‘Lean’: Old themes, vibrant cast
MANILA, Philippines - One assumes that on paper, UP Repertory Company’s “Lean” — directed by Kathryn Manga and based on the musical by renowned singer-songwriter Gary Granada — reads like the tour-de-force theater this production is intended to be.
The narrative is linear but by no means a storyboard re-telling of the life and times of the political activist who was assassinated at the age of 27, amid the reactionary backlash following Ferdinand Marcos’ downfall and the restoration of 3rd Republic-style democracy.
Despite this convention, the scenes seem to be at times depicted as overlapping events, amid the background of video footages related to or part of Lean Alejandro’s young but already full life: from the First Quarter Storm of 1970 [he was 10 years old that time] to the Mendiola massacre of 1987, also the year of Lean’s death.
From this presentation, one understands the tidal, cyclical nature of time and its elusive state in our minds, such as our nostalgia for memories we cherish the most because they actually never happened or might have occurred in our parallel lives.
This seamless flow of time is what the play succeeds to convey, driven further by Granada’s vigorous songs which make this an altogether lively production.
To be sure, there are not a few clumsy moments in the staging that I watched at UP’s Aldaba Recital Hall on September 20, a day after Alejandro’s 26th death anniversary and 3 days before the 41st anniversary of martial law on September 23. An old classmate of mine who was a former student regent at UP [the position Lean first occupied as a chemistry major later shifting to Philippine studies] noted with consideration that this was, after all, a student production.
Where this play might have faltered is in the inevitable misrepresentation of Lean Alejandro here and there, as it doggedly sustains its hero-worship cult in recounting his rise in the protest movement during the last decade of the Marcos dictatorship.
A friend and classmate of Lean who was among the audience that evening said he couldn’t reconcile the Lean in the musical with the Lean he knew who was, he said, a sensible and soft-spoken man, careful and meticulous in his pronouncements, and a rather refined dresser — not at all the stereotype of the scruffy, fire-breathing activist.
Of course, this being a leftist-inspired production right in its territory, the play was replete with its old themes, now ossified from any point of view outside the Left.
Cory Aquino is a favorite target of satire in this play; she of the gentry who embodied the moderate democratic struggle that was always averse to the revolutionary option [which her husband, on the other hand, had flirted with before his spiritual conversion from his long incarceration during martial law].
An extension of Cory in this play is her sister-in-law Tessie Aquino-Oreta, Lean’s opponent in the district of Malabon-Navotas during the 1987 general election. Her song-and-dance here [as performed by Lyn Angelica Pano] projects the facile participation of the burgis in the democratic struggle against the Marcos dictatorship
This component of the protest movement was indeed a mod-swinging party, in hindsight, that informed much of the 4 days of People Power in 1986. That, as opposed to the grim-and-determined atmosphere of the Left [in which the polo-wearing Lean — search his images — stood as an elegant contrast].
At one point in the musical, Oreta’s character does a tango number with a scoundrel from the military, which brings to mind the late journalist and patriot Teodoro M. Locsin’s now-classic, exasperated quip, “Tango Filipino” — “tanga na, gago pa.”
Yet the musical also makes fun of its own standard tropes, and this great dose of humor relieves this production from its overt sloganeering. Alas, there are distinct facets of our political history that the play also closes its eyes to, notably the forces of nationalism in Lean’s milieu that were steadfastly opposed to land reform during the immediate post-war era. One such titan of nationalism, long deceased before Lean’s time in the protest movement, was widely reputed to be a land-grabber.
The production I saw had Odraude Alub as Lean and Isabel Maria Luz Quesada as his wife, Lidy Nacpil-Alejandro.
Alub compensated for his almost motionless acting with his wonderful expressive singing voice [like Quesada’s], such that this composite in his performance succeeded in projecting his Lean as a truly iconic figure, almost Christ-like in his largely still presence in the musical, his singing akin to a prophet’s voice.
Ekis Gimenez, in his diverse skits as the lapdog to the military enforcer played by Jose Adrian Dalangin [in CAT uniform], and Klara Bilbao as a fervent, child-like activist in Lean’s network, are among the actors who stand out in this predominantly vibrant cast. [Gimenez and Dalangin are also this play’s choreographer and assistant musical director, respectively.]
A certain dimension
One entered the Aldaba Hall with the “Hymn of the New Society” being played in the background, before the start of the musical. Any theater-goer with a chronic passion for the genre would feel at once having walked into a certain dimension. And this musical is clearly a period piece from our perspective today.
The choice of background music is also telling because, apart from enhancing the context of the musical, it also celebrates a fresh and energetic time in the underground movement, amid that stately-fascist hymn dominating the airwaves then.
Lean was too young to take part in that struggle, but our collective memory might associate him more with that earnest phase, instead of the treacherous aftermath of post-Marcos democracy during which the movement itself [already diluted according to Victor Corpus’ “Silent War”] would begin to unravel further.
All these implications from that night would leave one with the sensation that he had been touched by a forlorn spirit.
Here's a clip from the musical: