REVIEW: Orosman at Zafira is rousing and (who knew?) fun

Orosman at Zafira is rousing and (who knew?) fun
By Walter Ang
September 13, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Brilliantly directed and choreographed by Dexter Santos, Dulaang UP's Orosman at Zafira (which closed yesterday) is an exhilarating show that makes the Francisco Baltazar's komedya not just accessible to contemporary audiences, but also engaging, not to mention, fun.

This particular theater form, not to be mistaken as comedy (the Tagalog term komedya is derived from comedia, a Spanish generic term for drama), was brought over by colonizers as an evangelizing tool, usually has plots about saints or warring kindgoms, and uses staging conventions like structured choreographed entrances and exits.

This production is definitely not your great-grandparents' komedya.

Sound and movement
Santos clearly directed the piece with an audience in mind, selecting staging devices that successfully render both the theatre form and Baltazar's work for today's sensibilities. With his artistic collaborators, Santos executes this epic story with stylized movement, evocative choreography and a distinctly Filipino score.

His dramaturgs have edited the original text, changed Baltazar's original Turkish kingdoms to Filipino tribes and created a narrator to help audiences along.

Carol Bello, former member of world music group Pinikpikan, has composed original music that is earthy, textured, haunting and immensely rousing. While the music of a traditional komedya is performed by a brass band, Bello's neo-ethnic music is performed by a live orchestra using indigenous instruments like djembe drums, kulintang (gong chime) and kubing (jaw harp) together with electric guitars and keyboards.

Santos replaces the traditional marches with movement vocabularies inspired by the country's regional dances. He marks the narrative with three impressive battle scenes that showcase a heady amalgamation of fight stances and dance. The cast charge, pounce and attack as they twist, glide and leap.

He delivers a coup de grace in the last battle scene by making his cast use musical instruments as weapons, an all-out sound and action machine.

It's complicated
Beyond the spectacle of the battle scenes, more importantly, the show reintroduces Baltazar's canonical work to audiences. And the work can seem like a handful, with characters who covet, scheme, kill, avenge, pine and love?stuff that teleserye producers would love and audiences will have no problem relating to.

Love in a time of war is daunting, Santos and Bello seem to say. Music for battle sequences are loud and fast while the love duets are all furtive, angry or grief-ridden. No joyful, danceable Broadway-esque love anthems here.

To help audiences remember who's who, production designer Tuxqs Rutaquio assigns color motifs to the tribes. He opens the show with a single file of reeds that break into labyrinthine components, mirroring the fleeting delicate nature of calm and the many convoluted plot turns that the characters must negotiate. He then punctuates major narrative segments via a moon (that turns an ominous blood red at one point) that crosses the length of the stage.

In the show's world premiere in 2008, the preternatural voice of Tao Aves (inherited from her mother Grace Nono) as narrator added a mystical quality to the proceedings. In this year's restaging, we caught her alternate, Natasha Cabrera, who nonetheless provides a more human, more relatable sound, especially when her character's father is slain in the second act.

Boys and girls
In Florante at Laura, Baltazar's more known work (since it's required reading in high school), the male protagonist (Florante), gets tied to a tree and waits quite a while to get saved while the female characters (Laura and Flerida) have to do a bit of work.

These are plot points that Baltazar repeats here. Orosman ends up shackled and Zafira has to (among other things, avenge her father's assassination and finds out her beloved is the son of the enemy) come save him (as she fights to maintain control of her tribe).

The alternating actors who play Orosman don't have much to do, really, but pop onstage occasionally, show off some pecs and abs, declare love for Zafira, and then wait for her to save him.

It is more fun watching Zafira, played with wonderful aplomb by Delphine Buencamino. Her expressive face infuses the character with depth and spunk. She does her parents, theatre stalwarts Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino, proud.

Jacinta Remulla provides steady support for Buencamino's performance as Gulnara, the concubine of Zafira's father who battles side by side with her. Roeder Camanag is a strong Boulasem (Orosman's father).

All eyes, however, were on Reuben Uy in his intense and menacing turn as Orosman's villainous brother Abdalap. Uy's scenes with Buencamino register the most impact, tension, and strangely enough, chemistry.

Scope and scale
At the end of the day, its music and choreography are the defining characteristics of this show. It carries you through the narrative, sweeps over you and is a convenient storytelling device that allows audiences who don't have a steady grasp of Tagalog to stay immersed in the goings on.

Therefore, the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theatre underserves the material's epic scope with its small scale. Extensions are clipped and jetes are truncated. You half expect the cast to ram into each other whenever they dance onstage.

No doubt the proximity of the dancers to each other in such a small space adds heft to their pieces, still, one can imagine Santos's choreography and blocking truly blossoming if only he were given an appropriately bigger platform.

The restaging is proof that the show can sell, so the next step for Dulaang UP is to find a producer or apply for grants to push the production to its next logical and higher level. Can't the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the university's sister government institution, lend a helping hand? The Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (where Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats just wrapped) would be perfect.

Dulaang UP will stage Floy Quintos' "Shock Value, Take 2" directed by Alexander Cortez from Sept. 15 to Oct. 3, 2010. This will be the second production for its 35th season "Return Engagement: Plays that deserve a second look," a series of restagings of DUP's past popular works. Call 981-8500 local 2449, 926-1349, 433-7840 or 0917-6206224.

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