20 February 2019

A matter of character: Notes on 'Miong'

I guess in every story there are three main points of consideration: character, event, and how the former engages with the latter. Various permutations may arise. An oddball offers a lens by which we view the world anew. A monster's vindication brings us to a cathartic state. The normal guy, whose shoes we freely slip into, walks us through our own normalcy with heart-breaking clarity.

Things get dicey when an actual human becomes subject of make-believe. For the writer this might mean facing the ire of the real-life person and their kin. Or being accused of inaccuracy, revisionism, and the like when playing fire with historical figures.

All these float in my head after watching Repertory Philippines' Miong, an original musical based on the life of Emilio Aguinaldo, written in 1998 to celebrate the Centennial of the Proclamation of Philippine Independence. Two decades since its premiere, Rep re-stages the show with book, lyrics and direction by Joy Virata, additional lyrics by Freddie Santos, and music by Ian Monsod.

Tim Pavino is Emilio Aguinaldo in Repertory Philippines' Miong.

Allow me to continue by saying that I'm taking the production as pure work of fiction.

Emilio "Miong" Aguinaldo is painted as 'one of us', a far cry from portrayals of his fellow heroes, who are remembered for their distinct image (say, a cool-headed Rizal or a raging Bonifacio). By and large, characters drawn from history books will hardly be the same as you and me, given their extraordinary circumstances — they have made history. In Miong's case, because his inner conflicts aren't laid bare, he disappears in the noise of his universe, his plainness barely equating to relatability.

Much of the disconnect between him and this viewer has to do with the highlight-reel manner of narration. Aguinaldo's youth is chronicled, starting from his birth up until the Philippine flag's formal unfurling. In between are personal and historic events that can't seem to wait for their turn to happen, stunting any affective build-up, not to mention full appreciation of a sequence. The good news (at least for the impatient) is that it's easy to follow. There's even a narrator that enters the stage every now and then to make sure that everyone's up-to-speed.

Providing a sense of fluidity to the experience is composer Ian Monsod. His music, more than anything else, is a deft emotional guide, delivering the drama straight to the gut. The final scene, where the national anthem is played, will move the non-Filipino and the unpatriotic alike.

We're told that the musical is cut down from three to two hours and that the ensemble has been downsized as well. An unfortunate fact, as both story and score have the gravitas to deserve these resources. With its current shape, there is a mismatch between Miong's feel-good tone and the depth it attempts to explore.

Repertory Philippines' Miong runs until 10 March at Onstage, Greenbelt.

What is recorded as history warrants importance. But to whom? We can argue that fictionists, in good faith, are also on the side of the consequential, whether they are writing about ennui or treason. As it stands, Miong still relies on historicity as rationale for the show's revival. That by mere selection, by choosing to tell his story among a myriad stories, Rep is already making a comment on Aguinaldo's value. However, the question lingers, "Why is it worth listening to?"

A part of me wishes that they have taken more liberty in fictionalizing the young Aguinaldo, that they make audiences see what the annals can never make them see.

11 February 2019

Dance incidental

To repeat myself: this is the only justice I believe in right now, so you have to tolerate the fangirling. "Woman Worldwide" is extra special for me because I was there and heard the draft that would become this sonic masterpiece.

My congratulations to the French duo for winning Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2019 Grammys. (By the way, I thought their co-nominees, Sophie and Jon Hopkins also put out incredible records last year. As such, I don't believe in awards as measuring tools for quality, worth or contribution, but that's for later.)

The gentlemen talk about making tracks that happen to be danceable in the Recording Academy interview (video above). Well it's a welcome side effect. Dance is kind of like a sneeze, a release that's hard to force. And artists like Justice prolong the pleasure.

Thank you, Gaspard, Xavier, and to everyone behind Woman Worldwide. All the music, all the light you cast on me will never wash off.

08 February 2019

Briefly on inspiration

The love poem I wrote for a class in college received the approval of both my professor and classmates. During discussion, one of them grilled me on the germ of the verse. I never had a boyfriend then, only a romantic, romanticised view of boys. Moreover, falling in love was all I heard and read about at that time.

In a way I write what I know and don't know.

My recent literary confessions to a colleague (we were early birds at a press conference) prompted her to ask, "Where do you get inspiration?" The question is old but hardly tired. And the answer has been the same since the first ambitious draft: a creative writing environment.

By no means is it a person, place, or event which moves me to production. If anything they are materials of a product. I'm not sure I'd get anything done without being in a community of writers and amongst the company of books. "It's true, we just remix others' works," I cheekily (hopefully) replied.

02 February 2019

A word or two from Kushner

There are plays that are better read and there are plays that are meant to be seen.

After much deliberation, my friend Cam and I settled on watching Tony Kushner's Angels in America in March for our long-overdue rendez-vous (we'd bump into each other at theater press nights during our newspaper days, and the viewing habit kind of stuck). So I got myself a copy of the two-part drama, as is customary.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Revised and Complete Edition. Theatre Communications Group. Kindle Edition, 2013.

Though not a spectacle in a circus sense, Angels has sensory elements that beg to be realized onstage. We encounter celestial props, symphony-like stage directions, and the pinpoint accuracy of speech: "A sentence is no less an action than a blow with a broadsword or a passionate kiss," offers Kushner in his notes on language (p 315).

He also makes an impassioned comment on being funny versus being a joke. How "schticky winking at the audience" must be avoided at all costs:
Apologies if I'm sounding strident, but I've learned that there are dire consequences if this reality is parodied or traduced. People can enjoy pratfalls, mugging and easy laughs, even while determining that they won't be fooled again into deep investment in what's proved to be unserious. Once faith in the seriousness of what's onstage has been withdrawn, however briefly, it's unlikely to return fully. (p 318)
And for about a thousand times he reminds us that "the Angel is related to humans but isn't human". I'm excited to see how Atlantis, the production house bringing the show to our shores, will engage the playwright's vision.


In the months immediately preceding 2019 I somewhat learned to admit that I couldn't do — never mind every thing — the most important things alone. Then as if on cue here comes Kushner and his essay on America's myth of the Individual and the writer's myth of solitariness, found at the end of the book. It's titled, With a Little Help from My Friends.

True to his imperatives, his own thoughtful wordings won't go unnoticed. He's already written a lot in the acknowledgments section, but in this piece (originally published in The New York Times in 1993), he graduates from expressing gratitude to challenging his colleagues, or the reader in general, to keep their ego in check and give as they take.

Let me leave you with these beautiful, scathing words:
Way down close to the bottom of the list of the evils Individualism visits on our culture is the fact that in the modern era it isn't enough to write; you must also be a Writer, and play your part as the protagonist in a cautionary narrative in which you will fail or triumph, be in or out, hot or cold. The rewards can be fantastic; the punishment dismal; it's a zero-sum game, and its guarantor of value, its marker is that you pretend you play it solo, preserving the myth that you alone are the wellspring of your creativity. (p 328)

Update (25.3.19): Read after-show thoughts here.

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