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January 24, 2008


My first serious involvement with theater is with a komedya. I had dabbled in theater in high school, producing, writing and directing plays as class requirements, and I regularly watched plays in college. While finishing a literature degree, I had a short stint as an apprentice stage manager for Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, for Orosman at Zafira, akomedya written by Francisco Balagtas, one of the Philippines’ greatest writers. The experience provided me with an inside look at the workings of a professional theater group as well as an appreciation of Balagtas and komedya, a traditional theatrical form in the country. It was also my first time to see a komedya. For others, their involvement with komedya is more likely not in a cultural center setting but in their own communities. They may have watched it when they were kids and may even have been part of the production. But in my case, the komedya is hard to come by. Komedya is hardly staged nowadays, except in few pockets of Manila and in the provinces, where communities keep the tradition alive, but only during special occasions like the Holy Week or fiesta.

Now, Orosman at Zafira will be restaged by the Dulaang UP, the resident theater group of the Univesity of the Philippines, for the Komedya Fiesta, a national theater festival dedicated to this form and a flagship project of the University of the Philippines in celebration of its centenary. Every Friday for the whole month of February, different theater groups from around the country will be stagingkomedyas in the university’s amphitheater free to the public. Additionally, there will be attendant events like conferences, workshops, an exhibit and even activities that traditionally accompany the staging of a komedya like parades and peryas.

The festival is spearheaded by the university’s College of Arts and Letters with its dean Virgilio Almario, National Artist for Literature, who wishes to create a national theatrical form with the komedya and the zarzuela.

Bringing colors for more than three centuries
The komedya was brought by the Spaniards when they came to colonize the country in the 16th century, tracing its origins from Spanish and Mexican theatrical forms. Used in the Christianization of the Philippines, thekomedya is thus generally religious and moralistic in theme, with stories usually depicting love and the conflict between the Christians and the Muslims. Many komedyas were written in verse like Balagtas’s Orosman at Zafiraand all incorporated dance steps to stylize battles. Actors wear colorful costumes. Usually the color red is assigned for the Muslim group while blue for the Christians.

Komedya was popular in the country until the 19th century, spreading to different regions. It is also known by other names in other regions: moro-moro in the Tagalog and
Ilokanos, linambay in the Cebuano; moros-moros in the Ilonggo, and palo-palo in the Ivatan. However, this theatrical form eventually declined and is mostly forgotten now. During the eighties though some scholars, prominently Dr. Nicanor Tiongson, conducted studies and revive interest in the komedya, but there have been measly efforts to promote this further and no initiatives to appreciate this on a national scale.

Now, the University of the Philippines is attempting to fill that gap with the Komedya Fiesta that “seeks to celebrate the komedya as a significant legacy in the continuing history of the Philippine theater.”

The few bearers of colors
The Komedya Fiesta will feature Komedya ng San Dionisio of Parañaque City, Komedya ng San Miguel of Iligan City, Hiraya Theater Company of San Jose in Antique, Komedya ng Don Galo of Parañaque, Dulaang UP and Comedia de Baler of Baler in Aurora.

The Komedya ng San Dionisio was born in 1962 when the civic leaders of the barangay of San Dionisio in Parañaque, Metro Manila, and some komedya enthusiasts organized the San Dionisio Cultural Society to produce the popular komedya Prinsipe Rodante in an effort “to make the komedya truly an entity of dramatic art.” Now, they occasionally perform komedyas. The old conflict between the Christian and Islam, which is at the heart of many komedyas, has been reworked “to the ecumenical spirit of the modern times,” espousing instead unity.

On the other hand, the Komedya ng Don Galo, also from the same city, is of recent establishment and is composed of school children. It was organized in 1992 for a school komedya production, which became a success, thus earning a grant from the Cultural Center of the Philippines for a second production, now with the supervision of faculty and veteran komedya performers from San Dionisio.

The oldest group is the Komedya ng San Miguel of Iligan City in Mindano, which was formed in 1898. The group and their performances are kept alive by the community’s devotion to their patron saint, Saint Michael the Archangel. Every year during the saint’s feast day, the Komedya ng San Miguel mounts a drama, originally written in Spanish  and Cebuano, depicting the life of Saint Michael. Performances were temporarily put on hold during World War II. After the war, the group carried on with new members who were closely related to the original cast. Today, the group continues to perform the komedya through the sponsorship of private companies and the city Government of Iligan through its tourism office.

On the other hand, the Comedia de Baler of Aurora mounted its first production in 1927. It was supported by then president Manuel Quezon and enjoyed the collaboration of artists Fortunato Esoreña and Alejandro Ferreras and arnis expert Antonino Ramos. Still alive until today, the group boasts of using real weapons in their plays. The Dulaang UP is the official performing group for the theater of the University of the Philippines, conceived in 1976 by Prof. Emeritus Antonio O. Mabesa to be the production arm of the UP Department of Speech Communication and Theater Arts (DSCTA) and dedicated to the staging classics by master playwrights, in original or translation, and works by professional and promising Filipino playwrights.

