One of the joys of living in a city of diversity is to experience the traditions of other cultures. Two theatre companies who specialize in showcasing diversity, Cahoots and b.current, have come together to present Philippines-born, Toronto-raised Jo Simalaya Alcampo’s Hilot Means Healer. I now have a couple of Filipino shows under my belt that are anchored in the rich mythologies of those many islands, and I find it fascinating. There appears to be a real spearhead to reclaim Indigenous culture in the Philippines, particularly in story telling and music, and this gentle play embraces both.
There are actually two stories going on. One is set during the Battle of Manila in World War ll that ended Japanese occupation. Apparently 100,000 civilians were killed in the fighting, many by American bombs. Manang Flor (Carolyn Fe), a healer, has taken the orphan Alma (Belinda Corpuz) into her home. The two women also hide Alfredo, (Aldrin Bundoc), a deserter from the guerrilla fighters. Caught between two colonial armies, the Japanese and the Americans, the three live in a garden that contains healing herbs and flowers, and Flor tries to teach these two young people to love and cherish the land, particularly the revered balete tree, as well as to indoctrinate them in folklore and tradition.
The second story goes into the realm of magic realism and we learn that Flor has lived for many centuries. The focus here is her training as a babaylan or wise woman under the mentorship of Ligaya (Karen Ancheta). The two had a troubled relationship that has haunted Flor until this day. Along the way we learn about various gods and myths, which reinforces the idea that the Philippines does have a rich Indigenous culture full of intriguing stories. The four actors certainly give from the heart as they play various characters in the parallel plotlines.
There is only one encounter with a shadowy Japanese patrol, but we know the war is out there because both Alma and Alfredo have endured terrible personal stories. The take-away is that they must depend upon each other to survive, and this is where the present and the past collide, and life-altering choices must be made. Director Jasmine Chen has done a lovely job of keeping the two stories clear in their telling. Her approach is very low key so we have time to absorb the myths with which Alcampo has filled her play. Chen also knows when to crank up the tension, because fear is always a factor in their lives. She also very cleverly directs her actors throughout the entire theatre space, which places the audience inside the action.
Jung-Hye Kim’s sets, costumes and props are wonderfully evocative. In fact, the set is one of the best transformations of the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre that I have seen, with the giant balete tree covering one wall, Flor’s bamboo hut on the other, and the huge garden in between. Jareth Li’s lighting amplifies Kim’s visionary set beautifully.
A special note must be made about the marvellous original music. Composer/performer MaryCarl Guiao accompanies the actors and the action with atmospheric live music that accents the drama, pinpoints mood, makes commentary, telegraphs events, and does all other matters one would expect from a cinematic score. Guiao has devoted herself to the study of the various types of kulintang, a traditional Filipino instrument made of gongs, which is apparently a dying art. She also uses the gandingan a kayo, which is comprised of four sequenced wooden plates. Having Filipino Indigenous instruments as part of this production adds flavour and texture in a very meaningful way.
Hilot Means Healer is not a perfect play. There is quite a bit of repetition and Alcampo may be a bit slow in revealing secrets. Nonetheless, it is clearly people like writer Alcampo and musician Guiao who are helping Filipinos rediscover their Indigenous roots, and kudos to Cahoots and b.current for mounting the production that puts the traditions of the Philippines front and centre.
Cahoots Theatre & b.current Performing Arts, Hilot Means Healer, by Jo Simalaya Alcampo, directed by Jasmine Chen, BMO Incubator, The Theatre Centre, Oct. 5 to 27, 2019.