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A classic reborn

By BUTCH DALISAY, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 26, 2022 5:00 am

I’ve long believed that my late friend and contemporary, Bienvenido “Boy” M. Noriega, Jr., was one of our very best modern playwrights, and indeed worthy of a National Artist Award.

I — and many who knew him and his work — had been hoping that he would get that distinction this year, but too much time may have passed since he left us 28 years ago for critics to recall just how good he was.

Still, there’s great news today for Boy’s fans, and for everyone eager for the return of great theater to the Philippine stage. The seminal Noriega play, Bayan-Bayanan, which premiered at the CCP’s Little Theater in 1975 and won that year’s Grand Prize for the Full-Length Play in the Palancas, is going to be shown again in Manila this month, rendered as a new musical, Bayan-Bayanan: Letters from Home.

Directed by Dr. Anton Juan and produced by the Erehwon Center for the Arts with support from the Embassy of France, the updated play promises to offer fresh insights into the OFW experience, having been originally written and presented long before overseas Filipino workers came to be known as OFWs.

Back in the early ’70s, as martial law descended on the country, they were all just exiles, migrants, transients, and vagabonds, some by choice, others by the lack of it. In Europe, and specifically in Geneva where the play is set, Filipinos tended to be middle-class professionals drawn there by their work, as Boy Noriega himself was as a government economist in his early 20s attending global trade negotiations.

As I’ve written about before, Boy and I were very close friends — and fervid contest competitors — in those days. We were fraternity brothers who found ourselves working in literally the same office at NEDA Padre Faura. He was two years older than me, so I looked up to him as a mentor, and when he went to Harvard for graduate school and then began flying to all these conferences abroad, he wrote me long letters to share his exhilaration at studying our heroes like Chekhov and Ibsen (he was enrolled in Public Administration, but took side courses in Drama). When he came home, we spent many lunch hours talking about the plays we were writing or wanted to write.

A scene from the musical

Boy announced himself to Philippine theater in the most spectacular way — by writing Bayan-Bayanan and having it presented at the CCP almost at the very start of his playwriting career. Immediately you knew that you were witnessing a major talent unfolding. His kind of drama was quiet, thoughtful, cumulative in its impact. Writing under martial law and being somewhat more politically engaged, I resorted to historical allegory, but Boy took the present head-on, albeit from another angle, of the young Filipino discovering the world in both geographical and emotional terms.

When I heard that Erehwon was planning to revive Bayan-Bayanan as a musical, I was delighted and at the same time a bit concerned how Boy’s material was going to be handled almost half a century down the road. But my worries lifted when I learned that the revival was going to be directed by none other than Anton Juan, who knows the play better than anyone else around, having directed it in Athens, London, Geneva, Paris, Chicago, and Toronto, and having himself been the kind of international vagabond that Boy dwells on.

The poster for the play

“I have directed this play many times before in Europe, and each time there is always something new,” Anton says. “It grows like a pearl, takes shape in the memory and hearts of those who perform it and those who watch it: why? Because it is real. It is grounded on real characters we can identify with, in all their beauty and vulnerability, in all their strengths and their weaknesses.”

Erehwon has established itself firmly in our country’s cultural landscape as a sponsor of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, and writers, who have come to see Erehwon’s Quezon City headquarters.

Anton composed some of the new songs for the play, along with Cleofe Guangko-Casambre, who had composed for the play Rizal’s Sweet Stranger; Russ Narcies Cabico, also a theater and television actor and singer; pianist-composer Andrew Bryan Sapigao; and composer-musical arranger Jonathan Cruz.

Anton Juan directing a rehearsal at Erehwon

The cast comprises a mix of veterans and newcomers. Professional theater actress and singer Banaue Miclat-Janssen portrays the central character Manang, while Dino — the “Boy” in the play — is portrayed by theater actor and classically trained singer Carlo Mañalac. Supporting them are Ava Olivia Santos, Roxy Aldiosa, Carlo Angelo Falcis, Jacinta Remulla, Richard Macaroyo, Greg de Leon, and Jane Wee.

The role of the Erehwon Center for the Arts (of which Anton is creative director) is also noteworthy. Founded by another old friend of mine, Raffy Benitez, Erehwon has established itself firmly in our country’s cultural landscape as a sponsor of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, and writers, who have come to see Erehwon’s Quezon City headquarters — also its performance and exhibition venue — as a haven for the arts at a time when cultural budgets everywhere have fallen. Funded largely by Raffy’s own generosity and by some other patrons, Erehwon hopes that this collaboration with the CCP and the French Embassy will lead to other significant projects that can ultimately be self-sustaining.

The play will premiere on the evening of July 15, followed by a 7 p.m. evening show on July 16 and a 3 p.m. matinee on July 17, at the CCP’s Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo. Tickets are available at Ticketworld. See you there!