Monday, November 19, 2012

Pure love and a wondrous tale

For The Philippine Star, 19 November 2012, in Art & Culture.

The third time’s the charm. Tanghalang Ateneo had staged Sintang Dalisay (Pure Love) twice before, on the Loyola Heights campus in July 2011 and February 2012, the second run improving upon the first. Now, as part of this year’s National Theater Festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the production reaches a triumphant height. 

 Actually, I had already gotten to see a prototype of the play, a thirty-minute concept involving only three performers that director Ricardo Abad had taken to a Shanghai festival in 2009, performed in a conference room for a limited audience. The germ of the idea: using dance, namely, the igal of the Sama-Bajau people of Mindanao (with choreographer Matthew Santamaria), music, and a stripped-down text to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The response was strongly positive. At the suggestion of the nation’s leading Shakespeare scholar, Judy Ick, Abad turned to a little-known adaptation of the play: an awit written by G. D. Roke in 1901. Recognizing that by itself the text, in a traditional Filipino form of narrative poetry, was insufficient for staging, he turned, with Guelan Luarca, to the late Rolando Tinio’s translation of the tragedy and lifted passages from it to plug the narrative gaps. (Luarca, now a college senior, submitted a play to this year’s Virgin Labfest, the CCP’s annual festival of new work. Not only was “Mga Kuneho” accepted and staged, the play was chosen with two other works to form part of next year’s “Best of 2012” set. He is an emerging talent in his own right.) Muslim names were assigned to the locale (Semporna for Verona) and the characters (such as Rashiddin and Jamila for Romeo and Juliet).

The idea, as Abad explains in his notes to the first run, was sparked by a visit to an international theater festival in New Delhi. “In India, as well as in China, Malaysia, and other Asian countries,” he writes, “indigenous performance traditions are integral to the theater curriculum and given new vigor in contemporary theater productions. Why not in the Philippines?” 

Tasha Tañada and Kalil Almonte as the star-crossed lovers Jamila and Rashiddin.
For the music, Abad turned to ethnic music guru Edru Abraham and his ensemble Kontra-Gapi. Abraham made sure to train a band of mostly student musicians. By Sintang Dalisay’s second run in early 2012, the young group had taken over. Supplementing the instruction on dance and music were sessions with master dancers from Tabawan, Tawi-Tawi, who helped the performers refine their technique and play various native instruments.

The last piece of the puzzle: the venue. TA and the school’s other theater groups usually resort to the Rizal Mini-Theater, or RMT, in Faber Hall for their shows. A squat 280-seater with a low ceiling, the space dampens sound and creates the impression of performers speaking through some thick, invisible fabric. The transfer to the CCP’s Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, or Little Theater, worked wonders. It set the play free.

The new space allowed the production to breathe. The greater height and breadth created a sense of welcome depth. Performers moved and ran and jumped with ease, from swathes of burnished light into shadow. The brilliant fabrics of the costumes dazzled. The music, from the ensemble on a recessed platform only barely visible, enveloped in darkness and shrouded by blasts of fog, seemed to come from some mysterious, otherworldly place. Then there’s the acoustics. The Little Theater uncloaked the music’s resplendence which the RMT had hidden. Unleashed, the words rung like lush poetry. I was hooked from the opening moments, as I thought the rest of the audience was. They sat rapt through the show’s ninety minutes before roaring their approval at the end. And for the first time in three viewings, I was moved. The show had become a marvel. 

“The transfer to the CCP Little Theater worked wonders. It set the play free. The new space allowed the production to breathe. The brilliant fabrics of the costumes dazzled. The theater uncloaked the music’s resplendence. Unleashed, the words rung like lush poetry. The show had become a marvel.”

The great thing about watching plays at a festival is that you can mill about the lobby and listen in on enthusiastic conversations about the show just concluded, and I talked to a few people and asked them what they thought about Sintang Dalisay. A veteran arts critic thought the dancing technically proficient but lacking in grace. It’s an opinion I respect, but we need to remember that TA is a university-based theater group. The show is barely two years old, and when I checked the playbill to that first staging, about half the cast had been turned over. That first time more than a year ago some performers clearly hadn’t gotten the hang of the igal. The second time was better. Now there’s a coherence and tightness in the ensemble work that wasn’t there before. That’s the most I can ask of a company composed mostly of college students who don’t have years of formal training in dance. It’s not a surprise that the most accomplished performers, Kalil Almonte (as Rashiddin) and Brian Sy (as the imam and chorus), have been with the show the longest. They’ve clearly grown into their roles.

One of the conference participants, a dancer in his own right, gushed about the show and how it did justice to the cultural milieu and to the dance idioms borrowed (he described a few in detail), and in the meanwhile being faithful to Shakespeare. I was glad to hear it. Fidelity and respect are important points to Abad. Again, I turn to his notes: “Intercultural work within a country . . . can be subject to the same criticism [as Westerners exploiting Asian performance styles] when artists from dominant centers appropriate local performance practices and claim them as their own without giving indigenous performers their fair share of attention. To correct these pitfalls, we heeded the advice of our igal teachers from Tabawan and our mentors in the awit, making sure that our work, though intercultural and Manila-based, improvisational and fanciful, respects tradition but moves it forward, transforming more than conserving our heritage, delighting audiences both cosmopolitan and local along the way.”

It’s this respectful-but-transformative spirit that animates most of his productions, especially of his adaptations of Shakespeare. To my mind Abad has now made three excellent ones. Ang Pagpapaamo sa Maldita (in 2001) moved The Taming of the Shrew to Bicol in 1910, pitting Katherina as a headstrong Bicolana against Petruccio as a swaggering American, making his wooing and her resistance a metaphor for the American colonial enterprise. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for the defunct Metropolitan Theater Guild in 2004, was a bilingual production, with Nick Bottom (a never-as-hilarious Ron Capinding) and his fellow “rude mechanicals” speaking Filipino, that touched the mystical yet never left the mundane roots of its comedy. And now, Sintang Dalisay. 

On the way out of the theater, a man behind me said, “Mas maganda pa ito sa Phantom of the Opera!” I turned to him, and we exchanged smiles. It felt good to know that, despite the success of that behemoth at the tills, there is at least one more person who has discovered that local productions can stand up to their imported counterparts, and that encountering our homegrown shows can even be a more meaningful experience.

* * *
I’ll have more to say about the National Theater Festival, both the conference and other shows, in future columns. But you can watch the talks and panel discussions yourself via the videos on the festival website.

Sintang Dalisay returns to the stage at the GT-Toyota Auditorium, Asian Center, UP Diliman for two performances on November 24, at 2 and 7 pm. For ticket inquiries and reservations, contact Ada Albaña at 0920-966-9402. For more information, go to the production's Facebook page.

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