A scene from “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.” Photo by Vlad Gonzales

MANILA — How does one recreate the great Indian epic “Mahabharata,” described as the longest epic poem ever written, into a two-act stage musical in Filipino? How does one capture the layers and complexities of Indian tradition without being contrived?

And how does one fuse all of the epic’s philosophical musings on love, war, family, duty, divinity and spirituality into a tight and cohesive piece?

Throw in the fact that Dulaang UP’s staging of “Ang Nawalang Kapatid,” based on the “Mahabharata,” features an all-student cast and crew, and you have a recipe for one big pseudo-Bollywood hot mess.

Thankfully, playwright and lyricist Floy Quintos, director Dexter Santos and composer Ceejay Javier acquitted themselves and came up with an elegant and regal Filipino adaptation.

Quintos distilled the epic poem and focused on themes that Filipino audiences can easily connect with: the warring saga between the royal clans of the Pandavas and Khauravas, and the moral dilemma of the “lost brother” Karna if he will uphold family ties and blood lines or his obligations to self and state.

Highlight other elements such as kings and queens consumed by vanity and punished by gods; and children born out of “mysterious” circumstances, given away and then found again after several years, and you have one gripping teleserye-like tale.

In this adaptation, Karna — born as a curse to his mother Queen Kunti for having slighted a goddess — is thrown away as a baby. He grows up to be a good warrior under the care of monkey king Hanuman.

When he comes of age, he travels to a distant kingdom. Because of his fighting skills, Karna is taken in as a brother by Kaurava prince, Duryodhana, who in turn is in a bitter battle against his cousin, Yudhisthira of the Pandava clan over the love of princess Draupadi.

Because of madness and lust, the battle over love escalates into a full-blown war over the kingdom. It is in the thick of war that Karna discovers that his enemies, the Pandava brothers, are his brothers, too.

A scene from “Ang Nawalang Kapatid.” Photo by Vlad Gonzales

Santos’ breathless direction from start to finish was a daring move. The pace is kept tight and gripping, with nary a dull moment. The opening number, “Dakilang Kasaysayan ng Sangkatauhan,” which establishes the entire back story of the birth of the royal cousins in one big sweep, is a feat in itself.

It took five choreographers (Santos, Jeffrey Hernandez, Albernard Garcia, Vincent Kevin Pajara and Stephen Vinas) to stage the numbers, and I can understand why. The long numbers are a test of stamina for any performer, and the styles run the gamut from tribal to Asian, from graceful to acrobatic. Even the scenes with spoken dialogue are imbued with courtly, balletic gestures.

The show is rife with vivid imagery. Among them, the birthing scenes of Queens Kunti and Ghandari, and the “disrobing” scene of princess Draupadi where god Krishna intervenes and spares her from shame by weaving an endless trail of cloth.

But the most stellar visuals in the show come from the climactic battle scene where blood, earth and rain create an intense tapestry of violence and death.

Javier’s music is not your expected Indian cliche. The sitar is used sparingly, mainly to punctuate spoken lines, but the rest of the songs have that world music, pop rock, tribal Filipino feel. But with all the heavy panting in the show, it’s the ballads such as “Lukso ng Dugo” which give audiences (and the actors) the breathing space.

The ladies in the show shine with their presence and voices, namely Teetin Villanueva as Draupadi and Ronah Adiel Rostata as Reyna Kunti (though Rostata needs to hone her technique. Performing with a hoarse voice in Act 2 could damage her vocal chords.)

The gentlemen in the show are balls of energy. There’s a propensity, though, for most of the male actors to equate urgency of dialogue with speed and volume, much to the detriment of clarity and nuance. They will grow into more refined performers with more training and technique. Still, there were good moments from Jules dela Paz as Vyasa, Ross Pesigan as Karna, Jon Abella as Yudhisthira, Vincent Kevin Pajara sa Duryodhana, Mark Dalacat as Haring Pandu, Marvin Olaes as Dritarastra, John Paul Basco as Krishna, and the rest of the male cast.

“Ang Nawalang Kapatid” is on its final weekend at the Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero Theater at the University of the Philippines.

(The above post was originally published on abs-cbnnews.com: http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/lifestyle/02/20/14/review-dulaang-musical-breathless-start-end )


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