Our Lives, With Beer and Birit

Juliene Mendoza (Fernan, second from right) enters via boat in "Rak of Aegis," a musical based on the hits of 90’s band Aegis. It runs until March 9, 2014 at the PETA Theater Center (Photo by Jude Bautista)

Rock music of the ‘90s, sung birit R&B style a lá Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner by the Aegis Band, forms the crux of PETA’s new musical, which runs at the Peta Theater in Quezon City every weekend until March 9.

Can rock music past its heyday draw an audience today? Here we are, fatigued and weary-of-heart as we witness tragedy upon tragedy wrought by storms over our southern islands. We watch helplessly, our incompetence looming larger on TV day by day. Beyond being branded “resilient” by aid agencies of the First World, a feeling deep within continues to nag—a silent, stubborn fear that despite the vaunted brand, we may have become resilient dead-enders. Thus, post Yolanda, the question arises: Could many be enticed to listen once more to Aegis’ “Basáng-basâ sa ulán” (Soaked By the Rain), its most defining hit reprised onstage?  

Ever the contrarian risk-taker in the sink-or-swim world of theater and true to its being the only pioneer left to produce original work in Pilipino, PETA dares sail out of the doldrums, yes, but possibly also into a sea of red ink.

In the ‘90s, Aegis showcased the Pinoy love of sentiment a.k.a. madrama. They sang of heartbreak and lives of persistent poverty—“always wet with rain”—life as teleserye, a sob story where elemental emotions rule.

No wonder Aegis’ music became a staple of beer gardens and karaoke joints. Wannabe birit kings and queens belted out its songs with gusto, after a few bottles of beer; the higher the decibel the better.  

Aegis’ music became a staple of beer gardens and karaoke joints. Wannabe birit kings and queens belted out its songs with gusto.

The lyrics were elementary. Listen to: “Pag-ibig ko sa ‘yo ay tunay at totoo,/ Sintamis ng wine, sintatag ng sunshine  (My love for you is real, sweet as wine as strong as sunshine), or “Nasasaktan ako Oh Baby sa tuwing nakikita ka / Naninibugho ako Oh Baby pag may kasama kang iba  (I’m hurt Oh Baby when I see you, I get jealous Oh Baby when you’re with someone else). Naïve, to say the least but charming. “Groovy” in its time and within its context. “Sakto!” in today’s pinoyspeak, but Greek, most probably, to the tony set for whom being Pinoy (shudder, shudder) means merely “making tusok the fishball!” What’s basic/elemental/elementary was certainly easy to memorize, easier to remember and sing even when, or especially when inebriated.

To find resonance with one’s audience as the Aegis Band did in the ‘90s, PETA needed to conjure nothing less than magic onstage.

Playwright, Liza Magtoto, does it by setting her story in an urban poor community that’s flooded for two months with no relief in sight. Barangay Venizia became a platform wide enough to present today’s social issues.

Temperatures rise over the unmasking of venal senators and congressmen in the pork barrel scam, over environmental degradation caused by well-connected real estate developers who leave the poor to suffer the consequences, and over corruption that’s as endemic as the flotsam and jetsam fished out of the flood in Bgy. Venizia.

All this unfolds in dialogue with street-smart wit, so full of throwaway lines one is hard-pressed to catch them all!  

Myke Salomon, RAK’s music and vocal director/arranger, finds his groove. Mash-ups of various Aegis songs provide deft transitions from spoken dialogue to solo arias, to duets, then to choruses sung by an ensemble in excellent voice.

Where lyrics written in short breath lines dictate brief musical phrasing, appropriate instrumental and vocal riffs are inserted, extending the musical line. This is a triumph over what could have been naïvely singsong. Lyricists are gaining experience in theater and dealing with demands made by narrative and drama. Perhaps we won’t have long to wait. Sophistication is in the cards.

Cheers to all the performers for spot on timing—tossing comic lines breezily, sometimes under the breath, but always with aplomb and uproariously funny. I’ve often remarked that should a play’s pacing slacken, its longueur unmitigated, or should visual appeal be lacking, then, direction isn’t by Maribel Legarda.  Pushing, always pushing the envelope not only forward, but also towards the edge, she takes risks, works out fresh ideas and seldom disappoints.

Real life couple and theater veterans Isay Alvarez Seña (Mary Jane) & Robert Seña (Kiel). "Rak of Aegis" is a musical based on the hits of 90’s band Aegis. It runs until March 9, 2014 at the PETA Theater Center. (Photo by Jude Bautista)

Watch how this one character is introduced: Fernan, the play’s heavy-set heavy, dressed in a suit of what looks like white sharkskin, standing on the prow, the boat gliding slowly forward. But instead of waving with an open hand, his left fist is closed and it moves up and down like the golden lucky cat we see on the counter beside the cashier in Binondo restaurants.  

The use of soap bubbles was stunning (Yup, soap-bulâ, of the labada kind!) to underline a climactic moment. Towards the end of the first act, the two lead characters fall in love amid a rainbow of bubbles, drawing an audible gasp from teenage girls in the audience who were simply kilig (thrilled)-to-the-bones!

The audience on a Saturday afternoon was mostly college students. Very few among the visibly well heeled were in attendance. What this audience seemed to lack in financial resource, they made up for in enthusiastic response: laughing, singing along, weeping, clapping—absorbing heartily what was happening onstage.

The residents of the gated villages in Makati were conspicuously absent.

PETA Admin explains that this wasn’t for lack of trying to get them in.  It must be the traffic one must suffer to get from Makati to Q.C., or the play being in Pilipino. More likely it’s the competition.

There lies the rub! Glancing at the Inquirer’s Lifestyle/Theater supplement that Saturday, I saw the nominees for Philstage Gawad Buhay’s 2013 4th quarter citations. Of the nine works cited, only one was in Pilipino. “Grease” led the pack with “The Producers” not far behind. Only two of five works cited for the category of Outstanding Production for Children were in Pilipino. Countless banners hung on lampposts to advertise  “Wicked” showing at the CCP, but none for “Rak of Aegis” at the PETA theater. And yet, between the two musicals, Rak is the more original. “Wicked” is a spin-off from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Rak deserves unqualified support because it is about us—written in Pilipino and fully relevant now. But of course, as often happens, the one with the glossier surface wins.

Perhaps this shall pass away. But until it does, PETA and other like-minded companies must hold on and labor to delineate the Pilipino in us. It’s a tall order, surely, but one that must be done so that we may keep our own radiance—undimmed by Broadway. PETA must cling to our culture as if to a lifeboat in rough seas, in order to save our soul.      

Renato L. Santos

Renato L. Santos

Renato L. Santos is a retired banker, poet in Pilipino, and a film and theater enthusiast.