Looking through the looking glass: 25 years of Tanghalang Pilipino
- Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Souvenir programs in the theater are exactly that: they represent for the audience something to take away when the lights go back up, proof that one has been down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, and come back a slightly changed if not different person.

“Tanghalang Pilipino: Celebrating 25 Years of Philippine Theater” (ArtPostAsia and Tanghalang Pilipino 2012) serves its purpose as souvenir program to end all souvenir programs, marking the silver anniversary of one of the leading theater groups in the country.

Written without frills by the scholar Amadis Ma. Guerrero, the book is tastefully designed along more conventional lines by Katrina Garcia and Tina Colayco, indeed reflecting the discipline of the craft, and is well researched using assorted reviews of its productions the past couple of decades and a half. Guerrero can perhaps be pictured poring over old newspaper clippings in an album, highlighter in hand, and carefully sifting through hundreds of photographs in the library of TP in the Production Design building at the CCP complex.

A number of the plays might be said to be classics of Philippine dramaturgy and literature, such as the works of Francisco Baltazar and Jose Rizal and Nick Joaquin and Lope K. Santos, some of them transposed into musicals or jazzed up as much as artistic license would allow, short of having the authors turn in their graves.

There are also the old reliables of world theater, Chekhov and Shakespeare and Brecht, whose works are given fresh takes. Not to be set aside either are the young ones like Huang and Suh, purveyors of a distinctly Asian theater though largely weaned on the West.  

Much appreciated is the lowdown on translation and production design, as National Artists Bienvenido Lumbera and Salvador Bernal share their thoughts on the process of subsuming these elements to the original work at hand, considering nuances of language and time-place variables, calibrating this with director’s perspective. Lumbera, for example, differs from say, Rody Vera in approaching the classics, as the veteran mentor said he had learned his lesson and would prefer not to translate works too far removed, especially if these are said to be third generation translations (X language to English to Filipino).

The late Bernal also enlightens the reader on the difficulty of designing for period pieces, and his drafts and drawings of Shakespearean costumes are a delight in their unassuming simplicity, like pages from a notebook. And when this is placed beside a photo of the actual costume as worn by current TP artistic director Nanding Josef, the effect approximates the lights slowly going down.

Dennis Marasigan, TP director who preceded Josef, relates his beginnings as a lighting designer, and how training as an electrician was integral to his work. His anecdote on how he realized the sunsets in Russia were different from those in Manila is sublime disclosure, as well as his take that the best training is to stand outside the whole day and observe the changes of light and shadow.

The Dawn and the Actors Company in “EJ” (left). Eula Valdes in the hit “Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah Ze Muzikal” (below). David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child” (bottom) was a huge success. The cast of “Francisco Maniago” (below right). Scale model of the set of “Paglipas ng Dilim” by the late National Artist Salvador Bernal (bottom right).

Of past TP artistic directors, Herbie Go is perhaps the most low profile, even in this tome. Yet his lasting stamp and influence on the theater group cannot be denied because they are constantly discernible, especially on the aspect of Asian views and values when juxtaposed with that of the West.

The pioneer of course was Nonon Padilla, whose involvement with TP was nothing short of legendary. Well, those were heady times when TP was formed, the country still reeling with euphoria after the dictator’s departure, and the job of Padilla in the new theater group was to continue the spirit and momentum of revolution.

It might be said that with Josef now at the helm TP has come full circle, as the current artistic director has solid activist roots that have imbibed the spirit of change, challenging the status quo and always opting for the road less taken. If there is anything to learn from going out on a limb, it is that even if one falls there is nothing to lose but vertigo, give or take a few broken bones.

TP through the years has been versed in the aesthetics of experimentation only too well, as evidenced in their reworking of “Romeo and Juliet” (R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett) and “Waiting for Godot” (Godot Wer is U), as well as new directions provided by their Virgin Labfest.

This wellspring of improvisation and method for change cannot be better seen than in the actors that honed their skills in TP productions, indeed a number of them once part of the resident Actors Company, who now are the same regulars in many independent film productions in Cinemalaya and elsewhere: Irma Adlawan, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Nonie Buencamino, Roeder Camañag, Soliman Cruz, Angeli Bayani, Arnold Reyes, Malou de Guzman, Art Acuna, even the late lamented and much underrated Mario O’Hara, who was like their elder statesman.

These faces from TP productions can now be seen on the big screen, in the movies of Sari Dalena, Dennis Marasigan, Lav Diaz, Dante Perez, Loy Arcenas, bringing the dynamism of stage to the celluloid canvas. Little doubt then that indie’s success has its roots in theater, and in no small part to TP. Marasigan as director has even successfully transposed into film “Sa North Diversion Road” and “Anatomiya ng Korupsyon,” so what better proof does one need that theater provided a shot in the arm for our once moribund cinema?

This, however, does not have to be one-way, as film too has given fresh material to TP, as in their adaptations of Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” and Lino Brocka’s “Insiang,” giving an altogether different meaning to 3-D.

In fact, for its 26th season, TP has tapped film director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna to handle its latest rendition of the zarzuela “Walang Sugat.”

There is then much comfort when the lights go down and “suspension of disbelief” – as we learned in our high school literature classes – sets in. Small wonder that reading through this silver anniversary coffeetable book brings us back to our introduction to theater, an assignment for English class and the subsequent reaction paper. It was called “Tea and Sympathy” at the Phil-Am Life Theater, and as the students lined up near the entrance there was the usual hubbub of excitement and anticipation, as if about to fall into the rabbit hole or walk through the looking glass.

But not all the reaction papers or souvenir programs in the world can convey the experience of seeing a woman’s breasts for the first time on stage, or was that just a trick of the light?

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