Conquering the archives: Lapulapu at the Met

Subversive and reflexive, Lapulapu—staged in the newly restored Metropolitan Theater of Manila—shows us how to decolonize our past. Or see it this way: it triumphs over impositions from intellectuals whose perspectives remain beyond our control, and etched in a monolithic history many are not brave enough to question.

Many things are going for the presentation and so many things are also going against the presentation that we cannot really review it in the form streamed on October 24. A luxuriating elephant is in the room: this is the fact that we are not watching a musical play but witnessing a documentation of that play on the Met stage. This is a limitation given how the energy of a live show can never be replaced by any audio-visual preservation of the same. That is the name of what would otherwise had been an evening of a live audience and live actors feeding off each other’s energy. We are left judging the presentation as cinema, which is not fair.

Not all is lost though: there is the direction of Dexter M. Santos employing all the tools available for a director who knows his technology (the LED video screens have backdrops attributed to GA Fallarme). The light design is by Dennis Marasigan; there are the actors, voices seemingly boundless as they scale those notes; there is the costume design (the imagined habiliments are by Gino Gonzales; Norman Penaflorida does the hair, makeup and tattoo designs) that does not leave our “ancestors” half-naked as imagined in the past and appearing “uncivilized” to the well-draped bodies of the Spanish colonizers; there is the music by Krina Cayabyab that rises to the occasion when the story reaches the contemporary popular times, the ululations and chants vestigial remains of a culture; there are the dances (choreography is by Stephen Viñas and Kenneth Torres) that remind us of “igal” movements but do not come across as folkloric; and there is, finally,  the bravura narrative of Nicolas Pichay, irreverent and sacrilegious to those who consider the accounts of Western historians like Pigafetta sacred and inviolable, and altogether inspirational and aspirational as stories for, and not of, people attempting to find meaning in their past and, ipso facto, their present as well their future.

Santos directs the story of Lapulapu briskly without the burden of making it epic in the Western sense of monumentalism. The grandeur of the staging is not so much in the form but in the content of the story. Behold the huge ships sailing across the unknown and hitting the shores of what would never be the same again. The screen filled with footages of raging waves brings us back to the turbulence of circumnavigation, which precedes globalization. A Cross comes down and on the screen, again, images of sacred paintings foretell what these colonizers bring. The summary of the aftermath of that arrival—the first Mass and the conversion of Humabon and his wife—is being told and retold, detailing what happens when the new religion becomes the avid sign of conquest. The charming and duplicitous dance of Reina Juana (she is given the name of a Western royalty like her husband) is presently familiar because it has become the Sinulog dance where the Santo Niño is swung like a doll or a talisman, perhaps the only act not divined by the European shamans.

Outstanding in the direction are the parallel actions performed by the Spaniards and those of the inhabitants of Limasawa. In music, it is arranged as contrapuntal; in action and dialogues, the narrative is a dual apprehension of memories and histories. These moments enable the audience to think forward to where we are now given the histories of where we came from.

What omen do those days bring? What lessons do these histories tell?

The power of the performances in Lapulapu understandably are in the singing in character. Excelling in their portrayals and singing are the following: Al Gatmaitan as Antonio Pigafetta, Red Nuestro as Rajah Humabon, Paw Castillo as Enrique de Malacca, Natasha Cabrera as Babalaylan, and Ivan Nerry playing dual roles as Papa Alexander and Padre Pedro de Valderrama.

Three Babaylans—Cabrera, Cara Barredo and Marynor Madamesila—are showstoppers.

Lapulapu is in the vocal prowess of Arman Ferrer who certainly lives up to the role. While one can glory in those high notes of Ferrer, the power of this very physical actor is embedded in the decisions made by the librettist, Nicolas Pichay, the multi-awarded writer. The Lapulapu we encounter in this work is one who does not flaunt the illusion of nationalism but its possibilities. But what is good literature without transcendence? Lapulapu, while not presented as a hero, states how he and his poetry will live on. Lapulapu with his thousand faces is eternal.

In the poignant highlight of the play, Ferrer as the Dato of Mactan sings lines lifted from the kundiman Bituing Marikit, because he has become a heritage of songs soaring across centuries and colonizations. Lapulapu is the dato of that land but he is also anyone who defends the land. It does not matter who killed Magellan (finally a marginal character in the play); no one witnessed that. Only some historians will kill for a fact that is not essential.

On rainy days, in the flooded street of Manila, we may a brave young man offering a free ride to a female worker. Could he be Lapulapu? Could the nurse be the Babaylan? Anything is possible in a land that has been colonized for so long and lost a lot. It saves itself through hope in the recuperation of the vanished, like Lapulapu. And while you may question why Al Gatmaitan as Pigafetta in the play speaks in Italian and English, then think again of all our histories hidden in archives and in languages not our own.

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