July 12, 2013
Today, I was fortunate enough to have been invited to see "Bonifacio: Isang Sarsuwela", the latest original stage musical production by Phil Stagers Foundation. Phil Stagers was also the company that brought us such historically significant theater such as "Cory sa EDSA" and "Joe: A Filipino Rockssical". This time, Atty. Vince Tanada, the heart and soul of Phil Stagers, wrote, directed and brought to life a most controversial and misunderstood Filipino Hero, Andres Bonifacio.
"Bonifacio: Isang Sarsuwela" is an epic stage production which covers a lot of historical ground. It recreates onstage all the major events in the revolutionary life of Andres Bonifacio. It starts with the establishment of the Katipunan, his marriage to Gregoria de Jesus, the bitter defeat of the Katipuneros at San Juan del Monte and their retreat to the mountains of Balara, the Magdalo vs. Magdiwang conflict in Cavite, the Tejeros Convention, his capture and kangaroo court trial, up to his tragic death in the mountains of Maragondon.
I do not think that you can show the life story of Bonifacio without showing Emilio Aguinaldo as well. Their two lives are so intertwined yet their fortunes so different, and the play shows and contrasts this quite clearly. The best scene was that where they were talking to their wives at either end of the stage, with parallel repeating dialogues, so well-written. This play is also practically about Aguinaldo as well. Of course, that persistent issue about Aguinaldo's role in the death of Bonifacio was inevitably shown as well, and quite painfully.
We can see the focus of the play best when we see how the men around these two great men were portrayed. We meet Bonifacio's loyal Katipunero colleagues, Emilio Jacinto and Macario Sakay, who were played as noble warriors. We also meet the loyal men of Aguinaldo, Agapito Bonzón and José Ignacio Paua, who are played here as merciless laughing villains. There was no doubt that this is Bonifacio's play.
As an actor, Atty. Vince Tanada imbues Bonifacio with a lot of vulnerability we rarely see in previous portrayals of this hero. We are not used to seeing Bonifacio cry before, but there is no doubt he was in a lot of pain especially toward the end of his life, both physically and emotionally. His singing voice was no doubt the best in the whole cast. It can solidly soar above the loud background music, which could drown other weaker voices. His modern (definitely un-Bonifacio-like) hairstyle is perhaps anachronistic on purpose, but that becomes a minor issue after a while.
Perfectly matched with Atty. Vince is the passionate PhilStagers muse, Ms. Cyndi Liper, as Gregoria de Jesus. Her acting is top-notch as ever. And her clear soprano singing voice complemented Atty. Vince's high baritone during their beautiful duet numbers. They really sound and look good together as the Supremo and the Lakambini.
Patrick Libao, who won raves, awards and fans (you can hear them in the crowd that night) playing Jose Rizal in "Joe," plays Emilio Jacinto in this play. His Jacinto was portrayed to be at odds with his "tucayo" Aguinaldo from the very start. He had a tendency to posture a lot which may be distracting, but maybe that was how he was instructed. Despite his limited height, Libao also had a stage presence and solid singing voice that can rise above the company.
The main weakness I note about this show today was the nervous performance of Kevin Posadas as Emilio Aguinaldo. For a major character, Posadas' stage presence was still weak and even awkward when it comes to acting and singing. He flubbed a couple of key lines very obviously and sometimes would recite lines mechanically. He still has to work on having chemistry with Adelle Ibarrientos, the actress who was playing Miong's wife Hilaria, and match her stellar soprano when they sing together. It is just Day 1, so I hope he can eventually grow more confident into his vital role, so key to the success of this play.
The production is very much like"Joe" with the cast and chorus dancing modern dance moves interpreting the sarsuwela songs (by choreographer John San Antonio), ending in stirring tableaus. This needs getting used to for people unfamiliar with the PhilStagers style. I think this choreography is done more to appeal to college students who are the main audiences of their plays. I admit hearing the lyrics "Pugad Lawin" with the singers flapping their arms like wings looked funny, though that may not be the intended reaction. I wish their flag poles were longer which may look better, but I guess those may be too exhausting for the actors to wave around.
I would sometimes feel that maybe "less could be more" in certain scenes where excessive interpretative dancing in the stage would distract somewhat from the dramatic songs being sung. Case in point would be the "Mga Kababaihan ng Rebolusyon" song where I felt maybe just the four ladies singing and commanding the stage by themselves would have been more powerful than with all those back-up dancers cluttering up the background vying for attention.
The length of the show can be formidable as well, considering it lasts more than two hours without an intermission. There are several scenes that may seem too long or repetitive, like those with extended dancing, be they chorus members, Katipuneros or Guardia Civil. I thought there was a little too much time spent on scenes with side characters sometimes. An example is that long scene showing how Tandang Sora was arrested and exiled to Guam, which did not really seem necessary in a play about Bonifacio.
A play like this must have been a technical nightmare with all those lapel microphones and costume changes among so many actors. However, there was only one major lapel mike glitch last night which involved Tandang Sora, who also had a near wardrobe malfunction, but Jerie Sanchez, the actress who played her, was a real trooper! Some of the gun battle scenes still looked disorganized and haphazard, but then again this is only the first day of the soft opening so some adjustments in blocking can be made.
Today is the very first time they are showing this show in public. They are staged this show an incredible four times today (8 am, 11 am, 2 pm) and I am watching the final show of the day, at 6 pm. They will have the same grueling schedule tomorrow and the succeeding weekends. I commend the dedication and stamina of the cast considering the very intense dialog and songs the actors have to deliver in very highly emotionally-charged scenes.
I could not say kudos enough to Atty. Vince Tanada and the whole cast and crew of "Bonifacio: Isang Sarsuela". What I saw today is ready to fly with just a few more minor fine-tuning adjustments before its grand premiere on July 19, 2013. I am sure the important patriotic message Atty. Vince Tanada had so deeply ingrained in his script will reach the youth for whom he has written and staged this show.
Bravo to Phil Stagers once again and break a leg for a good long run!