"Batang Rizal" explores the life of Pepe, the young Rizal, juxtaposed with the life of Pepito, the modern-day Filipino kid studying in a public school serendipitously named Rizal Elementary School. Trouble begins when Pepito accidentally damages a statue of the young Rizal donated by Mayor Rapcu and set to be unveiled during the school's celebration of Linggo ng Wika. Pepito scrambles to find a replacement fast, his siblings' scholarships and his own at stake. As Pepito tries to find a solution, he stumbles upon a magical book that takes him to the time of Pepe--the young Rizal. And that's where his adventures begin.
Bringing "Batang Rizal" home
Originally staged by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) as a traveling production that yielded 99 shows throughout the country, "Batang Rizal" is an apt contribution by the Ateneo Grade School, through the ACT, to the celebration of Ateneo de Manila's sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, and its theme of nation-building.
"When Ateneo gave me the Scholarly Work with Most Social Impact award, I promised (Ateneo president) Fr. Bienvenido F. Nebres, S.J. that I will bring 'Batang Rizal' home," Bellen reveals.
The playwright adds that one of her reasons for writing the play was because Rizal was an Atenean, and writing 'Batang Rizal' was her way of giving thanks to Ateneo for nurturing her as a writer. Ateneo, she says, is where most of her writings were born--from 'Lola Basyang' to 'Batang Rizal' to her current projects.
As "Batang Rizal" comes home to the Ateneo, Bellen also recognizes PETA's creative contributions to the growth of the play. PETA's creative inputs had been invaluable to her in the collaborative endeavor, she says.
Continuously growing play
Since "Batang Rizal" is a continuously growing play, Bellen and ACT infused new additions and attractions to it. To prepare for the Ateneo production, Bellen narrates that the first thing she did was to visit the Rizal Room at the Ateneo Library to feel Rizal's presence and to contemplate memories culled from photos, journals and old things. This re-visiting breathed new life and ideas into the play that will delight not only new audiences but also those who've watched the PETA production in the past.
Moreover, the directorial team of the ACT, composed of head director Ace Elgar, and co-directors Jervy Robles, JJ Ignacio, Aids Reyes, Peanuts Valerio and Raissa Bayani, together with the cast and crew made up of grade schoolers from Ateneo, Miriam, and St. Bridget, are hard at work at making "Batang Rizal" a success.
New scenes and new songs make "Batang Rizal" fresh while still staying true to the original story. The stage, designed by alumnus and famed stage designer Gino Gonzales, is also a sight to behold. One of the sets, for example, is an elaborate replica of the actual Calamba home of Rizal which will surely awe audiences of the ACT production.
The two sets of cast members and crew members, all children, also make this production unique. "This is actually a theater of kids, by kids and for kids. So basically, we, moderators are just steering them towards the right direction. But in the end, they will be the ones to stage the play," Robles points out.
And the kids are excited about "Batang Rizal" as well. "It will be grand because our director said that it will really be the sesquicentennial play that the Grade School is going to take part in with the whole Ateneo community," enthuses Aric Mamonluk, who plays Pepe.
"It's going to be a nice play," seconds Cholo Ledesma who also plays Pepe.
"It's a challenge for us to do our best, especially with the sesquicentennial. Other people will expect a lot. But what we'll do is just do our best to make this play the best," says Sage Ilagan who plays Pepito.
Why "Batang" Rizal?
For the ACT, staging "Batang Rizal" is a natural choice on the occasion of the Ateneo de Manila's 150th anniversary. "We felt that Batang Rizal epitomizes the theme of 'Building the Nation',"says Robles.
"We're not talking about the "matandang" (old) Rizal, we're talking about the "batang" (young) Rizal and how it is that we can see the "batang" Rizal in each and every one of us. We don't need to get the "batang" Rizal from the past to be able to save us in the present. In each and every one of us, there's a Batang Rizal," he adds.
And for Bellen, the playwright from whom everything began, "Batang Rizal" as an authentic children's play, has no higher ambition other than to go back to the basic values of changing oneself for the better, taking care of your friends, developing good relationships, and the like--things we learned even before we learned about love of country.