Philippine mythology in Canadian theatre

Community News & Features Jul 12, 2019 at 4:25 pm

Through-the-Bamboo_4x6-postcard-bambooREVIEW & INTERVIEW: Through the Bamboo

By Michelle Chermaine Ramos
The Philippine Reporter

As Filipino-Canadian multidisciplinary theatre artists, husband and wife team Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos explained that they wrote Through the Bamboo to create “a story that felt epic in scope to rival The Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia” since they have not seen anything like it depicting Philippine mythology in Canadian theatre. They wrote it for children as young as seven to create something their nieces and nephews can enjoy.

The story centers on a 12-year old Filipino-Canadian girl named Philly played by Angela Rosete, who after her grandmother’s death, is magically transported to the fantasy land of Uwi. There, she is introduced to zany mythological creatures from Philippine folklore such as an ekek (a bloodthirsty humanoid winged creature with a bird’s beak), tikbalang (a creature with the torso of a man and the head and legs of a horse), kapre (trickster giant), siyokoy (merman) and others as she goes on a quest to bring her Lola (grandma) back home.

Playwrights Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos

Playwrights Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos

The story was inspired by the Samal myth of Manik Buangsi, which Mapili read in a book she had since childhood. “It’s about the prince of the sky marrying the youngest daughter of a sultan. She has older sisters who get jealous and they end up deciding to go up to the heavens to avoid the sisters. There are lots of challenges to go up to the heavens and Tuan Putli, the wife, ends up falling off the horse never to be seen again. So, the sky god has always been very sad and tries to find her every day. We just thought, what if when Tuan Putli fell off the horse, she didn’t die? What if she landed in Canada? What would that look like?” Mapili explains.

Growing up straddling both cultures since Abalos was born and raised here and Mapili’s family immigrated here when she was four, they imagined Philly, like them, heard about Philippine mythology from her parents. However, since Philly grew up in Canada hearing stories like The Chronicles of Narnia, the combination of both influences created the world of Uwi in her imagination where she learns to deal with her grief and loss. Mapili and Abalos sat for a brief interview before the show to share their thoughts on their creative process.

MICHELLE: How did you go about casting for Philly considering the heavy subject matter a child actor has to tackle for that role?

ANDREA: We held auditions and hoped and prayed that the right person would come into the room because you’re absolutely right, it’s a difficult role to play. At its heart it’s about grief but it’s also an action-adventure story. She would have to play a big range and luckily enough Angela came in and blew us away.

BYRON: She’s 17 years old. She’s still in high school and this is her first professional production and here she is starring in what we hope is one of the biggest shows of the Toronto Fringe Festival.

MICHELLE: What was the most challenging part of creating this whole play?

Director Nina Lee Aquino

Director Nina Lee Aquino

BYRON: I think, distilling what the whole story is about. We had a sense but making sure that all the scenes and characters were contributing to telling that specific story. Two weeks ago, we had a character that was a baby bungisngis (a constantly giggling one-eyed giant) and at the end of the day, we ended up cutting it because he wasn’t serving this current draft of the story and driving it forward.

ANDREA: After having so many drafts and developing it over so many years, we had a really strong sense of the plot and the action and the heart of the story was Philly’s grief journey. So, making sure that every point of the story she’s learning something about grief, experiencing something about loss, and the importance of storytelling while dealing with loss was very integral in being able to tell the story we wanted to tell. So that was the hardest part as writers. But we’re also producers, so on the production end, it’s getting the word out, making sure that this really special show, this really special time…we have a full Filipinx cast, lots of Filipinos in the creative team, we just wanted to have all these people seen and heard. I was also the choreographer, movement director and assistant director on the piece. A really challenging part for me was juggling being this pregnant while also doing all this work. And although exhausting, it’s also been the most precious magical time.

MICHELLE: Usually when writers write about grief, there’s a personal element to it. Was this based on any of your experiences? What do you want people to take away from this story?

BYRON: We had a death of a family member who was really close in the middle of the process which really informed us because our entire family was trying to recover from that. And even the question of how do you move on without that person? How do you keep the memory alive? The other part is we both have grandparents who have passed away, so in many ways, it’s also attributed to them. It’s the way we remember them and stay connected to them.

