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Quo Vadis San Miguel Comedia?

(By Christine F. Godinez-Ortega)

Being forced into retirement after nine years due primarily to lack of financial support from the community, will the San Miguel Comedya (play of San Miguel, originally called Yawa-yawa or devil-devil) survive well into the next millennium? Academics who were in the Iligan City National High School (ICNHS) auditorium on September 26, 1996 to watch the revival and the only performance of the San Miguel Comedya couldn't help but ask the question. Some also took note of the deeper meaning into the comedya and what values this theatrical form carries for the Iliganon.

Out of curiosity at how the comedya will turn out that night was good reason enough to rush through dinner with friends, Ricky de Ungria, Bobby Timonera, Tony Tan and Nancy Carvajal. We all wanted to be on time for the comedya's revival three days before Iligan City celebrated Michaelmas honor of its patron saint, St. Michael the Archangel on September 29.

Today, and for many reasons, it barely survives elsewhere in the country. For instance, Dr. Erlinda Kintanar Alburo, director of the Cebuano Studies Center, said that the comedya, popularly called "linambay" in her hometown Carcar, Cebu, stopped being performed in the early '70s. She attributes the death of the "linambay" to the diminishing landlord-tenant relationship, thus not fulfilling the play's original function anymore.

Many stories abound about the origins of the San Miguel Comedya and many descendants of claimants to the authorship of the original script. But there are no extant documents to set the records straight.

The San Miguel Comedya was reportedly first staged around 1900 in Iligan, 263 years after the first moro-moro was believed to have been staged in Manila 1637 to celebrate the defeat of Sultan Kudarat by Spanish conquistadores led by Hurtado de Corcuera.

For 300 years of Spanish colonization, the Spaniards saw the powerful influence of theater proselytizing or propagating Christianity.

Dr. Resil B. Mojares in his book, Theater in Society and Society in Theater, discusses the significance of the comedya or linambay in Carcar, Cebu as a highlight of fiesta activities, the fiesta being a "manifestation of the esprit de crops of the town or barrio,"as well as the fiesta becoming "a point of collective pride to hold a 'good' celebration."

Majores likewise explores the rationale behind the stage of the moro-moro and said that this drama form must have evolved from a marriage of pre-Hispanic, native rituals and the European play.

Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson, in his essay on the "Spanish Colonial Tradition" in Vol.7 of the CCP Encyclopedia on the Philippine Art, says that there are two types of comedyas. The komedya de santo, which the San Miguel Comedya like the "moro-moro," "kumidya," "linambay," "miniris," etc., bring home the point that the Spaniards representing the Europeans or Christians are superior to the Moors or the non-Christians.

The Iligan comedya's revival this years can be credited to Ricardo Flores (production coordinator), Jose Gaite (director) Felipe Padilla (musical consultant) and Julian Zalsos (Lusbel), members of the Lumad Kaliwat Iliganon (lukai); the executive assistant to the Iligan City mayor, Francisco A. Cruz (in charge of production), as well as the determination of 44 members of the cast.

Must we acknowledge the sad fact that the comedya, part of our Spanish Colonial heritage, has become just an appendage to other fiesta festivities?

In this high-tech age, new forms of non-religious entertainment like the street dancing and merrymaking in Iligan called "kasadya," the "Wara-Wara sa kadalanan" the Ms. Ilagan beauty pageant, as well as the various sports and cultural activities during the Iligan City fiesta celebration, naturally eclipsed the revival of the San Miguel Comedya this year after a nine-year hiatus.

In the past, the San Miguel Comedya was performed alternately at the plaza, the churchyard of the San Miguel Cathedral or the city auditorium for three or more days culminating on the eve of Michaelmas.

The present administration headed by Mayor Alejo A. Yañez, a decendant of one the original families that staged the comedya as an individual or family "panaad" or promise, pushed for its revival with P25,000 for props, a few additional costumes for the "devils" and for the stage backdrop at the ICNHS Auditorium.

The amount appropriated for this year's staging of the comedya is considered measly by some people. Production expenses with a cast of 44 could cost from P70,000 to P100,000 without paying the players any honoraria since mounting the comedya is their "panaad."

Majores, in his study, pointed out that in the 1919 staging of Orondates, the costumes must have cost about P1,000 which was equivalent to 100 cavans of rice, enough to feed a family of six for five years.

Today, the San Miguel Comedya was shown for free as is the tradition. This kind of instence on free admission could correspond to keeping the traditional form intact despite the changing times and the empirical world of today's generation. At one time, the Mendoza family, originally from San Miguel, Bulacan, bankrolled the San Miguel Comedya's Production in the 1960s. It is therefore of outmost significance that the community support the staging of the comedya otherwise, like other art forms, it will eventually disappear.

Its re-staging of the three-act play about the rebellion of Lucifer (Lusbel) againts God and St. Michael's triumph gathered a crowd composed of the players' relatives, Iligan's culturati and their children, music professors, Frankie Englis and Dr. Precy Magdamo Abraham and her pyschologist husband (who took time off from their teaching job at Silliman University in Dumaguete City just to watch the comedya), Mita Lluch Cruz, Benny Badelles and the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Outreach and Exchange Program documentation team. Throughout the play, vendors went about their business reminiscent of the staging of the zarzuela or moro-moro of old.

