The passion of Pramoedya

Ricky Torre
A vigorous, heartbreaking drama on the Indonesian author

VIVID DRAMA. An energetic cast revs up this heartbreaker about Indonesia's great writer. Photo courtesy of CCP

MANILA, Philippines – A highlight of Virgin Labfest 2013 is “Pramoedya,” by author and columnist Benjamin Pimentel.

Virgin Labfest is the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ annual theater festival that serves as a launch pad for new unpublished works, both by fresh, enterprising aspirants in the theater community and by its seasoned artists. 

Now on its 9th year, the festival has helped uphold the cause of Philippine theater, a lively scene like Philippine cinema, which maintains a dynamic partnership with theater that goes back to the history of both genres. 

READ: Raw theater at Virgin LabFest 9

Pimentel’s two-act drama, inspired by the life and times of Indonesia’s Pramoedya Ananta Toer — who died in 2006 — was another demonstration of the vitality of the theater scene.

The play, under the direction of CCP’s artistic director Chris Millado, prompted the audience’s euphoric applause after it presented a compelling portrait of the writer and patriot renowned worldwide for his nationalism, and more so for his unparalleled commitment to the writing craft.

Pramoedya’s passion for his art is a widely celebrated facet of the man, one that defied the persecution of Indonesia’s authorities who burned his manuscripts and sent Pramoedya to the penal colony of Buru island, east of Indonesia’s archipelago.

Check out this fascinating documentary on Pramoedya aptly titled ‘The Storyteller’:

In Buru, Pramoedya would be prohibited even from writing, denied his valued instruments of pen and paper. But to go around this restriction, he resorted to telling his stories to fellow prisoners — his collaborators in what became Pramoedya’s best known work, the “Buru Quartet.”  

These 4 novels chronicle a family odyssey against the backdrop of Dutch rule and its insidious legacy in post-colonial Indonesia — themes familiar to the Philippines.

Yet this Indonesian writer who is highly regarded in the West is little known here in the Philippines, despite his being conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995.

In, not of, Asia

Much has been discussed and written about the Philippines being in, but not of, Asia, a unique standing that Pimentel’s play alludes to [in such lines as “kapitbahay na matagal na nating hindi pinapansin” (a neighbor we’ve always ignored)] — as it also does Pramoedya’s keen interest, on the other hand, in the Philippine revolution of 1898 and its actors.

Pimentel, in an interview with Rappler, said he first became acquainted with Pramoedya’s life and works in the 1980s. This happened to be a politically charged era, amid the country’s turbulent transition from dictatorship to democracy. 

“I first heard about him at UP, and my friends were talking about this Indonesian novelist who was inspired by the Philippine Revolution in the course of writing the ‘Buru Quartet.’ He wrote those novels in which the Philippines had a central role.”

Pimentel said he became “mesmerized” by Pramoedya’s story and “stunned,” moreover, on learning about his defiant perseverance to write amid the official repression against his own craft.

“I started working on and thinking about the play in the mid-1990s. The production is a hundred times better than the one that’s been playing in my head for the past 20 years. This is to praise Chris, and this is where the magic of collaboration is important. Theater is really a collaborative process and the playwright’s role is only one part.”

Pimentel cites the confrontation scene between Pramoedya [Fernando ‘Nanding’ Josef] and the Filipina journalist Fides [Cris Villonco] as a highlight of that process. “Chris is really a genius. He used more Indonesian in the scene and Indonesian and Dutch in other parts of the play.”

Yet in its basic framework, the play is already a seamless, non-linear narrative that affirms Sartre’s insight on all great art being about the passing and fluctuations of time.

Almost singing dialogue

The present wherein we find Pramoedya as a battered old activist alternates and sometimes coexists with the past being lived by the fictional alter-ego of his creation, the young Minke [Gino Ramirez]. Both these characters, who are really two sides of the Indonesian writer himself, are bruised survivors of the oppression and prejudice of colonial Indonesia and the succeeding native rulers who continued to embody its legacy.

The play’s text is altogether rich and diverse, with Bahasa, Dutch and English providing a different pulse or rhythm to the vibrant, almost singing Filipino dialogue. A team of translators — Abdullah Almohdar, Wesley Enriquez and Don Alexander Garcia — was tapped for this material. 

In turn, the writing in Filipino shifts between the old-school eloquence of earlier generations and the chismax pop lingo of our time, deployed with such panache and humor by Fides and her equally kikay editor, Marie [Kat Castillo who, together with Richard Cunanan in his varied small parts in this play, provides sharp comic relief].

