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Rant and Rave: Magtanggol Liberacion

The timing of the three-day run of the Harlequin Theatre Guild’s latest production, Magtanggol Liberacion, could not have been any better. The state of Philippine politics has gone awfully awry these past few months, with the news of the Vice President himself filing a P200-million libel suit against multiple sectors being the latest one to hit the fan.

In the play, Magtanggol Liberacion is the pig mayor (literally) of the fictional Talon Pikit, and has just been found murdered. The incident causes a ruckus with the townspeople and politicians as they scurry to find both the mayor’s murderer and a suitable replacement. Flashbacks are also interjected into the story so as to explain the events that lead to the election of the eponymous mayor to a visiting COMELEC representative.

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Like most politically fuelled literature, Rody Vera’s script opted to tell the narrative from the point of view of the oppressed. This perspective allowed the production to tackle various facets of Philippine mass culture, such as the penchant for cheesy radio shows, or the cynicism towards authority—both of which were approached with surprising bluntness.

Aside from traditional dialogue, musical numbers were also added under the guidance of Dodjie Fernandez to keep up with the lighthearted, comedic tone of the show. Not every cast member demonstrated Broadway-level vocal chops, but the collective harmony of their voices during group numbers was able to mask most of the individual flaws and accidental off-key singing.

Acting, of course, still remains the theater group’s forte. Coming in, I had little doubt that the actors and actresses would provide praise-worthy performances. Camille de Pedro’s Chola and Justin Nograles’ Mang Turing, for instance, delivered superbly. The former added a hint of concerned motherliness to the often distressed residents, while the latter seemed every bit an old and clunky barber thanks to his awkward physical movement and hilarious delivery (not to mention a fantastic job from the make up department).

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Guest actress Mae Paner was also excellent — the true star of the show. Being the poster woman for any production entails a certain level of expectation, but Paner’s Vangie Palabanan exceeded this with ease, as she transitioned seamlessly from conniving villain to wailing victim when the situation called for it. There were also moments wherein Paner’s character launched a barrage of references to current events and popular culture, and whether this was ad-libbed or intentionally written into the script, the quick-witted shots drew applause and laughter from the audience, instantly making Palabanan a crowd favorite.

On the other side, Amiel Cruz’ portrayal of the afro-haired COMELEC official left something to be desired, as opposed to Antonio Contreras’ performance of the same character. This is not to say that he did not do a good job; he did. However, the supposed nonchalant quirkiness he tried to depict unfortunately felt a tad bit restrained.

It is important to note that this was not the first staging of the play. A few months back, I was fortunate enough to view the original production, then staged as Pinatay si Mayor!. This time around, the vast and roomy Yuchengco Auditorium was switched for the less spacious confines of CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute. It was a risky move, to say the least, given the place’s reputation as a venue for minimalist and experimental plays, and unfortunately, the risk did not seem to pay off.

The play area looked awkwardly out of place amidst the all-black background of the studio theater. Furthermore, the physical limitations of the thrust stage, along with the sheer smallness of the theater, robbed the production of the freedom to utilize much of the furniture and props that made the original so aesthetically impressive, such as Palabanan’s mobile platform. The scooters used by certain characters also appeared strangely out of place as there was little to no room for the actors and actresses to go gliding about without possibly bumping into each other. Finally, audience members, especially the ones situated on the sides, were put at a visual disadvantage in terms of watching the performance. Perhaps, the comfort of a proscenium stage is the best and only way to go with regards to solving this problem.

Nonetheless, the gaudy outfits and props set up by the costume and design team remained ever so finely in tune with the outrageous stage antics of Talon Pikit’s residents. The maximalist look, complete with colors in various shades, was juxtaposed with a minimalist and utilitarian approach in the use of props, specifically the two benches. The wooden pair functioned as everything from a bridge to a DJ booth. It was a clever way to make use of the extremely limited space, and for that, I applaud Raffy Tehada’s direction.

Magtanggol Liberacion succeeds in not only being an entertainment piece but also a socio-political commentary. Tehada and Vera’s collaboration does not seek to show off, unlike some of its contemporaries that hide behind layers of ambiguities. Instead, the point is stated with uncensored clarity (again, literally). It is a shame, though, that even with this play’s potential in raising awareness about such a troubling issue, the same demographic that most needs enlightenment may never even hear about it.

Rating: 3.0/4.0

Paulo Yusi

By Paulo Yusi

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