"Florante at Laura" by Francisco Baltazar or "Balagtas" is a required staple in Filipino high school curriculum up to the present time. Unfortunately, not everybody appreciates anymore the beauty of the archaic Filipino used in this "awit", a traditional poetic form written with four lines per stanza and twelve syllables per line. I believe one of the ways to spark students' interest in this classic of Filipino literature is to see the story effectively brought to life in a theatrical play.
Gantimpala Theater Foundation Inc. has taken on the challenge to sustaining the love of Filipino classics alive in modern students. Now on its 38th season since it was founded in 1977, they still pride themselves as the champion of educational entertainment, or as their founder Tony Espejo would put it, "edutainment." Too bad I was not exposed to their plays during my own high school days. I am not sure if the "El Filibusterismo" play I saw at the Metropolitan Theater during its brief revival in the early 1990s was by Gantimpala or not. It probably was. This is the first time I know for sure I am watching a Gantimpala production.
Florante is the son of Duke Briseo from the court of Haring Linceo of Albania. His love Laura is the daughter of the King. While Florante was fighting battles for his country abroad, the treacherous Adolfo, an old bitter rival of his, usurped power and named himself king. Adolfo had Florante tied to a tree in the jungle to be eaten by wild animals, while wanting to marry Laura for himself.
Meanwhile in Persia, Sultan Ali-Adab threatened to behead his own son, the warrior Aladin, all because the sultan wanted Aladin's beautiful Flerida for himself. Because of Flerida's sacrifice, Aladin was thrown into the wilderness instead. As fate would have it, Aladin rescues Florante from being eaten by the lion in the jungle, and their respective misfortunes led to a strong friendship between former enemies.
As written in play form by multi-awarded writer Bonifacio Ilagan, the story was still delivered in verse form, a "komedya", with a narrator to link the scenes together. While I was watching, I felt the students should at least have an idea of the story in order to fully appreciate it. Because of the deep flowery poetic Filipino words used, it may be difficult to follow the story if you had absolutely no idea what it was about. Fortunately, I still know the story of "Florante at Laura" by heart. This is because my son just took it up in Filipino class last year, and I got to re-read the whole awit again as his tutor.
While I was watching this play, I found the acting of the cast to be really exaggerated and florid in style. Paul Jake Paule (as Florante), Ace Urieta (as Adolfo) and Ku Aquino (as both Haring Linceo and Sultan Ali Adab) were particularly hammy in their gesticulations, facial expressions and enunciations, it was almost comical. There were amusing choreographed marching sequences set to music serving as transitions between scenes. While it was all entertaining, I did not expect to see such very old-fashioned theater styles in a play nowadays. I just rationalized that these techniques were employed to make the play more lively for its young audiences.
Upon reading the playbill though, I learned that Director Roeder Camanag had decided to stage it in full throwback mode, employing traditional staging techniques used in "komedyas". The "ditso"(or singsong) style in declaiming the verses, the Paseo (pass-in-review of soldiers), Pingkian (religious debate) and Batalla (choreographed fighting) were all in full display. This was all very educational, even for me. I also learned that the expected acting style in a "komedya" is externalization, with stereotypical expressions of emotions. That accounted for the cheesy over-acting style seen from the actors. I hope the teachers and students take time to read the playbill for this valuable information.
The auditorium was full packed with spirited high school students, and based on their reaction, the throwback gambit by the production team worked. The students loudly screamed with delight during the romance scenes of Florante and Laura (Ellrica Laguardia), as well as Aladin (Jeff Carpio) and Flerida (Sharlene Rivera). They also had fun during the "battle" scenes, as well as scenes showing Adolfo's and Sultan Ali-Adab's lecherous villainy. During the curtain call, the students erupted into spontaneous and appreciative applause. The girls even had especially loud cheers for the young actors who played the young Florante and Adolfo during their student days at the Atena. It was a joy for me to witness the students' enthusiastic response.
Despite catching a play at 9 am on a Friday morning had not really been easy on my schedule, I was happy I got to catch this play. Even if Act I may have felt long with the introduction of characters and all the marching it had, the whole play was generally very entertaining. The complex multi-layered plot in Act II was presented very well in a manner that truly got the complex story across, especially for the hard-to-please student crowd it targets. Kudos to the whole Gantimpala cast and crew for their continued efforts to make Filipino classics relevant to the current generation of Filipino youths.
You can catch Florante at Laura at the AFP Theater on August 1, with shows at 9 am, 12nn and 3 pm. On August 7, it will play at the Star Theater, again with three shows at 9 am, 12 nn and 3 pm. On Aug. 14 and 15, it will run at the SM Southmall with two shows, 11 am and 2 pm. For tickets, call Gantimpala Marketing Office at 9985622 and 8720261.