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'Bona' in the time of Eugene Domingo

MANILA, Philippines - Bona is back, 32 years after it appeared in Cannes and won the critics over. This time, it’s removed from the big screen and transposed onto stage. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) is staging Bona with Eugene Domingo essaying Bona’s role and Soxie Topacio directing the show.

The question on everyone’s mind is, of course, how do you compete with Nora Aunor’s performance in Lino Brocka’s classic film? Answer: You don’t. From the start, the cast and crew say that this is not a competition but “an interrogation of the relationship between theater and film.” It might sound heavy — well, it is — but there’s plenty of room for that in theater.

Theater is nothing new for Eugene Domingo. She’s no Starstruck Avenger or PBB Teen who, hit with the urge to elevate her shaky cultural capital, decides to take on “heavier roles” by playing revivals of past, iconic characters. In the artsy-fartsy theater, no less.

In fact, it’s the other way around.

Unglamorous Training

Eugene got her training from the prestigious Dulaang UP, where she took on everything that made theater so unglamorous compared to film and TV. As a theater major she went through selling tickets, inviting students to attend their play, begging professors to require students to watch, ushering the audience in and out of the auditorium, rehearsing all night, and learning from the not-so-conventional styles of the most diva directors. While it may sound like Skyflakes and cat food for a certain short film director, in Eugene’s own words, “There’s no screen bigger than theater and there’s no talent fee bigger than TV.”

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Nonetheless, PETA’s been kind to her. Eugene says that while UP disciplined her, PETA spoiled her like an only child. Eugene, more than anything, is a product of theater. And now, she returns.

So, yes, this is theater, and there’s no sense in comparing Nora and Eugene’s performances. Instead, it would be better to look at what sets theater apart from film, film apart from theater, and finally ask, where exactly do the two meet?

Something New

PETA’s Bona brings, something new to the table. For starters, their Bona is no longer that poor dropout who struggles to please Gardo with the few things she has. Soxie Topacio and his cast wanted Bona freed from her “pathetic” ‘80s state. Gardo, on the other hand, is no longer a second-rate actor-slash-stuntman. In this rehash, Gardo is renamed a milder “Gino,” and is turned into one of those handsome, run-of-the-mill, reality-talent show contenders. 

Theirs is also a Bona who has earned enough money to send her siblings to school and provide for her parents by working as a call center agent. Likewise, Bona’s fandom reaches middle-class heights: She becomes one of those supporters with the matching fan club shirt, spending all her cell phone credit to vote and lobby for Gino’s “survival to the next round.”

With these changes in place, we can focus more on the question of obsession and motivation, instead of the effects of poverty and the social stigma that go with it, the way Brocka originally made it.

Psychological

Consequently, they needed to dive into a more psychological Bona, at the same time stepping back from portraying her character as a product of a society trapped in the third world. In this vein, we are invited to observe the many facets of obsession through a more personal narrative. This way, we are able to see how Bona’s fixation affects first herself, then the people around her, and not the other way around.

PETA’s Bona, it seems, is largely different from Brocka’s. But by coming up with this remake, PETA furthers the genres of both theater and film. It takes the film’s soul and story to a wholly different level. Through it all, however, Bona remains a story of obsession. 

We all have obsessions. And Bona has hers. In the language of the film, “obsession” is framed with a heavier Filipino term: pagkahumaling, which implies not only desire, but also confusion and the feeling of helplessness that goes with it. Bona, while dressed up as a comic play, attempts to expose the madness behind it all. In the end, the play turns the question around, and asks us — is it really so wrong to be obsessed when it gives one the will to live?

While it is the usual practice to hold back and keep the audience transfixed in their seats during the press conference, Soxie announced that they were keeping Brocka’s infamous water-dousing scene. But knowing this and how much they’ve altered Bona’s character, I won’t be surprised if they have something else up their sleeves.

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PETA is showing Bona from Aug. 24, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until September 23. For more information contact 725-6244, 0917-5765400, petatheater@gmail.com, or www.petatheater.com. 

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