REVIEW: ‘Batang Rizal’ redefines heroism for a new generation
The Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (PETA) Batang Rizal, which will be streaming via Video on Demand mid-October, is a fresh, wide-eyed, optimistic take on what heroism can mean for today’s generation. Based on the book by Christine Bellen and co-written and stage-directed by Dudz Teraña, it connects Gen-Z with all their trials, tribulations, and triumphs with a figure they’ve known only through history books: our National Hero Jose Rizal. But in this musical, time travel is used to make the titular teenager more relatable and more human to his 21st-century counterparts. Through the eyes of Pepito (Tim Mabalot), a high school kid blamed for the possible closure of his school, Pepe aka the young Rizal (Yhuan Gatbunton) becomes more than just a name of a street or a face on a coin.
The musical actually answers its own unspoken question woven throughout the text: are the heroes our young people read about in their history books still relevant to them? If so, how?
First, all the foibles of modern-day Philippine society are already seen in the very first scenes, mixed with PETA’s trademark humor, sardonic wit, and firm grasp of our homegrown realities. The poor state of education, opportunistic politicians and possible corruption, lack of jobs and opportunities, and family poverty are immediately recognizable. The company’s acting ensemble, from its adolescent actors to the few mature performers (e.g. Teetin Villanueva), plays all these scenarios with the ease and camaraderie built over years of performing together.
Another highlight of the show is the culture clash or dissonance experienced by the two lead characters. Done wrongly, the transition into another era or time can come across as anachronistic, forced, or simply disorienting. But the performances and the direction in this musical make it natural, with the script showing off the not-so-subtle changes in language, manners, and traditional family roles that have happened over more than 200 years.
The narrative is also pretty straightforward, and one gets this sense that this latest iteration of the original music has already been fine-tuned. Since its premiere in 2007, excesses would have been removed and all punchlines delivered to near-perfection. For two hours, the play moves at a brisk pace. The audience never gets lost in all the time-jumping. Neither does Pepito who remarkably takes being transported to Rizal’s time all in stride.
What does get awkward and unwieldy is when the other kids, Pepito’s classmates, break into the 19th century unexpectedly. Granted that their sudden appearances are either illustrations or allusions to the present time to show a certain principle or lesson. Still, these instances can be a bit jarring. Watching this face-to-face or on a real stage might have made the transition seamless with the proper lighting and technicalities. However, on video streaming, despite the crisp editing, the emotional and temporal nuances and distinctions that the actual stage elements could have done are not properly distinguished.
What does come across is the powerful yet understated performance of Gatbunton as the young Rizal. He is played as the proper, saintly teen genius in our textbooks. But the earnestness, wide-eyed wonder, and bit of mischief infused into the character stop him from being elevated into an unapproachable pedestal. And when he delivers lines like he knows he is meant for a bigger destiny, the emotional punch that comes in knowing the price that he has to pay for its fulfillment still resonates.
Pepito and Pepe do connect. While one is a typical Pinoy kid and the other is a historical hero in the making, they and the audience discover their similarities. Family values, empathy for one’s neighbors (or classmates), the passion for justice awakened at a young age, and ultimately love for country are explored without being preachy or sanctimonious.
Heroism, says the play, can be a journey of self-discovery. And while it can cost—and in the adult Rizal’s case, exact the ultimate price—it can be a fun trip worth taking.
TICKETS: P200 on Video On Demand SHOW DATES: October 14- 16 via stream RUNNING TIME: 2 hours CREDITS: Director, co-writer (based on Christine Bellen’s Batang Rizal). Choreographer: Dudz Teraña. Musical direction, arrangement, composition: Vincent de Jesus. CAST: Tim Mabalot (Pepito), Yhuan Gatbunton (Pepe), Gold Villar-Lim (Ma’am Tangolang / Donya Lolay), Norbs Portales III (Mayor Rapcu/Paciano), Carlon Matobato (Manuel/ Berdugo/ Taumbayan), John Emmanoel Moran (Raffy/ Prayle/ Guardia Civil), Teetin Villanueva (Ela/ Taumbayan), Jovy Vieja (Chiqui/ Neneng/ Taumbayan), Raven Relavo (Bambam/ Maria), and Marynor Madamesila (Kaye/Sisa) COMPANY: Philippine Educational Theater Association