LIFESTYLE | THEATRE

Rizal takes wings through modern day heroes

Michelle Baltazar

With beautifully-designed costumes that evoke the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era, upcoming Sydney play ‘Her Son, Jose Rizal’ is set to wow its audience this weekend, and bring national pride onstage, too. MICHELLE BALTAZAR writes.

Cast
Cast in dress rehearsal.

RJ Rosales, a Filipino-Australian artist best known for his standing ovation performance in the musical Miss Saigon, is sitting at a bench just outside Tom Mann theatre, an inner city theatre near Central station in Sydney.

 

RJ Rosales making a suggestion.
RJ Rosales making a suggestion.

It’s almost 10.30pm at night and he is having a late dinner of minced-meat-and-potatoes (tastes like Filipino dish ‘menudo’ without the carrots and peas) served on a white plastic disposable plate.

Inside the kitchen just next to the front doors of the theatre, there was much chatter. Rosales preferred to sit outside, eating his dinner quietly with a couple of fellow cast members. They just finished a near three-hour rehearsal inside the theatre for ‘Her Son, Jose Rizal’, a play built around the life of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal.

Wearing a black leather jacket, a military silver dog tag chain around his neck and a pair of black jeans, Rosales looked every inch the heartthrob he is seen as back in Singapore (he is based there but comes to Australia regularly because his family is here).
Cast taking a break. Then back to doing it all over again the next day.

Cast taking a break
Cast taking a break. Then back to doing it all over again the next day.

But his celebrity status, his rockstar looks and his Miss Saigon vocal cred don’t count for much in his latest project.

When the spotlight shines on him on Thursday night, the only thing the audience will see is a Filipino stage actor who will attempt to bring back to life, even for a brief moment, the much-beloved Filipino martyr.
More cast members in full costume.

Born in 1861, Rizal died at the age of 35 after a public execution. It was his untimely death, by a Spanish firing squad, that triggered the Philippine revolution, according to many Filipino historians.

More cast members in full costume.
More cast members in full costume.

After his death, outraged revolutionaries gathered enough force to finally free the country from hundreds of years of Spanish rule.

To this day, the anniversary of Rizal’s death is commemorated as a public holiday in the Philippines. To borrow the famous line by poet Rudyard Kipling, which forms part of the ‘Ode to Remembrance’ recited on ANZAC Day: Lest we forget.

With that historic backdrop to the play, it’s no wonder Rosales, who is used to performing in front of big crowds, is excited, nervous and tense all at the same time less than 48 hours before the first show.

“Playing the role of our national hero is such a big responsibility. The tension is there but the excitement is there, too. This is definitely a dream come true for me,” he said.

At best, Rosales hopes the play would introduce Rizal to young Filipino-Australians who know little about their Filipino roots.

“I believe that we’re telling the story of Jose Rizal so we can raise awareness, especially among the Filipino kids who grew up here in Australia, those who haven’t really heard much about him,” he said.

“It is their right to know about Jose Rizal and his family, specially what he believed in to make our country what it is today.”
View from the stage. Spotlight shines on stunning Filipiniana worn by Ala.

View from stage
View from the stage. Spotlight shines on stunning Filipiniana worn by Ala.

Rosales is not the only person who feels duty-bound to show a glimpse of Philippine history to those who may have forgotten – or never knew it.

 

Ala Paredes hamming it up for the camera.
Ala Paredes hamming it up for the camera.

Kate Andres, a community leader who plays Rizal’s mother, Dona Teodora, also felt that national pride is at stake.

“Observing all the cast, I could see the enthusiasm was there and I think it’s more out of patriotism. If it were a different role or a different story, the level of commitment would have been different,” she said.

Director Armando Reyes giving final instructions.
Director Armando Reyes giving final instructions.

Ala Paredes, a professional illustrator who plays as one of Rizal’s younger sisters, Soledad, said the play drew the Filipino community together.

“It’s been really enriching and fulfilling, not just in a creative way but even in a community-building way,” she said.

“We really feel like we’ve worked on this project together and we’ve made something out of nothing.”

The play’s director, Armando “RC” Reyes, said the production was lucky enough to find the right people to work with, many of whom endured long train rides to make the daily or weekly rehearsals.

Marks on the floor for each cast.
Take your places. Marks on the floor for each cast.

As a community play, all of the performers and production crew are unpaid, working voluntarily to get the project off the ground since its inception sometime late last year.

Looking back at the six months it took to get the play to where it is today, Reyes looks forward to showcasing the fruits of their labour to the community.
More cast members in full costume.

It seems only fitting that a play about a hero became a reality through the heroic efforts of everybody who got involved. The costume designer, the sound and lighting crew, the props team and, of course, the large ensemble cast. That RJ’s name is the anagram of Jose Rizal’s initials spelt backwards is an interesting quirk of fate.

More cast members in full costume.
More cast members in full costume.

While most of the tickets are already sold out, Reyes hopes the cast will perform to full houses, specially because the play has never been done before and is backed by a script considered a masterpiece by Philippine writers and historians.

“Filipino-Australians should see this play because we, as migrants, need something to remind us that we have this history, this history that we should all be proud of.”

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Tickets ($40) are still available through Ticketek (www.ticketek.com.au) for the Thursday and Friday night performances. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday performances are all sold out through Ticketek but can still be purchased at the door or through production members.

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