by Luna Sicat Cleto
Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio is the founder of Teatrong Mulat, a theater organization that produces and tours various puppet productions all over the country and the world. It was established in 1977, at a time when there was an upsurge of theater productions that are distinctly Filipino in character and temperament. It co-existed with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), Dulaang UP, Kolambugan Dance Theater, Sining Kambayoka, and UP Babaylan, among others. What distinguishes the Teatrong Mulat productions was its use of folklore as material, and its specificity for children and young adults as audience. Lapeña-Bonifacio’s “Sepang Loca” was staged ahead of her Teatrong Mulat productions, but early on, her theatre pieces already had an awareness of speaking to the Filipino audience.
The inception of Teatrong Mulat came at an opportune time. Martial Law was ongoing, and Imelda Marcos’ patronage of the arts community was in effect. While edifices were built and international artists were welcomed, there was a distinct divide between productions and artistic constructions that promoted, or were against, the mantra of the true, the good, and the beautiful. In theatre, interstices of protest and alternative forms of citizenship were coursed through allegorical pieces, and folklore became an effective source for such.
Doreen Gamboa Fernandez intuited that folklore’s appeal to the Filipino psyche was not surprising, since it was “a society (that was) still rooted in and not far removed from oral literature.” (Fernandez, 1996: 116) Epic heroes of prodigious strength, trickster figures with incredible wit, and beautiful heroines who were more capable than what their looks were saying populated our riddles, proverbs, legends, epics, and folksongs. In sync with the de-colonization process that many intellectuals were involved with in the 1960s onwards, the scholarship of many research studies in the indigenous communities of the country were soon put to use by the playwrights, the directors, and most of those who were involved in productions. However, native and indigenous materials were also fused together with an awareness of theater that was culled from the West. Brechtian theater traditions were very much in practice, and combined with the folklore material, proved to be an engaging and combustible mix.
In Lapeña Bonifacio’s plays for children, it is interesting to note how the playwright was able to construct a representation of a child that is a personhood with a critical mindset. That character may be an animal or may be deformed, but it is always identifiable as the one who questions the system, as the curious spirit that may be out for mischief but never swept by greed or glory. It is always the character who respects others as much as himself or herself. If this character is absent, a Payaso or Clown/Fool character provides that notion. Indeed, a closer inspection of Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio’s plays will reveal how much the playwright has invested in the proper representation of the Filipino child.
In “Ang Manok at ang Lawin” (The Hen and the Hawk), Bonifacio features the sad fate of Manok and Lawin’s engagement. Manok is enamored not by her lover’s looks or personality, but by his proof of wealth, which is a stunning ring on her talon. Enter Tandang who declares his love for Manok and who offers a bigger, and better bling. Manok chooses Tandang but advises her lover to keep it a secret in the meantime because she knows Lawin’s wrath. The advice is unheeded because Lawin swoops in and declares his pact that he will, from now on, swoop down on each and every chick that they would have.
Bonifacio is commendable in her efforts to infuse folkloric material into drama, especially domestic drama. The topic is a serious discussion on fidelity, and Lawin’s outrage is partly fueled by his perceptions of the feminine. Read and performed in the 1970s, it is pioneering in the sense that the playwright used sources previously unmapped in past productions, and these are Dean Fansler’s contributions in folklore. Together with Bonifacio’s exposure to Asian theater elements, the play’s production infuses the choreography and costumes of Balinese drama. There is a special character in the play, Payaso (Clown) who serves as a walk-in narrator. Payaso’s lines are sometimes minimal, but very instructive, particulary as an introduction to the notion of theatricality, and artifice to the young: “kuwento niyo ito,” serves the best example.
In “Ang Magkapatid at ang Tsonggo” (The Brothers and the Monkeys), Bonifacio weaves a piece that offers questions on filial love and deceit. Bantawan, the older one, is a bully to Cenon, who cannot fight back because of his young age. Once, Cenon fell asleep in the forest. A group of monkeys see him and assume he is dead. They decide to give him a proper burial and a luxurious send-off, dressing him up as a prince. Because of their merrymaking, Cenon wakes up but pretends to be dead. The monkeys leave, and Cenon figures out an escape plan. He tempts the elderly monkey guard to release him, in exchange for a jewel. The monkey falls for the trick and dies, trapped in the boiling cauldron. Soon, Cenon sees Bantawan again. Bantawan notices his brother’s jewels and other adornments, and becomes greedy. He tells Cenon to go on home, and in spite of the latter’s warnings, Bantawan chooses to pretend to be dead. True enough, the monkeys find him and instead of giving him a beautiful burial, they take their revenge. Cenon saves Bantawan just in time.
This is actually a funny play to read, and I can imagine the comic potential of the work. True to the trickster tale tradition, Cenon is a kinder version of Pilandok since he saves his brother from a horrific fate. The monkeys have their own moments in the play with the hilarious set pieces of burial rites that are repeated and are symmetrically opposed. It has a didactic touch in the end, when Cenon tells his brother to moderate his greed and not to abuse his position of authority. Stylistically, the dance moves of the monkeys simulate a playful variant groupthink idiocy. Why would they dress up a stranger in refinements? Why send off a stranger at all? The play also draws our attention into the reverse side of amnesia, where exploited groups would organize themselves and make their oppressors pay. But the act of revenge here is hilarious: in thinking that it is Cenon that they are tormenting, they dress Bantawan in the exact opposite manner, except this time the materials used are organic and well-worn.
The other plays in the book are familiar enough for the reader: “Ang Pagong at ang Tsonggo” which is a dramatic rendition of “The Monkey and the Turtle,” “Paghuhukom,” which is a playful re-telling of the King’s trial over his animal subjects and becoming the object of mockery towards the end, and “Ang Pitong Kuba” which pokes fun at those who are not content with what they have. “Kung Paano Pinatay ng mga Ibaloi ang Higante” is also commendable in its spirit of community, wherein the Ibalois tap their communal bond to defeat the giant.
Bonifacio’s plays allow us to see how powerful drama is as a medium, and as practice of citizenship. Indeed, Doreen Fernandez was on the mark when she said that much of the memorable contemporary plays of the 1970s benefitted from the awareness of the Filipino theatre artist of the abundance of cultural and societal insights in Philippine folklore. However, folklore as material cannot just be used without any originality and innovation in its interpretation. Bonifacio’s plays join the ranks of her fellow contemporary theater artists in engaging the audience in laughter, entertainment, and critical thought.
Whether it is Rodolfo Galenzoga’s “Marinatha” (1974) production which appropriates an old Lanao legend about a stranger that saved the people of the kingdom from a predatory black bird, or Virgilio S. Almario and Tito Climaco’s dramatic rendition of Bernardo Carpio as rock opera, re-tellings are not mere robotic repetitions of the material. Bienvenido Lumbera’s collaboration with Nonon Pedero in “Tales of the Manuvu” proved that the epic need not be trapped in time or as archival material, and that it can speak to the current generation. What is common in all their re-tellings is the clever insinuation that although there are mighty power structures out there, there are also ways to bring down the giant: and that lies with the audience’s awareness of their own agency as human beings.