Sunday ∗ 15 Nov 2009

brecht notwithstanding

The risk any theater adaptation takes is the fact of intertextuality. One person will enter the theater with no knowledge whatsoever of the theatrical context(s) of the play she is about to see. That person may be seated next to a theater scholar, adept in drama theories and well read on dramatic texts. At the back row are audience members who are just there for the ride, with no real interest in theater, but are there because one of the lead actors is good looking – or they’re related to him.

Unlike the spectatorship of cinema, where formulas become the standard of enjoyment or non-enjoyment, in theater many other things inform appreciation. There is the drama as written text, the text as executed onstage, and every other process that exists in between: the actors’ performances, the sounds of the stage, production design, extraneous elements of (in)formality and propriety, the communal audience experience, audience expectation.

Here lies the success and the failure of any theater adaptation such as Tanghalang Pilipino’s Madonna Brava ng Mindanao. Based on German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her children (written 1939, staged 1941), Don Pagusara’s adaptation had way too much going against it: Brecht’s original defined the epic drama, spanning at it does 12 years, and using as it does a 30-year war as context.  Add to this the fact that Brecht is one of the most political playwrights of his time, something that informed the way he reinvented the stage as a site of politics and rebellion. On a Brecht stage, the audience is forced to defamiliarize itself with the rituals of watching a play: the broken down fourth wall requires that they are involved instead of removed, that they function as part of the play’s performance instead of as its mere spectators.

At the same time, it’s also entirely possible that Pagusara had his work cut out for him. The Mindanao story seems just about perfect for an epic drama, given what it has become in this country: a continuous cycle of war that is silenced everyday by the Manila-as-center’s lack of interest in and concern for it. It is because of this that the Mindanao story remains unfamiliar to many Filipinos, it is because of this that Madonna Brava finds relevance. Using Brecht’s refusal of the fourth wall, Madonna Brava’s story also becomes the story of an audience’s refusal to care, to get involved, in war that has literally gone on forever.

And yet it is so much more than Brecht, too. There is Madonna Brava’s fabulous music as directed by the legendary Popong Landero, where Muslim beats are modernized for some hiphop and breakdance. There’s Gerald Mercado’s choreography that melds seamlessly with the rest of the play’s rhythms: the blocking of characters on Huseng Batute’s small stage, the movement of Madonna Brava’s pedicab which is central symbol and focal point, the use of the set’s second level as the site of negotiation and non-battle. There’s direction by Nestor Horfilla, which imagined the possibility of the stage becoming a site of change, telling as much of Mindanao’s history as it does of the individual lives that are swept by it, even as they are the ones who create it, too.

It is sadly this last thing though also spelled some of Madonna Brava’s failures. The tendency to sermonize in the latter half of the story seemed like a cop-out of the production’s ability to show instead of tell. It is in this latter half as well, that the slide presentations of maps and factual war information disappeared, after it was utilized in the first half. Both these efforts at creating a factual basis for the story unfolding onstage were actually not needed by this production, given how the characters themselves, from Madonna Brava to the Tspalin, and across all three of Madonna Brava’s children, spoke precisely of how history was being created as they lived, and how they created it through their lives. These devices were beyond the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall – it was just the need to ground a story, which should’ve been done through well, the story itself.

This of course doesn’t remove from the rest of what is good about Madonna Brava sa Mindanao. Shamaine Centenera Buencamino was perfect as Madonna Brava, with acting that affects you way after you leave the theater and a depth that can only come from real actresses – the ones who are real people too, and get affected by the world(s) around them, the worlds that they speak of through the tiny space of the theater. Centenera-Buencamino playing Madonna Brava the way she did, is already this production’s success.

Or one of its successes. Because Madonna Brava ng Mindanao is a success as well, precisely because it removes itself from the original text of Brecht and stands on its own as a chronicle of the continuing war in Mindanao, one that will not end, because it is the business of war to be infinite. It is a success because its use of Muslim music and dance is a cultural stand for that which is unfamiliar – even violent – to the Catholic Manileño. It is a success because, while it falls into the trap of pontification about the Bangsa Moro struggle, it does take a brave stand for an independent Mindanao.

Yes, it is a success. Brecht notwithstanding.

Posted in: entablado, kultura, review

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