I didn't notice it, but last weekend was the first of a rare confluence of shows of a particular kind happening in Manila at the moment. On August 14-15, 21-22 and 28-29--a fleeting three weekends--three classic Filipino works are playing simultaneously in different venues around the metro.
There's Francisco Baltazar's Orosman at Zafira, of course, now playing to raucous sold-out houses at UP's Guerrero Theater, courtesy of Dulaang UP. This eye-popping Dexter Santos-directed spectacle runs until Aug. 29.
At the Irwin Theater of the Ateneo de Manila University, meanwhile, Tanghalang Ateneo is presenting Severino Reyes' landmark sarsuwela Walang Sugat, directed by Ricky Abad, until Aug. 28. This show is a repeat of the successful first run held earlier this year as part of the Ateneo sesquicentennial celebrations.
And this Wednesday, completing the triumvirate, Tanghalang Pilipino's rock-musical production of Lope K. Santos' novel Banaag at Sikat opens at CCP Little Theater, with music by Lucien Letaba, libretto by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, scenery by National Artist for Theater Salvador Bernal, and choreography by Edna Vida.
How about that? Three of Philippine literature's canonical works, all playing at the same time within an hour or two's distance from each other (sans the damn traffic) in the city. More, all three are, or appear to be, products of brave, thoughtful contemporizing, the artistic teams behind them having arrived at the conclusion that presenting these works in their original, now-archaic forms would be pointless and counter-productive.
Hence, Balagtas' 1800s Tagalog, while still heard throughout Orosman at Zafira, is now garlanded with stupendous bells and whistles, as it were, to help audiences understand what it's basically saying--the conventional comedia radically transposed to the key of movement and dance, and reassembled as a galvanizingly modern piece of musical theater.
That, too, seems to be the tack with TP's Banaag at Sikat. No less than Mr. Lumbera, an august practitioner of Filipino in his writings, admitted to extreme difficulty in deciphering Santos' 1906 novel about volcanic socio-political changes in turn-of-the-century Philippines, and adapting it for the stage. Having done that, his libretto now pulses to music, too. And not just any type of music--not even the sarsuwela kind, which would seem to be the default idiom given the period milieu--but pop-rock, with its driving beats, belting voices and electric guitars. The production under Jose Estrella's direction is hoping the hybrid experiment would help attract younger audiences to rediscover and learn something from Santos' work.
A similar youthful appeal informs Tanghalang Ateneo's Walang Sugat, as immediately apparent from its whimsical, evocative backdrops of blown-up children's book illustrations--the work, again, of Mr. Bernal. Severino Reyes' sarsuwela, written (in 1902) as a defiant protest against the American occupation of the Philippines, tends to be played as a jaw-jutting, flag-waving call to arms. Mr. Abad's take for TA--at least based on the first run--kept the tone respectful of the material but not slavishly so. The proceedings had a brisk, convivial tone to them, and the sarsuwela's stirring music (Bayan Ko being only the most popular) came to the fore via a sumptuous live orchestra and a cast of vibrant voices.
Hopefully, the current restaging is able to keep to that spirit. That first run, incidentally, had young actress Delphine Buencamino playing one of the female leads. Now she's hopped over to UP and is burning up the stage as a fierce Zafira (alternating with Natasha Garrucha). Walang Sugat also served up another find in newbie performer Arman Ferrer, who played the male lead Tenyong, and is reprising the part in the restaging. A UP Voice student, Mr. Ferrer's tenor is one of the most ravishing you'd hear lately; along with his youth and gangly leading-man looks, it should assure him--if casting directors hereabouts keep their eyes open--of more good roles in musicals and other shows needing cultivated voices from hereon.
Orosman at Zafira, Banaag at Sikat, Walang Sugat. Three Filipino classics reinvented for the contemporary stage, and now running side by side (with only two weekends remaining). Lovely serendipity--something that shouldn't go to waste, don't you think?
PLUS: Salvador Bernal's set for Banaag at Sikat--