Review: Desiderio's triumphant theater comeback

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Feb 17 2013 12:34 PM | Updated as of Feb 18 2013 10:02 PM

Jenine Desiderio as the half-snake Oryol and Myke Salomon as the hero Handyong in a scene from Tanghalang Pilipino's "Ibalong." Photo by Erik Liongoren

MANILA, Philippines -- Actress-singer Jenine Desiderio reminds Filipino theatergoers of her vast talent that brought her to London's West End in Tanghalang Pilipino's latest production, an original Filipino musical based on the Bicolano epic "Ibalong."

"Ibalong" is undoubtedly her biggest career achievement since returning to the Philippines after a stint in the international hit musical "Miss Saigon."

As Oryol, the half-snake whose mythical world populated by monsters and wild creatured, is conquered and "developed" by man, Desiderio not only has to perform composer Carol Bello's neo-ethnic chants which are far from the standard musical theater style, she also has to fully embody her repulsive animal character and make her, at the very least, sympathetic to the audience.

Playwright Rody Vera made Oryol the central figure in this stage adaptation, as she essentially narrates the epic of how man ravaged their kingdom in the name of development and their constant battles for the land.

In fact, when the hero Handyong is first introduced as a teen warrior, he is pictured as arrogant and ambitious, qualities that he carried with him when he grows up. Indeed, Handyong's ambitions proved to be fatal when he dared to extend his conquest to the heavens.

Desiderio's commitment and determination to the role is highly commendable. Oryol is a demanding character as she is constantly evolving -- from fierce, wild creature and sly temptress to broken daughter, when her father Aswang dies, and desperate leader of the underworld, which forces her to surrender, cut her tail and marry Handyong in an attempt to save her "people."

But Desiderio's complex performance isn't the only winning element in this production but more like the extra topping to an already enchanting musical.

Visually arresting

 May Bayot, Jonathan Tadioan and Trixie Esteban in a scene from Tanghalang Pilipino's "Ibalong." Photo by Erik Liongoren

Director Tuxqs Rutaquio brings together the individual visions of the creative staff to create a visually arresting, unmistakably Filipino piece of theater. From the opening scene of a serpent's tail rustling a curtain of grass to the rise of a back-lit cloth to create a stylized representation of the Mayon Volcano, Rutaquio brings imaginative wonder to the stage.

There are plenty of things to gawk at in this production. Designer Leeroy New fashioned stunning and elaborate costumes for the mythical creatures that incorporate comic and even futuristic elements while staying true to theater. Oryol's long tail, for instance, is manipulated by two puppeteers much like in traditional Chinese dragon dances.

Katsch Catoy's effective lighting not only dramatically sets the mood and highlights the textural complexity of the costumes. In the battle scenes, all the elements -- from Bello's propulsive rhythms to Alden Lugnasin's athletic cherography -- are so in tune with each other without being overly busy.

Bello's music, which incorporates electronica with ethnic instrumentation, shows more range. The ballads, in particular, are hypnotic and allows the singing talent to shine.

Breakthrough performance

Cheeno Macaraig (center) and the chorus in a scene from Tanghalang Pilipino's "Ibalong." Photo by Erik Liongoren

Apart from Desiderio, Myke Salomon, a member of the group Sabado Boys, also lends a pop polish to "Ibalong." And just like his co-star, Salomon also gives his most accomplished performance in his theater career.

May Bayot as the goddess of the heavens Gugurang and Jonathan Tadioan as Oryol's father make the most of their solos, while the Actor's Company provide an energetic ensemble support to the two lead stars.

"Ibalong" should also be remembered for young actor Cheeno Macaraig's breakthrough performance. As the young Handyong (and later his son, Makusog), Macaraig has a natural command of the stage and his movements in the swordplay to the acrobatics have a confidence -- even arrogance -- that is rare given his youth.

With "Ibalong," Tanghalang Pilipino has added yet another future staple for the company that could be staged again and again for many years to come.

“Ibalong” runs at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines until March 3.