After PETA’s two-year break from live theater, they return with a bombastic show that is meant to celebrate the joys of the theatrical experience. Walang Aray is, as playwright Rody Vera calls it, “a tribute and a spoof’ to the Severino Reyes zarzuela ‘Walang Sugat.’ It is an irreverent show that takes the form of the zarzuela and the plot of ‘Walang Sugat’ and infuses with modern sensibilities for a hilarious romp that pokes fun at our history, and invariably ourselves, while utilizing the best of Filipino humor.
Directed by Ian Segarra, ‘Walang Aray’ is set in colonial era Philippines where two lovers, the zarzuela star Julia and her freedom-loving paramour Tenyong, find themselves separated by the circumstances of the times. Tenyong’s parents perish at the hands of the cruel friars while Julia’s mother, Juana, wants her daughter to be married to Miguel, one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. But the love triangle of this story is not between Julia, Tenyong, and Miguel, but between Julia, Tenyong, the revolution as Tenyong leaves to join the Katipuneros and Julia must fend off the advances of Miguel.
But from the opening number, which is a song sung by three women (two women and one man in drag, to be precise) about how they have to sing the opening number because the star of the show is missing. It’s hilarious and funny and gets the energy going. It tells us exactly what we are to expect and that nothing is going to unfold like a regular zarzuela. Sure, the play is set during the revolution but it’s never heavy-handed in its portrayal of it; the play recognises some of the country’s ills that wonderfully reflect current issues as well (autocracy, a failure in governance, etc) but it takes a light-hearted approach to it all. As cruel as the friars may be, they are still fans of Julia (which can sometimes reflect current-day fandoms; the effect is hilarious). There are moments when the show would even break to endorse a real sponsor of the show and these breaks just reinforce the joyous nature of the show.
At the heart of it is Julia, played by Alexa Ilacad in the show I saw, and she just imbibes this character. She flits from scene to scene effortlessly and nails every song. Julia is infused with modern lingo and Ilacad throws these punchlines so seamlessly that it really helps sell it. Her alternates are Marynor Madamesila and Shaira Opsimar. On the flip side, Tenyong is played by KD Estrada (with alternates Gio Gahol and Jon Abella), who seems like he is still feeling his way around the stage. But when he’s paired up with Ilacad, there is magic there. Their chemistry fills that stage and their harmonies are quite gorgeous. Hilariously, the character of Tenyong disappears in most of the second act, as he is with the Katipuneros, and it really becomes Julia’s play through and through.
While Miguel (a hilarious Jarred Jaicten with alternate Bene Manois) makes his advances, the real third party in this is the pressing revolution that is causing Julia a lot of stress. As her planned marriage to Miguel looms near, Julia is forced to push her hand and most of the second act becomes a showcase for the other characters of the play. At some point, it’s a revue more than a full-on show and we don’t mind because each part is full of laughs and great singing.
The only unfortunate thing about the show is that it’s staged to favor only those on the center of the audience. This is the first PETA show I saw on the side where I felt that I was missing out on the show. The choreography, the blocking, the tableaus, and the set design make it hard for those sitting in the sides to see all that’s happening in the story and I wish it was directed more outward so that we were all included into the fun. Also, there’s a joke near the end where a character’s coming out is used as a punchline. While I understand that it may work thematically with the mindframe of a zarzuela, I really wish that homosexuality wouldn’t be used as a punchline in future productions.
But aside from these little issues, ‘Walang Aray’ is just such a joy to watch. The original songs by Rody Vera and Vince Lim are wonderful (and a great argument against jukebox musicals). There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments and even its deus ex machina ending feels earned and warranted when you realize how irreverent the play has been all-throughout. Lots of spirited performances by Ilacad, and the ensemble (with other standouts including Kiki Baento as Julia’s companion Monica, Johnnie Moran as the wickedly funny Padre Alfaro, and Neomi Gonzales as Juana).
Coming from its 2-year break, it’s great for PETA to be back with something fun and funny and irreverent. ‘Walang Aray’ and its unapologetic happy-ending is so in tune with how today’s world just wants happy endings at whatever cost. Even in that little concept, they are on point.
Walang Aray runs at the PETA Theater Center until May 14. Buy your tickets here.