho). And as the group gets their big opportunity in Tel Aviv, things aren't quite what they initially expected nor hoped for.

Now the play certainly impressed me on a number of levels - and I admit I wasn't expecting much from it until a few friends started raving about how good it was. Even with that sort of feedback in mind, I wasn't quite ready for what my partner and I were going to experience once there.

First, major props to the set design. It wasn't just a big flat stage but instead it was a rather complex arrangement that allowed for many different scenes, creative approaches to transitions and a lot of dynamic actions. Even the somewhat campy use of hanging street lamps and other items suspended from the ceiling worked well in keeping things fresh while still being able to change things around and turn them back with minimal effort.

Next, great story most definitely. While I had initially read how the play was somewhat inspired by / based on the documentary Paper Dolls, I doubt even that little feature was anything as crazy as the final story of the play. The characters were nicely-developed and sufficiently complex. They all had their challenges, motivations and struggles to help define them further in the course of the show. And the plot as a whole was fairly riveting but ultimately quite satisfying.

On a personal note, I love it when a play manages to effectively juggle multiple roles with a limited number of characters. This play had a lot of that going on and this was done extremely well, I'd like to think. The biggest wow moment for me was how Paul Holme played all of the "patients" in the care of the various Care Divas. That's no easy feel and he had to portray each one differently while keeping these depictions realistic while avoiding for things to get too silly.

Kudos to the writing from a comedic perspective as well. The banter between the actors didn't just feel very authentic, but the words were witty, crisp and on the whole funny. And it's not easy to write comedy that is consistent not just with the language but with the added character challenge of keeping things within the LGBT spirit of things. So the barbs and one-liners were definitely well thought-out and thankfully delivered quite well.

The acting was pretty good too, although it was clear that Jerald Napoles' depiction of Kayla totally stole the show. The others were okay too and Melvin Lee's Chelsea certainly was endearing for the most part. I wish that Thalia had more comedic moments and certainly more back story, but then one only has so much time to work with in creating a play like this so I understand what happened there in terms of the writing.

The music was melodically beautiful but at times I felt the lyrics lacked true passion or sometimes even relevance. I'm not sure if this was a writing challenge or a performance challenge. Would passable lyrics seem a lot better if performed better? Would potentially great lyrics have survived somewhat monotonous singing at times? It's really hard to say where the challenges really were at this point, but ultimately I felt this area could have used more development and creative thought.

My only other complaints involved (1) bad blocking at times, which left characters obstructing the view of other characters despite the fact I was sitting in pretty much the center and (2) the horrible seating situation at the PETA theater. Not only where they the cheaper variety of plastic chairs (which could have been forgivable), but the fact they had them so close together without consideration for elbow room between members of the audience was extremely uncomfortable.

As a whole, the play tried to tackle a lot of complex issues. It was a play about the challenges of the life of an overseas worker. It was a play about the challenges of the Israel-Palestine conflict for the average worker. It was a story about being accepted not just as gay men but as transvestites to boot. It's a story of seemingly forbidden love. It's a story about the love of parents and the value of being fully accepted by the, It's a story about the bonds of friendship and how far that can go towards achieving your dreams. There were probably others, but these were definitely the big ticket items at work here.

Care Divas was certainly a refreshing play that was impressive for its dynamism and maturity of content. In fact, it was really a comedy with a dramatic message to convey at heart that knew that being able to laugh at oneself is important. It gets 4 instances of Kayla flexing her muscles out of a possible 5.
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