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The Struggle for Noli Me Tangere

11:19 PM June 21, 2011

I came home to a nation rediscovering Rizal.

From Manila to Cebu to Bohol, on the streets, in the malls, on campuses, Filipinos have been remembering and celebrating the life and times of the greatest Filipino in history.

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I even bought a T-shirt in Cebu. It shows Rizal with other heroes, including Andres Bonifacio, looking hip, cool and modern with the caption, “Are you one of us?”

But one disappointment stands out as the nation marks the 150th birth anniversary of the greatest Filipino in history – a plan to mount a musical based on Rizal’s classic novel is struggling to move forward.

Tanghalang Pilipino of the Cultural Center of the Philippines is restaging Noli Me Tangere, the musical which won rave reviews years ago.

The Noli, which opens in August, is also Tanghalan’s way of marking its 25th year as one of the country’s respected theater companies.

The production features some of the country’s best and most respected artists. The libretto was written by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera and the music was composed by the respected and well-known Ryan Cayabyab. Another National Artist Salvador Bernal served as costume designer.

Veteran theater artist Audie Gemora is the director. Young actors Mark Bautista and Cris Villonco lead the cast.

That’s first class talent behind a timely and important cultural event. It’s also first class commitment from a group of Filipino artists.

That’s because Noli Me Tangere, the musical, has been wrestling with pretty tough odds.

The production received a grant from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines but the budget is still tight.

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The Noli has yet to attract enough support from the private sector, despite the steady backing of businessman Tony Boy Cojuangco, a longtime supporter of Tanghalan, and other artist organizations.

The cast has been holding rehearsals in the lobby of Star City, through the generosity of prima ballerina Lisa Macuja, says my friend Nanding Josef, artistic director of the Tanghalan. But to keep costs down, the air conditioning is not usually turned on.

During rehearsals, actors and staff are served water and biscuits in a large tin can.

“Yong para sa patay,” Nanding quipped. It’s a “hand to mouth existence,” he added. “Tipid na tipid ang production.”

Filipino theater artists, including lead performers, generally don’t get paid a lot. And it’s been the case with the Noli production, he said.

The Noli, of course, is the Great Filipino Novel.

It was the literary masterpiece that shook Spanish rule in the late 19th century. The novel inspired young Filipinos to end colonial tyranny and set the stage for the revolution that defined us as a nation.

The Noli and its sequel, El Filibusterismo, are required reading in high school. They were such fascinating reads of Spanish era Philippines that I picked them up again a few years ago. (And I plan to get copies of the new translations to read both novels another time.)

Rizal was both an engaging storyteller and a brilliant social critic. We still remember the impressive cast of characters he created. Crisostomo Ibarra. Maria Clara. Sisa and her sons Basilio and Crispin. Padre Damaso. Elias and Salome.

They’ve become embedded in our culture and language. Activist Carlos Celdran used Padre Damaso, the cruel Spanish friar, in his critique of the Catholic Church’s political positions. Maria Clara still symbolizes the beautiful, gentle, modest but weak Filipina.

In the debates on the paths to social change, there are inevitable references to Crisostomo Ibarra, the passionate reformer who later morphed into the cynical revolutionary Simoun.

Then there’s Elias who came to represent the Filipino willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the homeland – whose final words about dying “without seeing the dawn break upon my homeland” has inspired many a Pinoy patriot.

But how ironic that in the year we’re marking Rizal’s birth anniversary, the Noli has not received the support it deserves.

How sad that, while the nation is rediscovering Rizal, a major production based on what is perhaps his greatest artistic legacy — the novel that in part led to his martyrdom, that launched the revolution that gave birth to the Filipino nation and continues to impress and inspire many — is struggling to survive.

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel.

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TAGS: book, Cultural Center of the Philippines, El Filibusterismo, hero, history, Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, Philippines, Spain, Spanish, theater
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