Rediscovering one's roots

ESSENCE - Ligaya Rabago-Visaya - The Freeman

Like the aphorism, hitting two birds with one stone, my arty foray to Manila last week has given me the convenience to watch a film and a play. While most of my latest projects are in films, my original love for the stage has never waned. And what a refreshing return, and a recollect, to watch the latest offering of the Tanghalang Pilipino at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which to me, is consummate among contemporary theatrical productions. For this experience, I am grateful, commendation to the overall artistic director Nanding Josef for mounting another thespian gem.     

Kanakan Balintagos, internationally acclaimed film director returns to his first love for the stage, directed his Palanca first prize full-length play "Mga Buhay na Apoy", a journey of rediscovering his roots. This is after his two decades of success in film, to name: Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Olivares, Bunsong, Pisay and Esprit de Corps, among others that have brought national and international recognitions.

Balintagos' "Mga Buhay na Apoy" is a manifestation of his great respect and love for his origin as it boasts of its rich fora and fauna, folkloric and cultural legacy.  Formerly known as Auraeus Solito, he went by the spirit-tribal name of Kanakan-Balintagos (Hunter of Truth), he wrote the play back in 1994.

With a big mango tree in the middle, the stage, designed by Architect Paolo Alcazaren, is a strong indication of the director's deep environmental concern-much more of its mystical element-as a living witness to the past's haunting dark secrets. The intricate manipulations of the lights by Dennis Marasigan has powerfully enhanced the mood and tone-heightening the emotions asked for the scenes, and of the characters. The music scoring by Diwa de Leon is another major contributory element to project a mysterious creeping score. Side by side by is Bello's powerful vocals; every run of her arias evoked a mysterious echo throughout the theater. The tribal chant is, in a way, the director's homage to his ancestry.

The references to his Palawan lineage are all over "Mga Buhay na Apoy". The title refers to an old legend that humans came from fire that is contrasted by the religious belief anchored on the first creation of humans. There is where the major conflict of beliefs; one is espoused by the matriarch, representing the previous generation, and the other belonging to the present generation who wanted to rediscover his past. 

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. They all gave justice to their roles, weaving to an impactful accomplishment of connecting the past and the present.  

Set in the course of a family reunion thrown by Leda Santos to welcome back her daughter, Aurora Alba, who left home but has now returned. Among the guests are Leda's sisters (along with their significant others). There is also Leda's son, Aran, an artist, who stayed with his mother after Aurora left.

I am deeply enthralled with the effective foreshadows in the earlier scenes, just enough hints to get the audience interested. Adding further intrigue is the recurring appearance of a "diwata" with long sweeping hair, accompanied by tribal chanting. Take for instance, as the curtains opened, the chanting began, while Lhorvie Nuevo appeared as a woman with long hair that touches the ground, while Aran was asleep. She was his recurring vision, as if calling him to discover his roots. All these were explained in the second half but by this time, the audience is already hooked, transfixed by Kanakan's multiple story-telling that mixes folk mythology and family melodrama.

The ending, as the characters stand in awe against an unseen work of art done by Aran, is hauntingly moving. And when Leda finds healing and acceptance, Kanakan lifts the audience in a magical way, as he beautifully ties up the play's various, sometimes clashing, elements and states his purpose.

An intricately woven story about how a life full of pain, heartache and suffering of one can affect the life of every person in an immediate family. Mixed in with rich Palawan folklore, the play is an exceptionally powerful piece of Filipino theater with distinct ethnic pride-truly worth rediscovering.

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