Vol 18 / No 2 / February-April 2009 / ISSN 0118-3931


sarsuwela
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By FREDERICK R. CASTRO
Artistic Director, UE Drama Company

The UE Drama Company, existing since the tumultuous ’70s, has produced numerous theater performances that have explored many avenues and enhanced the company’s cultural experience. Its fine roster of productions utilized various original material brainstormed on and written by its writers’ pool, penned by notable award-winning playwrights, based on contemporary social realities, experimental dissection of local histories, analytic interpretations of ethnic/folk/hybrid cultural forms, and inspired by/adapted from classical scripts of Shakespeare and Plautus. In all these creative outings, the social and personal experiences of the UEDC members and its immediate society and culture undeniably characterize the kinds of plays it has produced. The local cultural loci of its members manifest the company’s artistic excursions. The awards, accolades and recognitions it has reaped so far from many theater festivals and competitions—truly treasured by its members—continuously become the warm source of inspiration to further create theater productions. But the pure spring well of artistic, physical strength and inspirations richly spill from our fiery commitment, in our own little ways, to contribute to the continuous development and transformation of our theater—theater that represents, speaks of, offers healthy interpretations of the dynamic relations among different socio-cultural experiences in our country.

The latest performance of the UEDC, a rendition of Paglipas ng Dilim, a traditional sarsuwela, is a case in point. This has been truly special for us in the UEDC, for the sarsuwela was the very first traditional theater form that we tried so hard to stage using traditional standards. In the past years, the UEDC had produced traditional theater forms like bodabil and contemporary sarsuwela, but this material challenged us to take an artistic path we had never tried before—recreating a traditional theater form, in the process honoring and reliving one of the cultural roots of Philippine theater.

What then is sarsuwela? And what is Paglipas ng Dilim?

Sarsuwela refers to stage performances with songs and dances, written in prose, consisting of one to five acts that tell of the romantic love between its idealistic Filipino characters, and more often incorporates contemporary social, political, economic and cultural issues of a particular period. It was first introduced to Manila audiences by the Spaniards in 1879. It became popular from the early 1900s to the 1950s.

Paglipas ng Dilim—penned by Precioso Palma, with original music by Leon Ignacio—is one of the classic sarsuwelas produced in our country. It was written in 1920 and was staged multiple times to standing-room-only audiences in old theater houses in Manila. 

Its synopsis: A big party at Klub Bagontao is given in honor of Dr. Ricardo Makairog for successfully graduating from medicine. All his friends are there at the party, including Martin, Felipe, Luis, Maring, Liling, Pakita and the politician Don Juanito. Don Torcuato, Donya Carmen and their daughter Caridad attend, as well. This family is known for being boastful of their high status in the society. Estrella, Ricardo’s love interest, is also present.

Ricardo finds the opportunity to express his love for Estrella, but Estrella immediately informs him that she is not yet ready to be committed to anyone else. Meanwhile, Donya Carmen degrades Estrella for she wants Ricardo to be Caridad’s fiancée. Caridad carries out their plan to speak with Ricardo alone. Seeing the two at the glorieta, the guests think that they have a secret romance.

To thank all those who organized the party, Ricardo generously treats them to a picnic at a nearby farm-fish pond. Caridad and Donya Carmen carry out another plan for Ricardo to save their family from economic downfall. Caridad secretly invites Ricardo to a nearby nipa hut. There, she forces Ricardo to drink champagne. Then Caridad announces to the guests of their planned wedding. Ricardo, drunk as he is, is speechless. Estrella becomes depressed.

During Maring’s birthday bash, everybody is present except for Estrella. Maring asks Liling to invite Estrella and accompany her to the party. Ricardo arrives and tells everybody what really happened between him and Caridad, that everything was Caridad’s plan and that he doesn’t know everything about it. When poor Estrella arrives, Ricardo explains everything to her. Estrella then understands what really happened. The malevolent plan of the family of Don Torcuato is revealed—they want Ricardo to be Caridad’s scapegoat for she is pregnant with Don Juanito. They leave the party in shame. Everybody continues the celebration. The story happily ends with the wedding of Ricardo and Estrella.

This was the official entry of the UE Drama Company to the Sarsuwela Festival 2009 at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, from February 3 to 27, 2009. Sarsuwela Festival 2009, a historic, first ever fiesta of sarsuwela performances and artists that included a conference and an exhibit, was organized as a national cultural event to highlight the Philippine International Arts Festival 2009, an annual February National Arts Festival celebrated all over the country. This national event, which coincided with the celebration of the UP Centennial, was spearheaded by National Artist Virgilio Almario (a UE alumnus) and the UP College of Arts and Letters, in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the UP Committee for Culture and the Arts.

Five distinguished theater groups from all over the country were carefully selected by the UP organizers for their outstanding track record, artistic achievements and active contribution in the field of theater. The five performing groups presented traditional sarsuwela productions aimed at revitalizing and popularizing this Philippine theater heritage for the contemporary generation. These were: the University of the East Drama Company; the Barasoain Kalinangan Foundation, Inc. of Malolos, Bulacan; the Far Eastern University Art Theater Clinique; the UP Visayas Alumni Theater Company; and Dulaang UP of UP Diliman.

