MANILA -- Floy Quintos’s acclaimed play “The Kundiman Party,” which was first staged in 2018 by Dulaang UP, is back, this time at the PETA Theater Center, and it's bolder than ever.
“The Kundiman Party,” which opened Friday, starts in the living room of Maestra Adela (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino). We find her and her acerbic piano virtuoso, Ludwig (Gabriel Paguirigan), teaching a young management trainee, Antoinette (Miah Canton). After a while, Adela’s group of “woke” titas of Manila -- Mitch (Missy Maramara) and Helen (Stella Canete-Mendoza) nd Mayen (Frances Makil-Ignacio) -- stream into the sitting room sweaty and dirty after marching in opposition rallies. We are then introduced to Antoinette’s social media-savvy firebrand suitor, Bobby (Boo Gabunada). He is definitely against the current administration, though we find out through a tita’s Googling that he is the estranged son of a senator.
Bobby gets Maestra Adela to talk about her life and her obsession with the kundiman on video. We learn that Adela had a storied past, once having the Marcoses as her patrons, getting the chance to study and perform abroad because of their patronage. She eventually irreparably injured her throat singing kundimans at rallies leading up to the 1986 People Power Revolution, making the choice between “La Strada or Mendiola.”
Bobby uploads the video to YouTube without Adela’s permission. Adela’s cadre of titas, particularly Mayen, are up in arms. They fear for the grand dame’s reaction to the video, and possible repercussions. Bobby cleverly paints a picture for Adela of a new audience and a new channel to educate the country about the kundimans. Adela agrees on the condition that it is kept as politically neutral. Thus, the Kundiman Party social media campaign is born, starring Adela’s spirited lectures and Antoinette’s passionate singing, with another of Adela’s students, Melissa (Rica Nepomuceno), an accomplished singer who’s trying to rise even higher.
Adela and company, however, suffer the consequences of the rising popularity of the campaign. People get intimidated and hurt, and become deathly afraid. Adela and Bobby must soon make a choice with the ominous appearance of Bobby’s father, Senator Juancho Valderama (Nonie Buencamino).
Applause must be given to the cast who gave life to an otherwise serious subject matter. The actors managed to get much-needed laughter from the audience during the lighter moments and have them in rapt attention during the play's pivotal moments.
Centenera-Buencamino gives Adela strength that extends throughout all her roles in the lives of the people around her -- the strictness of a teacher, the tenderness of a mother, and the intensity of a would-be symbol of the opposition.
Adela’s trio of tech-savvy titas are just adorable. They know what Facebook and YouTube are, and how likes and followers work. They’re funny, raunchy and quirky in their own ways. Canete-Mendoza’s Helen is the less assertive of the three but is happy to give support from the background. There’s a certain anger that Makil-Ignacio gives to Mayen that shows up as protective concern for Adela that borders on paranoia. Maramara adds a socialite sophistication Mitch teetering on the stereotypical yoga-mom. Adela, in contrast, seems to be still adorably clueless when it comes to these trends and the ladies milk a lot of laughs as they bring Adela into the 21st century.
Canton plays Antoinette as a lost ingenue in the beginning. As her Antoinette discovers her role, her singing starts to become more powerful. Her heartfelt and defiant rendition of “Pilipinas Kong Mahal” will give you chills.
Gabunada is known for his loud kinetic portrayals and he does imbue this to the fiery idealistic Bobby. But he also portrays Bobby as an oily Machiavellian manipulator being able to squirm out of situations and get people to do his bidding with words and tone.
I particularly love the dynamic between Buencamino and Gabunada. Gabunada gives a kinetic, know-it-all energy to Bobby throughout the play -- until he meets his father. You can feel the flame gradually being put out as Gabunada’s fire and hatred is slowly extinguished by Buencamino’s words and manner before being doused completely in an explosive moment.
Buencamino plays Senator Villarama, who comes in much later in the play, as the personification of that darkness, the monster today’s nightmares are made of. It’s chilling that Villarama offers the same thing to Adela as his son did earlier to start the Kundiman Party, albeit with much grander stakes and resources. Educated, well-spoken, menacing and manipulative, one sees where Bobby got his puppet-mastering skills. When Buencamino tells his son to “Go to the mountains and choose to fight where it really hurts,” you know that he’s not just talking to Bobby.
Paguirigan is a discovery. Aside from having mad piano skills, his one-liners steal the show from the rest of the cast when he does pipe up. Another performer who grabs attentionwhen she’s on stage is Nepomuceno. As a star seeking relevance, she puts a KSP (kulang sa pansin) quality to the character through her overacting that is just hilarious.
“The Kundiman Party” should be commended for being rooted in today’s reality. Social media, likes, and followers are an integral concept and I thought the production did a shout-out to the similarly social-media centric “Dear Evan Hansen” with its projections of videos and the rising popularity of Adela's presence on the web.
The kundiman itself is given life by Centenera-Buencamino and Canton. These are living, breathing piece of sung-art. The audience is given a crash course on the music of Nicanor Abelardo and Francis Santiago. As Adela puts it, the kundiman is different because of imagery and the role of the singer. In the same way, the kundiman pieces are placed within the narrative to provide additional imagery and emotion.
Shout outs to Ben&Ben, intermittent fasting, Adela telling her “beshies” that she’s “shookt” – there are so many moments and winks to the Philippines of 2019. But while these are nice and light, “The Kundiman Party” isn’t afraid to step into the darkness acknowledging trolls, EJKs and the culture of fear of intimidation.
“The Kundiman Party” joins the current wave of politically aware productions like PETA's own “Charot” and “Game of Trolls.” They are all essential works that deserve to be seen by everyone regardless of political slant.
Those who have seen the first run thought that was more of a cautionary tale of what lies ahead. For this post-election run, it’s more of a mirror of the new normal as the production is brave to give proper names to the side it is speaking out against.
Maestra Adela said that the kundiman can make the listener a braver and nobler person. So, it is with “The Kundiman Party.” You walk out of the theater into the night a little braver, a little nobler, with just a little more hope.
“The Kundiman Party” is on a limited run from May 24 to June 2 at the PETA-PHINMA Theater in Quezon City. Thursday and Friday shows are at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday shows at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.