MANILA -- Perfecting one’s craft is a common saying in many fields under the performing arts but only few practice it like their lives depend on it. For one, it takes years to produce a masterpiece. In the case of playwright-director Pat Valera, this month’s re-staging of “Mula Sa Buwan” has been a product of almost a decade-long journey.
Or make that two centuries.
The germ of the story is from more famous work of 19th century French poet-playwright Edmond Rostand “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Sometime before the end of the 20th century, it was translated into Filipino by the late senator-poet-playwright Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo.
Valera remembered crying after reading Cyrano’s story in high school. As a Theater Arts major at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, he adapted Rodrigo’s version and used it for his college thesis. This time he modified the story. He transformed the setting in the Philippines circa 1940s before the World War II broke out up to the liberation era. He wrote the libretto and with the help of his friend William Elvin Manzano in crafting the music, they came up with a sarswela. Valera was also director.
Its earlier version was titled “Cyrano: Isang Sarswela,” staged on December 4 to 7, 2010, at the Dizon Auditorium of the University of Asia and the Pacific by Dulaang ROC and Talinhaga Theatre Collaborative. After each performance, it was common to see some members of the audience, ironically males, who couldn’t leave their seats. They were so affected they were in tears and being comforted by their female companions.
There was a clamor for a rerun so from February 17 to 20, 2011, “Cyrano” was re-staged at the GSIS Theater in Pasay City by Dulaang Laboratoryo. Then the sole Philippine Daily Inquirer theater critic Gibbs Cadiz was able to catch one of the runs and described it as “one of the best adaptations…raucous, eloquent, melodic.”
Obviously, Valera is not the type who rushes his work for the sake of staging it and moving on to his next project, just because he has a deadline for himself. Valera let the work grow in and with him. After countless revisions that took almost five years and this time with the title, “Mula Sa Buwan,” it had another limited run from December 4 to 6, 2016, and for two weekends in February 2017. Both were staged by Black Box Collab, Inc. at the bigger 1,131-seat Henry Lee Irwin Theater in Ateneo de Manila University.
The review of ABS-CBN News summarized this observation: “Cyrano will break your heart.”
ACTORS GROWING WITH THEIR CHARACTERS
For the first two runs in 2010 and 2011, Cyrano was played by Nicco Manalo. As early as then, it was Manalo’s portrayal of the charismatic, comic, hopeless romantic lead that stayed in the memory.
In the local theater community, despite its limited runs, Cyrano was Manalo and the character would come out spontaneously like an alter ego. Here, in a video taken and uploaded by actress Teetin Villanueva sometime in 2013, Manalo performed Cyrano’s song of pure longing and devotion to Roxane titled “Ikaw” at a bar.
On Manalo, Valera has these kind words: “Nicco is my kindred. I always say that Nicco is my energy onstage and I don't think I can ever do a play without him (either as my actor or any form of collaborator). Nicco and I have been friends for a long time—traversing insecurities, tragedies, to little rewards, to being wiser, forgiving, accepting. We may fight here and then (as friends should do!) but we always remind each other of who we were and who we can still become.”
In the 2016 and 2017 staging, young up-and-coming theater heartthrob Boo Gabunada came on board as Manalo’s alternate. Roxanne was played by KL Dizon. Christian was essayed by Edward Benosa and Fred Lo.
Before he plunged into theater, Benosa was known for earning Sarah Geronimo’s admiration when he joined "The Voice of the Philippines" in 2013. He has since become a Star Music talent.
“Edward's charm does not only come from his good looks (and certainly he does not rely on it) – it's really from who he is: kind, loving, funny and sincere. Though he's aware of life's sad truths (and he's been through a lot) – he does not let it consume him. And ever since, his Christian exuded that child-like wonder,” said Valera.
“Mula Sa Buwan” opened doors for Gabunada. It was his first major break playing a lead role. From there, he got noticed to be able to play lead role in Dulaang UP's “Bagong Kristo” and most recently, one of the three male leads in Resorts World Manila’s “Ang Huling El Bimbo” musical.
