Monday, February 25, 2008

Dance of the damned

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 02.25.2008

Dulaang UP’s reconfigured ‘komedya’ ‘Orosman at Zafira’ is the first great production of the year

DANCE AS THE BASIS OF THEATER. Not text, not acting, but gesture and movement--actions that hark back to sacred rituals on ancient evenings, when stories were told and myths formed around campfires by a tribe’s designated dancer-storytellers.

The pioneering drama theoretician Antonin Artaud had such a vision in 1931, when he glimpsed a performance of a Balinese dance in Paris and grasped the possibility of theater freed from the sovereignty of text or the willfulness of actors. A form of drama that gave pride of place to spectacle, myth-making, thought made visible--the fusion of sounds and images to create theater of a visceral, elemental purity.

If he were alive today and by any chance living in Manila, Artaud would probably look with kindly eyes on “Orosman at Zafira,” a reconfigured strain of the colonial-era komedya that director-choreographer Dexter Santos has brought to Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater in UP Diliman with blazing life and ingenuity.

“Orosman’s” text remains the mellifluous, sonorous Tagalog of Francisco Baltazar, its structure the familiar moro-moro mold of warring groups clashing to the sound of music and the beat of precise choreography.

The language, spoken by a large cast of professional and student actors, is largely leeched of declamatory artifice, its picturesque power emerging with coherence and transparency.

At its simplest, “Orosman” makes a persuasive case that Balagtas, a figure of bland terror to millions of students required to read his archaic poetry, can be accessible, comprehensible, when spoken right.

Dark and gritty
One is likely, however, to give more space in one’s mind to how this play veers much farther away from the conventional komedya into altogether novel territory--one darker, grittier, even ground-breaking in its desire to confound the predictable.

For starters, this “Orosman” is as much dance as it is dialogue. Its electrifying display of movement is this play’s most glittering achievement.

Santos, who has made a name for himself as a choreographer (he created the movement for, among others, New Voice Company’s “Into the Woods” and “Cabaret”; Metropolitan Theater Guild’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Dulaang UP’s “St. Louis Loves Dem Filpinos...The Musical”; and Atlantis Productions’ “Beauty and the Beast”) paints “Orosman’s” nearly-Shakespearean tale of bloodlust, revenge, war and forbidden love in dances of scalding heat and savagery.

The story of three kingdoms locked in endless strife, plot after vicious plot assuring a constant pileup of dead bodies and broken souls, gathers momentum and energy from a series of breathtaking stylized battles that Santos has devised.

Their staging is altogether fresh, bold, original. “Orosman” offers a go-for-broke melange of inspirations, cultures, sounds and rituals improbably held together by a belief in the power of the stylized gesture--a fling of the hand, a thrust of the hip, a communal leap into the air--to define characters and entire clans, illustrate the grandiose chaos of warfare, push the story forward to its mournful, tragic close.

Production designer Tuxqs Rutaquio helps the vibrant cast along with an ingenious assortment of double-duty props--the kubing as both dagger and musical instrument, a rainmaker used as a spear, bamboo slats flogged with frightening ferocity to create the noise and fog of war. The evocative lighting is by John Batalla.

Weaving through all this is the plangent sound of Carol Bello’s neo-ethnic score (played by a live band), which lends texture and immediacy to the roaring pageant onstage.

The songs themselves--urgent, soulful melodies that give no concession to pop sensibilities--form an inspired tapestry of indigenous sounds that, sung by the play’s superior vocal talents (such as the two alternating female leads, Cris Villonco and Maita Ponce), cross over from chant to love tune to lament with eloquent ease.

A highlight is the Act 2 opener, which blends the voices of the major characters into one gorgeous anthem of yearning.

Star-making turns
What a pleasure to see Villonco and Ponce play Zafira. The first exhibits alabaster hauteur, the second plucky vulnerability. When they sing, they charge every note with soaring authority. These two fresh-faced actresses deliver star-making performances that will remind one of Aida, the indomitable captive princess in Verdi’s opera.

As the scrappy Gulnara, Jean Judith Javier holds her own against Villonco and Ponce. Gulnara and Zafira, in fact, much to one’s surprise, considering the ethos of Balagtas’ prose poem, form a self-contained proto-feminist bond that this play underlines with much care and apparent approval. The women are an intelligent, aggressive, cunning lot, as vengeful as they are beautiful.

One can’t say the same, alas, of the men. Except for ferocious turns by Roeder Camañag as the usurper king Boulasem and JC Santos as Zelim, the two alternating Orosmans (Arnold Reyes and Felix Rivera) do right by their roles and sing sweetly, but are hamstrung by weak, underwritten characters. Orosman doesn’t register strongly until late in Act 2, and by then the play’s tenacious amazonian women have carted off and made dinner of the scenery.

Similarly, Orosman’s younger brother Abdalap is played by veteran actor Lex Marcos with a noticeable slack, frustrating any effective tension between the battling siblings.

Zelima the narrator, meanwhile, is sung with exquisite ethnic-inflected vocal flair by Tao Nono Aves (clearly the daughter of her mother, Grace Nono), and less so by Natasha Cabrera (who was excellent in Dulaang UP’s earlier musical “The Silent Soprano,” but seems a tad too strident here).

Lumpy Act 1
Fleet-footed as it is, “Orosman at Zafira” is not without stumbles. After a bracing start that sees the three kingdoms introduced and cross-matched via distinct movement vocabularies, Act 1 settles into a rather lumpy run.

But Act 2 supplies the balance with a breathless, exhilarating series of set pieces that hurtles the storytelling toward a final feverish orgy of bloodletting and violence.

The closing scene throbs with a haunting sense of despair, ambivalence and regret--the last spadeful of earth that “Orosman at Zafira” throws to bury the chirpy, happy-ever-after resolutions of the old komedya.

No dancing around it: This brave, resonant show is the first great production of the year.

“Orosman at Zafira” runs until March 2 at Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall, UP Diliman, QC. Call 9261349, 4337840, 9818500 local 2449, 0917-6206224. Visit

[Photos: Pat Valera]


erasmusa said...

was supposed to watch it the other weekend but my companion backed out. but after reading this, it's imperative that i see it. alone, if i have to.

vincedj said...

i lurved it. i lurved it. i lurved. it.

wanna watch it again. sana!

Hilda said...

I wasn't able to watch with Exie last week because I got sick – bummer. I have to watch it this week!

"At its simplest, “Orosman” makes a persuasive case that Balagtas, a figure of bland terror to millions of students required to read his archaic poetry, can be accessible, comprehensible, when spoken right."

That's how I feel about Shakespeare, actually. I can never read him – his text has to be read to me or watched in a performance for it to make sense to me.

gibbs cadiz said...

ERASMUSA, go! :)

VINCE, hehe, see ya there. :)

HILDA, aynaku, kulitin si exie, you HAVE to watch it, last week na! :)

Anonymous said...

i like the music, i like some of the singers. i like the energy of the cast. generally a great production. what i do not like was the hagibis costume. parang galing sa ukay ukay from baguio. so unflattering to the actors. and di naman related sa play.

Anonymous said...

like the female lead, very powerful. Arnold Reyes was a disappointment here comparing it to his previous performance in Hamlet.

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