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PETA’s ‘Walang Aray’ brings back the magic of theater with a good dose of humor

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 06, 2023 5:00 am

How do you make an 1898 sarsuwela like Walang Sugat relevant again after three tumultuous years that included the pandemic, lockdowns, and the elections, among other things? For PETA, it had to be irreverent and funny, “a space to laugh, to have fun and enjoy something,” says Maribel Legarda, artistic director of the theater company that is celebrating its emerald year.

True enough, Walang Aray, the adaptation of the revered classic, had the audience in stitches during the media preview that we attended. But being a PETA production, there was much more than just good old entertainment. In fact, it was not business as usual and was surprisingly fresh and modern while paying tribute to the history and essence of the original. It was everything Jun Reyes, the filmmaker, advertising director, and founder of creative content agency Indie.Go, wanted when he commissioned Rody Vera in 2007 to write a screenplay for Walang Sugat which was written by his great-grandfather, Severino Reyes.

Alexa Ilacad’s Julia, the sarsuwela star, with her secret lover, KD Estrada’s Tenyong at the theater

With the high cost of producing a musical film, however, the project was shelved until 2018 when Vera presented it to Legarda as a possible stage production. It was received enthusiastically except for the OPM songs, which would eat up the budget after rights were paid. Enter Vince Lim to compose original music instead. “After the first few songs came out, I was convinced,” Vera related. A mixture of funk and pop music that also excited Legarda and the PETA team led by the director Ian Segarra and the choreographer Gio Gahol—the soundtrack was perfect for the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek humor of the script. “It was over the top but never getting off that constant wink at the audience,” says the playwright, who wrote the piece as a spoof and a tribute of so many layers: “The story, the so-called ‘outdated’ musical form of the sarsuwela, the historical narrative, the stock characters predating the current teleserye stereotypes, and even the context of Philippine theater as it resonates to the present time.”

Alexa Ilacad’s Julia with the wounded KD Estrada’s Tenyong together with the Katipuneros

The script and music lampoon the original form while paying homage to it, aided by the deft staging of Segarra. Julio Garcia’s production design has a vintage patina of muted colors that nostalgically transport you to the 1890s Teatro Zorilla with its quaint painted landscape backdrops, costumes by JayLo Conanan, and atmospheric lighting by David Esguerra—but when the performers appear, you are slowly alerted back to the present as elegant prose segues back to the colloquialisms of today with matching music and dances that the current generation bred on K-pop and TikTok can relate to—making the setting during the Philippine revolution and the story of the lovers Tenyong and Julia in this milieu very much alive and of our time.

With what we saw and experienced with 'Walang Aray,' theater is surely a most essential tool for people to ponder solutions for how our country can move forward from our past that continues to haunt us today.

Oppression from the colonial powers leads Tenyong to join the Katipunan rebels, separating him from his sarsuwela star girlfriend whose mother, Juana, wants her to marry Miguel, son of the wealthy Tadeo who falls for his prospective balae. The ensuing maneuvers to get out of tight situations unscathed and the twists of fate are dramatized “while poking fun at the usual villains in our history, but it is also just as irreverent as those we have traditionally held high in our regard,” explains Vera.

An opening number at the Teatro Zorilla

Hence, the traditionally demure Filipina has turned into a feisty, daring passionate woman in Julia who knows exactly what she wants and will do anything to achieve it. Alexa Ilacad, who played the part in the preview, depicted this characterization like the part was made for her, belying the fact that she is a theater newbie just like KD Estrada as Tenyong, the other half of the popular love team on television. These Star Magic stars continue the late director Lino Brocka’s tradition of bringing film and TV actors to the theater which can only benefit from a wider audience while honing the craft of artists and practitioners. KD and Alexa alternate with PETA’s Gio Gahol and Marynor Madamesila and Jon Abella and Shaira Opsimar.

Alexa Ilacad as Julia, the sarsuwela star, at the Teatro Zorilla

The satirical depiction of political and religious institutions as well as the aspirational commitment of sworn lovers that get tested and waver during times of desperation are themes to ponder, then as well as today, making us realize that not much has changed, and challenging us to reflect. It’s never hard-sell or heavy-handed, however, done in the most Filipino way “of looking at difficult and painful conditions with humor, poking fun at what ails us to jolt us into feeling and thinking and caring,” observes Segarra.

The Spanish friars headed by Johnnie Moran as Padre Alfaro above the suspected insurrectionists

The director didn’t need to look far, citing an even more personal cause of concern in his own world which he alludes to through his style of staging that shifts the action from front of stage to back, featuring vignettes that make the storytelling more interesting, while showing how the scenes are mounted by having all the stage hands involved in sets and props visible instead of hiding them in black costumes. “We want to show how the magic of theater is helmed in part, by individuals who, during the height of the pandemic, were treated as ‘non-essential workers,’” says Segarra.

Carlon Josol Matobato as Lucas with the Katipuneros

“Perhaps we can also ponder what kind of society we would have if society were devoid of the ‘non-essential’ entertainment industry,” he adds.

With what we saw and experienced with Walang Aray, theater is surely a most essential tool for people to ponder solutions for how our country can move forward from our past that continues to haunt us today. If the sarsuwela was a potent means of expressing nationalism during the Spanish colonial era, theater pieces that we devise today should behoove us just as Walang Aray makes their clarion call “Tumindig at umibig! Tumindig para sa katotohanan, kabutihan at pag-asa. Magpatuloy na umibig sa sarili, sa kapwa at sa bayan.”

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Walang Aray will run at the PETA Theater Center until May 14. Tickets are available at You may follow them on Instagram and Facebook