by Lorie Ann Cascaro
“Mga Buhay na Apoy” (Breath of Fire), not only moved the viewers on its opening night on Oct. 2 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila, but also triggered a philosophical discourse, as they sympathized with the characters’ struggles.
It explores the intersection between love and hatred; faith and religion; cultural preservation and modernization; and, past and present.
The play also portrays the prevailing colonial mentality among Filipinos, such that fluency in English corresponds with a higher social status. For some people, being familiar or well-adapted to American culture helps to ensure a more promising future in the United States or Canada.
Written and directed by Kanakan Balintagos, formerly known as Auraeus Solito, and first prize winner of the 2015 Palanca Awards for full-length play, Mga Buhay na Apoy tells about the reunion of a broken family in Manila.
Born in Palawan, Soledad Santos, the matriarch acted by Irma Adlawan, reconciles with her two children, Aurora Alba and Aran, performed by Karen Gaerlan and Russell Legaspi. They have been indifferent after Soledad broke up with their father and became violent to them.
Calm and reserved, Soledad first appeared waiting for Aurora, who left several years ago to escape the negative atmosphere enveloping the household.
The maids, Yaya and Gusing, acted by Peewee O’hara and Doray Dayao, are preparing a sumptous dinner for Aurora’s homecoming. Soledad’s two sisters, Lili and Selmah, played by Carol Bello and Malou Crisologo, and their families joined the celebration.
Aran spends most of his time painting inside the greenhouse, where nobody dares to enter. Nonchalant to his mother, he is talkative and bubbly with Aurora.
The dinner was lively as they shared mythical stories and collective memories of Palaw’ans, the family’s tribe in Palawan.
But at bedtime, their family secrets are revealed, and Aran, who was the last to know, will eventually accept them.
Suddenly, Soledad appears in a black night dress, sleepwalking, and tells her nightmare while in a trance.
Soledad’s struggles highlights the issue of violence against women, as she was raped first by a governor in Palawan, and then by her husband. As a result, she turned physically abusive towards her children and servants.
Their abundant lifestyle shattered after he left, alongside her relationship to their children.
But her active participation in a charismatic movement “saved her” from madness, according to Yaya, who invited her to the group.
Clearly stated in the whole duration of the play, their Christian beliefs are being challenged by the family’s cultural tradition. For instance, Aran says that humans came from the sun or fire, while Soledad insists from Adam and Eve in the Bible.
For Lili’s husband, intoxicated Kuya Benj, played by Jonathan Tadioan, wherever humans originated, what matters is that he’s alive.
Aran calls himself, “nakikibakang buhay na apoy,” a struggling breath of fire, when asked by Aurora about his condition.
The cast members performed superbly, especially Adlawan during the trance scene by showing contrasting characters.
Her character was the most that developed, followed by Aran, finally showing his utmost concern for her mother when she was in a frenzy.
Although he does not need to be strongly emotional in the story, Aran excelled in portraying his role that seems to mirror the young Balintagos.
It’s not only because of the character’s costume, wearing shirts of ethnic patterns and accessories, but also his energy and enthusiasm, especially when explaining how painting is similar to giving birth.
Formerly a baliyan or healer of the tribe, Lili is chanting in Palaw’an dialect that sets the general mood of the play. Bello’s powerful voice in accapella reverbrated in the whole theater.
She also performs a ritual during Soledad’s trance. Such ritual is similar to the one that was shown in Balintagos’ second movie of a Palawan trilogy, “Busong.”
As the curtains opened, the chanting began, while Lhorvie Nuevo appeared as a woman with long hair that touches the ground, while Aran was asleep. She was his recurring vision, as if calling him to discover his roots.
With a big mango tree in the middle, the stage, designed by Paolo Alcazaren, almost resembles the backyard of the director’s abode in Sampaloc. The set captured a feeling of being in a mini forest or garden amid the bustling metropolis, which I also experienced when I visited there.
Changing the set in the second half of the play gives a different perspective of the house with the front being inside the greenhouse.
It was crucial towards the end, as Soledad, Aurora, Selmah, Lili and Topaz, Selmah’s daughter played by Kyrie Samodio, look at the audience while describing Aran’s imaginary painting on the wall.
Aran eventually goes to Palawan to follow his destiny.
Balintagos, the director of the movie “Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros,” considered the play as very personal.
It’s not only because it tells about the mythical stories that he has deeply known and grew up with, but also explains why he changed his name, which literally means “hunter of truth” for Palaw’ans.
This article was first published on NewsDesk Asia.