By Joel Pablo Salud (published first in the Philippines Graphic)
The American theater master Orson Welles once wrote that what gives theater its meaning is when it becomes a social act. This is no more a suitable truism than in Audie Gemora’s Noli Me Tangere The Musical, performed by the theatre group Tanghalang Filipino at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ (CCP’s) Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino. It’s part of the group’s silver anniversary celebration, in line with the 25th theatre season for 2011-2012.
The musical is staged with libretto by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, music by Ryan Cayabyab, and original costume design by National Artist Salvador Bernal. Gemora directs a young cast composed of mainstream actors, which include Mark Bautista and Gian Magdangal alternating as Crisostomo Ibarra, and Cris Villonco as Maria Clara.
In this carefully rendered musical play of José Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere, Tanghalang Filipino makes a brave dash into the delightfully unexpected: a gripping performance of the comedic and the profoundly dark in the national hero’s telling of the Filipino tale under Spanish colonial and religious rule. It appears that Gemora was only too pleased to bring to light the love story between the main characters—Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. That affection, prodigious as it was, became entangled in much of the events surrounding the modest town ofSan Diego.
Eventually, the relationship took a turn for the worse. The young Ibarra had just returned from his trip toEurope, only to find out that his father had passed away. In the middle of the main characters’ engagement, Padre Salvi, the new parish priest, had expressed a liking for Maria Clara—an obsession that led the priest to plan the capture and death of Maria Clara’s lover, Crisostomo.
The bond between Crisostomo and Maria was fraught, too, by the revelation that the young woman’s biological father—a priest by the name of Padre Damaso—was the shadowy figure behind Don Rafael’s (Crisostomo Ibarra’s father) disinterment, an act of final humiliation against the Ibarras. Having received information from the rebel Elias that he was now the target of an assassination attempt, the young Ibarra decided to make a run for it before he was killed by Padre Salvi’s minions. As in the novel, Maria’s Clara’s entering the convent and the death of Elias signalled the end of the play.
At the matinee of Saturday afternoon, Crisostomo Ibarra was played by actor Gian Magdangal, a powerful tenor who did an equally powerful performance, save for a singular part where he appeared to have been so captured by the emotion of the moment that he froze on the steps. His singing, on the other hand, had left much of the audience stunned. He reached the high notes as easily as any falcon in flight. His interpretation of the young Ibarra was nonetheless delightful in the whole, with none of the routinely clichéd acting some performers who had played the role in the past had exhibited.
As expected, the scenes where Doña Victorina—played by Ring Antonio—swings by gives the otherwise serious play its comedic value. Red Nuestro as Kapitan Tiago and Angeli Bayani as Sisa were two of the most powerful actors on stage. The sterling line-up consists of Al Gatmaitan as Padre Salvi, Bodjie Pascua as Damaso, Gary Lim and Jonathan Tadioan alternating as Don Tiburcio, Jenny Villegas as Tia Isabel, Jerald Napoles and Riki Benedicto as the rebel Elias, and Paolo Rodriguez as the leper. Suffice it to say they did justice to the novel that had cost Jose Rizal his life.
Cris Villonco, who played Maria Clara, was the amazing revelation at the matinee. Her acting as well as her voice had transcended the expectations of many. She was able to accomplish, with seemingly little effort, the exacting demands of the play’s musical director. As to her capturing the heartbreak and tragedy of finding out that Maria Clara’s biological father was a priest, the same priest who had become her lover’s enemy, Villonco was no less breathless. Suffice it to say, she had done Rizal proud.
The near impossibility of encapsulating the whole breadth and length of the novel, and everything it stands for, seemed to have compelled the director to simply highlight the love angle of Crisostomo and Maria. It’s a simple, yet profound enough preface to start with. But that, which is often neglected in the discussions of the Noli Me Tangere, had provided the cast and crew with a sufficient peg through which the retelling of the tale could be more appreciated by a younger generation. The simplicity by which it was retold sans losing the novel’s social commentary was astounding, needless to say. Audie Gemora’s dream to bring the Noli Me Tangere to the Filipino youth has found its fulfilment in this musical.
The cast and crew will go on a world tour soon, bringing the musical to Filipinos abroad. The musical itself, in some portions, have highlighted Crisostomo Ibarra’s travels abroad and sentiments overseas Filipinos are familiar with. This gives the musical the much-needed timeless value to Filipinos everywhere.
Grief, however, has been expressed by some who feel that this musical should get more enthusiastic support from government. As it is, the proposals submitted to some members of Congress had been given the cold shoulder. The Noli Me Tangere a story of the Filipino, by a Filipino, for the Filipino, and government—hard-pressed as it is in the controversies of the day—should not neglect efforts at bringing the Filipino tale and talents to the world. Hardly has there been an opportunity this big, hence it should not be ignored.
Noli Me Tangere The Musical opens on August 5 and will run for four weekends until August 28 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino. Tickets are available at Ticketworld at 891-999 and the CCP Box. You may also visit its online site at www.tanghalangpilipino.org.ph for more information.
JOEL PABLO SALUD is the editor-in-chief of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications, which include the BusinessMirror. He is a member of the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle. He regularly writes reviews for the Philippines Graphic Review of Literature.