By Pearl Guzman, Gian B. Franco, John Gabriel Lalu
Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Mabining Mandirigma” ran at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in July to rave reviews. These three contributors from The Manila Times College dare to disagree with the bandwagon and analyze this musical based on what it sought to do, who it wanted to speak of, and how exactly this contributes to our understanding of the past, so that we might do better in the present. (The three reviews were collated in this form and lightly edited by Katrina Stuart Santiago.)
Pearl Guzman (PG): Admit it or not, today’s generation seldom engages with history and some even find it irrelevant. It’s safe to say that every age bracket should take a slice of the blame for this kind of apathy. That might be the reason why director Chris Millado, playwright Nicanor Tiongson, and the rest of the artistic staff felt the need to stage Mabining Mandirigma.
But this musical comes with a twist.
John Gabriel Lalu (JGL): How could history be modernized without bastardizing it? In his notes Millado asks viewers: “How do we make the past jump out and wrestle with the present?”
The answer was to “steampunk” the whole musical.
If Mabining Mandirigma’s aim was to bring one of the country’s forgotten yet brilliant heroes back into national consciousness, then the curiosity about this production might be more than enough to start a discussion on the meaningful life of Apolinario Mabini.
But if its goal was to clear the confusion surrounding Mabini, and create a single, definite view about him, then Mabining Mandirigma failed at this task.
Gian B. Franco (GBF): Give Millado, Tiongson, and visual artist Toym Imao due credit for drawing a link between past and present political machinations in the Philippines. It reminds us just before the 2016 elections that politics don’t change in this country:
politicians are politicians, public service isn’t about charity.
Tiongson’s Mabining Mandirigma was a political protest.
That is all there is to be praised.
JGL: Mabining Mandirigma has a good amount of entertainment value, especially given how it mixed history with modernity, comedy with drama. The show endeared itself to the young audience when it ended the first act with a selfie, and when an argument among the ilustrados in Congress, the Executive, and the Army happened as a rap battle.
The underlying messages about the power-hungry ilustrados portrayed as male socialites; and the imperialist Americans depicted as sultry bitchy women were funny. Then there is Pepe, Mabini’s ever-faithful assistant, who easily turned a heavy conversation between Mabini and Emilio Aguinaldo into a light-hearted moment.
But these did not mean that the musical lacked the seriousness essential to its overall goal. Delphine Buencamino as Mabini did a good job in portraying the hero’s unending love for the country. Arman Ferrer was dignified and strong in his portrayal of Aguinaldo. Carol Bello’s voice resounded as she did the opposing cries of Mabini’s mother and the Inang Bayan.
PG: The non-traditional casting of Buencamino in the lead refers to a casting design that is “blind to the gender and color,” says Millado. Buencamino’s talent is exceptional, no questions asked. But the natural softness of her physical attributes and vocal quality made Mabini appear too weak and a bit too miserable. During the show we watched, it also seemed like her voice was being pushed to its limit.
While Ferrer did a great job in creating Aguinaldo to signify toughness and manliness, and his deep and dense vocals suited his part, the portrayal seemed to be too kind for Aguinaldo. The ilustrados from the Paterno clique also seemed less evil because of the kind of music they were given.
JGL: Millado said that “the idea of casting a female actor to play Mabini came as a response to a music design problem.” But placing a soft voice, in this case, a woman’s voice for Mabini, failed to create that desired balance between serenity and strength. Sure, there were flashes of strength; sure, Buencamino presented Mabini as a dignified person. But it was a soft Mabini that was always affected by his incapacities.
And when Mabini and Aguinaldo got into an argument, it sounded more like a tense discussion between lovers than a straight-up political debate. And when Aguinaldo carried Mabini to his duyan? They looked like a couple about to go their separate ways.
GBF: The Mabining Mandirigma press release promised “a highly-charged musical that will take the audience to a different journey through history. Steampunk <…> provides a fitting backdrop to an already action-packed musical.”
The selfie generation took the bait, buying a ticket because they wanted to see a steampunk female Apolinario Mabini, walking with her new pair of mechanical legs made of recycled wood, brass, cogs, and bronze. They expected a different journey, a riveting alternate history.
I was one of them, and I went home disappointed.
JGL: It was confusing, to say the least. The use of steampunk did little to bridge the past to the present, probably because steampunk is not the appropriate genre for contemporizing historical events.
The bigger trouble was that in an effort to modernize the story of Mabini, this musical lost its identity. It failed to live up to its promise that it would destroy the false ideas about Mabini. There was no conviction or assertion here that this is the Mabini that the Filipino youth have been looking for.
Or are they saying that the Mabini in Mabining Mandirigma the real Apolinario Mabini?
If that is so, then it is just sad, because Buencamino’s Mabini is strikingly weak, and that has nothing to do with Buencamino, who is a brilliant actor, singer and dancer. It just seemed like the production sacrificed the portrayal of a stronger Mabini, for musicality.
PG: The anachronistic stage design created by Imao along with the wardrobe design of James Reyes magnified the steampunk vibe on stage. Yes, it may have added a different flavor, but the problem is that it killed the very potential of the supposedly powerful narrative. Using steampunk on a Filipino piece like Mabining Mandirigma seemed to bastardize and debase the purpose itself of the musical. It would have touched viewers more if they portrayed the characters and the events realistically, as it should be.
GBF: If it was just a plain musical sans steampunk, that focused on historical accuracy and emphatic delivery, we would have been convinced that Mabini, the First Modern Filipino, was too great a legal luminary, statesman, intellectual, and nationalist to be snubbed on his 151st birth anniversary.
JGL: So was Mabining Mandirigma worth watching? Definitely. Despite all the issues and glitches, including the presence and absence of steampunk, the unintelligible lines that were forcibly put together, the altered image of Aguinaldo, the weakness of the musical’s Mabini, or the seeming disrespect for a serious theme, it is a must watch because of its effort to enlighten the Filipino youth.
PG: If the purpose of using steampunk was to get the youth interested, if the comedy and selfie in the middle of the play was about raising awareness, then this was a worthy effort.
Mabining Mandirigma was successful in delivering its message to its target audience — to the millennials and younger – that it is better to live with less power but with pure intentions, than to live a strong life filled with greed and a thirst for power. It is better to die with dignity and then to die with much regret.
GBF: Tiongson’s Mabining Mandirigma had a steampunk promise they didn’t deliver on, because of pomp and vanity. It might also be that Millado was confused about what to prioritize: quality or marketability?
In that sense, one also can’t help but ask: was this really an Imao exhibition dressed as a steampunk musical?