Towards the third phase of the Philippine revolution, theater was an inextricable part of the resistance. Aurelio Tolentino and his contemporaries dared to stage productions that literally landed them in jail. Theater was dangerous then—both for the seditious artists and the establishment it fought against. The possibility that art could help topple regimes is exhilarating, and Aurelio’s life ought to be the tale that is told and retold in the medium that he used as his pistol.
His story is not often recounted, and Tanghalang Pilipino attempted to rectify this oversight with “Aurelio Sedisyoso”, a rock sarswela billed as a sequel to steampunk musical, “Mabining Mandirigma”. The artistic pedigree behind this musical is off the charts; the kind of people who need no introductions. The book and lyrics are by Nicanor Tiongson, music and composition by Joed Balsamo, choreography by Denisa Reyes, and direction by no less than Chris Millado, with Manny Pambid as dramaturg.
But it seems too many cooks have spoiled the broth.
From the beginning, “Aurelio Sedisyoso” was overwhelming. The theater was inverted, where the audiences were set up on bleachers and monoblocs on stage while the set (by Toym Imao) was built into the audience section. This inversion is the first of many symbolisms throughout the experience. Aurelio Tolentino lived and died by the stage, and I suppose situating the audience on stage was to give us a little taste of that sensation, but the most profound effect it had was on the show’s acoustics—it was too loud and most of the time, incomprehensible.
Imao’s set is suspended pathways connecting into a wide wooden ramp that starts from the back of the theater and ends upstage. There were candlelit statues peppered around the set that gives the impression of a graveyard or perhaps something dark and dystopian. Often, lighting (by Katsch Catoy) and projections (by G.A. Fallarme) would muddle the already too busy set adding even more unnecessary visual stimulus.
The costumes (by James Reyes) were combinations of 19th century local garb and hip, modern androgyny. Reyes’s choreography is as out of its own time as the show’s technicals. Most baffling were specific gestures Tolentino and his actors and comrades would perform in way of greeting. Every aspect of the show tells the audience that they’re watching a rock sarswela—just in case we didn’t notice.
The show also features plenty of songs that cross genres from ballads to rock to hiphop. An energetic number featuring Tolentino’s actors company singing about love and courtship was easily one of its best, as was another where Tolentino (David Ezra) sang about his love for the stage. Curiously, both these songs (and plenty others) didn’t move the plot along, stalling the show’s plot.
The narrative is also bloated by theatrics that sinks its central story still further. The introduction of Tikbalang (Jonathan Tadioan)—an allegorical character for Big Bad America—and his partner gave the show plenty of ways to elicit easy laughs and gimmicks. Act 1 closes with Tadioan—as an incarnation of Lady Liberty—clad in a silk dress sliding through the stage in a giant horse off a carousel, an act 2 scene has his assistant donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress. Never mind that this story predates her by a couple of decades.
David Ezra’s performance keeps the show from going completely off course. He is well-cast as our serious, straight-shooting hero. His magnetism, impressive singing, and sheer stamina was the sobering presence that anchors the audience back to why this musical exists in the first place: Aurelio.
The show is, to its credit, full of great performances. Tadioan’s take on Tikbalang was a good foil against Ezra’s Tolentino. (It must be noted that the role was supposed to be played by film actor Baron Geisler, with JV Ibesate as understudy—neither performed the role on opening night.) Hazel Maranan’s Saling was beautifully emotional and aggrieved over her husband’s sedition. Phi Palmos, Blanche Buhia, Paw Castillo, and Aldo Vencilao were also excellent in their featured roles.
Overall, Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Aurelio Sedisyoso” was too much style, and not enough substance, with all its many aspects clashing to dominate over each other. We were supposed to be learning about the man above anything else. This was the show’s most grievous error: burying the fascinating tale of Tolentino’s life—one that was filled with art, heroism, and love for the Filipino—that should have, would have stood on its own.