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‘Mabining Mandirigma’ speaks to our times

Still elated over the Department of Education sponsoring the opera “Noli Me Tangere” at the CCP in June, and wishing other government agencies would mount similar events, I was happy to witness the invitational gala night of “Mabining Mandirigma: A Steampunk Musical,” sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Office of Strategic Communications and Research—Cultural Diplomacy Division. (And I was even happier to note, for love of the environment, that the emailed invitation sufficed, with no hard copies issued.)

The DFA’s principal interest in the musical is its affinity with Apolinario Mabini, the country’s first foreign minister. A sculpture of Mabini greets you in the lobby of the DFA Building. Foreign Undersecretary Ernesto C. Abella, known to be a well-read booklover, acknowledged librettist Nicanor G. Tiongson as his former professor at the Ateneo. (Hey, also proudly mine!)

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This was the show’s return run, and with a come-on difficult to resist. Acclaimed singer-actor Monique Wilson would play the role of Mabini—again a woman playing the hero, as Delphine Buencamino and Liesl Batucan did in previous runs of the musical.

The theme of the 2015 award-winning play (Philstage Gawad Buhay’s Outstanding Original Libretto, Outstanding Musical—Original or Translation/Adaptation, Outstanding Female Lead Performance in a Musical, among nine other awards) called for nontraditional casting, thus the deliberate choice of Tanghalang Pilipino for a woman to play Mabini.

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According to the theater company, Mabini, because of his physical condition (afflicted with polio in 1895, which gradually incapacitated him till he lost total mobility) had long been regarded as the “Sublime Paralytic,” the tired epithet we learned from grade school days. It overshadowed Mabini’s larger role in history as adviser, Cabinet president and first foreign minister to President Emilio Aguinaldo. Because of his disability, the hero was in a sense an outsider or an “other.” That was the same status that Filipino women endured in the same period.

The casting was a complete contrast to Shakespearean times when male actors took on female roles till the 1600s. To Wilson, who has not appeared on the Philippine stage for a long time and was last seen on the Tanghalang Pilipino stage as an ingénue in the role of Maria Clara in 1995, this was a “radically creative and imaginative role” she was thrilled to perform.

To reach out to today’s audience, the play is described as a steampunk musical, said to be a subgenre of speculative fiction. It has a historical setting and combines historical elements with science-fiction elements of technology. It is historical fiction with unexpected, sometimes jarring twists.

Some of my contemporaries were literally jarred by this approach, finding it difficult to reconcile our unappreciated and underrated hero with this treatment. But how else to liven up Mabini’s story and the importance of his “The True Decalogue”? I loved the image of Mabini rising from his hammock and his wheelchair to dance out his dreams—fantasies of freedom that could not be held shackled. Despite the lively music and the fast-paced narration which entertained, some still commented about the preachiness of the historical account of 18 scenes from Kawit to Malolos to Guam to Nagtahan.

Congratulations to librettist Tiongson, composer Joed Balsamo and director Chris B. Millado for this long-delayed rediscovery of Apolinario Mabini. The musical fleshed out Mabini as a hero in the birth of our nation, and made him more relevant at curtain call when each character addressed today’s issues as concerns citizens need to wrestle with (“makidigma”), the way Mabini would surely have done in his time. I left the theater with these words playing in my mind: “Mahalin mo ang Pilipinas nang higit sa’yong sarili…”

For those interested in our history, especially as we approach the 500th year in 2021 of the 1521 arrival of Magellan on our shores, Instituto Cervantes has an open invitation to a conference on “First Journey Around the World” on Friday, Sept. 6, 4 p.m. at Instituto Cervantes Intramuros, 385 Real St. in the Casa Manila complex. The conference on the Magellan-Elcano expedition will be led by Commander González del Tánago, on the occasion of the visit of the frigate “Mendez Nuñez” to the Manila harbor.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: ‘Mabining Mandirigma’, CCP, Noli Me Tangere, Undersecretary Ernesto C. Abella
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