Fiery drama
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2015 - 10:00am

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrances, and one man in his prime plays many parts.”

I’ve never acted in a play. My background in the performing arts was in dance. In my five or six years of dancing, ages ago, I did participate in a good number of concerts and one dance drama. I missed the stage, so when Tanghalang Pilipino head Nanding Josef asked me early this year if I was interested in a play for their 29th season, I said yes. I would not be on stage this time, but behind the scenes as set designer. This was close enough for me.

The play was Mga Buhay na Apoy written by Kanakan Balintagos, formerly known as Aureus Solito. This was to be his return to theater, after two decades of success in film. His ouvre includes Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Olivares, Bunsong, Pisay and Esprit de Corps, among others that have garnered national and international acclaim.

It was when Kanakan was looking for some documents in preparation for his last movie that he found his long lost play. He had written Mga Buhay na Apoy in the ‘70s and misplaced it when he was swamped with projects. He decided to bring it to Virgin LabFest last year, where the audiences were moved at readings of the play.

After the Labfest, a full staging of the play was planned. Kanakan had been in talks with Nanding Josef and Chris Millado and this was the opportunity that presented itself. At the same time Kanakan entered the play for the Palanca Awards. Mga Buhay na Apoy won first prize in the category of full-length play in Filipino last September.

In June this year, I stepped in as set designer, along with the rest of the artistic team that included lighting designer Dennis Marasigan, music composer Diwa de Leon and dramaturg Ericka Estacio. Kanakan himself managed the costume design.

The actors were already selected by the time I met them. The strong ensemble was led by Irma Adlawan, one of Philippine theater’s best, Peewee O’Hara, Malou Crisologo, Carol Bello, Russell Legaspi, Karen Gaerlan, PHSA’s Kyrie Samodio, and Tanghalang Pilipino’s Actors Company members Jonathan Tadioan, Doray Dayao, JV Ibesate and Lhorvie Nuevo.

The play revolves around a Manila-based family, whose members “come face to face with the harsh reality of extremely strained relationships resulting from the cowardly denial of some painful truth about their past and from the utter disregard for their glorious indigenous Palawan cultural roots and spiritual traditions.”

The setting of the play is a residential garden in Sampaloc. The peg was Kanakan’s own home compound. I visited the place accompanied by my son Wham, who assisted me with the production design. (Irma had starred in his last film, Islands).



The physical focal point of the set is a large leaning mango tree and the large table prepared to host the family reunion. The tree and the gardens are, of course, a metaphor for Palawan. The mise en scene the set created was meant to covey the layers of meaning and conflicts that the play was to peel away and expose as the narrative progressed through the four acts.

It was a challenge, to say the least, to create this setting …on time and within budget. As all plays evolve, even during rehearsals, the design direction became as complex as the play itself. The whole set had to change its point of view in the third act, so I had to make sure that the shift allowed even the huge mango tree to rotate180 degrees. Not only that; the tree was to lean and support the weight of two actors. The revised script called for them to climb up at least twice.

I only appreciated the play fully on opening night. Wham, our team and I, were so engrossed in the technical aspects of the play to soak the drama in its full glory until then. The performances and the play were “sublime,”  as one critic described it. Like the set, it takes a shift in perspective to absorb the message, given that it attempts to bridge the dichotomy between our culture’s two faces of West and East, modernity and tradition.

I am not a theater critic. This not meant to be a review of the play. You can peruse the many rave reviews on line, but ultimately, you will have to experience it for yourself. That is the whole point of theater. You will not appreciate it on DVD. It will resonate with those of us struggling, as the actors do, and Kanakan’s magical script encourages, in finding a path that respects our cultural origins and family ties, but allows flexibility for each person to discover that passionate fire that gives life meaning and heals all wounds.

Kudos to all those who contributed to the play’s success and to Kanakan, a man in his prime, whose many parts are still playing out on stage, in cinema, and on his enchanted island of Palawan.

* * *

Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at Mga Buhay na Apoy is on its last three performances today and tomorrow —  Oct. 24 (Sat) 3 and 8 p.m., Oct. 25 (Sun) 3 p.m. at the CCP Little Theater. For ticket, call Ticket World at 891-9999, the CCP Box Office: 832-3704, or Tanghalang Pilipino: 0917-8763678 | 0927-3629081.

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