Eugene Domingo breathes new life to ‘Bona’

On the night of September 1, I entered the PETA Theater without knowing much about the 1980 Lino Brocka classic the performance I was about to watch was based on, save for some YouTube videos and Googled movie stills. Admittedly, I’m no big fan of plays – I thought I was in for an intensely melodramatic adaptation of Bona, the award-winning masterpiece being brought to the stage as an opener for the said theater company’s 45th season. It turned out I was wrong. But what I do know for certain is that I was about to witness the talented Eugene Domingo do her thing in what perhaps is the medium closest to her heart – theater. Besides, followers of the local entertainment scene are well aware of the fact that before Tanging Ina, Kimmy Dora, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank, and a string of other films that won her a big audience and a fat paycheck, she was a stage actress first and foremost – and she was hell good at it.

Tweaked, reimagined

Set in contemporary Manila, Eugene reprises the eponymous role of superstar Nora Aunor as a devout Catholic who grows an obsession with budding actor Gino Sanchez, played by newcomer Edgar Allan Guzman, whose role previously belonged to Phillip Salvador (then named Gardo). In this modern-day version, Bona is a spinster call center agent whose home-based sidelines involve teaching English to Koreans and running a paid online fortune telling program just to make ends meet. In the midst of her melancholy and parasitic friends and relatives, she becomes engrossed with a reality talent search on TV called “Star of Tomorrow,” where Gino competes. Her fondness for Gino goes as far as starting a fan club she called Gino’s Angels. She then begins interacting with the newbie celeb in social networking sites and starts stalking him in mall tours.

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Following his early elimination from the show, a drunken Gino figures in an altercation and gets beaten up by several men in a bar. Luckily, Bona was there to rescue him. She takes him home and their once platonic relationship blossoms to a whole new level. Quickly, the singleton’s admiration for the work-shy actor becomes more apparent as she begins helping him financially; and it becomes quite evident that he’s bound to take this oblivious infatuation to his advantage.

Matters take a turn for the worse when Bona decides to mortgage her family home to finance an indie film slated to catapult Gino into stardom. The succeeding scenes show her descent as she begins turning her back on her family and friends. Soon after, Gino messes things up; and the now-sinister titular character is prompted to take things into her own hands in the tragic fashion patterned after the original version’s ending.

What I saw from the house seats

Armed with nothing but my imagined plot of the film version and my fascination with the fact that the original Bona (Aunor) was seated merely two rows away from me, I was nothing short of overwhelmed. Two lines into Domingo’s monologue at the very first scene, I instantly felt happy for her. There was no trace of the old-school Bona in her portrayal. On the onset, she has completely turned the role into her own without setting her signature sporadic punch lines and hilarious adlibs aside. It was a hundred and eighty degree turn for the outdated character, but Domingo did it cautiously without having to be a disgrace to the original.

The entire cast was on par with the lead actress’ take on the iconic role. Guzman was believable as an ambitious actor wannabe slash full-time scumbag. The nuances in his acting made me think if it was a real reflection of how young local actors start out. He did an excellent job in shifting from a bucolic lad armed with sob stories to a manipulative and scheming sleazeball in a snap. The only problem I had with Guzman was that his half-nakedness throughout the play could get quite distracting at times. At the other end of the spectrum was Juliene Mendoza’s portrayal of Bert, Bona’s landlord and ardent suitor. He mouthed the cheesiest of lines while still evoking a sincere and amiable persona. The thespian’s chemistry with Domingo was unmistakable – I would have rooted for this pairing in a heartbeat if it happened in real life.

As the show progressed, I witnessed how the audience transformed from frivolous to serious. During the first half of the play, the audience elicited so much laughter that I even missed out on some of the words uttered by the actors despite my pinching distance from the stage. By the second half of the play, however, the audience seemed more uneasy with such disquiet that would even beat the eerie feelings drawn out by horror movies to viewers.

Under the direction of Soxy Topacio and the screenwriting of Lalie Bucoy, the new Bona also used film segments projected on a screen above the stage, which proved logical, considering that some of the scenes demanded setups that would have made it impossible to crunch the play into two hours. Similarly laudable was the set, which featured a bath tub with running water and a functional and workable kitchen, plus the music and sound effects, which were superbly timed; successful in enveloping the viewing audience deeper into the plot.

A fan in all of us

During the September 1 staging’s curtain call, the Superstar joined a dazed Domingo onstage. Like the Bona’s first personal encounter with Gino, it was a genuine moment between a celebrity and an avid fan. It also hinted at the surreal truth that both actresses have landed within the same field, breathing the same air, and enjoying perhaps the same amount of fame. Aunor granting Domingo the permission to redo Bona – no matter how huge the departure is from the original – is a true testament to how our local entertainment industry flourishes through people who express love for their craft through mutual respect and admiration; by being fans themselves. The Bona that people saw in the 80s and this year’s stage adaptation, though incomparable in many levels, are not really poles apart when it comes to the subject matter. We were all fans once. There’s a fan in all of us.

How a little crush or fanaticism can turn into a dangerous obsession and inevitably lead to one’s downfall is still beyond me; but how classic cinema can be brought into the sensibilities of people who aren’t really familiar with the stage (the biggest screen of them all, says Domingo) in such a manner that encompasses many artistic boundaries is much, much clearer to me now – all thanks to Bona.

(Bona ran from August 24, 2012 to September 23, 2012 at the PETA Phinma Theater in New Manila, Quezon City.)

This article also appeared in the October 2012 issue of Gala Magazine.

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