Lorenzo, a contemporary opera about the life of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, oozes with all the human drama that can be extracted from the life of the saint. Director Nonon Padilla dares potential viewers to come out of the theater with their eyes dry.
The project was originally conceptualized as a movie which the actor Christopher de Leon planned to make in fulfillment of a panata or vow, with himself playing the role of the saint. Unfortunately, the movie project collapsed due to financial problems. The project was revived when the actor approached the historian-playwright Paul Dumol and asked the latter to write a play about St. Lorenzo Ruiz. Paul Dumol was reluctant at first since he had already written Felipe de las Casas, about another saint who lived in almost the same historical period as St. Lorenzo Ruiz. But Paul Dumol proposed that two of his former students, Juan Ekis and Joem Antonio write the play under his supervision, to which Christopher de Leon agreed. After several drafts and trial readings, with Nonon Padilla giving his input, the play was set to music by the composer Ryan Cayabyab.
The main source material for the play is the book by Fr. Fidel Villaroel, which in turn distills various primary sources used for Lorenzo Ruiz’s beatification. The most important document among them is an account by former Christians who acted as interpreters in the interrogation of Lorenzo Ruiz and his companion martyrs. Portuguese merchants smuggled the account from Japan to Macau, and from there it reached the Philippines through a Spanish friar.
Lorenzo employs the play-within-a-play device. It depicts the life of the 17th-century saint from the point of view of 21st century Filipino, an overseas worker in the Middle East named Lawrence who is condemned to death for having murdered his employer who sexually abused him. While awaiting his execution, Lawrence, who used to be actively involved in theater, copes with his depression by writing a play about the saint whose life, in many ways, parallels his own. As Lawrence grapples with his own anger against God over his fate, he reflects on the life of the first canonized Filipino martyr who left Spain-governed Manila as a fugitive from the law and who ended up in Japan where he was tortured and executed for his faith.
According to the playwright Paul Dumol, the challenge in producing a play about the life of a saint is avoiding the expected sentimental or hagiographical treatment which may discourage viewers from watching the play. The team behind Lorenzo steered away from a Hollywood-type depiction of miracles and stuck to the facts. As a result, the saint is depicted as a normal human being, who struggles with difficulties in forgiving and hesitation in the face of martyrdom.
While accounts are unclear on whether Lorenzo Ruiz committed the murder he was accused of, in this play, he is depicted as having killed a Spaniard who raped a family member. A parish priest who believes Lorenzo Ruiz is innocent helps him escape on a merchant ship going to Macau. Due to a storm, the ship has to go to Formosa (now Taiwan). Lorenzo Ruiz finds out that Formosa is also a Spanish enclave and therefore would not be a safe hiding place. On the advice of merchants, he boards a boat of missionaries en route to Japan.
In Japan, the missionaries and Lorenzo Ruiz are arrested for their faith. He witnesses the head of the mission, a certain Fray Antonio, remain calm amidst tortures and wonders where Fray Antonio derives his strength from. On the other hand, he sees Lazaro (depicted as a comic character in the play), a Japanese leper who, terrified by the tortures, gives up his faith. Lorenzo Ruiz is faced with his own choice. At one point, he is asked to trample a sacred image. He asks his tormentors if he will be given his freedom if he does so; the tormentors give no clear answer.
Drama unfolds as the inner struggles and intertwined fates of Lorenzo Ruiz and the present-day Lawrence are acted out on stage. Theatrical devices such as puppets, masks, mimes, giant dolls as Japanese judges, frames of a manga strip projected onstage enhance the play. In the Japan scenes, the play incorporates Japanese theatrical techniques.
The best element of the play is the musical score. Director Nonon Padilla raves about composer Ryan Cayabyab’s talent for translating words into musical emotion, and says that the music is inspired. When playwright Paul Dumol was asked if the play gave him any personal spiritual epiphany, he replied, “The closest I came to that was listening to the songs being performed to Ryan’s music for the first time. Suddenly, the emotions and struggles of Lorenzo Ruiz became real. One almost felt God was there in Ryan’s studio. Many others have had the same experience listening to the songs the first time. I hope that when they are performed, with sets and lights and costumes, we preserve that experience.”
I look forward to watching Lorenzo. It promises to combine visual and auditory spectacle with profound insight. The story it tells appeals to Filipinos everywhere who have experienced exile in a foreign land. Most importantly, I look forward to seeing how it depicts a saint grapple with grim and gritty realities, something our stereotyped view of sainthood sometimes fails to conceive. We need to be reminded how much the saints were human, too, like us.
Readers in the Philippines can watch Lorenzo on September 5,6,7, 12, 13, and 14, 2013. Performances are at 1pm and at 6pm at the New Theater of St. Benilde, Vito Cruz, Manila.