Saturday ∗ 08 Feb 2014

the anxiety of rain: on Rak Of Aegis

It was difficult to imagine a musical that could use Aegis’s diverse discography, one that spans 15 years of the band’s existence, and seven albums. From posters and press releases it was clear that PETA’s Rak Of Aegis was using the song “Basang-basa sa Ulan” as center, with the obvious premise of … uh … rain to tell what would be a painfully contemporary story for nation.

It was difficult to be optimistic, but it sure was easy to get excited. I was sitting after all on the balcony, right side, and from where I was I could clearly see the members of Aegis below, sitting on the second row. Not even an ill-behaved little girl who should not have been brought into the theater, could ruin that image of the Sunot sisters singing and laughing along to the musical that lives off their music.

via rakofaegis.com.

That’s getting ahead of the story.

Which is one that’s as simple as it can be. Barangaya Venezia has been knee deep in flood waters for months, and there is no government to help them. There is only Barangay Kapitana Mary Jane (Isay Alvarez) who is suffering too as her shoemaking factory – the one that employs the barangay – is being killed by the incessant rains and a flood that has most everyone in imported plastic shoes that survive the waters.

Flood waters, by the way, that are right at the center of this musical’s set, the inadvertent central character as well of a town that had gotten used to makeshift and do-it-yourself walkways and stairs, that have allowed for continued commerce and mobility no matter the sad state of their homes. This set by Mio Infante looked fantastic, but also difficult to follow for any audience. Sitting where I was, it was sometimes unclear that the man on the boat was the one singing; or that the voice was coming from the platform closest to where I was.

Too, we were missing the smell: they didn’t talk about it until the end either.

But let’s start with this: Rak Of Aegis had everything going for it in its first 20 minutes. It established a family in crisis, one that was further impoverished by the rains and floods. It established a town in crisis, not because they are poor but because they lived with flood waters in their midst, and rain just kept coming. It established young unrequited love. It highlighted hopelessness by finding hope in uploading a YouTube video of star-of-the-barangay Aileen, just in case Ellen Degeneres asks her to come to America.

If this was a straight play, it would be so heavy-hearted and heavy-handed. With a soundtrack of Aegis songs, all well-placed in the telling of the narrative, and with a cast that did not miss a beat in the almost campy, necessarily self-reflexive and ironic telling, this musical had the right amount of lightness and comedy – the better to balance the sadness with.

via facebook.com/rakofaegis.

And you will get carried away: the songs are familiar, the writing is flawless for all of Act One. It was a balance that had me teary-eyed and laughing at the same time, moving from the crises of poverty magnified by stagnant water and the threat of rains, to the Aegis songs being all sak-sak-puso-tulo-ang-dugo – and that’s no exaggeration.

This is really the success of this first act of Rak Of Aegis: it is able to create a world that is in the more famous songs of this band, and it’s a world that is as believable as those songs are. There’s tragedy but also laughter, there are families that survive the worst of times, friendships that sometimes outdo our familial relationships. There is dreaming that seems shallow and impossible, there is the internet as the platform for dreaming. There is the enterprising Pinay, as there is the vigilant Pinoy, who knows what’s wrong with his lot, and who is to blame for it.

Barangay Venezia does not ask for pity nor charity; it demands justice.

In the first act of Rak Of Aegis, what is palpable is discontent that is merely overshadowed by need. And there are past relationships that become the present’s undoing. But also there is just a young woman wanting better for family and town, and who takes it to absurd ends.

This first act is enough reason to see Rak Of Aegis. And then there is this cast, small but so in sync, you actually believe Barangay Venezia to exist.

via facebook.com/rakofaegis.

Aicelle Santos in the lead role of Aileen was everything I expected after having seen her stage debut in Katy! last year. It isn’t just about having a voice that can sing those Aegis songs with chutzpah, it is also her ability to make this character her – you completely forget she’s a diva you watch on Sunday TV. In fact, you forget she’s made a career out of being biritera at all, as she does the light and heartfelt scenes with aplomb, and that take on the promo-girl was a scene-stealer.

Aileen’s counterpoint in this story is her father Kiel (Robert Seña), a tired man who used to be the town playboy. Age has caught up with him, as has the fact of a town ruined by rain and floods that won’t go away. He is angry and frustrated, and is dealing with a daughter who gets caught up in the absurd task of earning despite, and from the, flood that won’t go away. Seña’s magic is in the old man stance that he takes, the one who is learned but now also fragile, the one who has no time for regret because the present is urgent. The urgency is in the voice that he uses to sing those heart-wrenchingly painful songs.

Two other actors who would just consistently bring the house down were Phi Palmos as Jewel and Jerald Napoles as Tolits. Now one of the great things about this musical is that it refused to do stereotypes, and this was true of the character of Jewel, the lone gay individual in the barangay. Here she is also the center of commerce (with a sari-sari store that sells everything from beer to load), as she is the only other person with a dream of better, confident in his artistic abilities (he designs shoes), and his smarts. Palmos rises to the occasion of this character and layers her with perfect timing and a voice that does not falter.

But Napoles’s take on Tolits is what will stick with you, not because his character is complex – his is the unrequited love that the story starts with – but because the portrayal is wonderfully truthful even as it is comedic. His take on Aegis songs were also en pointe, powerful in its pain and longing, and always a surprise because Tolits’s demeanor is shy and quiet. Napoles’s timing, his movements, all of it was this character, and made it the most complete figure on that stage.

via facebook.com/rakofaegis.

It it because of these characters, and all of Act One, that the second act’s flaws just became more glaring, where the complexities of flooded towns and development, of corrupt government officials and desperate times, are not dealt with completely nor properly. The story unravels and one thinks: ah, just like that? No build-up, no tearing apart of the fact of development vis a vis flooding, globalizations vis a vis local industry? It was almost a god-in-a-basket, the resolution too swift it failed to truly be a resolution.

Too there’s this: to bring these concepts into the mix and not discuss it well is an injustice to the ones who are truly suffering because of those same things, yes? And that was what they wanted to talk about too, interspersing the narrative as they did with footage of our catastrophic floods.

But even worse than this? The insistence on making Rak Of Aegis into a story with a happy ending, i.e., complete with a fashion show in place of curtain call. It was the most awkward I’ve seen any cast taking their bows. I felt for them because they deserved more applause, but the audience was confused about whether this was part of the play, or curtain call – and the latter was just an epic fail.

Good thing the rest of this wasn’t a fail at all, and certainly it was a valiant effort to bring together such a critical issue as flooding and the music of Aegis. It might have failed at talking about the former, but at least it had Aegis down pat. That’s good – and happy – enough for me.

Rak Of Aegis opens 2014, and closes the 46th theater season, for PETA. It was written by Liza Magtoto and directed by Maribel Legarda, with musical direction by Myk Solomon, and set by Mio Infante. Rak Of Aegis runs until March 9.

Posted in: arteng biswal, arts and culture, bayan, entablado, kultura, review, teatro, tugtugan

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2 Comments/Pingbacks

  1. victor m. hernandez
    May 1, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Rak of Aegis, the musical is fun, and serious social commentary. definitely creative.

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