A Noli for our times (A personal, meandering meditation on a musical journey)

“For everything there is a season.”

Mark Bautista and Gian Magdangal star as Crisostomo Ibarra; Kris Villongco is Maria Clara

In its latest reincarnation at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Noli Me Tangere, the musical, throbs with enough bathos for a dozen soap operas. That’s not to disparage Jose Rizal’s novel or Audie Gemora’s version of the Ryan Cayabyab musical.

This Noli actually waltzes to the cosmic rhythms of our times. The CCP still shakes from a storm pitting artists and their supporters against clergy and other guardians of morality. And on the Sunday I watched, Nandy Pacheco’s Kapatiran group marched with a procession of icons, ostensibly to exorcise the institution of heretics, unaware – or uncaring — that within the halls of the edifice Imelda Marcos built, young and old sat in thrall to diwatas and babaylans, vengeful lumpen and confused intellectuals, all battling the perversions of a church grown contemptuous of its humble, questing origins and its founder’s inclusive nature. (Agnes Locsin and Joey Ayala’s Enkantada was playing at the main theater.)

Soap opera also sums up the national politics: a people fixated on so many skeins that tie us into so many knots, that we lose track of what really matters.

A senator summons a man to explain his art, though it’s doubtful anything could get through someone who sees the ability to rattle off multi-syllabic words as proof of demonic possession. Forgotten in the sturm und drang: the institutionalization of torture among the trappings of power; children hemorrhaging, dying as mosquitoes attack communities rich and poor; the death toll rising from yet another violent convulsion in Mindanao politics; and the statistically improbable event of three main actors in a corruption probe simultaneously taking to their beds in some kind of psychic bonding. If that isn’t soap opera, I don’t know what is.


Jose Rizal's "Noli Me Tangere"

Almost two decades ago, the Noli stormed into our lives with all the pent up rage of 20 years of flailing under tyranny. Nonon Padilla unleashed an orgy of symbolism, in keeping with what sustained this nation during the Marcos nightmare and other periods of censorship. It was Noli as agit-prop, reminding a people that had just defeated a dictator that muck still slurped at their feet.

There is little subtlety in Noli, the novel. Its greatness lies in the vision. Rizal drew archetypes with bold lines, the better to train light on the frailties and venalities that allowed vastly outnumbered colonizers to retain power for three centuries. There is little of the irony dotting, say, the works of Plaridel or the more Rabelaisian Graciano Lopez Jaena. Unlike these two other literary heroes, Rizal disdained sparring with folk who thought themselves his betters. His tales and letters are earnest despite numerous hints of a more voluptuary side.

Education was a favorite theme of Rizal. He insisted that a people strive to better themselves and be worthy sons and daughters of the motherland. In Noli, he channels this passion through Crisostomo Ibarra, like him a bright young man sent abroad to the heady realms of relatively-free academia. Both real-life and literary characters suffered abuse from those who viewed brown skin as a barrier to intellectual exploration and who, at any rate, saw this exploration as a nuisance or, worse, a sign of the end of times.

The Noli reads like something a man would share round a campfire as night’s soft airs pry open the secret histories of clans, villages, towns and country. Rizal wrote the Noli to ruminate, rather than agitate. He describes it as an “impartial and bold account of the life of the tagalogs.” But if there is anything artists learn early on, it is that their works do not always elicit the response they seek.

Who knows what would have happened had Rizal lived longer? He died less than ten years after the Noli’s publication in 1887, his words forever hostage to the passions of compatriots, drawing equal amounts of enthusiasm, exasperation and fear. Like most great art, the Noli and its twin, El Filibusterismo, function as a Rorschach test.

Rorschach Test

Padilla gave us a Noli that alternately marched, convulsed or swirled through plot and subplots. His Noli was a manifesto, a pamphlet underlining reasons for a revolution to come (or explanations for why we’d fallen flat on our faces after the verve and hope of one barely a decade old).

Padilla’s Noli looked at times like Edsa in February 1986. The stage bustled with a crowd that skipped and swayed and stomped, and trilled and sniffled and bawled, or tittered and chortled. Jeers and sneers erupted from both sides of the political divide. Costumes and props were brandished, in step with times that saw brave souls waving banners or guns, or whatever symbol could rouse and mobilize and generally substitute for the introspection we continue to postpone.

It was a robust Noli in a period when people believed – or wanted to – in slogans about tiger nations and the promised miracle of Philippines 2000. We all know what happened at the turn of the millennium and after. That era, after all, continues to star in the national soap opera.

