Jon Santos doesn’t just enter a room; he bursts into it, with the energy of The Flash... and magnetizes all the love in the room. This is the Jon Santos, comedian of TV, movies, and theater, whose celebrity impersonations have left us in stitches for years.
So when I heard that he was doing a Tagalog version of Duncan Macmillan’s play, Every Brilliant Thing, I thought, what a brilliant idea and casting choice (puns always intended). Thus far, EBT’s Narrator has always been played by a woman. Here in the Philippines, Teresa Herrera and Kakki Teodoro first essayed the role in 2019, and reprised it again for The Sandbox Collective’s post-pandemic twin bill of Macmillan’s Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing.
EBT has been so successful that Sandbox producer Toff de Venecia said their audience was clamoring for a Filipino, queer version. So he asked Guelan Luarca, one of our very best young playwrights (whose last play was the dark, socially nihilistic Nekropolis) to translate Every Brilliant Thing into Tagalog, and in a few short months, Luarca handed him Bawat Bonggang Bagay, which not only translates EBT into colloquial, accessible Taglish, but also uses Filipino references for the brilliant things on the eponymous list. For example, Macmillan’s brilliant thing number one is “ice cream,” which Luarca made into “halo-halo.” Another brilliant thing is Cherie Gil and her famous line about second-rate, trying-hard copycats. You get the idea.
Santos brings all his gifts of loose, physical comedy and quick-fire improvisation to the role, punning shamelessly: “This is the list I could do,” substituting “grit” for “greet,” and keeping a running joke going throughout the play about how to say, “Voila!”—“Is it ‘voy-la’ or ‘vwa-la?’ I think it’s voy-la.” But then again, punning is another thing that Filipinos—and most especially Jon Santos—do brilliantly.
Director Jenny Jamora says that Santos memorized Luarca’s script not word for word, but more in terms of ideas and concepts. He puts so much of himself into the play, in fact, that Luarca is considering a co-writing credit.
Both Every Brilliant Thing and Bawat Bonggang Bagay require that the narrator cast members of the audience to play his/her father, teacher, lover, and Santos also shows a gift for casting. During the press preview that I watched, actor Ian Pangilinan was sitting in the front row, and seemed like the perfect prospect for Sam, the narrator’s love interest and eventual husband. I don’t know if Pangilinan intuited that might happen, because right at that moment, he stood up and told Santos he had to go to the bathroom. Santos, not missing a beat, said, “I’ll wait for you,” and stood facing the door through which Pangilinan exited, hand outstretched in longing, for many, many minutes as the audience went into paroxysms. After what seemed like an eternity Pangilinan came back and saw Santos, who hadn’t moved a muscle and was still gazing at the door with hand outstretched. Amid laughter, the young actor carefully stepped around the veteran one and tiptoed back to his seat. It was only when he sat down that Santos broke his statue-like pose, muttering under his breath and stalking around the room. Maybe in an act of revenge, he cast another young man as Sam—another brilliant move. He also cast Teresa Herrera as the beautiful lady who gives him a snack when he’s in the hospital visiting his mom after her failed suicide attempt.
Since the narrator marries Sam, Bawat Bonggang Bagay adapts to this development by having the two men marry in Toronto, Canada.
Since three people have played the Narrator in Every Brilliant Thing/Bawat Bonggang Bagay, of course, comparisons are bound to come up. I saw Teresa Herrera twice, pre- and post-pandemic (unfortunately wasn’t able to catch Kakki Teodoro, though I’ve heard many rave reviews), before watching Santos, and found Herrera’s interpretation incredibly poignant, bringing the necessary gravity to the subject matter of a parent who commits suicide, interspersing it with much-needed moments of light.
Santos’ interpretation, on the other hand, is full of light moments and less gravitas, illustrating the Pinoy tendency to find humor in every situation, no matter how dire. Bawat Bonggang Bagay takes on a life of its own in Santos’ hands, and through it, he shows how finding the joke and seeing it through to the punch line may be the secret to our adaptability, and resiliency.
Though it was only slated for four shows, Bawat Bonggang Bagay should definitely have a revival and rerun, so that all theatergoers can have a chance to see the brilliant thing that is Jon Santos in this important and versatile play.