REVIEW: In IBARRA, Piolo isn't everything

IBARRA demonstrates a keen understanding of the essence and impact of the original material in this re-imagination, opting to preserve the core themes that made KANSER so powerful. While a few additional songs find their way into the repertoire, Zamora's direction stays true to the heart of Rizal's narratives.
Orly Agawin

Rizal's Noli Me Tangere is an essential work in Philippine literature. It explores social and political struggles that plagued colonial societies of the late 18th to early 19th century Philippines. The story of Crisostomo Ibarra exposes the oppressive hold of Spanish colonization and corruption in the church, and the impact inequality has on ordinary Filipinos. Rizal's vivid characters and masterful storytelling reveal the harsh realities of the time. Soon after, this seminal work ignited a national conscience and inspired a search for justice and freedom.

Revisiting KANSER

Gantimpala Theater Foundation's KANSER is significant in Philippine theater and is considered one iconic rendition of Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. Written in 1979 by a 17-year-old playwright, Jomar Fleras, it soon ran on the Philippine theater stage, spanning several decades.

The production showcased renowned actors and actresses who breathed life into coveted roles. Throughout its history, Fleras' KANSER reached diverse audiences, bringing Rizal's timeless classic in an accessible and entertaining format.

For many, including myself, KANSER served as a defining moment during my formative years, igniting a passion for theater and inspiring exploration of a potential future in the arts. Its enduring impact on the minds of its audiences continues to resonate, solidifying its place as a cherished part of Philippine theater's contemporary history.

With the recent production changes brought about by economic and social changes, KANSER takes on a new brand, ultimately encouraging a newer look, feel, and sound through IBARRA.

Reviewing Noli

After studying abroad for years, Crisostomo Ibarra returns to his native land and soon finds himself in a world where corruption is rampant and social injustice is the norm. Armed with a desire to seek justice, Ibarra embarks on an arduous journey. He navigates through the treacherous webs of lies and deceit.

Yet, in the turbulent landscape of oppression, a delicate romance blooms which complicates Crisostomo's path. Still captivated by the ethereal beauty and innocence of his childhood love, Maria Clara, their romance has to face obstacles - including family secrets, social expectations, and the looming threat of revolution and tragedy. 

The New Look

First things first: Visually, IBARRA takes a bold leap forward with its new look and feel. Contrasting with the equally gorgeous caravan-esque design of its predecessor, this adaptation sets the bar for more modern interpretations of Noli Me Tangere. The stage shines with a refreshing look, incorporating contemporary elements that breathe new life into the narrative. The seamless integration of innovative set designs, striking lighting effects, and costumes elevate the overall experience.

Mio Infante's intricate scenic design for IBARRA is an absolute visual treat, captivating with its ingenuity and imagination. Infante creates a multi-dimensional experience, seamlessly transporting viewers through time, space, and the intricate layers of the character's inner worlds through diaphanous white curtains and metaphorical symbols on stage.

The floating backdrop, resembling delicately crafted paste wafers, is a masterstroke in representing the shifting seasons, evoking each scene's mood and reflecting the characters' internal and emotional landscapes.

Worth mentioning, too, is Infante's attempt to integrate cinematographic techniques in his designs by deliberately tilting foregrounds and backgrounds to evoke a sense of unease, imbalance, or in this case, injustice, and internal chaos. Such rare attempts are a sight in Philippine Theater, and Infante triumphs by doing just that.

Dong Calingacion's lighting complements Infante's meticulous attention to detail. Here, Calingacion works with Infante's design through a breathtaking array of hues, enhancing ambiance and accentuating intricate nuances. Infante's scenic design and Calingacion's lighting design create an emotionally resonant atmosphere that elevates the experience.

Dissecting Pascual

It takes a brave soul to go onto the theater stage and take on the role of the enigmatic Crisostomo Ibarra. And Piolo Pascual did just that. Considering the roster of former Ibarras we have had through the years, his attempt to personify this enigma comes with the weight of history and the expectations attached to the role.

So yes, all eyes are on Piolo. And what we see is how he pushes beyond his comforts, breathing life into a character deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness as Filipinos. Thus, speaking volumes about his commitment and dedication to artistic growth.

