Orosman at Zafira, featuring Jay Gonzaga as Orosman, makes for a powerful social commentary on human nature and society, here imagined through a primitive lens of animalistic dances and tribal aestheticism.
Last week-end, upon my friend Kakki’s passionate prodding, I found myself in UP anxious, curious, and doubly excited to watch Dulaang UP’s restaging of its hit musical, Orosman at Zafira at the esteemed Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater. Reminiscing on the last time I watched the show, I prepped myself for two and a half hours of heart-pounding madness and neo-Filipino artistry — calling to mind Carol Bello’s haunting world music and the brilliant contemporary choreography that enveloped the two-act piece.
I didn’t know what to expect of the show then, but after witnessing stunning performances from Cris Villonco, Felix Rivera, Judith Javier, JC Santos, and Red Concepcion among other exceptional stars from the previous run, and more than anything, first time director and movement master Dexter Santos’ unparalleled genius, I found myself judiciously craving more. It was those intense war scenes that really got to me; and true to form with artistic enhancement where I didn’t think it possible, it’s the intense war scenes that still get to me now. I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed; heart in my throat with emotions, insanity and passion runneth over, all I could really say while sitting at the edge of my seat was, “Holy S**t!”
Orosman at Zafira, penned by Francisco Baltazar or Balagtas, is an exposition of the life and times of three kingdoms: Marueccos, Tedenst, and Duquela, here contextualized by thematic elements, dances, and ritualistic iconography from Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. Provoked by conflict that almost always, in the tradition of a komedya, starts from the vicissitudes of both familial and romantic love, thoughtfully interspersed with an insatiable power struggle to the likes of a Shakespearean piece of literature, the play centers on star-crossed protagonists Orosman and Zafira who hail from two opposing kingdoms. When creeping doubt overcomes Boulasem, sovereign of Tedenst and Orosman’s father, on the prospect that his contemporary Mahamud could rally for power and seize control, he orders that the latter, sovereign of the Marueccos who also happens to be Zafira’s father, be killed. This consequently sparks a series of skirmishes among the contrasting kingdoms, ironically taken up first by the feminine in the person of Zafira as the play is replete with feministic undertones.
Of shifting alliances, bloodlust, and the human capital requisitioned by the necessity of war, Orosman at Zafira makes for a powerful social commentary on human nature and society, here imagined through a primitive lens of animalistic dances and tribal aestheticism rendered by the magnificent Tuxqs Rutaquio, where love and power seem religiously intertwined. Blinded or overcome by love, the truth of it all is that man will proceed at any cost – even if it is to the destruction or demise of a kingdom or civilization. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Where Dexter succeeds in modernizing Balagtas’ powerful komedya while maintaining key elements that are essential to its artistic form, it’s also striking to note the play’s references to pagan ritualism in portraying the casualties of war – wherein a little boy is sitting on a bangka that drifts from stage-right to stage-left, followed by a cryptic march of fallen characters crossing over to the vast unknown. Accompanied by a haunting aria sung by the character of Zelima, the show’s narrator who will join the march at some point to illustrate how absolutely no one was spared by war, water falls continuously into a basin from atop the stage that, when lit, becomes a powerful metaphor connoting insatiable bloodshed, and possibly, a delubyo that engulfs and destroys the three kingdoms. Pieced together, the show reaches its indelible climax.
For the rerun, Dexter manages to inject some astounding new-blood to the piece, and much praise and shout-outs should be given to Delphine Buencamino who is a revelation in the role of Zafira. She is fierce as fierce can get, hailing from a family of actors that includes parents Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino who are themselves theater vets. Her eyes soared with both strength and vulnerability, accompanied by an understanding of the vocal technicality employed by Carol Bello’s world music. Delphine is joined here by Jay Gonzaga who plays a chiseled Orosman, Reuben Uy as the treacherous Abdalap, Natasha Cabrera as Zelima, Jacinta Remulla and Gabs Santos who also play star-crossed lovers Gulnara and Aldervesin, Roeder Camang as Boulasem, JM de Guzman as Zelim, and Neil Tolentino and Ronnie Martinez as Mahamud and Ben-Asar.
