Commentary

Floy Quintos’ swan song draws audience to its feet

Grace was beautifully written, well researched; runs until June 16

Grace
The cast of 'Grace': Jojo Cayabyab, Nelsito Gomez, Stella Canete Mendoza, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Leo Rialp, Frances Makil Ignacio, Dennis Marasigan, and Missy Maramara (Photo by Edwin Ladaw)

Grace runs until June 16, 2024, PMCS Blackbox Theater, Circuit Makati.

This theater-goer has rarely witnessed an audience give an instant standing ovation during curtain call. One happened eight years ago when Nyoy Volante got the audience on its feet for his brilliant star turn in Jersey Boys. Bart Guingona and JC Santos had theirs in last year’s Red.

Grace

Standing ovation for Grace (From FB page of “Grace”)

Last week, audiences got up as one to cheer and applaud the ensemble cast of Grace. Our applause was meant for the cast—and also for the esteemed playwright Floy Quintos, who passed away last April 27, due to heart attack, at 63. This is the stuff theater legends are made of:  The writer passes away just weeks before opening night. The cast and crew, still in grief, soldier on. As the saying goes, the show must go on, and they open to much acclaim. The play is a triumph for everyone involved. It’s a bittersweet ending.

Grace is Quintos’ fictional take on the Marian apparitions encountered by novice nun Teresita Castillo in a convent in Lipa City.  This was in 1948 and even sans social media, word got out, and the apparitions and the shower of petals quickly became a national phenomenon. Thousands of devotees started flocking to Lipa.

But the overwhelming religious experience ended abruptly with the Vatican’s final verdict.  It declared the apparitions to be a hoax. The decision led to shocking repercussions. Teresita was forced to leave the convent. The Mother Prioress Cecilia and the Bishop of Lipa were relieved of their posts.

I first became familiar with the Lipa apparitions several years ago when a documentary narrated by the late June Keithley aired on TV. Keithley told a compelling story that was eerie and tragic. In Grace, Floy Quintos dramatizes the events. He presents it as a whodunit, with a young Dominican rector and the Papal Nuncio doing Hercule Poroit duties.

Grace is reminiscent of theatrical works that involve religious persecution and investigation into the supernatural. John Pielmer’s Agnes of God, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible come to mind. Agnes of God pitted science against religion when a psychologist investigates a novice who claims to have seen an apparition. The Crucible is a courtroom drama about the Salem witch- hunts, an allegory to the McCarthy communist witch-hunt. A Man for All Seasons is about the persecution of Sir Thomas More.

 In Grace we see Agnes, Thomas More in Teresita Castillo and the two women accused of heresy. Teresita is made to endure the same turmoil the lead protagonists of those other plays go through.

 Quintos presents two sides to the story. Thus he can’t be accused of bias. The Papal Nuncio aims to discredit Teresita using proven facts and doctrines. The Dominican priest investigates the apparitions and explains why he eventually believed Teresita.  Quintos also presents a few thought-provoking theories on the people involved.  In one scene it‘s suggested that the Papal Nuncio is racist, with patronizing attitude towards Filipinos. We’re also made to look into the Filipino penchant for mass hysteria and for escapism from the real world.

Director Dexter Santos has clever touches to bring the story closer to home.  Pictures of newspaper clippings flash on screen to enhance reality. Lighting is effectively used to impart holiness during the apparition scenes. Communication between Teresita and the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, isn’t recreated onstage. It’s just told firsthand to the Mother Prioress Cecilia. Quintos wasn’t about to give credence or to disprove Teresita’s claims.

Grace is beautifully written and well researched.  It’s riveting as both protagonists and the audience explore the fantastic events. Quintos avoids being too sanctimonious in his prose. A mix of English and Tagalog is spoken. The leads speak like regular people, who are prone to exhibit their brand of wit. I’ve often lamented the way most Filipino playwrights portray our national heroes in plays like Pingkian. They’re usually depicted as humorless and holier-than-thou. They tend to recite the lines as if reading scripture.

The Papal Nuncio is understandably the play’s antagonist. His bias and suspicious intent are portrayed in subtle ways, sometimes with humor.  As Papal Nuncio, Leo Rialp comes across as wicked just by playing it straight. He doesn’t try to sound funny or evil.

The play has the pulse for post-war Philippines.  Profiteers cash in on the miracles in Lipa by selling bottled miraculous water, an airline offers chartered flights to Lipa, and a movie based on the apparitions and starring Tita Duran is produced. As wryly noted by a bishop, an event can’t be considered important unless a movie is made about it. Amusingly, the Papal Nuncio begins compares the beauty of Tita Duran to that of Sophia Loren whom he describes as “Bellisima!”

Now if Floy Quintos were still alive I’d ask him to correct that scene. The play happens in 1948 when Ms. Loren was barely 14 years old. She and her family were living in poverty as a result of the war.  She started appearing as an extra in films like Quo Vadis in 1951, as a Christian who gets fed to the lions.

(Editor’s note: TheDiarist.ph had pointed out the error on Sophia Loren to the creative team of Grace and to actor Leo Rialp, who plays the Apostolic Nuncio Edigio Vagnozzi, who makes the comparison between Filipino actress Tita Duran and Loren. Apparently, the late playwright knew the reference to Loren was historically inaccurate, but a name familiar enough to general audiences was needed for the comparison of actresses, and thus he invoked artistic license when the cast members themselves had brought it up.)

As the investigation continues, Teresita is figuratively fed to the lions. At this point, Stella Canete Mendoza gives a bravura performance as she displays  anguish, desperation, and confusion over the treatment and questioning she is subjected to. Her scene with the Dominican (played by Nelsito Gomez) is heartbreaking.  This is in deep contrast to the rector’s hilarious interview with Mother Agatha. As the nun who sticks with Teresita to the end, Frances Makil Ignacio brings the house down with her irreverent commentary—complete with Batangueno accent.

 Also on hand are theater stalwarts Dennis Marasigan as the Bishop of Manila, Jojo Cayabyab as the Bishop of Lipa, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino as the Mother Prioress Cecilia, Missy Maramara as the envious Sister Lucia, and Raphne Katorse whose character is a representation of  the thousands of believers.

The running time of Grace is a lengthy two-and-half hours. I’m sure Floy Quintos wouldn’t roll in his grave if Dexter Santos did some trimming to shorten it a bit. The play just has too many endings. We could have done without the addendum that has Leo Rialp as the Papal Nuncio explaining his motives. It’s as if a homily was suddenly shoved down our throats.

Rest assured it doesn’t ruin the evening—the curtain call felt like a religious revival, given the audience’s very warm reception.  It’s as if we’ve been given something precious to take home—a certain amount of wisdom for each member of the audience. My cousin Nina certainly learned something. She quipped, “The lesson for the day is don’t be a nun.”

 

About author

Articles

He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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