By Danton Remoto | Remote Control | 02/17/2009 7:00 PM
I am old enough to remember watching the plays of Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) at the Rajah Sulayman Theater, in the ruins of Fort Santiago in Intramuros. After watching a highly controversial play during the darkest days of martial law, we would go home but would quietly watch our backs, lest some secret marshal would be following us.
Last year, I watched Ateneo teacher Christine Bellen’s play, Batang Rizal, at the new and lovely home of PETA in New Manila. It’s a nifty musical about the young Rizal, and on the way there, the playwright said that what pleased her most was the audience the day before – a gaggle of around 50 tykes who had filled up a small van. As they say, if you can please such a young – and certainly most difficult – audience, you can please the most makunat of them all.
And pleased they certainly were, and so were we, when we watched the musical unfold before our very eyes. A small stage and a low-tech production did not hamper the unraveling of this memorable work directed by Dudz Teraña. The setting is now. The young Pepito (the talented Christian Segarra) of Jose Rizal Elementary School breaks the face of Jose Rizal’s statue newly commissioned by Mayor Ishmael Rapcu (played with pitch-perfect, idiom-breaking English by Wilfredo Casero). The indignant mayor then threatens the teacher (Bernah Bernardo with the funny, rubbery lips) that he would shut down the school unless the statue is fixed. The poor, hapless Pepito – butt of jokes for his matchstick-thinness and poverty, then stumbles upon a big book containing the biography of Jose Rizal. He enters the realm of the book, and is transported to 19th-century Philippines, during the time of the young Rizal.
This device, of course, is nothing new. It was employed in a variety of texts, notably in The Never-Ending Story. But it works seamlessly here. For when Pepito and Pepe (the young Rizal) meet, past and present clash (What does the word English “wow” mean? asks Rizal’s sisters). Not only language, but the great horse of politics is in fine fettle and form here. Pepe gives Pepito a seven-day tour of his time, starting with Domingo (Sunday). The bells ring and the fraile come, punishing the Indios for the smallest mistake.
When Pepito said to Pepe (in my English translation): “So during your time, the authorities punish those who they think defy them and make them disappear?” Pepe nods. And the Pepito said something that made our blood run cold: “Oh, it’s the same with us. Nothing has changed.”
As the song Pag-asa ng Bayan, written by the prize-winning musical director Vince de Jesus, goes: “Sa dami ng nagbuwis ng buhay/ Alang-alang sa bayan/ Ang kalayaan ba’y ating nabantayan?/ Tingnan mo ang paligid mo/ Ang lahat ba ay malaya/ Tingnan mo/ Malaya ba’ng mabuhay nang payapa,/ Malaya ba’ng magsabi ng gusto/ Ang lahat ba ay pantay-pantay ang turing/ Walang nasa ibabaw/ Walang nasa ilalim.”
I like this play because it shows you that history should never be a bitter pill to take for our children. The young people in the audience had a merry time watching. They rocked and rolled to the rap song of “The Monkey and the Turtle,” with shadow-play animation by Don Salubayba. They sat entranced when Dona Teodora Alonso Rizal sang to the young Pepe, telling him not to be like the moth that came too close to the candle flame, burning its wings. But when the young Rizal (played with wide-eyed wonder by Abner Delina Jr.) said, “Yes, mother, but the light! How bright the light!” another shudder ran down my spine.
Later, it is the young Pepe’s turn to go the 21st-century Philippines, with its color and cruelties. The stage becomes a rainbow of colors coming from the students’ costumes and the play of light; but the very same children could also be source of such cruel lines against the poor. It is not heavy-handed because it is sung, or danced, or shown through gestures (the sticky Spider man act of one of the young bullies, complete with a hissing like that of a snake’s).
In the end, the play interrogates the notion of a hero. Is he the one only cast in stone? Or venerated blindly by people who do not really know him? How to be a hero in a society that hails the ignorant and rewards the corrupt? Are these questions that come closer to the bone, in this Age of the Graft-Ridden and the Corrupt?
One answer lies in breaking time and space and bringing us back the young Jose Rizal – who also gets upset, is lazy, proud, fearful, friendly and in the end, lonely. But even if the young Rizal knows he would die, he still returned to the past so this would happen, we would all be free. From the shadow of his fear he vaulted into the light, like the moth with its wide-open wings, into our hearts.
Batang Rizal was shown at the Luce Theater in Dumaguete last week. It is currently a series of campus tours in the country. Information about Ang Batang Rizal at PETA Theater and its mobile shows are available at tel: 410-0821, 407-1418.