Comprising the artistic team are production designer Tuxqs Rutaquio who, lights designer John Batalla, dramaturges Anril Tiatco, Katte Sabate, and Pat Valera, accessories designer Paolo Rodriguez, assistant director Mara Marasigan, associate choreographer Via Antonio, and assistant musical director Irish Pangilinan.
* * *
Orosman at Zafira will run until August 29 at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, U.P. Diliman, Quezon City from Wednesdays to Fridays at 7 p.m. and at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. during weekends. For tickets, call Cherry at 09177500107, or the Dulaang UP Office at 926-1349, 981-8500 local 2449 or 433-7840.
Cherie Gil in Master Class is sort of like Alfred Molina in the Broadway play Red, or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. You’d hate to be in Eddie Redmayne’s or Anne Hathaway’s shoes.
After catching the preview night of Philippine Opera Company’s Master Class many weeks ago, those were literally the only thoughts running through my head with each goose bump, art lesson, and tear that ran down my cheek. “Cherie Gil, who are you?”
A magnum opus in its own right, this marks the nth inception of POC’s Master Class starring the TV, film and stage diva, which has merited standing ovation upon standing ovation for its lead actress’ haunting portrayal of opera diva Maria Callas at a time when she was giving a series of master classes at the Juilliard school of music in the 1970s.
Gil is widely known for her kontrabida performances. I mean who can forget the “second-rate, trying-hard, copycat” bit that has immortalized her in the annals of showbiz and pop-cultural history? The role of Maria Callas seemed to fit Cherie like a glove. And was she good at it. Damn good, as, in the course of the two-act show and under the guidance of director Michael Williams, she becomes a lovable caricature of someone who you’d very much love to hate but in that she’s so unbelievably bitchy, quirky, and convincingly caught up in her own world, you end up loving her instead.
She’s sort of like Alfred Molina in the Broadway play Red, or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. You’d hate to be in Eddie Redmayne’s or Anne Hathaway’s shoes or in the case of Master Class, the shoes of her students played by the likes of the slapstick Juan Alberto Gaerlan, the haunting Florence Aguilar, and the riotous Ana Feleo. But given the chance to learn under the tutelage of one of the greatest women ever to grace the opera circuit, you’d bravely grab yourself in the balls and enter the lion’s den. All you really have is the moment — and it’s up to you, as a student of life, to seize it.
Sitting towards the front row of the intimate RCBC Theater, that is exactly how I felt — like I was inside the lion’s den waiting to be devoured. But there I was, ready to seize the opportunity that had been robbed of me all those times I never bothered to catch POC’s Master Class before.
Being a theater and art aficionado myself, I found myself, not only transfixed with Cherie’s soaring and beautifully engaging performance, and mesmerized by her eyes that watered with painstaking conviction every time she took to a soliloquy while her students barreled through the last ounces of their arias, but taking down notes as well, as though I was in an actual class and she had been my teacher. I was getting schooled, literally. And I found myself getting a master class of my own, though probably not on the astounding operatic technicality that Feleo and her contemporaries had shown after being shattered and sundered by Cherie’s religious monstrosity then being asked to sing with all honesty and truth right after, but the theatricality of it — the very essence of life.
“Don’t act, just be!” “When you stop, it’s class. When you quit, it’s depressing.” “A performance is a struggle. You have to win!” “An entrance is everything. That’s how we present ourselves to an audience. That’s how we present ourselves in life.” “Art is about transition. There is entrance. There is exit.” “There are no shortcuts in art.” Her rhetoric was running through my head and somehow made its way to my notebook as I was taking down notes for this piece. Somehow, I learned more about life in two hours than I would in years — a triumph in itself for POC’s Master Class.