The UE Drama Company’s production of Paglipas ng Dilim officially opened the 2009 Sarsuwela Festival last February 4 at the UP Theater and had succeeding performances on February 5 and 6, also at the UP Theater. UE President and Chief Academic Officer Ester Albano Garcia was present at the February 4 opening to deliver a special message; other UE officials were also in attendance at the opening parade that afternoon and our opening performance that evening.
On a related note: The UEDC was also invited to perform together with other selected productions from all over the country at the 3rd Tanghal National University Theater Festival 2009 at Calamba, and Los Baños, Laguna, from February 10 to 14. The UEDC, which rendered Paglipas, was one of the official theater representatives of the universities from the National Capital Region. After which, the UEDC staged Paglipas at the UE Theatre for the UE community last February 20, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

This sarsuwela revolves around assigning significance to the nationalist concept of being/thinking that conforms to being pro-nationalist versus pro-Western standards brought into the country by the Spaniards and the Americans. The play opposes the colonial influences in local lifestyles, values and attitudes, particularly in imperial Manila, during the early 1900s. It exposes the negative effects of the mixture of culture and languages brought about by the simultaneous existence of Spanish, American and local dialects and the lingua franca during the period this play was written and staged. Though following the standard outline of the traditional sarsuwela in story, form, plot, setting, characters, conflict and the like, the writer and composer fused the important contextual issues/problems in lifestyle and thinking and the sociological-economic conflicts of its time. In this light, sarsuwela was a battleground of interrelations and counter-relations of its very form and the then “contemporary” popular beliefs, attitudes and issues which its authors thought were so un-nationalistic. Truly, the sarsuwela performers/artists before were “nationalist artists.”

In this same conceptual framework, the UEDC laid down its woven mat of interpretations of Paglipas ng Dilim—the weaving of what is “traditional” and “contemporary” as means of social commentary and the clashing contradictions between its very form and content. 

However, while we wanted to remake this sarsuwela’s traditional texture, scent, color and taste, we were confronted by the difficulty of fusing its standard form and what is “contemporary” now for the principal objectives of not only entertaining the older audience but also educating and helping the younger audience relate to the play. To do this, we incorporated some popular/colloquial language existing these days and the method of acting that fuses the past and the present. 

At first, we felt uneasy and frightened since our members are not really singers in the strictest sense. What they are familiar with and capable of doing is today’s pop music. To make the cast and staff more familiar with traditional singing, we sought the help of a choirmaster (Leo Edralin) to train the members. The cast members were taught how to dance the foxtrot and waltz, which were required dance forms in the script. They were trained on how to speak the old way and how to walk and carry themselves in conformity with the lifestyle of the 1920s. The production design, e.g., set, furniture, props and costumes, were patterned after what was shown in the pictures, historical materials and documents we researched so as to make the production closer to its historical period.

To make the form also adaptable to the present, we utilized the melodramatic mode of the traditional sarsuwela and made this a visible part of our version. Since our contemporary television is flooded by melodramas of various soap opera series, our Paglipas ng Dilim also somehow carried the soap opera form in acting and dialogue.

Before, we had Spain and America; today, the social struggle is happening in the midst of all the conflicting effects and impact of globalized superstructures in the economy, mass media, education, among others. We did not try to resolve this issue, but we just tried hard to represent the predicaments then and now so that the audience may critically read that what transpired before somehow also transpires now, that the issues Filipinos confronted before are the same issues we encounter now. The issues just change in form and viewpoint, and may be read as vicious conditions that have continued to exist since the colonial times. Undeniably, the past sarsuwela form and content still are indisputably present in today’s form and content of Philippine life, culture and society.

We could not have done this production without the generous help of the following: our beloved University of the East through President Ester A. Garcia and Office of Culture and the Arts (OCA) Director Gener A. Caringal, for without their warm and full support this play would not have seen the light of stage; to Dean Virgilio Almario of the UP College of Arts and Letters, the principal conceptualizer and mover of the Sarsuwela Festival; to the Sarsuwela Festival Secretariat headed by Riya Lopez, for without them our shows at UP would not have been possible; to Prof. Alex Cortez, the artistic director of Dulaang UP, who helped us artistically polish the production; to Dr. Glecy Atienza of Alyansa, Inc., who took time from her busy schedule to help us artistically; to all the members of UE Administration, Colleges and Faculty, who supported us by watching the shows at UP and sending UE students to watch at the UP Theater and the UE Theatre; to our families, friends and parents who gave us all the inspiration to do this play; and most especially to the original sarsuwela performers, writers and composers of the past, for without them the Philippines could not have developed the kind of theater we have today. To all of you, thank you very much.

CAST: Madel Buenaventura, Orlando Sol, Jessica Pangilinan, Mina Corazon Billones, Shervin Dionisio, Jasfer Brylle Imperio, Cesar Enriquez, Archiomedez Niño Mallorca, Carla Samonte, Janna Egualan, Joycemine Almario, Michael Pinugo, Ernesto Vargas III, Norman Boquiren, Jessa Rose, Aldwin Arevalo, Joana Tapales, Anna Jane Oyong, Sheena Briones, Nielsen Campit, Emerson Fresno, Mary April Berja, Rhea Nalla, Mark Gravador and the UE Silanganan Dance Troupe.

ARTISTIC AND PRODUCTION STAFF: Director/Production Designer: Frederick R. Castro; Choreographer Gener A. Caringal; Assistant Choreographer: Rogelio Pascual Jr.; Music Director/Trainer: Leo Mar Edralin; Set Supervisor: Ernesto Vargas III; Costume Designer: Eddie Castro; Make-up/Stylist: Michael Supetran, Gilbert John Benitez; Lights Designer: Rafael Ladion; Music Assistant: Henrick Macalinao; Props Master: Norman Boquiren; Props Designers: Jonebelle Gregorio, Glyn Mahilum, June Timan, Alain Axalan, Joe Marie Calalo, Aldrin Loberto; Production Manager: Rogelio Pascual Jr.; Assistant PM Zhainey Apostol; Stage Manager: Joel Ogdol, April Salcedo; Documenter: John Julius Olaya; Production Coordinator: Coco Ramos; Publicity Team: Praise Fabillar, Edmira Varela and Audrey Alminanza.

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