21 August 2019

Notes on 'Mabining Mandirigma'

Mabining Mandirigma adopts the most superficial element of steampunk, that is Victorian-futurism aesthetic, as seen in the costumes, set design and props. I have to point this out, considering the show is billed as "a steampunk musical".

It shouldn't be unreasonable then to expect science fiction onstage. Specifically, a speculative universe where Apolinario Mabini, Emilio Aguinaldo, the congress and their cohorts have access to new technology. How will they, for example, take advantage of social media to advance their causes, both collectively and as individuals? In a hilarious dinner party scene, Aguinaldo whips out a selfie stick for a souvenir snap, but that's about it. Overall, Mabining Mandirigma remains very much a faithful historical narrative — a crowd-pleasing history lesson at best.

And its hero, in my opinion, is composer Joed Balsamo, whose music is a mix of modern and traditional sounds, succeeding whether it intends to be playful or profound.

Mabini (Monique Wilson) and Aguinaldo (Arman Ferrer) have long, lyrical exchanges, where they tiptoe the line between singing and speaking. Lacking in any conspicuous rhythm or melodic pattern, their words are surprisingly clear and pleasurable to listen to. This is a testament to the score's complexity, not to mention ambition. Of course, credits are also due to librettist Nicanor Tiongson and the two leads (Ferrer's voice will probably soar the highest in any stage he'll grace).

Monique Wilson is Apolinario Mabini in Mabining Mandirigma: A Steampunk Musical. The show runs until 1st September at the CCP Little Theater. (Press photo)

One of the problems of our political discourse is an impatience to make oneself understood. There is a tendency to dismiss anyone who fails to grasp our message as mere (foolish) dissenters. The theater isn't any less guilty of this.

Putting the matter of genre aside, Mabining Mandirigma sings to an audience that already agrees with it. We hear the same platitudes all over again, especially towards the end, when we're repeatedly told, "Love your country". Yes, sure, but every plundering, mass-murdering leader professes a love for country. Is there a single way, a righter way to love?

So let me go back to that speculative universe. Before curtain call, the cast talks about what Mabini might think of present-day national issues. That's a story I would like to watch unfold. Under a climate of hopelessness, I would like to hear true revolutionary ideas.

Maybe it's not a question anymore of how we can drive people to the theater, but of how we can engage theatergoers — those who are ready to participate — in a meaningful, if uncomfortable dialogue. The theater cannot be just another echo chamber.

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