The way we’re introduced to a performance should tell the audience all they need to know about the ensuing story. It’s the first heart beat in a flourishing sequence, if you will.
The first beat in Floy Quintos’ The Kundiman Party opens on a dark room. Slowly, the stage lights and the haunting melody of Antoinette’s (Miah Canton) song creep upon the collective senses of the viewers. Led down a path like children grasping at shadows, we spend the first few moments focusing on this new specter. We try to find significance in her flowing skirt and decipher the puzzle of her features. It’s only when we’ve adjusted to the sight, when we’ve reached this meticulous crescendo prepared by director Dexter M. Santos, that we’re able to distinguish the way she lingers on her notes. Then, the love songs – the kundiman – she performs shines through as the clear bleeding heart of the show.
Questioning the role of traditional kundiman in modern political propaganda is central to the play’s thesis. But, upon a day’s worth of consideration, that seems to only be the first layer of its role in this postmodernist spectacle. The kundiman, when placed within the context of Bobby (Boo Gabunada) and Maestra Adela’s (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino) differences, raises further questions. Is there a place for art and tradition in modernity? Can high art rouse populist sentiment? Can we bridge the gap of understanding between the privileged bourgeois and the masses? And – when you distill it even further – is there a proper way to be patriotic?
A Story of Relevance
The complexity of the kundiman’s role within the story is enough to consider it a separate entity, an extra character, on its own. But that’s not to say the play ever lacked interesting story beats to keep it going.
Canton’s Antoinette starts as a sweet girl with ambition and the drive. With her own savings, she enrolls as a student of the distinguished Adela and her favored pianist, Ludwig (Gabriel Paguirigan). Antoinette is immediately likeable for her bubbly personality, the polite way she interacts with the trio of titas that are Adela’s friends and former students, and the way she blushes when conversation turns to her suitor.
The only problem is that Antoinette’s living within a bubble. Happy though it is, she’s detached from the tumultuous world outside, but relatively safe thanks to her middle class status. The closed set of Adela’s living room that the characters act in emphasizes this fact. It works to remind the audience that they’re still in their own world even as they explore the furthest reach of social media activism.
So, when the plot inevitably pivots toward the political and when the salvo starts, Antoinette, like Adela before her, has to make a sacrifice. She gets relegated to the side as both mouthpiece for the values of the kundiman and stand-in for the audience. She allows us to feel the breadth and depth of loss while keeping a safe distance from the actual danger.
Antoinette isn’t the only character that serves a dual purpose as an analogy or placeholder though. There is enough material for the cast to play them as complex and compelling individuals. Yet, they’re enshrouded by a sense of ambiguity that also allows them to be recognizable as people the audience might know personally. This, coupled with the by-the-second relevance and urgency of the dialogue (at one point, someone mockingly asks “What kind of senate is it?” as reference to the recent senatorial elections) results in the unique feeling of having had the same conversation in real life.
The trio of titas and Adela introduce a range of narratives from the middle class. There’s Mitch (Missy Maramara), young at heart and charismatic, with a pragmatic stance resulting from her experiences. Helen (Stella Cañete-Mendoza) is timid and compassionate. She has a soft heart that understandably falters once thrown out of her depths. Mayen (Frances Makil-Ignacio) is passionate but careful. While reasonable, she still feels like the type to come up with conspiracy theories. And then there’s Adela, strong but weary, apolitical and comfortable in her self-isolation.
Playing against them is Bobby. By Gabunada’s acting or the character’s own unwavering personality, he manages to dominate the scene from his introduction. He builds a pattern that, once its broken in the confrontation with his father, adds power to the whiplash of his sudden submissiveness. Nonie Buencamino plays the role of his father, Juancho Valderama. Mayen’s continuously divisive dialogue, coupled with Buencamino’s portrayal, lays the groundwork for an almost sympathetic figure. He’s mean from machismo, but it’s almost understandable as he’s a part of a bygone era.
If there is any fault to find, it would be in the odd source of some of the humor. For a story that explores the height of social awareness, pulling laughter from the sassy quips of a token gay character feels a bit like leaning on a cheap trope.
Otherwise, there is a constant tension between the safety and security of indifference and the very real danger of speaking against the injustices of a powerful and powerfully backed government. This tension makes the more serious beats of the story feel realistic and electric. Surely, there was a part – when they turned the lights off to emphasize the angry shouts of a mob – when the fear was palpable.
The play is certain in what it considers as bad actions. Though even as it presents only one side of the political argument, the narratives that drive the individual characters make it harder to pinpoint who’s not doing enough for the nation. But, during a time when it’s easy to call someone as either woke or broke/pa-woke, maybe that added plurality is necessary.
It’s up to the audience to decide for themselves what’s within the scope of justifiable actions. You can catch The Kundiman Party yourself from May 24-June 2 at the PETA Theater Center.
Tickets: Php 545.45 - Php 1,363.64 Show Dates: May 25 ‘19, May 26 ‘19, May 31 ‘19, Jun 2 ‘19 Venue: PETA Phinma Theatre Running Time: approx 2 hours and 45 minutes (with a 15-minute intermission) Credits: Floy Quintos (playwright), Dexter M. Santos (director), Mitoy Sta. Ana (production designer), Krina Cayabyab (musical designer), Meliton Roxas (lighting designer), Nour Houshmand (assistant director), Io Balanon (technical director), and Steven Tansiongco (video & graphics designer) Cast: Rica Nepomuceno, Gabriel Paguirigan, Stella Cañete-Mendoza, Miah Canton, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Missy Maramara, Nonie Buencamino, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Jenny Jamora, Boo Gabunada Company: UP Playwrights Theatre