A version of this review appears in Theater Fans Manila on June 25, 2015
For the longest time, I thought the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s hit musical Rak of Aegis is a parody of the Broadway musical, Rock of Ages. It isn’t. From the use of ubiquitous 90s karaoke hits, puns, and a situation most of us are unfortunately familiar with, the show is very originally Filipino.
It’s More Pun in the Philippines
The show starts and it’s funny. It takes me about thirty minutes to realize that the plot is kind of slow, and that a lot of the comedy involves puns. So many puns. Too many puns. I’ve never been a fan of puns. I find them funny sometimes, but Philippine entertainment (and pop culture and advertising) is far too reliant on puns that other types of humor haven’t had a chance to take root. Like irony, for example. Or satire. It’s always the simplest, basest play on words that get the biggest laughs. I suppose because it’s easy, and when you’re in the business of making people laugh, you’re not about to agonize over the quality of it.
The cast said they were allowed to improvise, which makes a great case for repeat viewings (they say no two shows are exactly the same) but there were moments where these liberties felt imprecise and it bogged the story down. In fact, a lot of the punchlines felt a bit like they were pandering for laughs. Of course, comedy for the sake of comedy is still funny, and the show is so successful in part because of its (for lack of a better term) mainstream humor. Maybe I’m just not used to watching variety show antics and hammed performances in my theater productions.
Acting-wise, some of the performances were very cutesy. I couldn’t even tell how old Aileen (Aicelle Santos) and Tolits (Jerald Napoles) were supposed to be. Likely they’re in their very early twenties, but sometimes they acted like teenagers in sitcoms. That said, I thought it was a star-making role for Santos, and that she’s very charming in the role. Napoles is also one of the funniest players on stage, and is easily my favorite performer among the cast.
Everyone had great comedic timing (Phi Palmos as Jewel, and Kakai Bautista as Mercy, especially). As for the music, it was faultless. They all made Aegis’s vocal techniques seem effortless. Some songs felt added for the sake of having them in (like “Christmas Bonus”, for example) but being able to rework songs largely about love and heartbreak into a musical with social awareness at its heart is a showcase of true creativity from the artistic staff (Myke Salomon – Musical Director; Liza Magtoto – Playwright).
The narrative, however, is uneven. There were far too many things going on. There were two love triangles happening, and each character have multiple conflicts that don’t necessarily weave together. The story took too long in establishing numerous problems during the first half (adding a few more during the second half) while not leaving a lot of time to properly tie up loose ends during the second act. So much time was spent on Aileen’s personal ambition (she wants to upload a video of her singing on YouTube hoping to be discovered by Ellen DeGeneres) yet her character’s dramatic climax is suddenly motivated by her community’s dire situation.
The Bigger Picture
The show is not without its brilliance. Most impressive is its socio-political component. (a staple of PETA shows) It raises the notion of accountability–a neighboring subdivision distracts the People of Brgy. Venizia with relief goods instead of taking responsibility for bigger damages. The story also explores resilience, and turns the concept on its head by questioning the very Filipino attitude of finding quick fixes instead of long-term solutions. The moment where the Barangay was divided when the flood was starting to recede was particularly genius. It was rooted in a very real mindset of how the downtrodden can sometimes relish in their circumstance to profit off of their victimhood. Even Aileen’s unconventional life plan, albeit ridiculous, is grounded in realism.
Some aspects of the show could use a tune up, but whatever the production is doing right now is working. The show has mass appeal and it’s an obvious success. It’s currently one of the most visible local productions, and it’s hard to fault a show that’s doing so much for the theater industry. Its combination of Pinoy humor and Aegis has made it attractive to people who won’t ordinarily go to the theater. Maybe, after a fun time in Brgy. Venizia, audiences will consider actively seeking out other shows and be exposed to culture other than pop. Hopefully, Rak of Aegis will act as a “gateway show” to convert more people into theater-goers.
Rak of Aegis is, without a doubt, entertaining. In some ways, this musical is created the way musicals are meant to be enjoyed–as escapist entertainment. It’s three hours of laughing and singing along to Aegis songs. Sometimes, when you’re basang-basa sa ulan, a fun afternoon at the theater is a welcomed reprieve.