Theater review: 'Mabining Mandirigma' is back and more relevant than ever

Jeeves de Veyra

Posted at Aug 23 2019 06:39 AM

Aguinaldo is stuck between Mabini and the constitutional committee. Jeeves de Veyra

MANILA -- "Mabining Mandirigma" returns to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in this fourth staging of the multi-awarded musical to kick off Tanghalang Pilipino’s 33rd theater season.

First staged in 2015, the musical chronicles Philippine history through the eyes of Apolinario Mabini -- the tumultuous baby steps of independence of the Philippine republic to the creation of the Malolos Constitution, Mabini’s appointment as the first prime minister of the Philippines, to the Filipino-American War, to Mabini’s exile in Guam, and his eventual return to the Philippines.

"Mabining Mandirigma" transforms the Little Theater into a time machine. As the house lights go out, the set comes alive as gears whir, steam comes out from all over the place, and we are given flashbacks showing significant moments in Philippine history. When the smoke clears, the we find ourselves in Kawit, Cavite shortly after the declaration of Philippine independence from Spanish rule in 1898.

We witness the first meeting of Emilio Aguinaldo and Mabini, who tells the new president about his “El Verdadero Dekalogo” and “Ordenensas De La Revolucion” – his thoughts on the philosophy and the organization of the fledgling government. Impressed by Mabini’s intelligence, Aguinaldo immediately recruits him as his adviser.

We see many sides of the hero: the intellectualism as Mabini advises Aguinaldo as part of his closest advisers; the stubbornness as he tries to rein in the new Congress dangerously playing with newfound powers and freedom; his frustration as he and Aguinaldo disagree over what to do with the new congress and the Americans; the affectionate side as he eventually sees his loyal aide-de-camp, Pepe, as an adopted son; the world weariness as all his efforts and discussion with the Americans come to naught; and the hope when he returns to a new Philippines under American rule realizing there are still Filipinos fighting for true independence.

Monique Wilson plays Apolinorio Mabini. Jeeves de Veyra

In a case of art imitating life, Monique Wilson takes a break from being an activist out on the streets to being an activist on the stage. Known for being an icon of the Philippine feminist movement Manila in through her theater group, the New Voice Company, she is now very active in Gabriela, supporting women’s causes. She’s every bit the firebrand in her portrayal of Mabini. This role was made more challenging as Wilson was confined to just using her face and voice to portray the whole range of emotion needed for the play as she was in a wheelchair all throughout.

The character of Mabini was really intended to stand out. As explained in a post-show Q&A, this play was not initially intended as a musical. And when it became a musical, Mabini had to soar above a predominantly male cast. But there are other ways the character stands out, as Mabini is the only one dressed in pure white while everybody else is are in greys, blacks and browns.

Arman Ferrer is a commanding presence on stage due to his stature, made even more movie-star leading man with his military uniform. The first president of the republic was given even more power by casting a classical singer and Ferrer’s rich tenor just reverberates throughout the theater when he sings one of his many solos.

Pepe raps about the elitism of the ilustrados. Jeeves de Veyra

Pepe, Mabini’s assistant, is given much levity by Paw Castillo. Always on the sidelines and behind Mabini’s wheelchair, Pepe transitions from a mere assistant, to a mentee, and to a sort of adopted son. Castillo gets to let loose in an all-new rap sequence in this run as Mabini and Pepe make fun of the ilustrados' snobbery and elitism in one of the funnier sequences of the musical.

"Mabining Mandirigma" was billed as a steampunk musical. It does pass with the aesthetic of brass, copper and rust. The set is dominated by huge gears with a large circular screen at the back often showing sepia pictures and backgrounds. It is used to show the breach between the poor and the “ilustrados,” the latter being garishly dressed in blacks and metallic accessories, while the rest are dressed plainly. Since part of steampunk is imagining what current technology would look like and function, watch out for 21st century gadgets showing up for laughs.

Nicanor Tiongson’s award-winning book and Joel Balsamo’s music does match the scenes, going from vaudeville to military marches, and even rap. The words in the book are in deep lyrical Filipino and I thought it was admirable how they were able to set super poly-syllabic words to music.

There are breakout numbers meant to shock the audience, ranging from the surreal to the downright bizarre. One such number was a caricature-ish lady liberty played with much aplomb by Meynard Penalosa, his towering frame dressed in a cancan outfit, singing a bastardized version of “Battle Hym of the Republic.”

Mabini gets his wings in a delirious dream. Jeeves de Veyra

Another sequence revolved around Mabini’s delirious dream as he was imprisoned by the Americans, a musical within the musical lit only by flashlights on stage, giving it an eerie and surreal effect.

I also liked the way the ilustrados who drafted the first constitution were portrayed as clowns -- truly a reflection of today’s sad reality -- as they attempt to pass self-serving articles in the new constitution and attempt to concentrate power all to themselves, failing to do so at the wit and nationalism of a headstrong Mabini.

Even the association to power is not spared as the production showed what ridiculous extent people would do to rub shoulders and be included in photos with Aguinaldo at the ratification of the new constitution.

Mabini speaks straight Filipino to a Valley Girl version of General Franklin H. Bell. Jeeves de Veyra

In one of the later sequences, Mabini has heated discussions with the American political figures of that era, William Howard Taft, General J. Franklin Bell, General Douglas Macarthur -- all played by women with exaggerated American Valley Girl accents. While Mabini spoke in straight Filipino, it gave the impression that the Americans were not taking the Filipinos seriously as the background characters were mocking the steadfast Mabini.

The musical ends with the cast talking about the fates of the various characters at the end. A powerful moment was when the cast started talking about the parallels of Mabini’s time and now, particularly about new ills and threats to our country’s sovereignty.

"Mabining Mandirigma" is an essential work that I think is more relevant now than when it was first staged. The epilogue has the cast come forward in contemporary clothes and minces no words as to the current cancer infecting the country making that point that nothing much has changed.

The after-party of the Malolos Congress. Jeeves de Veyra

It is sad, depressing, and frustrating that the problems that plagued the Filipino back then have been reincarnated into the same problems right now. One particularly striking scene is when a glib Mabini observed that it was child’s play to distract Filipinos from important matters at hand. It’s the same thing now with the same cast of characters but with much deadlier weapons of mass distraction.

Paralysis comes in many forms. As Mabini was paralyzed by polio, the voices that matter are being paralyzed with fear and intimidation. As Mabini stood up to speak for the true freedom and true independence, "Mabining Mandirigma" reminds us, so should we.

The cast at curtain call. Jeeves de Veyra

Tanghalang Pilipino’s production of "Mabining Mandirigma" will run until September 1 at the CCP Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino.