December 1, 2013
There are so many productions about Andres Bonifacio this year because 2013 is his 150th birth anniversary. Tanghalang Pilipino's latest show, "San Andres B," an original Filipino opera, is one of them.
The libretto is by National Artist for Literature, Virgilio Almario. The music is by Josefino Chino Toledo, who also conducted the orchestra during the performance. This is directed by the very busy and versatile wunderkind Floy Quintos, who threatens that this work will challenge us to go beyond comfort zones.
In Act 1, you see Andres Bonifacio with his siblings and the fans and canes they sell, then with his theater group (the Teatro Porvenir), then meeting his idol Dr. Jose Rizal in La Liga Filipina. However, you also see Andres being addressed by three women dressed like the Virgin Mary, as the populace was being tormented by four demons dressed in ragged finery.
The first few scenes can really make you scratch your head. What is this show all about? This will not be a typical biographical drama with a linear progression. This show will be suffused with layered metaphors. As you watch, you can connect the dots, but it may not be so easy with the spotty sound system. Frankly, I hardly understood a word being sung, though fortunately, recited lines were clearer. I do not know if where I sat (about the 12th row up) was a factor.
Dondi Ong and Marvin Gayramon are excellent classical singers, no doubt about that. However, as Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal, unfortunately the physical disconnect was too glaring and major to ignore. We all have preconceived ideas on how Bonifacio and Rizal look like, and these two actors, no matter how perfect their singing voices were, simply could not fit into those iconic roles because of the way they look. I am thinking that maybe the songs Bonifacio had to sing were simply too challenging for just any tenor to hit, and it was only THE Dondi Ong who could hit those killer notes. Still, this odd casting of lead roles made Act 1 distractingly unconvincing.
But after the 20 minute intermission and Act 2 kicked in, it was a whole new ball game. (To tell you the truth, I had moved down to an empty seat on the 2nd row during the intermission, to be much nearer the stage now to hear the lines better.)
In the very first scene, we meet Gregoria de Jesus for the first time, as she marries Bonifacio. Ka Oryang was played by the sublime Ms. Margarita Roco. She plays this role with so much sensuality and passion. She came across as a really heroic person in her solo aria "Mga Luksang Pangitain" more than Ong did in the entire Act 1. The audience gave her spontaneous applause right after her breathtaking song. It was the first time that happened in the whole play. Ms. Roco's performance, even in that song alone, was already worth the price of admission.
Another performer who stood out in Act 2 was Antonio Ferrer as Emilio Jacinto. He had the requisite lean body build and masculine stance to be a convincing Katipunero. His tenor voice is also very strong. Just had to process a little that I pictured Jacinto to be more of an intellectual type, being the Brains of the Katipunan and all. But that is only a minor quibble. He could be a more fitting Bonifacio in a future production of this show.
A third performer who stepped into his own in Act 2 is Nicolo Magno. In Act 1, he was just one of the four beggars ("Pulubi") representing the decaying Spanish government who rampantly raped and pillaged the country. Even then, Magno already stood out because of this younger age (compared to the other three) and his daring costume that bared his abs even below the umbilicus. But in Act 2, he had featured solos in both spoken and sung lines and dance moves that further pushed him out to be noticed among his companions. He actually had one of the loudest applause during the curtain call, especially from the females in the audience.
Act 2 is what it was all about. In fact, Act 2 could have been the whole play already. We get the full message loud and clear here. Bonifacio as hero and as saint. There were parallels to the passion of the Christ in Gethsemane all the way to Calvary. There was a strongly sung and choreographed number called "Tonto (3) Gago" which was simply so stirring to hear and watch. The beautiful final tableau was amazingly potent in its drama and symbolism. Act 2 was written, staged, acted and sung so well that before the last scene I could already accept Ong as Bonifacio. Act 2 definitely saves the show, and in fact, makes the show very much worth watching.
The one consistently good thing about the whole show is the performance of Grupo 20/21 under the baton of Maestro Chino Toledo. Grupo 20/21 is a new chamber music ensemble dedicated primarily to the performance of works from the last and the present century, especially Filipino and Asian composers. "San Andres B" is only the initial project of this group, and they sounded like they have played music together for years..
Congratulations to the whole Tanghalang Pilipino cast and crew for this brave and ground-breaking production. Its operatic style is novel, not the typical classical nor is it rock or pop opera. Act 1 may be tough to wade through its 45 minutes, but the spectacular Act 2 makes this essential viewing, must-watch theater.
"San Andres B" plays at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines only until next week. Remaining show times are 8 pm on December 6 and 7; and 3 pm on December 7 and 8, 2013. Tickets are priced at P800 regular patrons and P400 for students. Just one more weekend left!