A magical playBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The title of the play says it all: “Umaaraw, umuulan: Kinakasal ang Tikbalang,” referring to a folk belief about sun showers—raining even as the sun shines—being a sign that a tikbalang wedding is going on (the tikbalang being a mythological horse-like creature, similar to the Greek centaur and the Indian kinnara).
I was skeptical about UP Playwrights’ Theater being able to stage a grand tikbalang wedding in the tiny Guerrero Theater in UP’s Palma Hall. But as the play unfolded, I realized that the theater’s small size was an asset, perfect for a cozy multimedia theater presentation not just of a tikbalang wedding but of several creatures from Philippine mythology, using shadow puppets, computer graphic arts, traditional and western musical instruments, rap and fliptop (a Filipino modernized version that combines rap and the balagtasan). Mercifully, we were spared Gangnam-style horse dancing.
Besides the tikbalang wedding, there was a tiyanak debut, Spanish (or was it Chavacano?)-speaking hobbits, aswang cooks, a human santelmo (Saint Elmo’s Fire), and a carnival of animals supposed to represent the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, with the ipis (cockroach) thrown in for good measure. There was also an androgynously voluptuous Doña Geronima, who rented out dishes to the enchanted ones when they have parties, and a kapre named Cap, who delivered a moving soliloquy in the final scene.
I would have wanted to acknowledge each actor and actress, each musician and puppeteer, each computer graphic artist and member of the production staff, but that would fill up the entire column. I will name UP Los Baños’ Institute of Computer Science because its participation shows how art and science can converge. Everyone lived up to the high standards set for artistic creativity in UP. Move over, Cirque du Soleil, I told myself halfway through the play.
The play is based on a short story, “The Magic Circle,” by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, about Jepoy and his dog, Galis. Jepoy is the son of a super labandera named Aling Barang (you’ll know why I say super labandera when you watch the play) and he, together with Galis, stray into a kind of Filipino Middle Kingdom. The play, with script by no less than Rody Vera, expands the story by weaving in Jepoy’s search for his father, who disappeared when he was very young.
I’m going to give you some of the details to entice you to watch, if at least to find out how they were able to stage a play with such complicated characters and a convoluted plot. Jepoy grows up stigmatized, with an absent father described as looking like a kapre and his mother as aswang-like. The play takes off from the mother’s washing of gowns and party clothes of a snooty rich woman, with Galis running off with the finest apparel, off into the enchanted kingdom, and Jepoy chasing her.
In the enchanted kingdom, everything is reversed. Galis can talk and dance. Jepoy later becomes a rich kid. Most importantly, the kapre explains that while we fear him and his ilk with our pleas of “Tabi, tabi (Please move aside)” as we move through their terrain, the creatures, too, fear us. The kapre, it turns out, was chased out of Morato Avenue, once known as Sampalok Avenue when it was filled with tamarind trees.
You can see the play isn’t just for entertainment. Returning to the original intention of folk stories, this is a kind of morality play for the 21st century, its advocacy being environmental protection.
Which is why we have to be ever so grateful to Gilda for writing “The Magic Circle.” Or should I say we should be grateful to her nannies? As Gilda explains in a message printed in the program booklet, her father, a product of American colonial education with its emphasis on modernity and scientific thinking, had forbidden the household help from telling stories about the kapre and tikbalang to the children. But that only made the stories more alluring to Gilda, who, being Gilda, did learn about these creatures, and eventually resurrected them in her artwork, in her books, and, in the case of the aswang, even through a rock opera.
I mention all this because I know many Filipino parents do have reservations about these creatures, warning the yaya and other household help not to scare our children with these characters. Many evangelical Christians also see these environmental creatures as real, but more as demonic and satanic ones and actually urge people not to say “Tabi, tabi” but to banish them with a firm “In the name of Jesus Christ” as they walk through unfamiliar environments.
“Umaaraw, umuulan” tells us we can reinvent these creatures. The tikbalang and the aswang were used in the past to scare children into behaving but today, we can recruit them for other purposes. The play wasn’t just about our relationships with the environment but also about how we treat people. Gilda’s short story actually had the aswang cooking vegetarian food, but more than that, a more benign depiction of the aswang, as was done in this play, pushes us to rethink the town (and office) aswang, recognizing them as people who are stigmatized because they are different, not quite as sociable, or perhaps with some physical problem or feature like Jepoy’s mother.
In an amusing twist, when I told my ex-partner about the play, he replied: “Hmm. Knowing you, you probably fed Tita Gilda my life story.” I did no such thing, but you see, his nickname, too, is Jepoy, and he grew up stigmatized because of a deadbeat father. Fortunately, he had a stepfather named Bernardo Carpio, to whom he could run for some comfort, although poor Bernardo had enough problems of his own with his mythological name.
Thanks again to Gilda and Rody for showing what we can do with traditional mythology. We need more of these modern-day adaptations of traditional folklore. Here’s one to start with. I mentioned the kinnara, an Indian half-human, half-horse mythological creature. No, we didn’t import the kinnara to become tikbalang. The kinnara, when it came to Southeast Asia, became half-bird, half-human (usually female). You also see it in Hindu and Buddhist temples throughout the region, as well as on the road leading to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport—a celestial musician to greet you as well as to say goodbye.
Locally, there is a splendid gold kinnara on display in Ayala Museum, unearthed from Surigao. A photograph of it is on the cover of the book “Ancestral Gold.” Why the kinnara was made is something for the imagination, for future books on magic circles, and for more magical plays that should become part of every Filipino childhood, and beyond.
“The Magic Circle” was published as a book and should still be sold at National Bookstore. It was once reprinted in the Inquirer in four parts and is available on the Internet. Tickets for the play are P350 each (P160 for UP students and P200 for senior citizens), available at Guerrero Theater, or call 926-1349 and 433-7840. The last performances are for today at 7 p.m. and during the weekend at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
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