The Hiraya Theater Company is the newest group in the festival, having been formed in 2006 as the resident performing group of Binirayan Foundation, Inc. The foundation has been mounting a komedya festival in Antique, bringing to light forgotten works, for two years now. Under the artistic direction of Alex C. Delos Santos, the Hiraya Theater Company, after a couple plays, also mounted a komedya, a 1960s one written by Exaltacion Combong campaigning against gambling and lauding the rural electrification program.

The productions of these groups can be viewed every Friday for the whole month pf February at the UP Amphitheater from six to eight in the evening.

Making it more colorful
Aside from the regular performances, a host of other activities surround the festival from the festive perya to the more serious conferences.

           The festival will have an opening parade and ceremonies on Feb. 1, from 2 to 6 p.m. Called “Tahak,” the opening parade aims to educate the people about the theatrical form, thus it will be interactive and have reenactments of some scenes. It will also be festive. Representatives of the komedya groups will parade around the UP academic oval together with marching bands, higantes, stilt walkers and jugglers. After the parade, there will be an opening program.

The role of marching bands during fiestas is given spotlight with the “Paseo” and “Serenata ng Banda” on Feb. 8, 15, 22, 28 and 29, from 5 to 6 p.m. A special concert will be held every Friday afternoon at the Quezon Hall steps with selected bands from Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Featured marching band will have a paseoaround the academic oval to announce the events of the day. On the other hand, the “Serenata ng Banda” will feature the UP Symphonic Band, Quezon City Band, Taguig City Band, Antipolo City Band and Banda 88 of Sta. Maria, Bulacan.

From Feb. 15 to 29, there will be the Pista ng Bayan Fair and Exhibit, which will be highlighted by the display of “the best of Philippine fiesta,” curated as one big exhibit featuring the Philippine’s most celebrated fiestas and the distinct manner each fiesta is celebrated.

Puppet performances, poetry readings, storytelling sessions and komedya excerpts will be mounted on a small scale inside kubols (temporary bamboo structures). These special performances are called “Palabas sa Kubol,” which are slated for Feb. 8, 15, 22 and 29, from 4 to 5 p.m.

Filipinos are suckers for photo opportunities, and this predilection will be given venue with “Kodakomedya” on Feb. 8, 15, 22 and 29, from 5 to 6 p.m. Life-size and faceless depictions of komedya characters, carved out from plywood, will serve as bodies for visitors. For a minimal fee, visitors can realize their dreams of being stars of the komedya, even only in photographs.

On Feb. 8, 15, 22 and 29, from 3 to 4 p.m., the pubic can enjoy traditional games like palosebo, tyakad, pabitinand agawan ng buko at the “Palaro” at the amphitheater. And there will be a perya from Feb. 15 to 29, featuring rides like the Ferris wheel, the Flying Elephant and the carousel; different game booths; jugglers; stilt walkers;higantes; and magic shows.

On the serious side, there will be a conference, a workshop, a colloquium and an exhibit as festival components.

The conference and workshop, called “Balitaktakang Komedya at Palihan,” is a three-day gathering, which will include the presentation of academic papers from here and abroad with eminent scholars like Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson and Dr. Resil B. Mojares serving as keynote speakers. The conference hopes to tackle the current state of the komedya tradition, both in the country and other parts of the world. There will also be workshop modules on the different aspects of the production like the batalla/pondo and the dicho. Selected komedyagroups will have sharing sessions to impart their experiences, performance conventions and production processes to the participants.

On the other hand, the half-day colloquium, called “Usapang Komedya,” will have those involved in the komedya groups—the comediantes, production team and accompanists—discussing on the strengths and weaknesses of the groups and their recommendations for the future of komedya on a national scale. This event is aimed at establishing a network of komedya groups of the country.

The visual arts aspect of the Komedya Fiesta focuses on Francisco Baltazar’s literary masterpiece, the metrical romance Florante at Laura, which is said to be written in the manner of the komedya. Curators asked different visual artists to interpret passages from the romance, resulting in 22 figurative paintings. The exhibition will open on Feb. 8 and will run until Mar. 31 at the Edge Gallery of the Vargas Museum.

With the Komedya Fiesta, the first national initiative focusing on the komedya, it is hoped that interest in this theatrical form will be revived and the komedya be given attention, leading to the realization of a concrete national theatrical form, as nationally distinct as Japan’s noh drama. “More significantly, the effort, talent and creativity that have been manifested by several komedya groups all over the country to make this tradition survive for more than three hundred years are definitely worth celebrating,” the organizers declared.

The Komedya Fiesta 2008: First National Festival is in cooperation with the Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts (OICA) of the University of the Philippines, and with the support of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

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