Revisiting the ‘kundiman’
It is a tribute to the compelling power of “The Kundiman Party” that once the lights dimmed onstage, I wanted to rush out and search for a CD of the most famous “kundiman,” or else search Google for any mention of this beloved Pinoy art form.
It wasn’t too long ago that one could still hear a kundiman on TV, whether from Diomedes Maturan, Sylvia La Torre, or Pepe Pimentel on a talent show, or Armida Siguion Reyna and her artist-guests in her heroic attempt to perpetuate Filipino music in “Aawitan Kita.” But those days are decades in the past, so hearing the kundiman sung onstage at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater at UP was a jolt to the senses, an electric recall of one’s childhood spent before the black-and-white family TV set charmed by the melodies and the ardent passion expressed in song — even if, being a child, the sentiments were lost on me.
Playwright Floy Quintos describes this latest work (supposedly his “swan song”) as a “love letter” to many recipients. First to the burgis, the Filipino bourgeoisie comfortable in their relative prosperity but ever ready to rise and roil the political waters with protest. They are embodied by The Maestra’s three former students, music lovers all, who find time and energy to join rallies and denounce the oppressive government even if their number is steadily dwindling.
Then there are the Artists, to men and women like Maestra Adela Dolores who cling to the ideals of their chosen art form — the kundiman or Filipino courtship song in her case — and passing these on to the next generation.
But it is also, says Quintos, a love letter to the “Bobbys of this country,” who stand for “the idealistic young leaders who inspire loyalty, dedication and fervor.”
On a personal level, says Quintos, the play is his own love letter to actors with whom he has worked through the years on an oeuvre that is remarkable for the breadth of subject matter and the rapid pace of creation.
The cast of women who make up the core of “The Kundiman Party” cast are some of the best stage actors in the country. They are led by Shamaine Centenera Buencamino, embodying Maestra Adela in both her polished, well-kept form and her more earthy, foul-mouthed persona which she shares only with her three friends.
The Maestra, in all her steely dignity, is set off against her three former students and friends, portrayed by Stella Cañete Mendoza, Missy Maramara (alternate with Jenny Jamora) and Maila Jacob, who together play out three aspects of Manila tita-hood—the constant nurturer, the flirty ex-wife, the fiery organizer —without resorting to cliché or caricature. It is indeed a sign of the play’s integrity that each of these women wins the audience’s sympathy and understanding and shares their fear and nascent anger.
Set as a foil against The Maestra and her three cohorts’ larger-than-life personas is Antoinette (the staging I watched had Arya Herrera in the role), Adela’s current student. Her innocence and vulnerability shine through, but it is her simple vessel that allows the spirit of the kundiman to emerge pure and powerful.
The clash of cultures is embodied by Bobby (Kalil Almonte), Antoinette’s boyfriend, and an emerging “socmed” influencer. It is his arrival in the cozy world whirling around The Maestra that upsets the comfortable order. But while he is able to waken in The Maestra and the Kundiman Club their political awareness and hunger to “sing, remember and resist,” it turns out Bobby himself is conflicted in his loyalties and compromised by his dreams.
Director Dexter Santos, a longtime collaborator of Quintos, manages the play—in all its busy action and levels of meaning—with not just brisk efficiency but also verve and energy.
There are glimpses of the long-ago past, the more recent upheavals and the tragic present in “The Kundiman Party.” It is a tribute to Quintos’ mastery of the form that all three merge and create a scenario that is at once nostalgic and new.
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