If one is not familiar with the conventions of watching the comedya, one can really get impatient and bored with the drawn-out stage movements in the innumerable, prolonged entrance and exits, the actors strutting to the strains of the marcha music, taking eternity at their designed places on stage: right stage for the angles or the good guys and left stage for the devils or the bad guys. Lighting, too, left much to be desired since it was simply on-off-on washes. While the gestures were clearly theatrical, we could not make out much of the dialigue. Most of the time the dialogue of the characters was prosaic and colloquial even for the main characters, San Miguel and Lusbel, which should have been in verse and elevated as dictated by tradition. It would have helped if the San Miguel Comedya's script was made available to scholars which, as claimed in the playbill, has been improved by Joaquin Echaves and Ramon Padilla in 1936.

During the performance, poor acoustics was irritating, you just had to fill in the gaps by relying on what you learned in catechism or by recalling your college nightmare, John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Of course, it was not surprising if the devils upstaged the angels. The devils with their nightmarish makeup over angelic expressions, got more lusty cheers from the audience than the serious-looking angels with their painted wings of plywood and some branded swords shaped like the Maranao kris. The rest of the komedya players often went about their places in a bewildering manner with the prompters bothering everyone. Most amusing was the medieval backdrop of hell and the use of smoke, bereft of any magical effect as intended, to herald the entrance of either a seraphim, an archangel, a spirit or the devil, the difference could be seen only after the smoke cleared. Scene-stealing particularly by the rowdy, pot-bellied devils and Julian Zalsos, who played Lusbel, was the order of the day.

Colorful costumes long month-balled were a delight to the eyes throughout the two-and-a-half performance. This shortening of the comedya introduced because people can no longer sit through comedya performances that would last for as long as 10 hours. The seven-headed monster representing the seven capital sins and a vital prop to the comedya failed to materialize that night.

The surprise elements in the play were the intermission number consisting of the "eskrima," a part of the Sinulog, and the "diyandi," an Iligan creative dance which is really a pact between Maranaos and Higaunons in their homage to San Miguel. The "eskrima" and the "diyandi" are not part of the comedya.

One can be distressed no end if one brings in his pre-conceived notion of theater that is Western or Hollywoodish. Indeed, appreciation of the comedya has to be taken in the context of what is and its original purpose. This, of course, needs to be explained to the present generation who is constantly shaped by the aesthetics of MTV.

Can the komedya survive when in the other places in the country it has already been forgotten?

Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology Humanities professor and theaterman, Steven Patrick C. Fernandez believes the komedya still fulfills man's spiritual needs especially when his economic or health needs wanting.
But his prediction as the how long the comedya will last is grim. Give it 20 years, Fernandez said, unless the government takes over in staging it for tourism purposes; otherwise the comedya will just fade away. Culture is dynamic and should always be contemporary, he emphasized.

A solution to keep the comedya alive is to form a core group composed of the young, Fernandez said. Fernandez, who studied the comedya and the Iligan sinulog extensively for his master's thesis at the U.P Diliman, opposes any changes that some Iliganons want to impose on the comedya to make it more acceptable to present-day audiences.

"If changes in blocking and other movements are done, then it will not be comedya anymore but just entertainment,"Fernandez said.

Majares (in the telephone interview at this home in Cebu City) agrees that the comedya can continue if it satisfies the need, for the Iliganon to keep his identity or uniqueness.

For his part and fresh from a second trip to Europe, Fernandez believes that compared to the Europeans, Filipinos have a weak cultural base and are constantly bombarded by "pop media". But he proudly pointed out that the Philippines has more diversity in its culture compared to the Europeans.

He talked lengthily about how each town in Europe has a folkloric group initiated by families that showcase a country's own culture and promote regional pride. He said that these groups are supported by their governments.

"It's a matter of empowering the people by creating a consciousness about discovering and popularizing culture,"Fernandez adds. He cites the renovation of the Globe Theater where Shakespeare's plays are shown, among other things, "to know what is like during Shakespeare's time.

Although he is cautious of the "pop media" like the radio, TV and the komiks, he still thinks they can play a strong role in promoting our own culture.

Revival of the Iligan's San Miguel Comedya this year is good sign because the religious fervor of the members of the cast has again been awakened to manifest their "panaad." But for how long?

If proselytization was the first intention of those who wrote the script of the comedya, then the philosophical dialogue and intense debate between angels and devils reminded the audience that in whatever time or age, good always triumphs over evil.

But this superficial meaning of the comedya. Fernandez believes that the San Miguel Comedya is ethnocentric in the sense that, By implication, only the Iliganons or Christians as represented by San Miguel and his coterie of angels can be saved and are therefore superior to other ethnic groups such as the Higaunons or the Maranaos.

In fact, only lumad Iliganons can take part in the play, an unconscious way of showing superiority over migrants, or, say, the Higaunon who may not be technically advanced but whose heritage of oral literature and wide-range of gods and philosophy show a culture superior to that of the lowlander, Christianized Iliganon who had been supported by the Spanish and American colonizers.

Majores also expressed surprise over this instance on "lumad" players for the San Miguel Comedya against the demography of Iligan being a melting pot. "To lay a claim on a local identity that is fictive is understandable but ironic,"he said.

The San Miguel Comedya supported by a fulfilling the needs of the community can go on for generations. Its central figure, St. Michael the Archangle could become a rallying point to the Christian, Muslims and Lumad groups in Iligan. Both the Christians and Muslims consider St. Michael their Archangel, and the Lumad Higaunons pay homage to the saint and fondly call him Li Gandingan.

*From Ani, 1997, a publication of the Cultural Center of the Philippines

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