by Katrina Stuart Santiago
▶︎ I did what I've stood strongly against since forever: write a tweet-review that says, in 240 characters, who should avoid watching the musical Ang Huling El Bimbo. And it is: anyone who has a sense of the 90's, its history, its music, the State University of that time, the kind of culture that cradled the Eraserheads, the kind of nation and generation they defined through their songs.
And no, I wasn't exaggerating when I said I was ready to walk out of the production —again, something I've never done, not for film, or art events, or theater productions. With El Bimbo, the gut reaction to leave happened soon into the first act, when in the jail where the three lead characters were being detained, a man entered and started mimicking the first lines of the Circus filler "Punk Zappa." The policeman shut him up and dismissed him to be an adik, a baliw.
I couldn't believe there was such carelessness, not just in terms of using what was an integral — almost iconic part — of the Eraserheads discography, one that was special for those of us who were there when this CD came out because Marcus Adoro; but also in the manner in which it was put, for no reason whatsoever, an unnecessary addition used to get some laughs, with a dismissal that is part of what it's like to live in these dangerous times. I couldn't believe no one thought this insensitive to say the least, a normalization of violent discourse at most.
But there were many things unbelievable about the story of El Bimbo. Say, the fact that the death of a character would mean the detention of three of her friends from college, who she last saw twenty years ago, all because she had a photo of the four them in her wallet — one from twenty years ago. These three men also stay detained in that jail for all of Act 1, which makes no sense when there's no warrant for their arrest, no clear sense of why they are there, and no sense at all that they're even scared of the lone policeman in charge. Yet no one leaves. And no one calls a lawyer, or a family member for help. They stay, even as all three of them are incensed, if not angry, at each other.
But what a perfect opportunity to do a flashback, so that we might find out why these three men are connected to each other, but are angry as hell — because apparently being illegally detained by the police in the time of tokhang and anti-tambay rhetoric is not enough reason for anger.
Also: it's the perfect opportunity to sing "Sino Sa Atin." You know: "Maglakbay sa simula / Balikan natin ang dating mundo."
And of course they actually do travel back in time, to twenty years ago, in a time and place that seems to be UP, but isn't really, because the school colors are purple not maroon, but of course the three friends are in a dorm called Kalayaan, because how else can they sing "Minsan"? But then again they are also all in costumes that barely look like UP in the 90's, because why would any of us be wearing jackets (so many jackets!), or wifebeaters for that matter, or mini skirts? Neither were we saying things like "May tama ka!" or responding with "Surely!" And oh no, the placards we held did not say "No To Tyranny and Dictatorship!" because uh, Fidel Ramos was President then, and what we were actually fighting was the commercialization of education and the idea of Philippines 2000.
The flashback as a tool was of course inevitable for a musical anchored on the period-specific and context-specific songs that were in the first three albums of the Eraserheads. And of course part of the noise that surrounded this musical's making was the idea of nostalgia, so certain songs needed to be used, and heard, and done.
But there is also such a thing as doing nostalgia well, by doing research and using facts, by insisting on authenticity. Here's the thing with doing such recent songs to portray such a recent period: we are all still alive. The period unfolding on stage was OUR life, in the State U, given these songs. Anyone who was actually there would be hard put to say that the sights and sounds of the 90's unfolding on El Bimbo's stage were real.
The production could invoke creative freedom, but that would contradict the fact that, especially for the flashbacks, the use of Eraserheads songs was all decidedly literal. In fact as the narrative unfolded on stage, it became more and more clear that certain parts of the story were put in so a song could be sung.
Say, a store called Aling Nena because "Tindahan Ni Aling Nena," a gay character named AJ because "Hey Jay," a lovestruck teenager named Joy (ahem, Ligaya) saying "surely!" all the time so that they could sing "Shirley." And yes, they changed it to "In love na naman si surely."
A drive to Antipolo so they could sing "Overdrive" — never mind that that song ends with the persona not knowing how to drive, and not having a car. There was a takeover of Toyang's karenderya by a capitalist that turns it into a KTV with prostitutes, so they could sing "In a hostile takeover biiiiid!" (from "Saturn Return"), and the ensemble could sing "Halika't tikman ang langiiiiiit!" (from "Tikman"), and some of "Alapaap" too! for the sleazy KTV.
