Tanghalang Pilipino, once again, shows that theater can be a microcosm of society. The resident theater group of the Cultural Center of the Philippines is currently staging a rock musical that reminisces the most traumatic periods of Philippine history—the martial law years under the Marcos dictatorship.
The staging of the rock musical EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson, written by Ed Maranan and directed by Chris Millado, is as timely as it is relevant. Although it is basically a play about the martial law years, many issues being tackled in EJ still resonate today. The opening repertoire makes a strong start as the ensemble and the Narrator situate the story vis-à-vis world and national events.
Ricky Davao and Juliene Mendoza alternate for the role of Evelio Javier, while Jett Pangan and Riki Benedicto alternate as Edgar Jopson. When this writer saw the musical, Juliene Mendoza and Riki Benedicto played the lead roles. The two are competent singers and actors. But the strongest vocal performance and most versatile acting role is essayed by Nar Cabico. The young performer plays the chameleon-like Narrator who not only propels the story forward but also makes commentaries throughout the play.
Though Edjop and Evelio never met in real life, their characters meet in the afterlife to remember and take stock of their short but meaningful lives. They both came from well-off families, both learned about the hardships faced by the masses, and both died for their chosen cause. The stories are told in chronological order, with events affecting one man's life, also affecting the other. It is a study of contrasts: the two men wanted to put an end to the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos but through different means.
Viewers will get to know Edjop, the former president of the National Union of the Students, and Evelio, the Ateneo law graduate who served as governor of the province of Antique. EJ attempts to interweave the stories of these two youth leaders—the former advocating for armed struggle while the latter taking the path of parliamentary struggle. The play runs a bit long (around three hours) and drags in some parts, but it is comprehensive.
Many of the two heroes' contemporaries are still alive today and can vividly remember that time in our history when ideals ran high. For the succeeding generation, watching this play is a chance to relive the stories their parents have told them since childhood. For the youth, many who might feel far removed from these historical events, watching EJ is an invaluable eye-opener on what kind of battles had to be waged for the freedom we enjoy today.
The music of EJ is arranged by The Dawn, and when they are not the ones performing for EJ, they have an alternate band playing called Sisig. Some of The Dawn's previously released songs are used to highlight certain parts of the lives of the two heroes. The music has the rock vibe to capture the energy of the era but not intrusive enough as to distract from the action onstage. Francis Reyes, lead guitarist of The Dawn, observes that a lot of the original lyrics of The Dawn's songs fit specific scenes perfectly, even though he admits that their band is far from being a politicized band.
The concept is a rock musical, so the lead actors hold wireless microphones when they are singing. This works in the first and last part, but during most of the play, it becomes distracting and cumbersome. This is especially true when a character has to put on a jacket or hold a telephone.
Especially powerful are the scenes of the encounter between Edjop and Marcos, Marcos and his cronies' excesses, and the militant uprising known as the First Quarter Storm (1970). Equally moving are the scenes wherein the two heroes' sons sing "Ang Iyong Paalam" and their wives sing "Salamat."
A scene is dedicated to remembering all the other heroes of the period that hail from Ateneo. This would have been a very effective and fitting ending but the play backtracks to show the brutal killing of Evelio and Edjop. Footage from recent events are projected on the screen as the ensemble sings "Ang Mabuhay para sa Kapwa," which sums up the protagonists' lives.
In closing, the song asks the audience: "Hanggang kailan kaya ang ating sitwasyon? Kailan magbabago ang ihip ng panahon?"
Venue: Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater), Cultural Center of the Philippines, Roxas Blvd., Pasay City
Performances: February 29 (Friday) 8 pm
March 1 (Saturday) 3 pm / 8 pm
March 2 (Sunday) 3 pm / 8 pm
March 7 (Friday) 8 pm
March 8 (Saturday) 3 pm / 8 pm
March 9 (Sunday) 3 pm / 8 pm