Ibalong: Monsters in our midst
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - January 20, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - If you enjoyed The Hobbit and Avatar and Harry Potter – and who doesn’t? – you’re going to love Ibalong. And not just love it but identify with it too, as Ibalong is our own home-grown tale of monsters – halimaws and aswangs and a woman-snake with a 40-foot tail – entangling with humans in a classic battle over Earth.

The final offering in Tanghalang Pilipino’s (TP) 26th season, Ibalong brings to life the mythical creatures of the Bicol  epic, the Ibalon. Named after Legazpi City’s week-long festival now on its 25th year, the dance-musical is a celebration of Bicolano heritage and heroism.

Noting that many young people are into fantasy and sci-fi, director Tuxqs Rutaquio says that he wants to show the audience that Filipinos also have our own home-grown myths and epics,  “our own stories of bravery and heroic deeds.”

The production, done in coordination with the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the City of Legazpi, is a special offering to the Bicolanos and the rest of the Filipino people who are committed to protecting our natural resources and cultural heritage, says TP artistic director Nanding Josef.

Legazpi Mayor Carmen Rosal confirms that her office, together with the other officials of the Bicol region, are actively promoting the province as a cultural destination.  “We have a rich culture that we want to share,” she says.

Written by Rody Vera, the stage adaptation is based on a 60-stanza fragment, the only remaining piece of the epic today.

 â€œAs literary and dramatic works have begun to pile up to contribute to the deepening and layering of Ibalong, I believe we may be witnessing the continuing story of how epics can remain alive and resonant to the very people who claim it,” Vera says in his playwright’s notes.

 â€œThis production is, therefore, in celebration of a vision: towards the full birthing of the Ibalong,” says Vera. “For whether the original 400-stanza text is found or not, maybe the people themselves can finally take to task the creation of the new stories that will mirror their aspirations and so finally ‘find’ the missing epic.”

In TP’s version, the hero, Handyong, and his warriors come to Bicol – then known as Ibalon – and wage war against beasts and monsters pillaging the land’s natural wealth.

“The play dramatizes the inconvenient and disturbing truth about the results of our grave abuse and unconscionable exploitation of the now highly endangered natural resources and intangible cultural heritage,” says Josef.

The epic battle turns into an unlikely love story when Handyong encounters Oryol, a scheming and deceitful snake who disguises herself as a sweet, young woman in order to seduce him. The hero, however, succeeds in making Oryol fall in love with him instead.

Taking on the complex role of Oryol is Jenine Desiderio, who says that one of the challenges of essaying the role is portraying a non-human character – figuring out how to react and move with the feral instincts of a serpent.

Aside from Oryol, Ibalong is rampant with creatures and gods, halimaws and heroes, made more vibrant with the fantastic and fantasy costume designs of Leeroy New, who brings his extensive experience in sculpture, fashion, film and theater designer to a new dimension.

Desiderio adds that another challenge was the music, which is far from her usual pop and Broadway sound. Music director Carol Bello’s background as a vocalist, chantress and lyricist-composer of the Pinikpikan group is evident in the music of Ibalong. The production features live music accompaniment, performed by the all-women music group Inkantada playing various indigenous instruments including bamboo percussion instruments, T’boli bells, tungatong, gongs, gangsa, and more, but doused with the contemporary with the use of electric guitars and keyboards. The resulting sound is contemporary ethnic, age-old chants brought to the electronic age. The strong use of percussion instruments provides a very infectious rhythm.

The cast also had to go through stunt and martial arts training, which choreographer Alden Lugnasin and stunt choreographer Jerry Ramirez incorporated to make the battle scenes more exciting.

Joining Desiderio are Myke Salomon and Remus Villanueva (who admitted to having lost 40 pounds for the role) as Handyong, May Bayot as Gugurang of the heavenly realms, Opaline Santos as Sarimao, and the talented members of TP’s Actors Company.

“TP’s Ibalong is an offering for reflection, an invitation, maybe quite urgent, for all of us to discover the real concept and meaning of progress,” Josef says on the continuing relevance of the ancient epic in today’s world.

“For its 26th season, Tanghalang Pilipino adopted the theme ‘Truth and Consequence’,”he says.  “With its final offering Ibalong, the company continues to explore current social realities and the consequences of often times thoughtless acts.”

Ibalong runs from Feb. 8 to March 3 at the CCP Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino. Tickets available at TicketWorld (tel 891-9999), the CCP Box Office (832-3704) and Tanghalang Pilipino (832-1125 loc 1620).

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