When the topic of Philippine history comes up, the usual suspects are Jose Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Andres Bonifacio. In the millennial context, the name Antonio Luna also pops up thanks to the monumental success of the period film Heneral Luna. Apolinario Sadly, Mabini isn’t as popular, even if he’s considered as the brains of the revolution. In Tanghalang Pilipino’s musical Mabining Mandirigma, due recognition is given to the man, and it’s presented in the steampunk style.
Mabining Mandirigma (Gentle Warrior) begins on June 12, 1898, when the sublime paralytic shares his visions and plans for the second phase of the Philippine Revolution against Spain. General Emilio Aguinaldo is impressed, and appoints him chief adviser. Mabini encourages Aguinaldo to open a congress that will become an advisory body, but it’s a decision that goes awry when it is filled by members of the ilustrado, the ruling class. Mabini, who sides with the poor, locks horns with the congress, which takes advantage of the coming of the Americans by granting a loan that will give them control of the government.
The Spanish and American rule, plus the internal struggle, takes its toll on Mabini, but they are struggles that he continued to fight until the day he died, which the musical also covers.
The thing that stands out when you watch Mabining Mandirigma is the steampunk setting. Toym Imao’s set is a simple design with stationary cogs and gears that look like its moving thanks to the brilliant light design by Katsch Catoy. And of course, James Reyes designed a breathtaking wardrobe that adds an otherworldly element to the story.
Putting the musical in a steampunk setting may be a curious decision, but it’s one that director Chris Millado explains so well. According to him, steampunk repurposes the expression of the Victorian era and engages them with the current. Similarly, Tanghalang Pilipino wants to engage this classic story with the current situation.
Despite its serious premise, Mabining Mandirigma has moments of comedy. Lots of it, surprisingly. Comic relief came from the congress, played by JV Ibesate as Pedro Paterno, Jonathan Tadioan as Felipe Buencamino, Marco Viana as Felipe Calderon, and Karl Jingco as Gregorio Araneta. There was a song number that referenced a lot of things from modern times, and I was forcing myself not to laugh out loud (I failed).
Amidst all this is Mabini, portrayed by the lovely Liesl Batucan (yes, an actress plays the sublime paralytic). She is dressed in a simple white garb, and her voice is a reassuring melody in the din of chaos. At first, I thought she was overpowered by Arman Ferrer as Aguinaldo, whose booming voice reminds me of the great Robert Sena, but I began to appreciate Batucan’s elegant portrayal of a steadfast character in changing times.
The story may have happened a long time ago, but it’s one that can still be applied today. Mabini is a man who died for the country, who refused to compromise his vision of a truly independent Philippines. He denied himself wealth and prestige, and savagely fought for Aguinaldo to reject the American offer of Philippine autonomy under the United States of America (USA). To him, he dreamed of a Philippines free from colonizers and poverty.
At the end of the musical, the cast came out in their regular clothes, voicing out what happened to their characters after Mabini’s death. Suddenly, the setting turned to 2016, and the cast members addressed the ripe issue of former president Ferdinand Marcos being buried at Libingan ng Mga Bayani and president Rodrigo Duterte’s relaxed stance on extrajudicial killings. It was a chilling moment that got a standing ovation from the crowd.
Today, we are free from foreign rule, but we are shackled by a society where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. We need someone like Mabini who will fight for us, who will address poverty, and who will truly be answerable to the Filipino people and not oligarchs.
Tanghalang Pilipino’s Mabining Mandirigma will be staged until December 18 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Tickets are available at https://www.ticketworld.com.ph. Discounted tickets are also being sold for the December 9, 10, 17 and 18 shows. Tickets are being sold at P800 each. To buy tickets, call Al/Jem 0916 2317535 and 0917 8764416.