I am writing this story shortly after I responded to Luce's post on the ghost girl that appeared at the CCP Main Theater (Who's that Girl by Luce.)
This story did not happen at the CCP, though, but at an older theater house along Lawton, right across the Manila Post Office bldg.
It's the old Metropolitan Theater, or the MET as we liked to call it: known for its art deco design. It was a huge thing during the early 1900s, and was the home of the grandest Opera, local Broadway (re) productions and Vaudeville presentations of that younger, more innocent era of modern day Philippines. It was said that some Broadway based American performers during the early fifties even came to the Philippines to take part in the local productions.
After its steady decline during the post World War II days, it was turned into a make-shift boxing arena during the day, and a high class gay bar (and some of its smaller rooms into instant motel for regular bar patrons) at night. A prominent historian romanticized this tragic part of the MET's history by describing it as a "desecration of a sacred temple ground by rustic barbarians who didn't know any better."
The early years of the Marcos Presidency saw Madam Imelda R. Marcos - self declared Patroness of the Arts and Culture - officiating over restoration work for the MET. She effectively charmed her way into the pockets and bank accounts of the pretentious "aristocrats" (novoue riche.) But its renaissance was short-lived, for soon the MET was over shadowed by Imelda's white elephant, the comparably mammoth and modern Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
The MET provides a fitting backdrop to the tragic end of a life of visual poetry that I am about to share.
The year was 1992, and the CCP was hosting the very first week-long National Theater Festival. The event was entitled Unang Tagpo (or Act One) and featured several professional and semi-professional (campus) theater companies around the country.
I was working for the CCP Coordinating Center for the Dramatic Arts at the time, and we were the Secretariat for the festival.
One of the theater groups we were featuring at that time was Rolando Tinio's company, Teatro Pilipino, (TP) which used to be one of the two resident theater groups at the CCP (along with playwrights' laboratory and experimental theater group, the Bulwagang Gantimpala company).
In 1987, a year after the end of the Marcos regime, performing art groups associated with the old CCP (read: those groups that were favored by the former First Lady) were unceremoniously replaced, with the exception of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ballet Philippines Company. Although they retained their status, they did not enjoy the same privilege as the only resident music company or ballet company at the CCP, respectively. Sharing the limelight with them - with parallel season repertoire - were the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Philharmonic, and the newly formed Philippine Ballet Theater. There were budget cuts and redistribution of resources. Those were ugly times.
TP and Bulwagang Gantimpala were casualties of the change. And as if to add insult to the injury, the new CCP management developed a new resident theater company named Tanghalang Pilipino. Both the words "Teatro," which is an archaic Tagalog word, and "Tanghalan," which is a modern, cosmopolitan term, means "Theater." Essentially therefore, Teatro Pilipino (TP) and Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) shared the same name (and initials).
Licking its wounds, Teatro Pilipino retreated to the old MET, which was already neglected and run down at that time, and was in need of very urgent repairs.
Five years later, when Artistic Director Rolando Tinio received the invitation to join the festival, he gladly accepted it, taking it as an act of good will on the part of the CCP. He decided to mount his Filipino translation of Will Shakespeare's The Twelfth Night (Ikalabing-Dalawang Gabi), featuring his actress wife, the dame of classical theater in the Philippines, Ella Luansing Tinio in the role of Viola.
A week before the start of the actual festivities, however, Ella Luansing suddenly died due to a tragic car accident. We half expected to receive a call from director Tinio saying he will withdraw his company's participation from the festival, but he didn't. He did call to inform us that his daughter, Victoria Tinio will be taking over the role of Viola, and that we were to make the necessary changes in the list of cast for the official festival program.
I know many of the people in TP. I have worked with them backstage in at least two productions, one of which - Will Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (translated as Ang Trahedya ni Hamlet, Prinsipe ng Denmarka) - was when they were already at the MET.
I went to visit them two days before their Technical Dress Rehearsal, partly on official business (Director Tinio was supposed to deliver a lecture on Stage Management to festival participants, and I came over to inform him of the exact venue of the lecture), and partly out of nostalgia.