Fides herself is a modern Minke. But if Minke reacts with fascinated skepticism to the independence movement in the Philippines as it relates to his country’s plight [“republika ng mga katutubo?” (a republic by the natives?)], Fides is more embracing and forward-looking in her idealism, as she pursues Pramoedya’s (and Indonesia’s) story like the parallel narrative that it is to her country’s story.

Fides is an inspired creation by Pimentel, in every way a foreigner thrown into Pramoedya’s world and thereby altering its dynamic.

Deft mise en scene

Apart from the actors portraying these characters, Millado’s team projects their states of mind with its deft and virtuosic mise en scene [scene arrangement], incorporating the wayang and other Indonesian motifs and the backdrop of protest footages that eerily resemble the First Quarter Storm in the Philippines.

King Catoy is this production’s videographer. Roan Cornejo and his assistants Allan Fami and Camille Ocsan are the stage managers.

It is the character of Minke, the protagonist in the Buru Quartet, who represents the as-yet untarnished idealism of Pramoedya that would later be diluted by his older self and expanded in Fides’ case. Minke is also an Indonesian Rizal, as his compatriots regard him: “Meron kang pananalig sa kapuluan at sa sambayanan.” [You have faith in our islands and people.]

Even the patronizing colonizer has the same if grudging admiration for Minke: “Why, you can mingle with the Europeans wearing European clothes. Why, you even speak a little Dutch.”

The earnestness attributed to Minke’s character also points to the committed theater of PETA, where Pimentel did some acting (and also at UP) during the politically charged 1980s.

But soon, Minke faces tragedy in the form of a rigidly technical court order that sends off his creole wife Annelies to the Netherlands, where she dies in the bleak solitude of exile — the same conditions confronting the foremost contributors to the Philippine economy today.

Annelies, Minke’s great love, is the calm eye of the domestic and political storm confronting Minke and his real-life older counterpart, Pramoedya. Hers is the second least flamboyant part that requires anti-acting, or playing a part like a stoic brick, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Thea Gloria does in her complex understatement.

The least flamboyant part, of course, is Pramoedya’s wife as portrayed by the versatile character actor Sherry Lara, expressing a restrained substance in her inherently limited role as a pale shadow of the fictional Annelies.

Strong women

Standing proud in sharp contrast to these quiet roles are the strong women in this play: Mayen Estañero as Minke’s mother-in-law, Nyai Ontosoroh, and her contemporary versions Marie and especially Fides.

Villonco as Fides performs with great abandon, complemented by the two or 3 moles dotting her face and neck [from this writer’s vantage in the theater] which, in the context of our beloved region of Southeast Asia, one may appreciate as a mini-archipelago. 

Ramirez has the posture and chiseled handsomeness suitable to the idealist Minke, the same qualities also of Bong Cabrera and Kristofer Kliatchko [as the older Pramoedya’s young cellmates] that are not so much Derek Ramsay, but more like the proud Malay of Botong Francisco’s murals, or like the Bembol Roco of Lino Brocka’s early works.   

Roco and Lou Veloso, both alumni of the Urian’s roster of actors, invest their cameo roles with that palpable weight of remorse as Pramoedya’s rival writers, against whom Pramoedya made a crucial political choice that to them amounted to betrayal. 

In hindsight to that dark chapter in Pramoedya’s life, Roco’s character takes the higher ground in his more understanding appreciation of a friend-turned-enemy: “Maganda sana kung mga bayani ay puro.” [It would nice if our heroes always had a pure heart.] This and other lines referencing the more complex episodes in Pramoedya’s life also allude to the willful association of our nationalist writers with the Marcos dictatorship.

This remorse becomes an entire field for Josef’s range as a highly nuanced actor. His lost gaze and cracked voice, evoking Nora Aunor, present a Pramoedya who wavered at some point in his idealism even as he remained steadfast in his art.

His crucial second encounter with Fides, who unleashes her outrage and disappointment at Pramoedya’ s infidelity to his principles, is a glaring illustration of the insight that one must never be close to the people you idolize — a lesson that Fidels fails to learn anyway, despite the back story of her younger brother being martyred to the activist cause he took up because he worshipped his sister. 

Confronting at last his personal demons as escorted to him by Fides, Pramoedya, alone by himself, falls to his knees, overwhelmed by the pressure of a greater evil than imperialism, which is tyranny by one’s own countrymen.

It’s a heartbreaker of a play, all told, one that elicited the teary-eyed marveling of this writer and perhaps some; yet it is full of energy too, like a farewell party on the eve of a storm. –


There will be two more performances of ‘Pramoedya’ at the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute: July 3, 8:00pm, and July 4, 3:00pm.

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