Text and photos by Elizabeth Lolarga, VERA Files
Labaw Donggon was that rare epic drama set to music complete with a chanter, a chorus, whose members moved as though they trained as gymnasts, dazzling costumes and a natural setting, all of which didn't detract from a complicated plot line. Afterwards, one emerged from the makeshift outdoor theater to a cool night with a crescent moon above one's head.
The audience at Ateneo Entablado 's production of Labaw Donggon: Ang Banog ng Sanlibutan had been exposed to such epic fantasies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 'Tis time they grew familiar with Philippine and Asian epic traditions (e.g., Lam-ang, Tales of the Manuvu, Mahabharata, Rama Hari that was turned into a pop ballet musical in the '80s and revived recently).
Scholar Nicanor Tiongson adapted the epic from Panay after reading anthropologist F. Landa Jocano's transcription-translation of Labaw Donggon at UP Diliman's graduate school in the late '60s. He was puzzled because as "the first Filipino epic I read, I didn't understand how it might have been performed and in what context. Later, when I began to document the sinakulo, komedya, sursuwela, pasyon, etc., I understood the folk and ethnic sensibility that would be the matrix of such an epic."
When he was Cultural Center of the Philippines artistic director, he met Lola Elena, chanter of the epic Hinalawod, at the 1992 National Theater Festival. Since then, he wanted to write a script based on a Filipino ethno-epic. While writing Labaw, he sought other sources: Christine Muyco's study of the Binanong, Alicia Magos's studies on Panay beliefs, Joseph Campbell's books that were "rich sources of insight into our universal myths."
He agreed with director Jerry Respeto that students lacked exposure to Filipino folklore: "Even in schools where Philippine literature is taught, little time is devoted to ethnic literature and to other periods of Philippine literature for that matter. And yet if we are interested in defining Filipino culture, we must go back to the indigenous tradition that established the narrative and aesthetic traditions of our literature."
Respeto appreciated Filipino aesthetics in theater and shared this sensibility with composers Jema Pamintuan and Teresa Barrozo, costume and set designer Gino Gonzales, lighting designer Voltaire de Jesus, and choreographers Gio Gahol and Elena Laniog.
Respeto directed Labaw while keeping in mind lessons from his teachers, Tiongson and National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera: a show must have spectacle, carry a message and include the audience.
He said the epic taught Ateneans about Filipino and Asian culture, raised their consciousness of, and pride in, what is theirs beyond their classroom study of texts, adding that the production team rode on what the youth liked in terms of sound, movement, colors. This served as bridge to an ancient literary form.
Before the play was staged, it underwent a process of refinement to fully draw out its potential. Labaw's journey (in the epic, the protagonist took years and years till he won the last of four wives who'd fill his needs and wants) took five months of rehearsals. Technical rehearsals took place in front of critics and the artistic staff before the play opened to the public.
Tiongson said, "We're grateful that our efforts are appreciated beyond our expectations. I am especially happy for students both in the production and in the audience who have 'come home' because they [discovered] their roots and a tradition that they can be proud of."
He said Labaw the play proved his theory of "palabas (show) as the embodiment of Filipino aesthetics in theater. The concept of palabas is based on the belief that Filipinos like productions that are easy on the eyes and the ears but have something deep to say about ourselves. It's embarrassing if we say this ourselves, but that was based on comments that these were the elements that have struck audiences."
An ooomph factor was seasoned actor Banaue Miclat-Jansen who played Labaw's mother, a goddess. Despite being in a student production, she brought the wealth of her experience in theater and music, bringing stability and professionalism to her scenes and inspiring the cast.
Contributing also to Labaw's success was choosing Cervini Field over an enclosed theater. This was frugal at the start, but the budget rose when Gonzales's design required that the stage be lengthened and the audience raised on rafters.
Respeto said outdoor theater brought in the bamboo grove, the sky overhead with the stars and moon. These would've just been a painted set in a venue like Irwin Theater. The play's extended run,Feb. 21-22, was canceled due to the rains.
He attributed the fair weather during the regular run to the enormous volume of eggs that Jethro Tenorio, Entablado adviser and cast member, offered to the nuns of Santa Clara convent.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)
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