IT is with no small amount of irony that Eugene Domingo, one of the country’s hottest box-office draws these days, gained national prominence doing an on-target impersonation of Vilma Santos in “D’ Lucky Ones,” her first starring role on the big screen.
After cementing her box-office and acting credentials with a string of hits, from “Kimmy Dora” to “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank,” the talented and formally trained Eugene (a UP graduate major in theater arts) has upped the ante by starring in Philippine Education Theater Association’s (PETA) staging of “Bona,” which is loosely based on the original Lino Brocka film starring Nora Aunor, Vilma’s rival.
Thus, from doing a Vilma, Eugene has come full circle by essaying a role originated by Nora. While Eugene’s earlier project was a spoof, her latest effort on stage is supposed to be a more serious and solid attempt at characterization, despite director Soxy Topacio’s decision to elicit one too many laughs from the audience.
If we go by the movie, we all know how the story goes. Bona, a poor, but spunky woman, gradually neglects her friends, family and ultimately herself as she attends to a struggling actor without getting anything in return. Worse, the actor treats Bona like an object, useful only when needed and kept to the sidelines when not.
It’s a classic morality play on obsession and betrayal, realization and comeuppance (yes, somebody’s still going to get scalded by boiling water in the end!) transported in the slums as only Brocka could have imagined.
The technology may have changed, but the character’s milieu and foibles remain the same, a use-and-be-used world set in the bowels of Quiapo with texting, Wi-Fi, Facebook, Tweeter, on-line gaming and long-distance English tutorials as part of everyday lingo.
Despite Topacio’s decision to add a few colorful gay characters to spar with the livewire Eugene just for laughs, the story’s core remains the same. Bona is blinded by her devotion to Gino (played with earnest conviction and surprising versatility and maturity by Edgar Allan Guzman) to the extent of quitting her regular job as a call center agent to become his full-time alalay (girl Friday).
I will no longer reveal the extent of Bona’s madness (nothing comes close to the Filipino word kahibangan to describe it), and instead focus on how Eugene handled the character’s downward spiral from being a street-smart woman and responsible big sister, to become Gino’s gullible and pathetic little slave.
Eugene may be a master at timing and doing adlibs, qualities that have endeared her to her fans, especially gay men. These qualities and more were again on full display in “Bona.” Except for a number of scenes, Eugene was a constant presence on stage from start to finish.
But she’s neither a Nora nor a Vilma as far as breathing life to a full-length, flesh-and-blood character is concerned. This was where she faltered.
Like an actress in a video or short film, Eugene’s genius shines in episodic situations requiring little background stories, plausible characterization and consistency. It’s a reverse case of synergy, where the parts by themselves are greater than the sum.
While watching “Bona,” for instance, I couldn’t help but still see Eugene, with shades of Kimmy and Dora thrown in, and not her distraught character.
She also couldn’t shake off a number of trademark mannerisms and acting ticks like eye-rolling and lip-pursing, antics that best belong to an out-and-out comedy film.
She also attacked the role with little thought on transformation. Not only was Bona’s realization, as essayed by Eugene, abrupt, the way she dealt with it lacked the blood-curdling, makapanginig-laman feeling Nora was able to elicit from her audience.
Eugene’s descent into the abyss was hampered by the production’s decision to retain, even improve on her look, from makeup to wardrobe, throughout the entire play. My friend Ivy even noticed how Eugene seemed to have looked more beautiful near the end, dressed in reds and oranges, just as her entire world was crumbling around her.
Jojo, a Facebook friend, also said that watching “Bona” was like watching a skit at Zirkoh or any of the gay comedy clubs in town. Hidden underneath the volley of bitchy one-liners are the characters’ true motivations that somehow failed to fully surface. Like the rest of her gang, Bona is as gay as it gets. To paraphrase the cliche, she’s a gay trapped in a woman’s body. Eugene’s fans who want to see a different facet of their idol through this play won’t see much difference. The venue and medium have changed, but the attack is basically the same: baklaan (gay gabfest). Except for certain segments of society, I’d dare say that this isn’t how real people conduct themselves in real life. Even the most colorful of gays aren’t this witty and flamboyant behind closed doors.
A big part of the blame lies in the director. Although I have to commend Topacio and scriptwriter Layeta Bucoy for updating the story and giving it some zing by way mostly of Eugene and Joey Paras’ fast and furious repartee, the play was simply overstretched and overwrought to justify its nearly three-hour running time.
Topacio, a veteran of PETA himself, is also a master at motivating his actors to come up with flawless pieces of ensemble acting. There may be several actors on stage, but Topacio manages to keep them from upstaging each other, whether wittingly or not. Each player gets to shine. But “Bona’s” long running time and big cast ultimately took their toll on the play’s leading lady herself.
“Like why did they have to include a second scene from ‘Star of Tomorrow,’” said Ivy, referring to the fictional talent-search contest Gino joined in his bid to crack local showbiz. “Wasn’t it already established earlier in that same contest that Gino had the makings of an ambitious cad who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals?”
The decision to include a famous real-life TV personality in the end (I’m not telling you who) interviewing Bona didn’t add anything to the play.
If anything, it further underscored how shallow and inconsistent Eugene’s Bona was. After going through so much, short of killing her former idol and imaginary lover, the character still managed to look chirpy and uncannily at peace. It was as if the Black Nazarene, to which she is a devotee, had given her a full, unconditional absolution.
The laughs may come thick and fast, but “Bona,” the play, as far as genuine emotions go, is a watered-down and soggy version of the original. And not even a star as popular and as talented as Eugene could camouflage this built-in weakness.
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