There was a rape because of the urban legend that surrounds "Spolarium."
If this seems neither here nor there, it is much worse watching it unfold onstage. And it's not just the manner in which these songs were chosen and used — which is stuff for the next review — as it is about the way in which the narrative itself took no accountability for the violence that it ended up portraying, both in those flashbacks and in the present. It was one thing to bring in all these subplots, all these characters so certain songs could be used, but a whole other thing to leave everything hanging, to refuse to flesh these out and discuss these. At a time like the present, this is not only dangerous, it's also reckless.
No one is held accountable for the rape of Joy, and all three boys who witnessed it are the ones given the time and space to speak about their guilt and anger. They are the ones who decide on the fate of their friendship, even as Joy reaches out to them. And twenty years after, the boys are declared forgiven for their silence and disappearance after the rape, as they go to the morgue to identify her dead body.
Because twenty years after, it is Joy who is dead. After the rape that we are told led to her inability to finish her studies, which led to her becoming a salesgirl, and then later a prostitute, and then an addict, and then a drug runner, she then turns up dead. We are also told all this in the course of one production number. How's that for a character arc?
But that is nothing to the narrative arc of El Bimbo, where in the end, the real crisis of the three male leads is revealed to be about the angst of 90's kids, which made them into dysfunctional adults, afraid of poverty (Eman), unable to love (Hector), and refusing to come out of the closet (AJ). These are utterly dangerous portrayals especially given the (token) activism that is built into Hector's character, the fact of LGBT rights (the fight for which was a crucial part of UP in the 90's, what with the establishment of Babaylan), the truth that a song like "Poorman's Grave" does not apply to any of them, but here you have Eman using it as his anthem — even as his poverty is not shown, or discussed.
At some point Eman screams at Hector: "Burgis!" In fact that is what ails all these characters. If not this whole production.
In this sense it's no surprise that it's the poor, struggling girl who dies. But this play ends with that specific moment when the girl was raped, this time with her little orphan daughter Ligaya sitting on the hood of the car, as confetti falls from the sky. A happy moment that makes one wonder: what the hell. Was a woman not raped in that moment, a rape that she did not get justice for? And what was this musical doing transforming it into a dream-like, alapaap moment?
El Bimbo was not edgy or dark, it was irresponsible. It throws rape in your face and then refuses to talk about its grave repercussions. It romanticizes the lack of accountability. It uses ennui as an excuse of adults who cannot take responsibility for their actions in the past, their lies in the present. It talks about the death of one woman, and makes it about the freedom of three men from their past guilts and present anxieties.
And because it's the title of the musical, they put into question even the idea that Joy's death was borne of current violence. This, even as it starts with her dead body on a dark street — an obvious reference to the state of tokhang nation. This, even when she herself warns against the Konsehal who's also drug lord, the same Konsehal who was oppressive ROTC officer when the three men were in college, the same Konsehal who had them illegally detained in the precinct.
This abuse of power is put into question because: "At isang gabi, nasagasaan, sa isang madilim na eskinita." Never mind that we already know that she was not "tagahugas ng pinggan sa may Ermita."
If it all seems like too much, it also sure seemed like this production put too little thought into actually writing a story that is believable and truthful, authentic and honest, about what it was like in the 90's, but also what it's like in the present. And sure the performances were fantastic — no production can go wrong with Oj Mariano and Gian Magdangal, Topper Fabregas and Reb Atadero — but not even standing-ovation-worthy performances can save a badly-written, ill-conceptualized musical.
And I'm not even talking yet about how they decontextualized, chopped up, and murdered Eraserheads songs. As I said, stuff for another review. ***
"Ang Huling El Bimbo" is written by Dingdong Novenario, and directed by Dexter Santos. It runs until August at Resorts World Manila.
Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic, whose political commentary is at katrinasantiago.com, and is radikalchick online.