‘Mga Buhay na Apoy’ smolders hearts and minds

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.

Irma Adlawan as Soledad Santos acts superbly when she was in a trance, while her family tried to calm her down. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz
Irma Adlawan as Soledad Santos acts superbly when she was in a trance, while her family tried to calm her down. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz

Struggles

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.

Russell Legaspi as Aran climbs on the mango tree that has only one fruit. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz
Russell Legaspi as Aran climbs on the mango tree that has only one fruit. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz

Superb acting

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.

Kanakan’s home

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.

Art Basel shows Filipino artworks at par globally 

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

HONG KONG — A red flag looks like that of a communist party at a distance. It has a sickle and, instead of a hammer, a wine glass. It was the work of London-based Filipino artist Pio Abad.

Modern and contemporary art of Art Basel Hong Kong came in different forms and concepts that without looking at the artists’ names, one would not know which country they represent.

“What makes an artwork Filipino is because the artist is Filipino,” said exhibitor Rachel Rillo at Silverlens galleries of the Philippines and Singapore that featured Abad’s works.

Art is becoming global, she said, adding that the flag was a satire and a contemporary art dialogue, along with a Hermes scarf painting of the same artist.

Silverlens also displayed the works of Filipino artists Maria Taniguchi, Leslie De Chavez, Renato Orara, Bernardo Pacquing, Gregory Halili, Patricia Perez Eustaqiuo and Frank Callaghan, and Yee I-Lann from Malaysia.

Displaying at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on March 15-17 were over 230 galleries from 37 countries, half of which are found in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Their artworks varied in sizes, from huge canvases hanging from the ceiling to small used paint tube caps scattered like dots on white walls.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro
Pio Abad’s flag is a satire of a communist party flag, says Rachel Rillo of Silverlens. PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro

Highly conceptual

Artinformal, another gallery from the Philippines featured Nilo Ilarde’s “faulty landscape,” a collection of salvaged objects such as small paint tubes, tube caps, and brushes. On its fourth year at the international fair, the gallery  chose Ilarde because his work was “highly conceptual with a very strong statement,” said its creative director, Tina Fernandez.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro
Nilo Ilarde’s Faulty Landscape PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro

The Drawing Room Gallery of the Philippines displayed Gaston Damag’s “Shadows of civilization,” using wooden sculptures that symbolize an Ifugao rice god called “bulol” as a proposal of art. “There’s no message at all. I don’t pretend. It’s all about art,” he explained.

The gallery tends to work with specific pool of artists, who are critical in the sense that their works are also a part of their daily life and cultural conditions, said its curator Siddharta Perez.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro
Gaston Damag (left) says his “Shadows of Civilization” is a proposal for art. PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro

The three galleries have joined the art fair for several years and placed their artists in the map.

But, unlike Rillo, Fernandez cannot say that Filipino artists have reached global standards in terms of quality of works as they need to improve more. “Local artists should read up what’s happening around the world and attend fairs to see what’s out there,” she added.

Typical commercial art fair

On the other hand, an artist does not need to join international events to excel and be known globally, said Gaston Damag, who was on his second time to join the fair. In fact, it can be a disadvantage to be in “a typical commercial art fair,” he said.

“If you’re not careful, you can be eaten like a small piece of meat,” he said, adding that an artist has to hold a strong position to be less eaten by the commercial aspect of the fair.

Galleries from the Western countries aimed to expand their reach in the Asian region, such as the Richard Gray Gallery located in Chicago and New York.

“We made new clients each year,” said Paul Gray, one of the partners of the gallery.

Hong Kong is a sophisticated city, he said, but it does not have some of the things that make up a great art scene in Western cities. “But, it’s obvious that it’s moving in that direction,” he added.

Over 60,000 people from all over the world visited the fair.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO
Some 60,000 people from all over the world visited Art Basel Hong Kong this year at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

Inkling of aesthetics

Citing that most of the visitors were widely exposed to art and galleries, Rillo said Filipino art enthusiasts do not take much to be at par as they have an inkling of aesthetics.

However, Fernandez said Filipinos need more education to have deep understanding on art, especially the people in the government to give more focus on it.

She hopes that the government will make things easy for the private sector in facilitating and building more venues for art promotion. “Just make things easy for us,” she said, adding that they are being taxed on Philippine artworks brought back from international exhibitions.

First time to see Art Basel Hong Kong, Filipino private art collector Andrew Benedicion expressed his bias with the Art Fair Philippines, a major exhibition of modern and contemporary Philippine visual art.

Although the artworks in Art Basel were nice, he said, it is “very generic looking.” The lighting in the halls were bright and the white walls of every booth drenched the entire space, creating a sense of monotony.

Benedicion likes the gritty effect of the Philippines’ fair that was held inside a carpark with darker lighting.

This also explains why he still wants to collect Filipino artworks besides being a Filipino. It is the raw and gritty feel of Philippines contemporary art that appeals to him.