Rustie’s romance with Rizal
Nenet Galang-Pereña (The Philippine Star) - July 14, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - In the paper Beyond Romance, which Rizal’s great grand niece (from his sister Maria Rizal Cruz) Gemma Cruz-Araneta presented at the Philippine National Historical Society in 2012, she rued the most hackneyed question Filipino students would ask her when the national hero’s birthday or death anniversary is at hand: “Whom do you think Rizal loved the best?”

Indeed, abounding are the stories about Rizal’s paramours that Ateneo’s professor, Ambeth Ocampo, in his famous Anvil tome, Rizal without the Overcoat had to dismiss this inanity with a sigh: “Whether Rizal was a saint or otherwise does not detract from his greatness.”

This is what Rustica Carpio’s romance with Rizal is all about, celebrating the patriot’s greatness through portraying the great women in his life. The great actress, writer and teacher, shuttling from stage to screen (the eponymous title of her biographical book published by the Far Eastern University Press) while mentoring generations of students, has had the honor of depicting three women who are immortalized beside the hero: His resolute sweetheart and cousin, Leonor Rivera; his steadfast mother, Doña Teodora; and his hapless tragic heroine, Sisa.

Rustie recalls doing research on the hero and his Taimis in the late ’50s at the National Library to prepare for the role of Leonor in the full-length play: The Love of Leonor Rivera by Dr. Severino Montaño, founder director of Arena Theatre at the then Philippine Normal College, now Philippine Normal University (PNU). Opposite Montaño himself as Rizal (a rather plump one, Rustie smiles), the award-winning thespian comments: “In a way, it was exciting to perform on the makeshift stage with the audience on both sides surrounding the stage because one could easily hear their reactions like sobbing in dismal scenes, laughing in exuberant ones.” For her, it was the most wonderful experience: “Empathy and rapport between performers and audience was that palpable and electrifying!”

The research for this role led her to write an article titled: Rizal’s Lost Love for a special edition of The Manila Chronicle, which was then edited by Ileana Maramag and published in Aduana, Intramuros in the late ’60s.

But the tragic romance of Pepe and Leonor still followed Rustie when she was executive director of the President’s Committee on Culture (2001 to 2007) at the Far Eastern University, where she directed the play for a foundation day celebration with a mix cast of students, faculty members and school officials. She glows with pride: “It was a rare treat for the FEU community, especially on the part of the students to see their professors acting — a tremendous success!” The premiere university, even in its cultural pursuits nourished by the Reyes and Roces branches of the family who made it prosper, was being true to the nationalistic aspirations of its founder, Nicanor Reyes, by staging works about the country’s foremost patriot and Rustie was only too glad to lend her helping hand.

In an adaptation of another Montaño classic, Parting at Calamba, penned by Dr. Amalia Cullarin Rosales, titled Calamba: 1888, Rustie played Doña Tedodora Alonso about 50 times, at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, FEU and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in the latter years of the ’90s and the early part of the new millennium. Beautiful reviews were accorded her performances. She essayed the same role in a 1997 film about Rizal’s exile in Dapitan, directed by Tikoy Aguiluz from the screenplay by Pete Lacaba. The film was topbilled by Albert Martinez in the title role and Amanda Page as her unfortunate Josephine Bracken.

As always, Rustie gave a memorable portrayal of Rizal’s mother who epitomized his ideal Filipino woman in the famous letter Sa Mga Kababaihan ng Malolos. Rizal believed that mothers should prepare the minds of their children to learn “every good and desirable idea” and recalled the women of Sparta who reared their sons in valor so that their state never saw an enemy army. In one scene, Rustie holds back the agony of a mother who felt in her bones that her youngest son was living on borrowed time in a forsaken hinterland and thus teaches him fortitude in the face of the inevitable.

But Rustie’s one-act monologue of Sisa, which she herself wrote, performed and directed, is perhaps the most unforgettable of her Rizal women. It had its world premiere in December 1998 at the Manila Midtown Ramada as part of the International Congress on Women’s role in History and Nation-Building organized by the National Centennial Commission (NCCC) and the Philippine Women’s University (PWU). She reprised this in different venues like Paco Park, Puerta Real Evenings in Intramuros, FEU Auditorium, Tanghalang Leandro Locsin at NCCA, International Women Playwright’s Congress of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and other gatherings.

Sisa, in her demented state, singing a Maytime litany for the Virgin Mary (which Rustie sang in her youth, growing up in Paombong) upon hearing the shots being fired by the Guardia Civil, depicted Rizal’s Motherland at a low point in her colonial history, desperately clinging to her faith when her children are trampled by cruelty.

Rizal’s sweetheart, mother and motherland, performed on stage and cinema in her lifetime by Rustica — this is an honoring of a noble order for a man who immolated himself for the greatest love of country by a woman whose enduring romance is with her art.

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