Wary, weary

In the musical’s first run (1994), John Arcilla was a fiery Ibarra. He stalked and strutted until he ran smack into the walls of power.  Gemora was the solemn, confused youth.

Cover of a Noli translation by Virgilio Almario

Though Gemora says he needed to change tack to survive cruel comparisons to Padilla, he constructed a musical landscape more fitting to the times and lives of a generation that views “People Power” through jaundiced eyes.

It is not that today’s youth don’t care. They’re just trying to find their way through the morass laid down by two older generations. There are no great themes to current music. Energies and creativity are channeled inward or to a close circle of intimates. Their favored mode of protest is intensely personal – the vote.

In Gemora’s Noli, the stage is stark, gray. Steps lead up to a pyramid’s rough base, underscoring the many sacrifices laid down on the altar of cross and sword. The scenery cradles Gemora’s vision and trains ours to focus solely on the actors. Gemora’s palette is dour and drab or the pastel shades of a lady taught to stay out of the light.

The pared-down scenery ups the challenge for the young leads, whose love story and unraveling secrets are the pulsing heart of this Noli. And this is where the musical almost fumbles.

(I am going to come clean and admit a love affair with the original musical, having sat through a series of casts, which included three sisters. Bernardo Bernardo radiated menace as Padre Damaso, complete with a Spanish accent (that sounded suspiciously like that of the Irish priests in Malate Church). Bodjie Pascua and Noni Buencamino presented two Father Salvis: the former tortured by illicit passions, the latter reveling in the thrill, and both equally believable. Joji Isla brought the house down as Don Tiburcio, the social-climbing quack doctor. Josephine Roces’ Maria Clara was note perfect and imbued with the dignity of a sheltered lass taught the merits of the velvet glove. Though sister Nenen, who definitely knows her music and theater, swears that songbird Regine Velasquez emerged as the definitive Maria Clara after listening to her mother’s advice to leave behind the affectations of Sunday noontime shows.)

From left, Al Gatmaitan as Padre Salvi; Mark Bautista as Crisostomo Ibarra; Bodjie Pascua as Padre Damaso

I missed Gian Magdangal as Ibarra; that weekend had Mark Bautista essaying the role of Noli’s hero. Nor was Gary Lim, tried and tested as theater comedian, around to play Tiburcio.

Gemora asked Rody Vera to add dialogue for greater context. Vera is a talented dramaturg, but there’s little need to add context to the  Noli; the effort just weighed down the musical. And unfortunately, while Bautista convinces as a besotted young man, he labors when the music turns to dialogue, a weakness all the more marked because Noli’s secondary leads are some of the country’s best theater actors.

It is jarring to hear lines by Bautista followed by  those from Red Nuestro, whose fine baritone and nuanced reading of Kapitan Tiago gives the cuckolded widower a gravitas that former counterparts couldn’t quite muster. Where the audience would have guffawed as the Kapitan boasts of his offspring, Nuestro elicits sympathy.

Bautista is fine with love and grief and the insouciance of a balikbayan who thinks himself the better, no, the savior, of those left behind. What he’s not capable of is confusion, a more subtle reaction and one needed to propel Ibarra through the plot.

The first two acts of the Noli drag because the lead’s inexperience cancels out any impact from the added dialogue. The chorus is also ragged in parts, particularly in the picnic scene, where Padre Salvi’s pivotal moment — the discovery of Padre Damaso’s secret — loses power in the lower right end of the stage.

And that  schoolyard scene… Nenen swears it’s the original arrangement, so maybe it was the sudden swing in choreography that turned the episode into an inane noontime chorus, reminiscent of pito-pito romps. (Though given how politicians and TV personalities can make monkeys of the beneficiaries of their largesse, it might not be too off the mark.) And why  does everyone turn back from the audience? Sure, a lot of action happens on the upper reaches of the stage but at certain moments the blocking just defies logic .

The power of weakness

Kris Villongco, with Gian Magdangal

Kris Villongco’s acting talent shines clear through the entire musical, though her uneven vocals distract during the first two acts. Armida Siguon Reyna’s grand-daughter shares the veteran actress’ brassy undertones. Her soprano betrays grating shifts in quality as she goes through the musical range. This weakness, however, eventually works to Villongco’s advantage as the musical progresses and she learns of her mother’s shame. The audience then absorbs why musical theater stars need to be actors first before singers.The strained vocals make for authentic grief and Villongo’s talent for well-timed stillness and quiet moments shines as she, initially bewildered and then devastated, is taunted by Padre Salvi.

