Nick Pichay translates Tony Mabesa's swan song 'Fuente Ovejuna'

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Nov 13 2019 05:48 PM

Nick Pichay translates Tony Mabesa's swan song 'Fuente Ovejuna' 1
Nick Pichay with his mentor and friend, Tony Mabesa. Photo by Nick Pichay. 

MANILA -- While doing the translation for "Fuente Ovejuna" earlier this year, Nick Pichay was unaware that what would transpire in the next few months would affect his and the lives of people who were honed, nurtured in and still come back to perform with Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas. 

As we all know, "Fuente Ovejuna" became the legendary Tony Mabesa's final directorial work for the premier university-based theater group which Mabesa also founded in 1976.

"Nobody could have known it would be his last play. Regardless, I’m honored that Sir Tony asked me to translate this play. I feel closer to him. Death colors this last collaboration, giving it more meaning and poignancy," Pichay told ABS-CBN News in a recent online chat.

To think, Pichay was under the weather when he was given a deadline to finish the translation. 

"I had a terrible flu the week he wanted Act 1 finished. I thought he’d give it to another person to do because he had a schedule to keep. I would have understood. But he said to me: 'Take your time. Rest and don’t worry about the play.' That gave me the imperative to finish the translation on time," Pichay recalled.

It's a delicate matter to translate or adapt a literary work. It's not for everyone. Pichay knows this by heart and despite being one of the most awarded, staged, sought-after veteran poet-playwrights, he made sure that he gets every word right. 

"I translated 'Fuente Ovejuna' for a month," Pichay said. 

The play opened last weekend with five performances using the Filipino translation. 

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Nick Pichay reading his eulogy during the tribute night for the late Dulaang UP founder at Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater. Totel V. de Jesus

This early, Pichay's work has earned admiration from critics. One is from ABS-CBN News contributing film-theater reviewer and Gawad Buhay Awards jury member Fred Hawson. In his blog, he wrote: "The language used was ornate and appropriate to its period. However, the language remained to be engaging, easy to follow and enjoyable to listen to."

"The words slipped off the actors' tongues with ease and we as audience felt ease that as well. There was a light-hearted and even amusing lilt to the tone of the whole play, despite all the violence of the proceedings. Even if the mood did take a more serious turn after the intermission, the chosen words of Pichay remained musical to the ears," Hawson added. 

It's not the first time Pichay did translations for the prolific Filipino master. Like most aspiring actors, playwrights, directors, lighting designers, stage designers and everyone who became "Tony (Mabesa)" awardees, Pichay's collaboration with Mabesa started during his teenage years.

"Na-discover ako ni Sir Tony noong freshman lang ako. Pina-translate niya ang 'Peer Gynt,' obra maestra ni Henrik Ibsen. Parts I and 2. May berso. Nakakaloka! Pero nagawa ko. Simula noon, parati niya akong hinihikayat na magsalin ng mga dula para sa kanya. Ilan dito ang 'The Country Wife' and 'King Lear.' Dinerek rin niya ang ilan kong mga dula," Pichay said. 


A lawyer by profession but a playwright-poet-literary writer in heart and soul, Pichay as translator was happy to have discovered in "Fuente Ovejuna" a gem of a material. Many don't get that very often, given the original play was written, published and staged in Spain in the 1600s. 

"Lope de Vega is the Shakespeare of Spain," said Pichay. 

De Vega is regarded the founder of the comedia and Spanish professional theater. Having written 1,500 plays, he is also considered one of the most prolific playwrights in world literature. "Fuente Ovejuna" is one of his 470 surviving manuscripts.

"The first known publication of the play is 1619. It must have been written between the years 1612-1614. The play is about a community coming together to depose a despot. And it is based on real events!" said Pichay.

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A scene from "Fuente Ovejuna." Photo by Steven Tansiongco, courtesy of Dulaang UP

Based on historical records, the actual event on which De Vega based his play took place in a village called Fuente Ovejuna in Cordoba province in Andalusia, Spain, sometime in April 1476. It's even nearly half-a-century earlier than the discovery of Las Islas Filipinas in 1521.

The play is about the uprising of villagers against their feudal overlord, the misogynist, sex-crazed Commendador Fernan Gomez De Guzman. 

The impression of being "outdated" is farfetched as its relevance still rings true in the present, not only in the Philippines but anywhere in the world where dictators, despots and power-crazed leaders thrive. 

"Nothing can be more relevant in the context of the despots in our lives. But more amazing is how Lope de Vega argues on the themes of love and honor; women and self-determination; oppression and revolution, as if he were a 20th century man," Pichay said. 

"The dramatic structure is solid. The text is, in parts, regal, funny, full of pathos, and intelligent. And Sir Tony Mabesa directed it with a classic and timeless kind of picturization and blocking highlighting the text and challenging each actor’s capacity to sustain character in delivering monologues; and evoking relationships by mere gestures," he added.


Asked about the choice of actors, Pichay has good words for the entire team.

"Sir Tony is a master at casting actors. He has always had the knack of knowing who to cast. 'Fuente Ovejuna’s' actors are the best. Leo Rialp and Carlo Torabal are fantastic. Allan Palileo, Francis Mata, Bong Antonio, Ernesto Cayabyab, Brian Arda — they’re veterans and are electric on stage. Ross Pesigan is a heartthrob and a joy to watch. George de Jesus and Adriana Agcaoili are show-stoppers in their royal garb. The Dulaang UP Ensemble embody the soul of 'Fuente Ovejuna' as a community," he said. 

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A scene from "Fuente Ovejuna" with George de Jesus III as King Ferdinand of Aragon and Adriana Agcaoli as Queen Isabela of Castille. Photo by Steven Tansiongco, courtesy of Dulaang UP

"The design team for this play are top of their field and they were all out in this production. Eric Pineda’s well researched costumes and Shax Siasoco’s lighting design are masterclasses, I tell you. Jethro Joaquin’s sound design is a sensurround experience!" Pichay added.

DUP artistic director Banaue Miclat-Janssen continued the work from where Mabesa has left off. In an earlier report on ABS-CBN News, she said Mabesa has finished the play's blocking, and was able to give instructions about the set, lights and music before he died.

So why would people brave weekend traffic to go to Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater at the UP Palma Hall and catch both the Filipino and English versions of the play?

"In a seemingly dark era in our country’s life, this 'Fuente Ovejuna' production might remind us of how powerful we can be as a community standing together against the many tyrants of our times," Pichay said. 

And in the unwritten history of DUP, "Fuente Ovejuna" will always be remembered as Pichay's final collaboration with his mentor and loving friend, his sendoff to one of the greatest pillars of contemporary Philippine theater. 

"Fuente Ovejuna" runs all weekends until December 1.