Yet, Pascual's portrayal of Ibarra doesn't come without fault. His Ibarra could benefit from a touch of the idealistic fervor and charming confidence expected of a young man educated in Europe. While Pascual's presence is commendable, there is room for further exploration of depth, discourse and dynamism. In contrast to the vibrant energy of the stage, Pascual's interpretation may have appeared somewhat reserved, and at times, he assumed the role of a distant observer rather than an engaged character in the bustling world of San Diego. This contrast in presence subtly drew attention, creating an intriguing dynamic within the overall performance.

Assessing the Cast

Floyd Teña and Carlo Manalac play Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi, respectively. Teña's performance leaves an indelible impression as he navigates the character's range of emotions, from arrogance to moments of vulnerability that expose the human frailty beneath the priestly facade.

While Teña shines with his grandiosity and loftiness, Manalac shines through his inscrutable indifference. With measured deliveries and nuanced expressions, Mañalac manifests his maturity as Salvi through an aura of complexity and indefatigability.

Carla Guevarra's Doña Victorina captures the essence of the character's relentless pursuit for status. From her mannerisms to her accent, Guevarra showcases such impeccable comedic timing while also shedding light to the stereotype. Equally entertaining is Meldea Chua's Doña Consolacion. Here Chua's interpretation brings a refreshing take on the vain and domineering character, often imposing herself through force and intimidation.

Nicole Asensio plays the iconic Sisa with gripping sensibilities and honesty. Kevin Posadas as Elias, depicts the passionate revolutionary with just the right gusto, yet an equally resounding presence. But Myramae Meneses' portrayal Maria Clara equalizes the equation through her modesty, and feminity. Her voice looms across the GSIS Theater; pure, gracious, and innocent.

Exploring Fleras and Zamora's IBARRA

Playwright Jomar Fleras and Director Frannie Zamora demonstrate a keen understanding of the essence and impact of the original material in this re-imagination, opting to preserve the core themes that made KANSER so powerful. While a few additional songs find their way into the repertoire, Fleras' revisions and Zamora's direction stay true to the heart of Rizal's narratives.

However, this time, Zamora weaves newer symbols and representations into his direction. Consider his clever use of friars as a metaphor for the crocodile, where corruption and deceit are personified with a clever touch.

Another notable example is Sisa and Maria Clara's equally heartfelt and harrowing duet, "Salamin Ng Pag-Ibig." Here, both women face each other through a mirror reflecting each other's woes and tragedy - the Deranged and the Illegitimate. Looking more closely, each woman represents our own identity as a nation, which still has challenges finding our roots and the bewildered victim of oppression and violence.

Just by looking at such scene makes me remember Amado V. Hernandez' lines "Katulad mo ay si Huli, inaliping bayad-utang; Katulad mo ay si Sisa, binaliw ng kahirapan."

Fleras and Zamora's dedication to preserving the core themes of KANSER is commendable. However, it may be worth exploring more contemporary storytelling techniques to cater to the evolving preferences of newer and younger audiences. While KANSER's structure and drama resonated deeply in the past, it is essential to acknowledge the influence of today's dynamic media landscape on audience expectations. Revisiting the melodrama of IBARRA and considering newer approaches that enhance accessibility and engagement could revitalize the material further, ultimately attracting a broader spectrum of audiences and ensuring its continued relevance in the ever-changing world of theater.

So there, Tanghalang Unang Obra's IBARRA isn't just about Piolo. Oh no. In it is a revisiting of a beloved revolutionary and classic novel that every Filipino should read, or listen, or watch.

Fleras' 44-year-old material has not only stood the test of time but has also undergone a remarkable evolution, expanding its scope and significance in the process. It has grown and matured, demonstrating a generous capacity for adaptation and reinvention. Zamora, and his artistic team, weave a rendition that navigates the complexities of Noli Me Tangere's narrative, breathing new life into its timeless themes.

From compelling performances to insightful representations, IBARRA is another testament that Philippine Theater is finally back.

Photographs by Mr. Erickson dela Cruz and Mr Axl Guinto of Axl PowerHouse

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