By Giselle P. Kasilag

Theater Review
Rak of Aegis
Presented by PETA
Ongoing until Sept. 29
PETA Theater Center, #5 Eymard Drive,
New Manila, QC

BARANGAY VENEZIA is still underwater three months after the last typhoon hit. It has affected every aspect of their lives. The children and the elderly are getting sick. Their livelihood has been threatened. The simple act of moving from one street to the next would require a boat ride. Its residents, frustrated by the inaction of the local government, realized that the massive flooding began only after a subdivision for the affluent was built near their impoverished community.

Tired of their situation, Aileen (Shaira Opsimar) came up with a plan to help her family rise from poverty while making her dream to become a famous singer come true. She would record a video singing “Basang-basa sa Ulan” in the midst of the floodwaters and upload it on YouTube. With luck, she would garner enough likes that would bring it to the attention of US television host Ellen De Generes. This, she hoped, would catapult her to global fame and allow her to give her parents the creature comforts that they deserve.

(A bit of trivia: the most popular Aegis song, and one which is the heart of the musical, “Basang-Basa sa Ulan” is not an Aegis original. It was first sung by Nonoy Zuñiga.)

After overcoming some glitches, it seemed that Aileen’s plan was working. Or maybe it was working too well, sparking a fresh flood of problems from her newfound fame.

One of the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (PETA) most successful original musicals, Rak of Aegis has literally and figuratively taken the country by storm since its first run in 2014. While using the very popular music of The Aegis Band may have contributed to its popularity, the longevity of the musical lies in the storytelling itself — creatively weaving the well-chosen songs into the narrative. There is a healthy balance of how the songs are used — some in ways that are predictable and others that are very unexpected. More importantly, the writers knew when to stop and walk away. They did not succumb to the “jukebox musical” curse of packing in every single hit song though having no purpose in the story.

While continuously updating the material to reflect the times, the performance of Rak of Aegis remained consistent. The ensemble in the latest iteration was clearly a well-oiled machine — each one knowing exactly what they and their fellow performers are doing at any moment in the show. The vocal arrangement was well-crafted and the voices of all the performers blended wonderfully — even the guest cast members performing only for special shows.

What is most refreshing to note about Rak of Aegis is the creative use of both simple and complex technology to mount the show. The flood was clearly a major challenge. They have actual water on the set (water on the ground for the flood and falling from the ceiling for the rain) which could result in hefty lawsuits had it not been done right. They did it right, complete with assurances to the audience that the water is clean and chlorinated. On top of that, the plants around the set were chosen to ward off mosquitoes and other critters.

Without spoiling the surprise, the use of bubbles, sunflowers, lighted umbrellas, and an actual boat all add to the drama, proving that simple solutions can be very effective when used creatively.

The central character of the show — Aileen — was not an easy character to present. She is fresh-faced, a bit naïve, idealistic, but has experienced enough hardships in life to drive her to aspire for greatness. Shaira Opsimar delivered all that and more. She would sing through the most difficult notes without breaking a sweat. Her acting was equally on point. One scene that featured her moving in slow motion with boyfriend Kenny (Poppert Bernadas) could be a case study for a theater master class on movement. Her stamina served her well. She was consistent from beginning to end — delivering the same quality of performance show after show.

Pepe Herrera was ideal as the chill “gondola” boatman Tolits. He had perfect comic timing, delivering his lines in a suave but hilarious manner. That, along with his exaggerated reactions, made his presence on stage — with or without lines — very exciting. While many elements of the show were loud, he stood out by projecting an air of calm and quiet — responding with his facial expressions and low voice. Really, he stole the show.

This particular run of Rak of Aegis was produced in partnership with the Organisasyon ng mga Pilipinong Mang-aawit (OPM) and The PhilPop MusicFest Foundation (Philpop). Thus, it included new cast members better known in the concert and recording scene than theater. For this performance, OPM legends Noel Cabangon and Bayang Barrios joined the cast as Kiel and Mary Jane.

While Cabangon was clearly not an actor, it was evident that he made the extra effort to get into character. Kiel is a known hothead — the polar opposite to Cabangon’s very chill nature. Cabangon’s singing has always been very mellow but the arrangement demanded Kiel belt a number of songs. Cabangon rose to the occasion — giving a soulful rendition of the song “Mary Jane” among others, while hitting the high notes. His duet with Bayang Barrios should have been recorded. Based on the enthusiastic response, members of the audience would happily buy a CD.

Barrios, however, had a rough start. Whether it was a case of nerves or not enough rehearsals, she kept forgetting her lines and missing her cues in the beginning of the show. By the second half, she appeared more composed and delivered her lines with no major mishap. She made up for it when singing and her duet with Shaira in the song “Halik” was both funny and mind-blowing.

A stand-out scene for the entire ensemble which also captured the challenge of a divided nation was the rendition of “Gumising Na Tayo.” In this scene, everyone was calling on each other to wake up to the problems of the community — to stand up and do something about the flood. But with many voices come many views. And while everyone is hoping to wake everyone up, they all have different ideas on how to move forward. Furthermore, each one is forcefully defending and pushing for their point of view without truly listening to the other’s perspective. It felt like a Facebook thread come to life.

And there lies the strength of Rak of Aegis. It is the proverbial mirror of Boy Abunda forcing us to look and come to terms with what we see. After the laughter and the singing, the audience is left to contemplate on what they have seen, what they have listened to, and what they did not look at, and what they refused to hear. In the end, this community is just trying its best to survive the hand it was dealt. The call to action, however, is to go beyond survival but to dare to dream and flourish, and do so while “rakking” it out.