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REVIEW: PETA's 'Walang Aray' is proof that comedy, helmed by the right people, can be a site of subversion and resistance

By Lé Baltar Published Nov 30, 2022 3:41 pm

Rody Vera’s Walang Aray, ushering in the comeback of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) to live shows, is peak Filipino pop culture. 

Vera’s libretto picks up Severino Reyes’s classic sarsuwela Walang Sugat and turns it into an original Pinoy musical that thrives on tongue-in-cheek humor and over-the-top performances that will leave you with an aching, cramped stomach, but for all the right reasons.

The story centers on Julia (Marynor Madamesila) and Tenyong (Gio Gahol) as they struggle to hide their relationship from Julia’s domineering mother Juana (Neomi Gonzales), who intends to wed her única hija to the narcissistic gym rat Miguel (Jarred Jaicten). And in the signature Pinoy teleserye trope, things will take a surprising turn as Tenyong joins the armed struggle. A tug-of-war between romantic and nationalist love later ensues.

Excess is, to say the least, the very thing that defines Walang Aray, maximizing the star-crossed-lover formula at every turn and against the backdrop of the Philippine revolution – a fitting space where camp comedy and satire intersect.

From the get-go, the hilarity of the whole thing takes shape: front-act performers pun about being front-act performers (at the end of the number, they quip: “Hindi kami aalis dito hangga’t hindi kayo pumapalakpak nang mas malakas,” to which the audience would respond with a wave of applause and cheers); stereotypical gossiping house helpers go about their usual habits like it’s a sworn oath, emergencies be damned, assimilating the “Marites” (Tagalog slang short for “Mare, ito ang latest!”) culture; scenes mimicking the trendy TikTok slow-mo dance, the rating-obsessed ride-hailing services (except the passengers are riding on a horse), and even the timeless Kampanerang Kuba (the hunchbacked lady who rings a church bell); Gahol in his farcical Aray spoken word piece (think of poet Alfonso Manalastas at his silliest form) that sent the PETA Theater Center into feral laughter; and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall and the coño language (plus the cringe). It’s impossible to sit still when all of this is offered in front of you.

Yet Ian Segarra’s stage direction and Julio Garcia’s production design still require some incubation and fine-tuning, which is understandable given how the production only had less than three weeks to put the show together, hence the choice to present a two-performance run or “a long excerpt,” as the team puts it. 

One with a discerning eye, however, would take note of how the very process of setting up a scene, positioning some props, or creating sound is thoroughly rendered visible on stage—an intentional creative decision the production made to pay homage to the making and unmaking of live theater. In a sense, it acts as a way to center narratives otherwise sidelined or pushed away from the limelight, such as the earnest hard work invested by the people backstage into ensuring a successful show, surfacing the very essence of the craft, especially under a heightened time where the pursuit of art and anything of cultural value remains to be non-essential with a capital N.

Of course, all of this is elevated by Vince Lim’s music, which manages to find a language that unabashedly speaks in the contemporary, while keeping what is before in perspective, mashing up funk and pop tunes in a uniquely Filipino sensibility. Hilarious and irreverent, Lim’s vision is clear and singular like a sonorous voice in the dead of night, crafting possibly the most searing, foolproof production of PETA.

But it must be said that the success of the show also rests on the shoulders of Madamesila and Gahol, whose dynamic makes apparent not only their experience but, more importantly, their mastery of the discipline. Madamesila’s performance is unmistakable, knowing how to play her cards wisely to make you stay with her every time she graces the stage, armed by a solid, penetrating voice. And I cannot stress enough how one should not sleep on the unassuming excellence of Gahol, aware of how to make every moment his own but never fails to maintain his chemistry with the ensemble. When Gahol is out of the picture, you wonder where he is—a testament to his impact on the show.

So it’s hard to ignore how the tandem of KD Estrada and Alexa Ilacad, who will be alternating as Tenyong and Julia, could match, if not cut above, what Madamesila and Gahol have shown. But they did not just barge into the production and, in fact, have been hands-on during the rehearsals, as Gahol noted during the post-show Q&A segment with the media. Only time could tell whether or not KDLex’s preparation would materialize come February next year.

Trippy and farcical as it is, Walang Aray remains to be a political production: how it pokes fun at the religious institutions that have become synonymous with the Filipino culture; how it acknowledges the importance of history, especially under a climate of relentless whitewashing and propaganda; and how it confronts how humor and comedy, much like the ceaseless Pinoy resilience, has long been our response to the imbalances of power and injustices we squarely find ourselves in—all of this to perfect the very definition of a well-meaning work, and the show does it with a winking eye.

Walang Aray is proof that comedy, helmed by the right people, can be a site of subversion and resistance. It’s so seriously unserious that it feels immediate to be seen.

Walang Aray will run at the PETA Theater Center from Feb. 17 to May 14, 2023. Tickets are available via ticketworld.com.ph starting Dec. 10, 2022.