ANDREA: We always thought we wanted to make sure that the next generation would know what we didn’t know which was hurry and speak to your grandparents before you can’t anymore. Hurry and try to ask them questions about their life. Ask them in-depth questions about their life because you won’t get that chance again and once you realize as an adult that you didn’t get that chance, it’s sad. We hope that people leave this show and ask their grandparents questions, ask their parents questions as children and just become interested in the family stories.

Angela Rosete (Philly)

Angela Rosete (Philly)

MICHELLE: Fill in the blanks. People need stories because…?

BYRON: People need stories because stories connect us and a world that is more connected is more kind, compassionate and more joyful.

ANDREA: That’s beautiful. People need stories because that’s how we remember what’s important and we can remember what we’ve lost and we can make sure that we contribute to the next generation understanding the importance of what has come before.

REVIEW

I was seriously looking forward to finally watching a play inspired by Philippine folklore. The show opened with the whole ensemble narrating the story’s framing myth in unison. Personally, it felt like the opening was slightly long and probably would have had more immediate dramatic impact had the story been shown rather than told, if perhaps, a single narrator told the story as the rest of the cast acted it out instead. We are first introduced to Philly in her recently deceased Lola’s house distraught as relatives sort through boxes of belongings which she finds difficult to let go of. In a box containing items her Lola bequeathed to her, she finds a story book and a magic malong (traditional Filipino tube skirt like a sarong) which transports her into the magical land of Uwi.

Carolyn Fe (Lola)

Carolyn Fe (Lola)

Since this is supposed to introduce Filipino folklore to a mainstream non-Filipino audience and kids, I am writing this review by viewing it from the perspective of someone who has yet to be introduced to the magic of Philippine mythology and its creatures. Herein lies what appeared to be the biggest challenge of this production. For an ambitious project that aims to rival the Wizard of Oz and depict Filipino mythical creatures, it missed the mark with the lack of masks, costumes (actors were in regular street clothes) and convincing props. Why would a siyokoy (merman) wear or even need arm floats? For adults and children who are not familiar with the words siyokoy, ekek, tikbalang or kapre, the absence of costumes or masks leaves them with no concrete visual representation of what those creatures are supposed to look like. This is by no means the fault of the talented actors who deserve credit for extreme multitasking, most of whom continuously played multiple characters throughout the show and did a good job with the sparse resources they had. Taking into consideration that this project was crowdfunded on a small budget, I understand the lack of costumes and use of plain clothes were probably for the convenience of quick character changes and that the lack of full-blown costumes was most probably due to that. However, it is nothing that a trip to an arts and crafts supply store cannot fix.

What the production lacked in visuals, the actors made up for with enthusiasm. The performance succeeds in tackling hard truths about grief and loss as some audience members were moved to tears at the end of the show. Evaluating the story independently from the stage performance, I can see this making a wonderful illustrated children’s book that can work as an intergenerational conversation starter for families to help their children cope with the death of a loved one. The story itself asks profound questions about grief, loss, the ties that bind and the power of storytelling in healing at its heart. Unfortunately, it felt like the stage presentation did not do the playwrights’ story and its characters justice. A tale of this magnitude deserves much better visuals even if it could at the very least incorporate the simplest do-it-yourself props and costumes. It pains me to write this as part of me wants to scream inside because I can visualize this being so much more with the proper funding, presentation, props, full-blown set and an expanded cast. I like the story at its core and hope to see a future version of this production with the right costumes, sets and visuals to effectively bring its magic to life and expand this tale to its full potential as it deserves to be told.

The “Evil Sisters” Marie Beath Badian (Dalawa), Karen Ancheta (Isa/Mom) and Joy Castro (Tatlo)

The “Evil Sisters” Marie Beath Badian (Dalawa), Karen Ancheta (Isa/Mom) and Joy Castro (Tatlo)

Nicco Lorenzo Garcia (Matalino), Anthony Perpuse (Kapre/Koyo the Siyokoy) and John Echano (General T/Ekek)

Nicco Lorenzo Garcia (Matalino), Anthony Perpuse (Kapre/Koyo the Siyokoy) and John Echano (General T/Ekek)

Lana Carillo (Giting) and Ericka Leobrera (Ipakita)

Lana Carillo (Giting) and Ericka Leobrera (Ipakita)