“When we were auditioning actors for the first time, I was not looking for an alternate for Nicco. But here comes this bright-eyed boy but with a voice full of longing. And I took a chance – and so did he,” said Valera.
Gabunada reprises his role in this year’s run. The friendship has also grown between director and actor.
Valera said, “Boo is a generous and honest person, a quality that translates onstage. Experience, of course, has made him a better actor: more resilient, resolute, determined – a better dancer! But because he cradles the same—no—an even growing heart, he's a better person for it. Best people make for best actors.”
There are two new actresses playing Roxanne. One is a fresh face named Cris Go and the other is Gabriela Pangilinan. It was a tough selection process for the lady love role of Cyrano and Christian.
Said Valera: “There were about 60 people who auditioned specifically for the role of Roxane. In the end, it was Gab and Cris. Cris considers this her first musical play. And her lack of time on stage did not deter her. In a span of less than two months, she had to learn the tenets of theater! In a short span, because of hard work, generosity, and openness, she has grown into a daring and audacious actor, a formidable Roxane!”
MYKE AND GAB
For this year’s run, it was an adrenaline shot for Valera to have real-life couple Myke Salomon (as Christian) and Pangilinan joining the cast. For one, Salomon is a big name not only as an actor in landmark productions of major theater organizations but as musical director.
“I've always considered Myke to be part of ‘Mula sa Buwan but... truth be told, I was intimidated of him! Who wouldn't be? Myke has created great works both as actor and musical director. Nevertheless, I mustered the courage to ask him (through friends!) if he would be interested to play the part of Christian. Thankfully, he agreed. And to my surprise, Myke is such friendly, accommodating, and silly (in a very good way) guy. And you see that mix in his work,” Valera said.
Among other roles she played credibly, Pangilinan recently impressed critics when she played one of the conjoined Hilton twins in Atlantis’ “Side Show.”
“A year ago, I had a chance encounter with Gab and from that brief moment, I knew that she could play Roxane. Beyond beauty and technical singing ability, the actors playing Roxane must have a streak of madness and undeniable rage. And I saw that in her—that's why I asked her to audition,” Valera said.
“To be honest, I personally didn't know Myke and Gab before this run of ‘Mula sa Buwan’ – but I'm a fan of their work,” Valera added.
Another major come-on for this run is the inclusion of local theater sensation Phi Palmos, alternating with Ronah Rostata, in playing Cyrano’s friend, Rosanna.
Valera explained: “The character of Rosanna is both a mix of Rageneau, Cyrano's friend who gathers hungry bards in his humble bakery and in one of Cyrano's famous ‘No, thank you speech’– a declaration of his principles. In ‘Mula sa Buwan,’ Rosanna embraces the misfits and dreamers in their cabaret. Ahead of her time, it was fitting that Rosanna be embodied by a strong, determined, enchanting person – never afraid to be her own person.”
“In the past run, Rosanna was played by Ronah Rostata – giving a much-needed representation of female strength and empowerment vis a vis perhaps the romantic ideals of Roxane,” said Valera.
In jest, he added, “And it is no coincidence that her name is Rosanna: Roxane sana!”
“When I first adapted the play, I really intended Rosanna to represent the LGBT community. Now, the light passes through Phi's prism, projecting a marvelous rainbow of defiance. With both Ronah and Phi's take, we find in them the defenders of the disenfranchised and the marginalized shouting proudy: 'Malayang maging ako!'”
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
"Mula Sa Buwan" is Valera’s first major directorial job, followed by "Dekada 70 the musical," which incidentally is his thesis to finish his BA in Theater Arts. At the UP Diliman, he was assistant director in various productions directed by his mentors Anton Juan and Dexter Martinez Santos.
He recalled it was in 2006, when he changed schools, from taking up Management in another university to Theater Arts course in UP Diliman. “Even then, I wanted to be a director. However, I also discovered that I also wanted to be a playwright and a dramaturg (Not so much an actor, because my mind wanders too much),” he said.
