Lion of stage, movies named Mario O’Hara; 66
Call him a one-man entertainment conglomerate. When he died at San Juan de Dios Hospital in Pasay City on June 26—a victim of leukemia at 66 (not 68 as earlier reported; he was born on April 20, 1946)—Mario O’Hara had become one of the great, if chronically underappreciated, creative forces in the contemporary Philippine arts and entertainment scene.
Not only was he a first-rate writer, director and actor, he also deployed his talents in an unprecedented range of mediums—from radio and television to films and theater—emerging with a five-decade body of work that, in the final reckoning, astonished with their breadth, prolific brilliance and uncompromising voice.
Brocka’s breakout film
O’Hara is justly celebrated for writing the script for Lino Brocka’s 1974 breakout film, “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang.” He also acted the part of the town outcast, Bertong Ketong, opposite Lolita Rodriguez’s crazed woman Kuala, “in a dramatic duet so powerful they took over the film,” wrote film critic and longtime O’Hara champion Noel Vera.
“Insiang” (1976) was originally a radio play, then a TV drama, before O’Hara rewrote it for Brocka’s film version. In 2004, O’Hara revisited the script and transformed it into a stage play for Tanghalang Pilipino (TP). In a fine full-circle touch, he incorporated elements of his radio-drama days into the play, and brought the story back to its original grimy Pasay milieu (Brocka’s movie had relocated it to Tondo).
His sarsuwela “Ang Palasyo ni Valentin,” which won the Centennial Literary Prize in 1998, was staged by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) in October 2005 to mark the company’s transfer from its old home, the open-air Rajah Sulayman Theater in Intramuros, to a modern building in Quezon City called the Peta Theater Center.
But O’Hara hardly saw the production. He was busy across town, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where he was headlining TP’s simultaneous run of the Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin’s play “The Whore of Ohio” (translated into Filipino by JB Capino as “Ang Pokpok ng Ohio”), along with Irma Adlawan and Paolo Rodriguez.
Here’s how we remembered O’Hara in that production: “With his shock of salt-and-pepper hair, mestizo features and pugilistic frame, O’Hara is no one’s idea of a derelict at the end of his tether. Offstage he conveys the practical, easy-going hauteur of a country ilustrado, and that is why it is almost staggering to see him transform into an indelible figure of exhausted, defeated masculinity in ‘Ang Pokpok ng Ohio.’
“As a beggar desiring to hump a hooker for P300 on his 70th birthday but is unable to get it up, O’Hara limns, powerfully, every last desperate fold and fiber of his character. When he remonstrates at his son (Rodriguez), shrieking, ‘Bakit, amoy lupa na ba ako (Why, am I about to die)?’ the palpable anguish of his dissipated bravado is hair-raising.”
It was that voice, first of all—big and resonant in the old theatrical tradition. “It was a powerful instrument,” says former Tanghalang Pilipino artistic director Nonon Padilla, O’Hara’s friend since 1971, and with whom he enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration, first at Peta, then at TP. “He was the only actor who could lord it over Fort Santiago, whose voice, in fact, could be heard at the entrance of the space. I regret not having done ‘Agamemnon’; he would have made a great Agamemnon, or a great Clytemnestra.”
“He had no classical training, but he was perfect in classical roles—maybe because of his Irish genes,” adds Padilla. (O’Hara’s grandfather was an Irish-American who came to the Philippines as a Thomasite and settled here—accounting, at the very least, not only for the surname, but also for O’Hara’s oft-noticed hazel eyes.)
“He had great instinct; he would grasp nuances that other actors could only toil at, or perhaps get after the 13th performance. He would grasp them and play with them, so rehearsing with him was always a delight, because he was always growing as an actor.”
Veteran actor Bodjie Pascua, in a Facebook tribute, recalls the same impact: “When Mario O’Hara performed, he was a magnificent life force, a force of nature. But his was a power that never swept you away. It transfused you with power. Or drew out your power so you could meet his … He was generous. That was his true fearsome power.
“A moment when he played Mephistopheles to my Faust is forever singed in my memory. After clowning around to taunt, tease and tempt my Faust, his Mephistopheles suddenly shifted to a menace so fierce, to show his true colors. And those eyes, those eyes flashed an animal look at me that could burn right through steel. And for one stunning moment, I was frightened and awed at the same time. I was transfixed. I forgot I was acting. It was hard to match such brilliance. Yet he made that devil so human that later I would find myself watching.”
