Love, Nation, Creativity: On "Mula Sa Buwan"

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

Nicco Manalo as Cyrano. From the Mula Sa Buwan FB Page.

▶︎ My bias against foreign theater works staged in the local has grown through the years. The possibilities for original theater work will never be realized if we don’t take the risk of staging it, more deliberately and consistently. On the upside, there is an untapped resource of a handful of people doing really good adaptations of foreign works, old and new, a productive and critical way of taking something distant and different, and making it familiar and relevant in this context. Done well, with a very clear sense of the value of the original, and how it can speak to a wider audience in the here and now, the adaptation cradles a creative spirit that is not only relevant, but can also be very powerful.

This is the inevitable context of Mula Sa Buwan, an independent production, being restaged in 2018, now in the context of a theater scene that struggles to deal with a state of the nation that allows little for leisure expenses, even less for theater. After all, when films remain as cheaper alternative and more accessible option, why would you spend on theater?

But maybe the question isn’t why, but when. It is when the theater production is originally Filipino, even as it is twice removed from an original, even when the original text seems so far gone from where we are. Mula Sa Buwan is a musical based on Soc Rodrigo’s translation into Filipino of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. What it remains is this: it’s the story of a protagonist who is on the one hand confident in his intellect, but insecure about his looks. Of course this means an unrequited love, as it does mean the ability to love so willingly and humbly, that life and limb don’t matter.

It is a love story. And it is no surprise that this is what is sold about this production — it is what will bring audiences in.

But what should be said about Mula Sa Buwan is that it is more than just this love story, one that is ably built by the material, but also is wonderfully acted in by the trio of Nicco Manalo (Cyrano), Gab Pangilinan (Roxane), and Myk Solomon (Christian). And yes, it is about music that’s original and memorable and romantic, which is beautifully written and sung. Songs that do not fall into the trap of the acceptable and popular, and instead work with familiar strains of say, the old school kundiman, or some classic rock, just rebooted, refitted, to this present on stage. There is nuance in this music, as there is newness. That one leaves the theater with an LSS or two is proof that it works.

Yet the value of this production is not just in its able adaptation and its original music; it is in its decision to speak of nation in a time of change and crisis and violence. It is in the portrayal of the historical shorn of romanticization, rendering it relevant and important without shoving motherhood statements down our throats. It is the careful and deliberate engagement with concepts of the nationhood and identity that respect the audience enough to force us to think, and feel.

The narrative shift from the individual to the national, for example, while a surprise given the dominance of the love story and youthfulness for much of the First Act, worked because the undercurrent of the narrative was instability and change — an undercurrent that was so subtly done, so well-calculated, that the foreshadowing was not much more than the shift to the hauntingly beautiful song by Rosana (Phi Palmos). In this casting, given Palmos’s ability to imbue complexity into this character, the performance is layered with a mystery and longing, a comfortable strangeness, that worked to the material’s advantage. Rosana’s performance was on the one hand emboldening, as it was foreboding. A tribute to the period as it was a warning of things to come.

This same kind of painstaking restraint was in the swift but powerful moments when the violence of war unfolded on stage. Certainly there is more to be said about this historical milieu, and there is every reason to discuss it at length, critical as it is to Cyrano’s unfolding. Yet one had to appreciate the production’s decision to throw the audience a sucker punch by compressing the fear and courage, the violence and anger, the pain and trauma, via compelling and powerful music and choreography, in one stretch that spans the intermission. A testament to how well these moments were handled is how easily one could make sense of the beginning of Act Two, and the realization that hits you once the lights go on: years had passed. They had all changed.

What had not changed was love. Cyrano’s mostly, who remains as the most evolved character, literally and figuratively, in this story’s unfolding. It is in Cyrano that one realizes that love for another, is love for nation, is the nurturing of intellect and creativity, is the fight for freedom. In the person of this Cyrano, painfully unfamiliar to many of us, one is reminded that the heart and soul of nation could be in our ability to think, to imagine, to soar beyond what is here and now, and to know to hope and demand and fight for better. To dream so large that we dream of the moon.

Watching Manalo play Cyrano is a gift. It is to his credit that while this character might seem too playful and mischievous to take seriously, we also realize quickly enough that he is intellectual: he knows of words and storytelling, as he does of imagination and dreaming, as he does of nationhood and identity. Where Cyrano might be reckless and fearless, Manalo is able to make each line, each stanza, each word that he speaks matter. Here we are reminded not just of the weight of words, but also of the value of the writer, the thinker, as he is able to fashion the world from possibility to actuality, from dreaming to reality.

Manalo’s portrayal is courageous because he did not aspire to strike a balance between Cyrano’s insecurity and confidence. Instead it seemed he sought to define panache before it was even said; instead, he made Cyrano real to an audience that might sadly not even think him familiar. In Manalo’s hands, panache is transformed into the complexity of a man’s undying spirit and unwillingness to surrender — in a time of actual war, in a struggle for his intellectual freedom and creativity. It is about humility and modesty, cloaked in self-importance and largeness of character. He is unapologetic, but only because he knows he is his own enemy. Cyrano is the every artist who struggles and dies doing so.

Cyrano is the every Pinoy. Who struggles. And dies doing so.

In many ways Mula Sa Buwan is a love story. But the bigger love story here might be the one that it tells about nation. And given the state of the nation, and its effect on our creativities, it couldn’t come at a better time. ***

Mula Sa Buwan is produced by Black Box Productions, directed by Pat Valera, with adaptation (book and lyrics) by Valera and music and lyrics by William Elvin Manzano. Musical direction by TJ Ramos, and arrangement by Dana Marquez. Choreography by JM Cabling. It runs until this weekend, Nov 21 to 25, at the Arete, at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic who writes political commentary at