Review: A mix of old and new in 'Walang Sugat'

Posted at 08/17/12 5:11 PM

The cast of "Walang Sugat" perform the patriotic song "Bayan Ko" at the end of Act One during the opening last Thursday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA, Philippines -- Tanghalang Pilipino's first offering for its 26th season, the popular sarswela "Walang Sugat," finally opened on Thursday night at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) after its gala night had to be pushed back by a week due to last week's massive floods.

But it was a rather shaky start for the production, which marked the stage directorial debut of filmmaker Carlos Siguion-Reyna, best known for his meticulously crafted movies such as "Azucena" and "Hihintayin Kita sa Langit."

According to theater insiders, the cast had to miss several days of rehearsals after non-stop monsoon rains inundated Metro Manila for the past couple of weeks.

Indeed, there was a certain tentativeness to the stage movement, particular in Act One, and the execution of the choreography lacked precision. There were a few chorus members who seemed lost, obviously glancing at the others to figure out the next steps.

Technical difficulties, particularly in terms of mic volumes, also hampered the expository first act, which introduces us to the basic story of the young couple Julia (Cris Villongco) and Tenyong (Noel Rayos), whose romance is put to the test when he decides to join the Katipunan after his father was tortured by the friars and died.

But those who persevered through the troubled first part of this three-act musical were at least rewarded eventually.

Act Two was particularly strong, with several memorable and funny moments, particularly in terms of the subplots, particularly the flirting scene between Noemi Manikan-Gomez as Julia's mother Juana and Red Nuestro as the father of Miguel, Julia's suitor.

By the third act, things were already running smoothly, leading up to the musical's climax, when an injured Tenyong, who was thought to have died during the revolution, crashes the wedding of Julia and Miguel and makes his dying wish to get married to his childhood sweetheart. They do and then Tenyong takes off his bandages to show that he has no wounds (walang sugat).

At curtain call, there were even a few "bravos" from the generally satisfied crowd.

More modern and political

Carlos Siguion-Reyna. Photo: Handout

Yet somehow, a sense of disappointment lingers. Much of the pre-opening publicity for "Walang Sugat" was focused on Siguion-Reyna, raising excitement over what he could contribute to the stage production given his winning record in film.

The son of "Aawitan Kita" singer and actress Armida Siguion-Reyna did a competent job in giving the sarswela, which Severino Reyes wrote back in 1902, a more modern flavor in terms of the overall vision.

With set designer Tuxqs Rutaquio, he eschewed a more conventional recreation of the period -- near the end of the Filipino revolution against Spain -- opting for immovable blocks of steps and risers against a plain white cloth background, allowing Katsch Catoy's lighting design to set the drama and the detailed costumes of the late Salvador Bernal -- with additional designs by James Reyes -- to stand out.

The sarswela, with its stock characters, romantic plot and song-and-dance structure, was originally considered entertainment for the masses, and by doing away with obvious set pieces -- a living room, for instance -- the play does develop a more serious tone.

This is an important consideration considering that compared with recent stagings of "Walang Sugat," this one makes a more pointed political statement. Although not in the original libretto, the patriotic song "Bayan Ko" had since been added to the sarswela, which now ends all three acts.

Amid the joyous finale, Siguion-Reyna interrupts the number with the thundering sounds of cannons, a war ship slides into the backdrop and red, white and blue buntings, signaling the arrival of the Americans, as if to remind the audience that the fight for the country's freedom continues.

Siguion-Reyna also wades into the divisive debate over the Reproductive Health Bill, inserting a speech by the officiating priest in the wedding, warning that despite the defeat of the Spanish friars, the Catholic Church will always wield its power over the Filipinos. The director also depicted the priest as a closet homosexual, underscoring the hypocrisy of the church.

Film touches

The cast of "Walang Sugat." Photo: Handout

Siguion-Reyna's film background can be gleaned from how he staged certain scenes.

During the sarswela's overture, he had various vignettes to set the period which "dissolve" from one scene to the next, almost like in those old news reels.

There are scenes which again "dissolve" with one character exiting the stage, while a voice coming from offstage continues to the next scene.

The long walk across the top riser against a blue screen which Villongco takes to open Act Two has the same function as a tracking shot, while the addition of small boxes which extend from the stage helps approximate film closeups.

One could also sense a homage to the classic LVN and Sampaguita movies -- which cultural historians liken to sarswelas -- with the general acting seemingly inspired by these old films. The use of canned orchestrations sans the crisp digital sound we are used to also give the play an old-fashioned film flavor.

Still, one would have wished Siguion-Reyna pushed further into this direction, perhaps with the use of multimedia, including film itself, to achieve that "wow" factor, which is generally what's missing here.

Siguion-Reyna's niece, Villongco, gave a more assured performance here, in keeping with the play's general depiction of stronger women compared with the Maria Clara stereotype of the period.

But it was the support characters who truly gave memorable performances, led by Jonathan Tadioan as Tenyong's sidekick Lucas, who simply allowed the character's innate comedic nature to come out, without unnecessarily playing to the audience. Manikan-Gomez and Nuestro, as mentioned, easily captured the LVN spirit in their flirtatious duet without adding extra cheese.
Even Nar Cabico as the socially inept Miguel stayed true to the spirit of his role as romantic foil.

One can expect the production to fully come together as the run progresses but based on Thursday's opening, Tanghalang Pilipino's latest staging of "Walang Sugat" is competent and entertaining, as expected from a classic work. But given the talent of its artistic team, it certainly could have been more than that.