Even the whole stage design was tweaked to reflect the company's state of mourning, as shown by the black and white veils that hang from the battens and falls ever so gracefully down to the stage boards.
An extra character was also incorporated into the performance - a lady in black, laced evening gown whose face is covered with a thin black veil - appearing at certain scenes on stage. This extra character was played by TP resident actress, Divina Fabrique Cavestany who bears a striking resemblance to the late Ella Luansing Tinio (same facial features, same piercing eyes, same posture, though younger by a decade.) This character was to appear whenever the actors on stage would recite a soliloquy from other plays that Tinio incorporated into the script. These soliloquies were from characters in other plays that the late Ella performed in.
Needless to say, the rehearsal that I witnessed, as a whole, was creepy and depressing (considering that Twelfth Night is supposed to be a comedy of manners). Nevertheless, some of us who have worked with the company in the past decided to see the play on closing night (it ran for three weekends, excluding the actual festival week). That was to be TP's final performance, as Rolando decided to finally call it quits after 17 years of translating and producing classics of world theater for Filipino audiences. His main disciple and creative partner, Ella, is gone, and so he figured there was no more reason to continue. All TP alumni, on stage and back stage, were invited to a quiet dinner afterwards.
During final performance, however, as Divina's character weaved in and out of scenes, something extraordinary happened. Another lady in black appeared on stage, much to everyone's horror. The face was veiled, and yet there was no mistaking those eyes that pierced through the thin fabric. Divina actually stopped her entrance from stage left, then walked right back out, as the other veiled figure stood at stage right. Being the professionals that they were, the actors proceeded with the performance as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
The audience, many of whom were regular TP fans and Classics of World Theater enthusiasts, was in complete silence: everyone knew the late Ella enough to recognize her presence. If it was a bad joke, it was done in poor taste.
The apparition appeared several times that night, often stopping Divina on her tracks. At one point, it made an entrance while Divina was already on stage. Everyone saw the two women in black on the stage at the same time. It was unnerving.
At curtain time, however, only Divina came out in her costume, sans the veil to take her final TP bow. As the curtain fell for the last time, the unnerved audience stepped out of the theater in such a hurry you would have thought there was a fire somewhere.
I don't know if many of the cast and TP alumni stayed for the dinner after the performance. I know I didn't.
In the months that followed, many of TPs disenfranchised resident artists went on to join the CCP based Tanghalang Pilipino. Others, the old guards who were faithful to Tinio, decided to teach at Universities and became Artistic Directors of their respective University Theater organization. Others crossed-over to doing TV ads and television series as character actors/bit players.
Not long after that, the MET again steadily declined into disrepair before it completely closed down altogether. It was like it was doomed from the very beginning. A woman scorned by her lovers.
Many of the old costumes from previous performances were found in the stock rooms. Apparently, Rolando simply left behind all 17 years-worth of costumes, hand props, stage furniture, a whole library of TP translated works, and the final stage set of Twelfth Night at the MET warehouse to rot. Two other adjacent rooms contain all the costumes, hand props, furniture, musical instruments, old posters and programs of all productions that had been staged at the MET since it first opened to the public.
Two years ago, a TV network featured the old MET for its Halloween special. I got misty eyed as I saw the shell of what was once considered the Diva of architecture in the old Manila district. Apparently, rehabilitation work is again ongoing, and several construction workers who mostly stayed and slept on site, were interviewed. They told chilling stories of how a "performance" would play out at ungodly hours of the night, mostly around two. They recounted how they would be awakened by the dialogues delivered, and arias sung by ghostly performers in the complete darkness of the now abandoned art deco Opera House.
Note: I tried to attach a photo of Dame Ella Luansing as she appeared in one production where she wore a veiled costume similar to the one worn by Divina that night, but I don't know how. The only difference between Divina's and Ella's costume is that Ella's costume in the photo is purple.