REVIEW: Theaterbatoring two awit-based productions: Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay" and Gantimpala Theater's "Florante at Laura"

thoughts on two awit-based productions:
tanghalang ateneo's "sintang dalisay" and gantimpala theater's "florante at laura"
by walter ang
aug. 7, 2012

i recently caught two productions that were based on awit. awit is a form of filipino narrative poetry with dodecasyllabic (12 syllables per line) quatrains (4 lines per stanza).

ta's "sintang dalisay" is based on the awit "ang sintang dalisay ni julieta at romeo" (the pure love of julieta and romeo) by g.d. roke (1901). this awit is, in turn, based on william shakespeare's "romeo and juliet" (circa 1590s), among other versions of the story. ricky abad and guelan luarca have devised a staging script using national artist for theater rolando tinio's tagalog translation to supplement the plotline of roke's awit.

while shakespeare's play is set in verona, director abad resets the story in a fictional philippine southern muslim location and uses igal, a traditional dance of the indigenous sama-bajau people of mindanao, as its movement motif.

gt's "florante at laura" is based the awit "pinagdaanang buhay nina florante at laura sa kahariang albanya ..." (the life of florante at laura in the kingdom of albania ..." by francisco balagtas (1838), adapted by bonifacio ilagan and directed by roeder camañag using the staging conventions of komedya. not to be mistaken as the tagalized translation of "comedy," komedya is the performance/theater form evolved and indigenized from spain's "comedia de capa y espada" (cloak and sword drama) and "comedia de santo" (drama about saints), evangelizing tools used by spanish colonizers.

gt's use of komedya staging conventions is an interesting endeavor in that it aims to show audiences how this particular form used to be done. the "non-realistic, externalized" (i.e. exaggerated, declamatory) acting style and mustra (hand and body gestures) are not too difficult to accept, as the actors give off a performance vibe that, while hammy and hokey, kind of feels as if one was watching a children's play.

however, the entrances and exits where actors march on to and off the stage are distracting and interrupt momentum (it does not help that the music used for these marches stay the same regardless of the tone of the scene). and the paseo (pass-in-review) portions, where characters do geometric formations like circles, Xs, or figures of 8s, feel clumsy and look ill-choreographed/poorly executed.

(and do students in ancient greece, even if they are from royal stock, all wear immaculately white tunics? all with gold trim? and with white leggings?)

ta's reconfigured locale and cultural context works and brings the material closer to home. its igal-based movement lends a visually pleasing kinetic layer to the text, though the production could scale it back a bit.

companions who watched with me had these two observations: (1) the hand and arm gestures, though novel in the beginning, loses its potency because almost every single line comes with the gestures; (2) the male actors need work on their shoulder movements ("it's supposed to be an up-and-down motion, not 'shake, body body dancer,'" said one.) and they lack masculinity in their demeanor ("this play is still, at its core, about men and women. the movement should reflect that," said the other.)

i'm ambivalent about the continuous use of hand gestures all throughout and i'm not an expert on dance, so i can't tell if the shoulder movements were correct or not, but i didn't mind so much that the men and women didn't have distinct movement vocabularies. i felt it was a softer (and fresh) take in relation to the love/gender dynamic. perhaps even a more "eastern" or "asian" take versus more "western" notions of masculine and feminine physicality. and when divisions of love loom so largely as a theme, uniformity (not necessarily unison) in movement seems an interesting counterpoint.

here and there, then and now
beyond production values and executions per se, it's the staging choices that interest me. how does one take material written in and set in a different time, and set in foreign locations, and make it work for today, for filipino audiences?

we have, on one hand, a british playwright who wrote a play set in verona (italy), whose work was adapted into an awit by roke (nationality unknown), whose work has been reset back into a play by abad and guelan, (re)set in a philippine muslim locale, staged by manileños portraying their southern counterparts.

on the other hand, we have a filipino playwright who set his komedya in europe (the story spans albania, greece and crotone, even has a character from epirus, and has turks and persians as invading enemies) being staged by present day manileños using an old staging form derived from the spanish.

ta's staging takes its material to a fictitious and "timeless" locale and infuses it with a "non-realistic" movement. gt retains the foreign locale and attempts to replicate old(er) staging devices that also have "non-realistic" movement.

ta's "sintang" is able to make connections with its audience perhaps because it uses devices audiences are familiar with.  gt's "florante," unfortunately, is a challenge to enjoy, perhaps because the devices it chose to use are (now) unfamiliar and harder to appreciate.

plot and familiarity
the awit "sintang dalisay" is based on a play (and ta's version still uses the play as an anchor to stage the awit) while the awit "florante at laura" was not written with the objective of being staged. setting aside issues of engaging plot and/or structure*, let's explore familiarity as an aspect of relatability.

is it easier to relate to a production (and, therefore, easier to like it) if you are (somewhat more) familiar with the material (before you go watch a staging)?

(some) audiences are familiar with "romeo and juliet" because of movies and occasional pop culture references. (most) filipino audiences should be at least familiar with the plot of "florante at laura" because it's required reading in high school.

and here lies the question: in this particular round of "romeo and juliet" versus "florante at laura," are we filipinos more familiar with (and therefore, can relate better to) a foreign playwright's work (because it's easier to watch a two-hour movie version; because there are more versions of it floating around in the world; because theater groups will always find a way to stage shakespeare) than one of our own (because who can honestly read an awit just for fun these days?; because why hasn't any movie producer made a new version for contemporary audiences to enjoy?; because, aside from "canonical" stagings of "florante at laura," who else explores other ways of staging it?)?

i don't know the answer(s), though for possible non-sequitur answers, we can quote both shakespeare and balagtas, kekeke.

shakespeare: "the play's the thing."

balagtas (my sophomore high school filipino teacher required us to memorize the second stanza of "florante at laura" and for some reason, i still remember it to this day, kekeke.):

kung sa biglang tingi'y bubot at masaklap
palibhasa'y hilaw at mura ang balat
ngunit kung namnamin ang sa lamang lasap,
masasarapan din ang babasang pantas.

[eng. translation by patricia jurilla]
at a glance, this may look unripe and sour,
because its rind is still green and immature,
but when savoured, the taste of its meat
will be enjoyed even by the discriminating reader.

[*shakespeare's "romeo and juliet" has love, street fights, family fueds, poison, missed communications, etc., elements that would be at home in a teleserye. (and his general use of major romantic couples supported by comic sidekick couples as a device in his other works is used in many a teleserye, too). balagtas' "florante at laura" is epic in scope, has romance, travel, battle scenes, intrigue, court politics, etc., also elements that would be at home in a teleserye. or even an animated film!]