Though at some point, I just couldn’t keep up with Callas. anymore. I closed my notebook, in the same way that Florence had forgotten to take down notes from her fiery interactions with Callas, and instead, sat back, breathed, seized the moment, and watched in astonishment. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was no fluff. And there certainly were no traces of Cherie Gil. Fierce. Oppressive. Pedantic. Cruel. Self-Absorbed. Mind-blowing. Ambitious. And never to be defeated. There was only Maria Callas. Bravo!
Stark raving mad: Red Concepcion, joined by Jaimedel Mundo, Tami Monsod, and Miguel Faustmann | Zoom
At 25, Red Concepcion has achieved for his age what others have simply dreamed of at the onset of their theater careers. Having played a bevy of fascinating roles on the legitimate repertory stage, Red has played a willing and gracious host to the likes of Dino del Canto in Repertory Philippines’ Romeo and Bernadette, Mark in Altar Boyz for which he was nominated for a Philstage Gawad Buhay Award; A-Rab in Stages’ West Side Story that top-billed the likes of Joanna Ampil, Karylle and Christian Bautista; and Aldervesin in Dulaang UP’s celebrated masterpiece, Orosman and Zafira.
“Every play I’ve ever done has a special place in my heart,” quips Red, who is currently playing the lead, Allan Strang, in Repertory Philippines’ Equus.
“Cheesy but true! It’s like asking me to choose between my left and right eye,” he stresses when faced with the possibility of having to choose just one role to sum up the totality of his blossoming theater career.
For Red’s latest endeavor, he plays Allan Strang, a curious young boy and a role played by Daniel Radcliffe on the Great White Way. A troubled young man who blinds six horses, Allan is forced to meet with a psychiatrist, masterfully portrayed in the Philippine version by Miguel Faustmann.
“He’s so much fun to be around — very instinctive and generous as an actor. I’m literally in awe of the guy,” shares Red of the stage veteran.
A psychological drama-slash-thriller, Equus pits Red, whose acting credits also include Hairspray, Into the Woods and Hamlet, against the complexity of Allan’s character, to the point that it compels the psychiatrist to question his own existence in the end. Though Red eventually found himself comfortably filling the shoes of Allan, of course, under the tutelage of the talented Audie Gemora, according to him, it was no picnic getting to the end result.
“One of the problems I had was that I was too settled (in the role). They kept telling me that madness has a certain electricity that I needed to get in order to play Allan. So there was little physical adjustment.” More than that, Audie asked him to appear more impulsive and unpredictable each time — something that compelled Red to consistently up his game.
The actor adds, “I like to challenge myself in every way. West Side was a challenge because of the choreography, Sweeney was a musical one, and Hairspray was a test of stamina and focus. When I got wind that Rep was doing Equus, I knew I had to try out. I knew that it was going to stretch me as an actor.”
Of course, mass media would put it that Equus became all about the famous nude scene that kept the World Wide Web atwitter when Daniel Radcliffe a.k.a. Harry Potter agreed to shed his clothes on Broadway. Was there any such trepidation on Red’s part? He retorts, “Of course, it’s a given. But I just kept thinking I would cross the bridge when I get there. When I finally had to strip, there really was nothing to worry about after all. The scene is done very tastefully,” he adds.
On the prospect of being compared to his alternate, newcomer Marco Manalac, he says, “Marco and I both worked really hard on this play. We came up with quite distinct Allans, filtered through our own experiences and truths. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.” He is quite proud of what they had both created in synergy with director Audie Gemora. Red says, “Audie encourages creativity. He knew what he wanted but he was open enough to let you create on your own.”
In five years, Red sees himself still doing theater, and would someday like to play the lead player in Pippin, Bobby in Company, and Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. But for curiosity’s sake, as Allan has obviously this weird relationship going on with horses, I had to ask. How would you describe your perfect horse?
“As a kid, I used to watch this TV series based on the classic book The Black Beauty. There was a sleek black stallion and the image of that horse galloping through the field, mane whipping in the wind, has stuck with me all these years.” Neigh- sayer, years later, who would have known?