O’Hara’s forceful sound and presence made him a natural for boldface characters, such as Thomas More in TP’s “Taga sa Panahon” in 1987, a Filipino adaptation of Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons”; the Kapampangan revolutionary Francisco Maniago, in an eponymous play in 1990; “Julio Cesar” in 1991, adapted by Bienvenido Lumbera. (He was also Padilla’s choice to play King Lear in Peta’s Filipino production of the Shakespeare warhorse this year, but O’Hara, already in poor health, begged off.)
But he could, with equal ease, play paupers (“Bubungang Lata,” directed by Brocka for Peta, with a script by Agapito Joaquin and headlined by O’Hara and CB Garrucho); rogues (Mack the Knife in Peta’s “Ang Operang Tatlong Pera,” its Filipino version of “The Threepenny Opera”—the powerhouse cast included Monique Wilson, Lou Veloso, Mae Paner and the late Ogie Juliano and Khryss Adalia); rakes (the flighty dictator Eddie Jones in “Kudeta,” TP’s Filipino production of Mustapha Matura’s political satire); gay men (Molina in “Halik ng Tarantula,” aka Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” opposite Julio Diaz); pious sons (“Mga Ama, Mga Anak,” Jose Lacaba’s translation of Nick Joaquin’s play “Fathers and Sons,” costarring Bembol Roco, Ben Rubio and Laurice Guillen); wayward fathers (Lloyd Suh’s “American Hwangap”—as we wrote then, “another towering performance from this evergreen titan—a pitch-perfect blend of patriarchal bluster and brokenness that anchored and made rational the rather petty dysfunction at the heart of the play’s Korean-American family”); and harried Everyman husbands (the original run of Tony Perez’s “Sa North Diversion Road,” with Celeste Legaspi and Mads Nicolas alternating in the female part).
Of that formidable (and only partial) resumé, Padilla says O’Hara was most unforgettable in “Kabesang Tales,” Paul Dumol’s 1975 play for Peta about Rizal’s character in “El Filibusterismo,” who rose to become cabeza de barangay only to end up an outlaw after his oppression by the friars. From farmer to town chief to rebel—the range was quintessentially O’Hara’s.
And yet, for a man of such protean gifts, O’Hara was also a famously shy, self-effacing man. Or as Cinema One put it in its tribute, “Mario O’Hara hides from the spotlight as if it would burn him … His movies travel to film festivals; he does not. They win accolades and prizes; he does not receive them personally. Film critics and students seek to interview him; he shyly but firmly declines. It is almost as if he were trying to erase himself from the frame.”
“He was the simplest person to be with,” says Padilla. “He hated pretension, he hated pretentious people. He loved making movies, but it drove him bananas, the show-biz lifestyle … Also, he had an experimental mind for movies. For instance, his film ‘Mortal,’ starring Lolita Rodriguez—it was Felliniesque, lots of dream sequences… Walang nakasakay! (Nobody got it!)”
Asked, in 2007, on the occasion of TP’s restaging of “Insiang,” whether he had any plans of remaking the Brocka film, O’Hara got the audience laughing with a characteristically modest but sharp reply: “Hindi na, tama na ’yan. Naipanganak mo na e. Mahirap namang pantayan ang ginawa ni Lino. Classic na ’yon e. Pag ang isang pelikula nagawa na nang maganda, iwan mo na sa ganun. Wag na tayong mag-Celso Ad. Castillo! (No need. You already gave birth to it. It’s difficult to match Lino’s work. That’s a classic. When you make a good movie, leave it that way. Let’s not do a Celso Ad. Castillo!)”
A few beats later, to a question why he didn’t seem interested in directing the play version either, he said: “Tamad kasi akong direktor e. Sinisipag lang ako kapag wala akong pera! (I’m a lazy director. I just work hard when I have no money!)”
