Dulaang U.P. stages anti-sarswela 'Basilia ng Malolos"

Dulaang U.P. stages anti-sarswela 
By Walter Ang
February 26, 2007
Philippine Daily Inquirer

After having directed several productions using foreign material without any "linear" plots, Dulaang U.P. artistic director Jose Estrella wanted to do something "with a storyline, something Filipino." She then came across "Basilia ng Malolos," a sarswela written by Nicanor Tiongson, and was instantly intrigued when the playwright informed her that it was actually an "anti-sarswela."

"It still includes the usual elements of the form like a bida (protagonist), contrabidas (antagonists), the music, and the 'morally correct' ending, but we reinterpreted and transformed, subverted even, these very elements to suit our storytelling needs," said Tiongson.

"Basilia ng Malolos" deals with a group of women that Jose Rizal had written to in 1889 to congratulate them on having a night-school opened. "That was the only thing people knew about them. That they made an innocuous, upper-class request from Governor-General Valeriano Weyler to have Spanish language classes."

There was certainly more than met the eye. After having written a book, entitled "Women of Malolos" and published in 2004, on the history and biographies of these women, Tiongson has intimate knowledge of the reach and implications of their little school.

"It wasn't just a school," claimed Tiongson. He contends that this group of "feisty and intrepid" women were deeply involved in the revolution efforts of the time. They made waves big enough to warrant notice from notables like Rizal and Marcelo Del Pilar. Wanting to bring their stories to a broader audience via an art form, "The sarswela seemed the logical choice. Also, her time period corresponds to the beginning of this form."

Changing the form
Tiongson already has one sarswela, "Pilipinas Circa 1907," under his belt. It was performed in the 80s and 90s by companies like Peta and Tanghalang Pilipino. "This time, I explore the life of Basilia Tantoco (to be essayed by Jenny Jamora) and her role as a leader of the women of Malolos. In the context of the whole reform movement, the things she did were a major salvo," he said.

"When I heard the term 'anti-sarswela,' I had to ask what it meant." laughed Estrella. However, the opportunity to reinvent and update the sarswela is just the kind of thing this innovative director likes to sink her teeth into. "The material is a challenge to direct. At the basic level, there's an idea that sarswelas follow the love angle of the protagonists and they live happily ever after. In Basilia, the surprise comes at the end when all of that is defied and we all see what she does after that."

Tiongson hopes that audiences will ultimately be led to question long-held perceptions and notions of society and culture. "We want people to examine the roles that society assigns them. How the colonial rulers and the feudal elite, with their patriarchy and oppression, have given us customs and beliefs that we hold as 'natural' and 'Filipino.' But are they really as natural and Filipino as we think they are?"

Contemporary sarswela
Tiongson's desired results are a tall order, "But I have one hundred percent trust in Jose. She's a very intelligent and original director." To this end and to further deconstruct the usual devices of the sarswela, Estrella collaborated with musical director Joy Marfil to retool the music of the songs to highlight the struggles of the characters. The objective is that, unlike the pretty melodies and kundimans of romantic sarswelas, the music for this anti-sarswela must not overpower the ideas conveyed by the lyrics.

Estrella is excited by the development of the production's different elements. "I like directing stories that have movement and songs. It's an interesting way to tell the story of Basilia, of feminist ideals, of equal rights. I want to give the audience a different way of looking at it all."

Executing this vision has attracted collaborators that include Dexter Santos for choreography, John Abul for costume design, Ludendorffo Decenteceo for set design, John Batalla for light design, and Mele Yamomo for video design.

And because the scope of Basilia's active life extends well into the 1920s, many years after the end of the revolution against Spain. "Most of the cast and staff have to do double and triple roles. It's really epic!" said Estrella. "But I staged it as simply as I could so that it's easy to follow. There's a contemporary touch to the staging to make it accessible and familiar."

"Basilia ng Malolos" runs until March 4 at the Geurrero Theater, University of the Philippines. Call 926-1349 loc. 2449.

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