NORSU’s Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio: A Review

(The article was the only coverage of the play on this week’s issue of MetroPost!)

2013-12-12 20.16.08

In another step towards its drive to become globally competitive, Negros Oriental State University, where I teach literature part time, launched its dramatics scene last week with the staging of Paul Dumol’s Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio at NORSU’s Cultural Complex.

Behind the staging was the newly formed NORSU Dramatics Guild, composed of student actors under the direction of resident Director Virgil Nicasio. Also involved was the office of university president Dr. Don Real and the NORSU Federation of Student Governments (an aside: it is an enviable privilege of members of a State University’s SG to be styled “The Honorable”).

Paglilitis is a staple in Philippine Literature classes, making one of the most well known plays in our repertoire. As such I asked my literature students to watch the play. I am grateful for the VIP tickets given to teachers!

I watched the premiere show, on the evening of December 12,with my friend the actor Bamboo Ranada. As much as I find namedropping pretentious, Bamboo deserves mention here, not only because he recently performed in PETA’s Advocacy play Ah! Bakus (which I regret not watching) but also because many of my insights here I owe to him. The show started later than appointed, but conversation with Bamboo made the wait hardly noticeable.

Programs were handed out upon entry into the Cultural Complex, and the quality of these programs (glossy paper, colored) was impressive (although iConcepts were given a bit too much space for their ad, and the synopsis of the play contained spoilers).

But it needs be mentioned now that any mistakes committed in the production are forgivable, considering as this may well be NORSU’s first staged play. It is hoped that improvements can be drawn from this review.

The production began, after the customary anthems and prayers, with messages from the director and the university president. Mr Nicasio kick-started the Dramatics Guild by commending the support of Dr. Real (Dr. Real’s enthusiasm to support the arts is no secret among writers, and I hope to take advantage of that enthusiasm in the future!). Dr. Real, in his characteristic charisma, then explained that starting a dramatic scene in NORSU is part of his mission as president (“Dr. Sojor started Kabilin, I started the Dramatics Guild”), and he revealed that one of his dreams is to be an indie film director (no surprise there then if his next project is to start a filmmaking scene in NORSU).

A program involving speeches is acceptable, preferable even, in a first production, but it would be quite unnecessary in succeeding shows.

Often called an “absurd play” (although compared to the works of Artaud, Beckett, and Ionesco, it could best be described as Brechtian), Paglilitis is about a dystopian “federation” of beggars with an iron hold on its members lives and income. The federation is bent on punishing a member, the eponymous Mang Serapio, who is accused of taking from the collective revenue by spending some of his earnings on a child named Sol. The titular trial, a mere formality, ends up revealing his tragic past and the vicissitudes of the Federation’s perverse system. The play was written during the Marcos Regime, and is an allegorical critique both of totalitarian and collectivist systems. It is also a study of the culture of the country’s sizeable population of mendicants, making the production rather apt considering the Mendicancy problem of Dumaguete recently thrown to light (but more on that here next week!)

The first question one always asks in watching a production is the artistic intent behind it: What overall effect is this play trying to achieve? Is this entertainment? A source of catharsis? A cerebral play of ideas? Or an alienating experimentation of effects? NORSU’s Paglilitis does not seem to understand its artistic intent yet. The music lends a somber emotion to the stage, but the play’s dark humor, and the variety show-ish dance numbers negate any emotional build up. The dance number is similarly incompatible with the play’s alienating material. The play has yet to decide whether it will be heart-warming, alienating, or fabulous.

But the direction is visibly competent, and Mr. Nicasio obviously has the eye for blocking and staging. Memorable scenes include the opening accusation tableau, the famous throwing of the doll, and Mang Serapio’s blinding.

Mr Nicasio’s well directed staging are enhanced by good lights of apt colors, and the only thing to complain about is the at times shaky spotlight (forgivable, but the impeccable director-actor beside me was less forgiving). The set enhances the play as well, garbage-filled as all productions of Paglilitis ought to be. Mr. Nicasio rightfully brags about the low cost the stage set and costumes have incurred, and they have been frugal fruitfully.

The insertion of the Welga scene, which was not in the original text (I had a copy of the text while watching), was inorganic. After the Hukom elaborates on the Federation’s system, the beggars stage a welga and express their grievance by singing Gloc-9’s single “Upuan.” While a creative block line breaker (I thank Bamboo for the term!) it was awkwardly inserted, and at worst undermined the Federation’s totalitarian character. At the very least the Hukom should have dismissed the grievance.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the play however is the music. It was negligible at best and lazy at worst. Not only does it complicate the play’s overall effect, there is very little variety. Worse, I am aware that the track constantly being played is a the piece Sadness and Sorrow by Toshio Masuda, straight from the soundtrack of the anime series Naruto. Many anime fans in the audience would have been similarly aware of this, and the lack of originality is far from flattering. I suggest that next time an eerie effect can be achieved through the use of ethnic instruments.

But the best aspect of the play, no doubt, is the cast. With just three months of workshop and rehearsal, the actors performed admirably. John Dave Laturnas, who played Serapio, was appropriately yagit, and while rather high strung (they should have gone for bureaucratic restraint, but technique can be learned!) Adengrace Gargar and Rockehm Jade Raclip demonstrated talent as the two Tagapagtanongs. The three whimsical Testigos, the beggars sent to retrieve Serapio’s baul, and Edralyn Dela Rosa who plays the Hukom, deserve the most praise with effortless acting.

Overall the glitches are understandable for a beginning dramatic scene, and it is not difficult to imagine NORSU staging better plays in the future. To say that I am excited to write plays for the Dramatics Guild is an understatement! But the news that the next planned production is a translation of West Side Story I cannot honestly welcome (I hate that musical). I enjoin the staging instead of the plays of Bobby Villasis, Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, or if it must be a musical, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show.

But that I can suggest productions just goes to show the possibilities that this new beginning opens. Here’s to more successful future productions at NORSU!

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