Of Batang Rizal specifically, he says, “Wholesome in the best sense yet daubed with welcome irreverence, [it] is infused with something else that young and old will have no quarrel with: childlike wonder.”
(The complete review is also in his Blogspot and Multiply sites.)
PETA has been performing and touring Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang and Batang Rizal since last year; it's good to know these plays haven't lost their capacity to delight after all this time. I first saw Christine Bellen's play on the young Rizal in August last year. Here's what I wrote then--followed by a brief video interview with the principals [note: the current production has new lead actors]:
If you were Jose Rizal as a kid--say, 10 years old, snotty, sickly, sensitive, a wisp of a boy in a household full of grown-up women--and you happened to learn, by some cosmic fluke, that in time you'd do great things and become a National Hero, you'd be elated, wouldn't you? The monuments erected in your honor, the books written about your life, the countless streets bearing your name, even your likeness in a friggin' peso coin! Music to your teeny-weeny ears, right?
What if, however, that ego-stroking peek at the future comes with news that you'd also end up dead, cut down by firing squad one morning, for all your so-called grand, heroic exploits? Would you still want to be a hero? Would you still choose the path to glory, or would you rather retire to a farm in Calamba, raise a family, and live the rest of your life in obscure but fulfilled quietude?
A question worthy of Nikos Kazantsakis and Martin Scorsese, if you think about it. They posed a similar conundrum in The Last Temptation of Christ, which had a very human Jesus--knowing what he knew was coming--questioning right up to his penultimate breath whether the agony and death he was to go through were all worth it. (As you know, the Bible ruined the suspense with spoilers.)
Look at me--lost in Heavy, Serious Thought, brow all furrowed and lips all grim, when I'm actually talking about... a children's play. That's right, the thing that got me all hunched up on heroism, choice, destiny, crystal ball-gazing blah blah blah is a show meant for kids (though not exclusively, thank God or the muses for that): PETA's current production of Batang Rizal.
I hope I didn't scare anyone with my little bout of, ah, mental onanism. That's just me when it's past midnight and I'm hungry and oxygen-deprived. The show is in fact one bright, funny, fizzy ball, a “message” play that goes easy on the Big Idea and lets the story, an imaginative time-travel adventure performed by a winning set of young actors, do the job instead. The scene where the kid Rizal first hears, to his horror, that he's going to die in a strange place called the Luneta actually plays out as one of the show's high points--a hilarious moment of unexpected revelation that, on the Sunday afternoon I watched, the mostly-student audience lapped up with gusto.
You might say that Batang Rizal adheres to the classic Mary Poppins philosophy: you know, that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, never mind the calories. I'm happy to report that this entertaining play is topical without being preachy. Its ultimate take-away thought--that there's a little bit of Rizal in all of us--is actually hard to convey without Mariah popping up in the background and warbling Hero as the default soundtrack.
However, playwright Christine Bellen and director Duds Terana skirt this problem by ditching the hagiography altogether. The Rizal that emerges from their ministrations is delightfully alive and accessible, and that humanity helps the play put its point across simply and clearly, in a manner that refuses to talk down to the kids while remaining engaging to the grown-ups in the audience.
What's praiseworthy about Batang Rizal, at least to me, is that, by knocking the hero off his lofty pedestal, it brings him back to ground level where we can size him up more rigorously. Mike De Leon attempted something similar with Bayaning Third World. As with that movie, I came away from this play with my view of Rizal both reinvigorated and reaffirmed.
I felt so uplifted afterwards that I sought out Ms. Bellen, Mr. Terana, and three of the young leads--JK, Mark and Ian--to talk to them about the play. Lookie, I got our chat on video! Quite brief at 15 minutes, but we covered some interesting areas, and the kids are impressive. Check this out:
PLUS: More thoughts and impressions from the 12 bloggers who joined me on a walking tour of the PETA Theater Center in September 2007, after which we all watched Batang Rizal. The first blog-slash-theater event I organized, and what a fun and (personally) fulfilling day it turned out to be.
Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang and Batang Rizal run until October 19 at the PETA Theater Center, 5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. Call 7256244 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details.