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.

Top Shelf