Angeli Bayani, Villongco’s understudy, plays Sisa, in all versions a symbol of a motherland trampled by oppressors. She shows off a sweet, lyrical soprano but lacks the intensity of other Sisa’s. She is more plaintive than anguished; you’d think she’s lost dolls instead of sons.

Jerald Napoles is missing the seething rage of former Eliases. He is not noble. Napoles slouches around, Elias as lumpen. His voice starts outweak but that seems apt for an Elias who tosses around dialogue like the drawling kanto boys eventually seconded into partisan units of the New People’s Army.

Al Gatmaitan as Padre Salvi elevates what could otherwise be a stereotype of the clerical lecher into a creature worthy of Machiavelli. In Gemora’s Noli, it is Salvi rather than Damaso who illustrates sex as power trip. Gatmaitan’s Salvi is almost gentle;  that just ups his sinister mien. In his hands, Maria Clara is not just an object of lust; she becomes a tool to wreak havoc on enemies of church and state.

Bodjie Pascua also saves Damaso from being an unalloyed symbol of evil. He is not the devil incarnate, though Pascua wisely abstains from playing Damaso as just another worried father. His Damaso views offspring as property, not much different from lay fathers of that time, though he buckles under the weight of genuine love for Maria Clara.

Pascua and Nuestro display fine timing, whether in drama or comedy. The Kapitan’s star turn is brilliant; icons jerk like puppets, displaying a modern sensibility and serving to clear the scene of distractions.

TP promotional photo.

Pascua does not bludgeon. He turns disdain into high art, as when he sniffs, “lahi-an man ng Kastila lalabas pa ding mahina,” perhaps the finest ironic line in national artist Bien Lumbera’s libretto. This represents the  start of one of the musical’s highlights. Except that someone forgot to teach Bautista movement. Damaso’s line drives Ibarra into fury so great that it forces his second exile. Yet in this pivotal scene, with Pascua struggling mightily, Bautista saunters like he were at a park. It’s almost unforgivable.

Cycles of defeat

My young women companions (Che and Chen and Rachel) insist Bautista is the more affecting Ibarra and not just because of his handsome mug. This is perhaps due to Gemora’s focus on the tale of spurned love, which plays right into Bautista’s strength.

Like Villongco, his failings as performer ultimately imbue genuine tragedy to Ibarra’s fate, that of a clueless youth overreaching and then getting slapped around like a fly. He is naïve to the end, Ibarra is, and in the raft scene, Bautista and Napoles give a stirring duet: Elias, now thoroughly believable as rebel organizer; Ibarra, still clinging to his intellectual dreams.

It is perfect counterpoint to Salvi, now deadly and saturnine, the complete cynic spitting, “Mahusay maghakot sa yagit na Bayani,” a line, sadly, still true in our time.

Maria Clara tells Ibarra why she has to leave him (Thanks to Joel Salud @ http://doubleblade.wordpress.com )

Grief gifts Maria Clara with maturity. Villongco soars as she chastises the magnanimous Ibarra: “Ang gusto ko’y pakinggan ako at patawarin dahil nauunawaan.”

At this point, everything climbs in drama and level of performance. You fear that Bautista’s voice could crack unless he finds a way to channel weeping into dramatic restraint. But he is superb in his final scene, which sets the tone for the anarchic rage of El Filibusterismo. It is such a powerful ending that Ibarra’s appearance in the finale, as Maria Clara dons the habit of a nun, is redundant. The spotlight should be turning on the young Basilio.

Still, you do not find the heart to demur further. With enough discipline and work ethic (rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals!), Bautista, among the best singers of his generation, can fill in the vacuum in musical leads. You hear sniffles all around, as much a tribute to this Ibarra’s ability to draw empathy as to Ryan Cayabyab’s composing genius.

I wanted to weep, too. Because if there is anything Noli rams home, it is the painful truth that we glory too much in sorrow and defeat and love to revisit our pains and hurts. There is a Noli for everyone. Gemora might just have given today’s youth their voice. Our generation may call the youth apathetic. I am glad they are not history’s prisoners. I am glad they refuse to regurgitate our struggles. This, after all, as Frantz Franon says, is the cycle their own freedom. And they sure don’t need to die for it. And they won’t, if they show more perseverance and persistence than their elders did.

Graphics from ATENEO DE MANILA LOYOLA SCHOOLS SANGGUNIAN (thanks for sharing Jen Aquino)

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