“He was our most humane of actors,” says playwright and director Floy Quintos. “Tito Mario was, above all, just, compassionate, humble and accepting of others. Of all the actor-directors I have worked with, he was the one with the least ego… He created two unforgettable characters in my plays. He was the original Tunying in the straight play version of ‘Isang Panaginip na Fili’, as well as the original Antonio in the nonmusical version of ‘St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos.’ We did a movie together that bombed (but Tito Mario didn’t care). And then, there was ‘Kudeta,’ where he was the lion in winter amidst his younger coactors … They, and so many others, have basked in his warm light. They will be his legacy to the theater.”
Actor, director and lighting designer Dennis Marasigan also remembers how O’Hara “notoriously took public transportation and walked to and from rehearsals at the CCP, and was infamously averse to press gatherings and public functions, particularly the show-biz kind.”
And there was the generosity. “In the late ’80s, Tanghalang Pilipino was staging ‘Ang Ginintuang Bayan,’ and Mario was playing one of the leading roles, along with Nonie Buencamino and Pen Medina, among others. Nonie’s wife, Shamaine, was due to give birth anytime soon, and he had promised to be by her side when she delivered via Lamaze. TP’s artistic director, Nonon Padilla, and the play’s director, Jonas Sebastian, deemed it prudent to have an understudy for Nonie. They got me, the play’s lighting designer, to agree, but that would mean extra rehearsal hours for everyone else. I never got to perform (Shamaine having managed to time her delivery on a weekend morning), but to this day, I vividly recall rehearsing scenes with Mario (and Pen and Kim Atienza), doing scenes over and over again, without hearing any negative word or even a whisper of complaint about putting extra time for an understudy.
“Years later, Mario would gladly lend his talents to different batches of young actors that comprised the TP Actors’ Company: in ‘Julio Cesar’ (directed by Nonon Padilla), for the batch that included Irma Adlawan, John Arcilla, Ony de Leon, Herbie Go, RJ Leyran, Olga Natividad; in ‘Yun na Nga Kung Yun na Nga’ (directed by Herbie Go), for the group that included Mayen Estanero, Tess Jamias, Marj Lorico, Diana Malahay, Paolo O’Hara; and again in ‘Kudeta’ (directed by Floy Quintos), with the likes of Riki Benedicto, Bong Cabrera, Chrome Cosio, Wenah Nagales and Jonathan Tadioan. In each of these productions, Mario would be the lone veteran actor amidst younger thespians, giving worthy and memorable performances, but always a giving and supportive coactor to the much younger cast.”
Last year, O’Hara, in a hard-to-top feat, won double honors as Best Actor (for TP’s “American Hwangap”) and Best Featured Actor (for TP’s “Tatlong Mariya,” Rody Vera’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” directed by Loy Arcenas) in the Philstage Gawad Buhay! awards. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t around to collect his trophies.
The reclusive O’Hara did open his heart once, on a rare drinking spree with Vera and a friend. To the film critic and longtime admirer who had cited his “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” as “the greatest Filipino film of all time,” O’Hara confessed: “One thing I am, one thing that’s me is, I’m devoted. I’ll give a person what he needs. If he needs a friend, if he needs a companion, if he needs to talk, if he needs to cry, I’m there.”
Indeed, whatever medium he mined to tell his stories, O’Hara’s art was, for all intents and purposes, about “being there”—all of him, giving his all.
Onstage, “there was no put-on characterization for him,” says Padilla. “Everything came out of an organic process. When he understood his character, you saw Mario bloom.”
In that 2007 “Insiang” press con, O’Hara was asked whether he was satisfied with his works. He paused, eyes unblinking, then said:
“Kung tatanungin mo ako, ang pinakaloob ko—I am never satisfied. Para bang lagi kang may hinahanap. Pero ganun yata ang proseso, ’di ba? Because ang objective ng bawat artist is to reach perfection. So hanggang di mo nakukuha ’yon, hay, lagi mong nakikita ang kulang (If you ask me, deep inside, I am never satisfied. I’m always searching for something. But that’s the process, right? Because the objective of every artist is to reach perfection. Until you attain that, you always feel that something is missing.).
“But although alam mong hindi mo talaga maa-achieve ’yon, at least makuha mo ang nearest. At makukuha mo lang ’yon if you show the whole truth (But although you know you won’t be able to achieve it, at least aim for what’s closest to it. And you’ll only get that if you show the whole truth.).”
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