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PETA’s Walang Aray is a ‘sarsuwela’ in pop culture and a love letter in one

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — As its big comeback post-pandemic, Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) reimagined Severino Reyes’ sarsuwela Walang Sugat into Walang Aray, starring no less than entertainment company Star Magic’s popular love team Alexa Ilacad and KD Estrada as its lead.

In a nutshell, the play centers on the principal characters Tenyong and Julia who were separated as a result of the systemic abuse of the friars of their time. From the original plot, Julia is an obedient maiden in Bulacan who has fallen in love with her distant cousin Tenyong. Tenyong, after hearing of his father’s death at the hands of the friars, was set on avenging his family and became a fugitive. In his absence, Julia was betrothed to an affluent suitor Miguel and the two were to be married. But on the day of the wedding, Tenyong arrived at the scene appearing fatally wounded with his last wish to be wed to Julia.

PETA’s take, however, sees Julia in a new light beyond an obedient ingenue but a heroine with a mind of her own. She’s headstrong to follow her heart, defying what her mother expects of her and openly trifles with antagonist Padre Alfaro (played by Johnnie Moran). In a final bid to convince the friar to wed her to Tenyong, she squared in on his perversion and said, “Pwede rin akong pumasok na lang sa kumbento at p’wede mong gawin lahat ng ginawa ni Padre Salvi kay Maria Clara.” (I can also enter the convent where you can do everything Father Salvi did to Maria Clara.)

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Because music is innate in sarsuwela, it is worth noting how catchy the songs are – particularly the ones that serve as comic relief to the revolution which is the backdrop of the show; balancing the big ensemble numbers with the heavier solos by the heroine. The simplest, yet the most impactful, of the reportoire is the recurring anthem which is a vow of liberation through love.

Popular cast aside, what made the show truly dynamic is its chorus and ensemble showing that no character is too small, whether they are revolutionaries frazzled by the battle or playing the townspeople arching their necks for the latest gossip. The secondary characters Monica (played by Kiki Baento), Lucas (Carlon Josol Matobato), Don Tadeo (played by Norbs Portales), and Juana (played by Neomi Gonzales) are a delightful presence onstage and not just plot devices to be cast aside.

With an audience living in seconds-long attention span in a digital world, Walang Aray successfully captivates them by treading between serious and slapstick with impeccably timed lights and sounds cue (designed by David Esguerra and Haps Constantino, respectively). The deliberate call on the director’s part to make the movers visible on stage dispels the surface-level spectacle of the theater but does not discount the craft of the production — a decision to pay tribute to production people who were labeled non-essential during the pandemic. It’s also noteworthy how the telon was incorporated into the set, an important element in sarsuwela and theater at large (production design by Julio Garcia).

For a 121-year-old piece, the story still resonates with modern audience — the friction between the powerful who abuse their influence and the hero (Estrada) who has to make life-altering decisions based on his societal condition. Rody Vera’s modernization of the dialogue includes lines that may be recalled from references in pop culture: “Pag may gulong, may daan;” “Malayo ang tingin, wala namang tinatanaw;” “Sino ba naman ako para pigilan ka?”

In fact, even the title is lifted from an old catchphrase of a band-aid commercial, Vera said during the press launch.

Severino Reyes’ grandson Jun Reyes who first commissioned Vera for the modern adaptation said, “The retelling of the story with the creative mind of Rody to make it more relevant for our generation now… I think it’s history retold in a fresh way.”

PETA’s resurrection of the very piece that marked Reyes as the Father of Tagalog Sarswela is proof enough that theater is enduring and shall not be again deemed non-essential. And perhaps, as the battlecry says “tumindig at umibig,” Walang Aray is a stark reminder to love so fierce as to triumph against the imposing struggle.

Walang Aray is adapted by Rody Vera, directed by Ian Segarra, choreographed by Gio Gahol, with Music & Additional Lyrics, Musical Direction, and Sound Design by Vince Lim.

Currently, Walang Aray has 40 shows until May 14 at the PETA Theater Center. Tickets are available here. For more information, follow PETA’s social media pages @petatheater. 

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