For Santos, he served as assistant director and dramaturg (together with Anril Tiatco and Katte Sabate) for “Orosman at Zafira,” which he considered “a Herculean task of adapting Francisco Balagtas' ‘komedya.’” He also functioned as assistant director and dramaturg for Santos in the sarsuwela “Ang Kiri” and the controversial DUP staging of Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu.”
Under Juan, he was either assistant director or dramaturg and co-writer or all of the above for DUP’s “Hinabing Pakpak Ng Ating Mga Anak,” UPPT’s “Dead Stars, 1925 & Sepang Loca,” “Information for Foreigners,” “Three Penny Opera,” and “Madama Butterfly.”
“My experience under Anton truly allowed me view theater and life from a different point-of-view influencing my way not only of direction but also adaptation and playwriting,” he said.
Now after making a considerable mark in the theater community with his two major productions “Mula Sa Buwan” and “Dekada 70,” Valera has some insightful realizations.
“As a director-playwright, it takes me a long time to write and prepare, [it takes] years. To consider, ‘Mula sa Buwan’ in its final version took almost a decade. ‘Dekada 70’ was a possibility I've carrying for more than five years. My other plays took about three to five years until I considered them fit. It's not that I'm a slow worker – I've just become more patient,” Valera told ABS-CBN News.
A playwright-director with an open mind, Valera didn’t dismiss the observations of critics and audience members. It has always been like that since the first run. He also follows feedback from his own actors. Now for this year’s staging, Valera is reassuringly presenting a better work. We asked him the changes he and his collaborators made since the first version in 2010.
“The departure is not only ‘far’ from the Filipino translation but also from the original text. By changing the milieu and age, its already a different kind of love – and life. By exploding Cyrano's scenes to create different characters, it creates other subplots. By plunging them to World War II, the play is not only about love but about kids facing reality – and life's choices. A lot of things, really,” he said.
“Yet, inasmuch as it is far, it is still a continuation of Rostand's story. At the core of all these changes remains the tragic love story of Cyrano, Roxane, and Christian. Perhaps not a breaking apart or disregard of the old but rather a conservation: his characters for this time,” he added.
“With Rodrigo, his translation is just brilliant—his verses, they sing...like a ‘kundiman.’ We've edited, flipped, took inspiration from his translation but hard as we try, we could never change his version of Cyrano's last monologue – but only a word, at the very end.”
“As with my process, I allow my actors and collaborators to contribute to the play—and they did. Script is not just bound by text but also through the body, intentions, and even in the silences. Compared to the last run (2017), I think we get to highlight the message of defiance—to live by your principles and ideals both seen from the age of naiveté to a world confronted,” he said.
“Personally, I get to highlight more the reason why I adapted this play. In the original Cyrano story, Cyrano never relents. In fact, the play ends when he dies! Now, I get to focus more on Cyrano's recognition of a fault, a humility, Roxane's unchaining – ultimately making the play beyond Cyrano but also about all their (ensemble, included) collective desire to go to the moon,” he added.
For the record, this year’s “Mula Sa Buwan” will be a historic run since it is the first theatrical production to be staged at the 800-seat main theater of the Arete in the Ateneo de Manila University from November 9 to 25.
NEW PROJECT OR NEW REVISIONS?
Now that he’s done two, which incidentally are adaptations, it is but time to stage an original. Valera is a Palanca-winning playwright.
“I'm writing a play called ‘Still’. My main collaborator for this play shall be Nar Cabico. So far, it's about friends at 20's edge facing the unspoken truths of friendship, life, and death. I've been writing this play for about four years now? Hopefully, we can preview it by 2019.”
Then again, there’s a possibility that “Mula Sa Buwan” will gather requests for more re-stagings, like a yearly theater habit.
“As the director, I am satisfied with the blocking, the vision. I am satisfied with the music. I am satisfied with the production elements. I am satisfied with the space. As a playwright, I am satisfied with every word uttered. My heart is satisfied. And because I am satisfied, this is the final version of ‘Mula sa Buwan’ – for me,” he said.
“In the future, if the play gets re-staged, it won’t be under my direction. I don't think I can add any more to this production. As my mentor always says: ‘Time to go back to zero.’”