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No bitter pill with ‘Ampalaya the Musical’ |

Arts and Culture

No bitter pill with ‘Ampalaya the Musical’

DLS Pineda - The Philippine Star

No one could possibly ever forget their first time to taste ampalaya. Deep in the recesses of our minds, when the memory of our first encounter with the bitter gourd is summoned, a taste that’s stronger than ground coffee, spicier than sili, and crunchier than fried garlic chives, invades our taste buds and triggers a flow of saliva. At this point, the childhood tantrum — yuck! Accompanying this memory is, of course, that voice from our mothers or whoever was feeding us at that time, “Don’t spit! What you’re eating is very nutritious!” Indeed, a successful initiation to ampalaya is a guarantee that the child will never have a problem eating vegetables. From that point on, eating pinakbet becomes pleasurable. It is true: Ampalaya makes you think of all the good things that don’t come easy.

Perhaps, this bitter experience is what inspired Augie Rivera Jr. to write his award-winning children’s story, “Alamat ng Ampalaya.” As the best children stories do, “Alamat ng Ampalaya” takes complex ideas — envy and greed — and turns them into a story that is easily understood by both young and old readers. And almost two decades since the children’s book was first published by Adarna House, it will be staged as a musical by Siliman University’s own singers and thespians. Watching them perform last July 15 at the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo at the CCP, left me in awe of what a good, seemingly simple, children’s story could achieve. Its staging was truly remarkable.

The story goes that in the Land of Sariwa, where all the vegetable-folk live in harmony, the recently orphaned Ampalaya makes her mark by being the violent bully in the playground. Her character is in a perpetual state of uncooperativeness and wants only to acquire from her kapwa-gulay all the good qualities she doesn’t have. While all the other vegetables were asleep, she grabs the opportunity and steals their “tastes” which they had left unguarded. Once the vegetable-folk realized that it was Ampalaya who stole from them, they implored Ubodmansa Saging’s help to bring justice to the thief. The diwata punished Ampalaya by letting her keep all the qualities she stole from the other vegetables. Hence, the repulsive-though-strangely-delicious taste of the ampalaya.

In the musical, however, it doesn’t end with the simple explanation of how and why the bitter gourd came to be. In Siliman University’s theatrical rendition, we are given the context of Ampalaya’s rude behavior: the loss of her mother. It elevates the discussion by taking the story out of the lazy “it is what it is” characterization, and as the play closes, introduces us to concepts which are as difficult to grasp as the ideas of greed and envy —understanding and forgiveness. It is in this pleasant turn that Ampalaya the Musical shines the brightest.

Ampalaya the Musical was directed by Dessa Quesada-Palm of the Philippine Educational Theatre Association. She succeeds with Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez directing Maestro Michael Dadap’s original music, while Angelo Sayson choreographed the performers’ movements. In a play for children, the costume design is crucial and will not go unnoticed. Happily, costume designer Carlo Pagunaling did a brilliant job. If the songs and the narrative were too difficult to grasp for the children in the audience, then the visual spectacle was definitely enough for them to recollect and ask at a later time, “Why was colorful Ampalaya punished again?”

That said, Ampalaya the Musical is no mere child’s play. It puts forward, through subtle ways, ideas which are not so easy to wrestle with. For a play to be staged in CCP and juggle Filipino, Bisaya and English, is a move that deserves a second look. It was a much-needed step forward, although not without its faults. While I had no issues deciphering the Bisaya (my family hailing from Agusan del Norte), there were members in the audience who were noticeably uneasy with the sudden shifts in language.

Indeed, there is a certain power play in language when the common vegetable-folk are used to interspersing their Filipino dialogue with Bisaya while the diwata, on the other hand, speak in straight and highfaluting English when she makes her verdict on Ampalaya. It made me question the scriptwriter’s poetics — is the writer of the archaic school of thought that (American) English is superior to Filipino and Bisaya? It was an issue which I, as a member of the audience, found hard to wrap my head around. Perhaps, if Ubodmansa Saging imposed her verdict in Bisaya, or even in Filipino, then it would invalidate thoughts of Benevolent Assimilation and other colonial ideas. It is unfortunate that the musical would trip in this aspect.

Nonetheless, watching Ampalaya the Musical was a treat, an experience which made me return to childhood joys and reflect on the profoundness in its simplicity. And while its mashup of languages jarred me, perhaps, it was only keeping true to the ampalaya’s character: bittersweet, a true mascot of nuance; a metaphor of how, in this life, you can’t have it all.

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