Barefoot Theatre Collaborative’s newest production preserves the play’s most important aspect: the palpable and intimate relationship between its two leads, who just so happen to be the only characters in the show. “The Last Five Years” trio consists of real-life couple Gab Pangilinan and Myke Salomon, front and center as Jamie and Cathy, as well as Ben, the “newest addition” to the musical. Through their scenes, we see Jamie and Cathy’s relationship blossom and die and grow and shrink in a creative, nonlinear storytelling where the focus is always the two of them.
The Surprise Trio
Director Topper Fabregas, Musical Director Rony Fortich, and Choreographer Delphine Buencamino joined forces to showcase the theatrical might of Gab and Myke, but the play’s third character deserves his own spotlight, too.
But then you ask, “The Last Five Years trio? A third character? Isn’t it just a two-person show?”
It’s a story of two people, deeply in love and full of promise, growing apart in a seemingly perfect world. Surely it would make more sense if it only focuses on them.
You’d be right, except there’s a “new character” who unexpectedly shares the spotlight with the other actors for the entire length of the play.
Ben is what the show’s production designer Joey Mendoza named the awe-inspiring stage that makes all the magic happen in the story.
“The stage was essentially a runway,” Joey shared in an online interview with PalabasTayo. “And I did not want to have stagehands setting up scenes.”
This new but challenging way of thinking was how he came up with a theatre first – a runway-slash-track used as the main stage of a show. It’s the first thing the showgoers see when they settle into their seats, and it represents the timeline, the journey, and the run of the couple’s relationship.
“I feel it just makes sense to have this gesture…since the musical is so intimate and wide,” Joey commented on the play’s interesting duality. Elements of twos and pairs are scattered all throughout the musical, so adding Ben as an integral part of the leads’ story could have gone incredibly wrong.
“If used wrong, it could feel gimmicky…but at least we introduced something more.”
And it couldn’t have been farther from wrong. Other stages only house life, but Ben is alive. Ben is life.
The passage of time is a crucial element to The Last Five Years, and Joey made sure to keep its presence felt throughout the show by expressive changes set by the stage.
“Given the space, I’ve set it in nature with a canopy of tree branches–an idyllic paradise, so to speak. But that canopy can also be the encroaching of urbanity, noise, and light obscuring. It’s very abstract and requires the support of sound, light, and costume design.”
Joey’s daring set enabled him to play with the show’s costumes, making sure that every element to Jamie and Cathy’s looks were tied to Ben as the seasons of love progressed.
The outfits signaled time, place, and mood as one character goes forward in time, and the other goes backward. Both Jamie and Cathy have a distinct journey, and clothes and accessories evoked this throughout the play, contrasting with the minimal set.
“Costume-wise, I tried contrasting schemes on each side of the set. At times, it’s night versus day. So this Eden of a set can also be a “paradise” that can suffocate. The contrast makes sense in the space given, and if we are clear with this, the set won’t look random.”
Joey thought up the idea of Ben’s “idyllic Eden” nature so they could evoke a garden using a canopy of branches, which transforms to a bleak, metal urban landscape with the help of lighting.
“It’s very abstract and requires the support of sound, light, and costume design,” he adds.
The Challenge for Ben
Joey says that the ultimate challenge was keeping the intimate musical dynamic without interruptions or intrusions. Tracking in set pieces made perfect sense, and it allowed the story to unfold uninterrupted, showcasing enough visual cues to suggest changing times or locations like a cinematic dissolve.
Bringing Ben to life takes more than just visual cues, however. Joey knew that failing to navigate the wedding aisle-like runway would make it seem like the play was done in a random, unpolished proscenium set.
A meticulous, choreographed dance of dressers and stagehands work endlessly and precisely behind the scenes, making sure that everything comes out on stage at the right place and at the right time. Not an uncommon scene behind every play, but for The Last Five Years, it’s more hectic and complex.
Even Ben’s initial test runs were disastrous, and they had to calibrate its varying speed hundreds of times so Gab and Myke weren’t thrown off every time it sped up or slowed down.
And that’s where the stage got its name: the tryouts they made it audition with, like any other theatre actor goes through.
“[We named it] Ben Plat (short for platform), haha!” Joey shared with pride. “The third actor in the show.”
Ben’s subtle changes throughout its tryouts were facilitated by their technical director, D. Villanueva Cortezano.
“I pitched a simple pulley system and a platform over a trough, and D. was up for the challenge and refined the design.” Joey’s out-of-the-box approach to designing sets were last seen in Rep’s pre-pandemic production of Anna in the Tropics, where he flew in a large table from the rafters. This gave him assurance that Ben will be sorted out in no time.
Both D. and Topper were very much involved in the design process. Although Ben appears as a minimal force in the play, they made sure that complex choices in staging and materials are always present.
The act of tracking in set pieces is quite new and uncommon in local theater, and it requires artistic choices even from the stage manager and crew that operates it.
“The director and I had to figure out what was essential to show the audience and what wasn’t. We needed to discuss how the set pieces would appear in the scene without upstaging the actors or upsetting the mood of each scene.” One of Joey’s biggest challenges with Ben was to make the show visually exciting, even while utilizing minimalism.
“The idea was radical and risky, but the show’s producers were up for pushing boundaries. It took a few iterations and refinement in the workshop, but Ben, which we nicknamed the moving platform, was ready before load-in.”
All they needed to do next was to introduce the third character to Myke and Gab, as well as the stage manager, and that was it. Ben came alive, up and running, dancing on stage to a rhythm it leads itself and Jamie and Cathy into, creating a never-before-seen trio in a story originally only fit for two.
Originally produced for the New York stage by Arielle Tepper and Marty Bell, and Northlight Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, this Jason Robert Brown-written play now has its own distinct image in Philippine theatre, all thanks to Joey’s triumphant comeback as one of the artform’s greatest contemporary set designers.
Catch The Last Five Years’ trio at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Blackbox Theater in Circuit Makati during these remaining show dates:
- October 1 (Sunday) 3:00 PM & 8:00 PM
- October 5, 2023 (Thursday) – 8:00 PM (limited tickets)
- October 6, 2023 (Friday) – 8:00 PM (very limited tickets)
- October 12, 2023 (Thursday) – 8:00 PM (available tickets)
- October 13, 2023 (Friday) – 8:00 PM (limited tickets)
The Last Five Years is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI), New York, NY, USA. All Authorized performance materials are also supplied by MT. Visit www.MTIShows.com for more information.