REVIEW: Tanghalang Pilipino's 'Ibalong' feels unfinished

Tanghalang Pilipino's 'Ibalong' feels unfinished
By Walter Ang
March 4, 2013

Tanghalang Pilipino's "Ibalong" begins with the potential of exciting things to come. A curtain made of straw, shimmering reeds of grass, trembles as the audience sees portions of a large snake undulate through it.

The musical is playwright Rody Vera's didactic adaptation of the extant 60 stanzas (from a purported original 400) of the epic of the same title that recounts the origins of Bicol.

The tale is reconfigured and expanded by Vera: transposing characters, reshuffling the narrative, adding an ecological moral, and nimbly segueing the ending to become the prequel for "Daragang Magayon," the Bicolano legend of the origins of Mayon Volcano.

Half-woman/half-snake Oryol (Jenine Desiderio), a villainous deity defeated by the epic's human heroes who claim dominion over Ibalong, is now the central character who betrays her supernatural kith and kin by entering into an alliance with Handyong (Remus Villanueva with alternate Myke Salomon), the human invader of their land.

With music by Carol Bello and directed by TP associate artistic director Tuxqs Rutaquio, the suspense built by the opening scene skids over a bump upon the first revelation of Oryol, who slows down the proceedings with a lumbering introductory narration song. The rest of the show proceeds to undulate between some fun, clever moments and mostly a sense of being unfinished.

Desiderio is a strong Oryol who is, owing to her serpentine powers and lack of exposure to humandkind, at turns beguiling and guileless. A powerful singer, she delivers the goods when ululating her songs, but makes questionable acting choices whenever she turns on an innocent-girl pout in certain scenes that doesn't quite work.

May Bayot and Jonathan Tadioan as Oryol's parents Gugurang and Aswang, respectively, are grounded masts of quiet force and steady subtlety, their singing voices fittingly soaring in their roles as arch deities. Cheeno Macaraig commands the stage with natural ease as a charming and vivid Young Handyong.

While there is no denying the vigor that the cast puts into the telling of this tale, their efforts feel muddled due to clunky blocking in some group choreography and (lots of) unvariated battle-cry screaming in lieu of what could have been distinct primordial howls, squeals, bellows, squawks, etc.

And some of the male actors fall into the trap of the scowling-face-with-angry-shouting school of acting to express what could have been intensity variations on arrogance, disappointment, etc.

Bello's neo-ethnic rock music is brought to life by Inkantada, an all-women band using indigenous and Southeast Asian instruments. Though, several times throughout the show, the band drowns out the actors' voices.

With arrangements by Ikantada and Rizalino Reyes, the score provides a rich aural texture and otherworldly atmosphere that is, while appropriate for the musical's milieu, unfortunately monotonous. It feels unfinished because, abruptly, the last two songs are sung a cappella.

Rutaquio's set design is functional and sparse, leaving stark spaces for Leeroy New's hefty costumes, Jerry Ramirez's fight stunts, and Alden Lugnasin's choreography-and a host of preternatural globs evocative of American choreographer/dancer Martha Graham's "Lamentation" stretch fabric costume.

Ramirez has some nifty scenes that incorporate Hadyong being twisted around Oryol's snake tail and Oryol's son Makusog (also Macaraig) falling down from a precipice. However, the show's physicality also falls into the trap of one-note repetitiveness, with dances and battle scenes that have similar refrains and with different creatures all moving in a similar slinky-arched-body-with-clawed-fingers manner. Save for the crocodile-monster's arabesques, there seems to be no distinct movement vocabulary for each of the different kinds of other monsters.

Leeroy New's background as a sculptor shows in his wild, expansive shapes for Ibalong's mythical creatures and contrasting clean lines (that are strangely reminiscent of ancient Egypt silhouettes) for the humans. A bit too sculptural, perhaps, with the costumes of Oryol's parents: rotund columns of immovable fabric and materials that left Bayot and Tadioan unable to move much in their scenes.

With his witty bunraku-snake tail for Oryol and myriad of colorful explosions of fun that fill the stage and seemingly sharp eye for detailed outfits, it is a puzzle then, to see an actor come out with only a pair of leggings and masks covering his head and hands or Opon (Red Nuestro) the wild boar with an unfinished back.

Oryol's tacky sequined bra with beaded tassels and unembellished black straps, and later on, an unimaginative plain white square of cloth for a skirt, makes her awkwardly miscostumed amidst the other structural pieces.

"Ibalong" has ended its run at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino but is scheduled to tour Legaspi, Albay during this year's Ibalong Festival in August and will return to Manila as part of TP's upcoming season.

For information about "Ibalong" shows in Legaspi, Albay; and for information on TP's 2013 summer acting workshops for children, teens and adults (and production & stage management workshop for adults) which begin on April 4, contact 832-1125 loc. 1620 and 1621, 0917-750-0107, 0918-959-3949.