Theater Review: Why ‘Rak of Aegis’ Continues to Triumph as an Important Achievement in Filipino Theater

Following a catastrophic typhoon that brought the whole community underwater, Barangay Venezia has since seen days so bleak they had no choice but push through everyday life with discomfort and uncertainty—the kind that requires one to take a ride onboard a makeshift boat to transfer from one point to another. Residents, young and old, have been getting all sorts of illnesses but the health center’s medicine supply has long run out. Jobs have become unstable and the local enterprise has undergone irreparable damages that residents have begun resorting to gimmickry to fend for their families. Everyone has stagnated and everyone has seemingly lost hope but one.

In the midst of the barangay’s sorry state is a perky, hopeful heroine, Aileen, who shoots for the stars and dreams of becoming a viral sensation by uploading her video on YouTube in hopes of getting noticed by Ellen DeGeneres, who has been known for bringing incredible Filipino talent to her long-running daytime show in Hollywood—the great Filipino dream.

Aicelle Santos as Aileen. | Photo by Mikee Garcia

Supporting her singing ambition are her mother, Mercy, the barangay’s captain Mary Jane, and best friend Jewel, and love interests, Kenny and Tolits, whom she calls out for help to snatch the world’s attention through her talent. When things started going south, with Aileen’s unjust departure from her non-paying retail job and her growing distance from her jaded father, the strict and always combative Mang Kiel, all she has to hold on to was the small fire of hope fanned by the idea of someday hitting the jackpot with her singing talent.

By happenstance, after a couple of failed attempts, Aileen sees herself raking in hundreds and thousands of views on her video belting her heart out, to the tune of “Basang-basa sa Ulan”, a song made famous by OPM legends, Aegis, with the flood as her backdrop. As the infamous video stirred interest and praise online, came an opportunity to shine a light not just on her talent, but of the community’s condition.

Aicelle Santos singing ‘Basang-basa sa Ulan’. | Photo by Mikee Garcia

Since it first made its way onstage in 2014, Rak of Aegis, what with its revolutionary vision of bringing an all-original jukebox musical to cater to the Filipino audiences, has taken the world of theater by storm—ultimately taking its rightful spot as the quintessential Filipino musical. From Myke Salomon’s ingenious idea of doing a production that is characteristically Filipino, using a songbook of a band that resonates, in great lengths, with the Filipino psyche and spirit, Aegis, Rak has succeeded even its creators’ expectations and have now spanned five long years in seven sold-out seasons.

Rak of Aegis has the luxury of working with a wealth of easily recognizable songs from the Aegis discography to easily engage the audience—the way jukebox musicals are meant to do. You don’t need to like the band or know the songs by heart, or you can even claim not to have tried to key in one of their songs in your karaoke sessions, but it is the wit, cleverness, and pure theater smarts of the people behind it that made it a runaway success—from Salomon’s impeccable musical direction to playwright Liza Magtoto’s simple but compelling storyline, that reshaped the way we hear the songs of the iconic band. Meticulously gluing this together is director Maribel Legarda, leading the charge for the country’s pioneering jukebox musical that spawned contemporaries inspired by Rak’s rousing success.

When we talk about Aegis, hits like “Halik”, “Luha”, “Basang-basa sa Ulan”, “Sinta”, and “Mahal na Mahal Kita” easily come to mind. And as is expected, these are songs that helped beef up the show’s narrative, sung to perfection by the topnotch actors that make up its ensemble. But with Magtoto’s thorough study of the band’s rich discography and Salomon’s ear and heart to mold the songs as effective narrative devices, even the lesser known songs like “I Love You na lang sa Tago”, “Munting Pangarap”, “Para kay Aileen”, and “Gumising na Tayo” became unforgettable anthems that stick to the viewers’ consciousness even after the lights have dimmed and ensemble takes its final bow.

In the end, with the simple, timeless storyline and the innumerable tweaks that have been injected in the shows season after season, it’s the effective ensemble of actors breathing life to the now-iconic characters that make up bulk of the well-oiled machine that is Rak of Aegis.

Aicelle Santos with Ron Alfonso as Jewel. | Photo by Jazmine Ke

For the seventh season, the OG Aileen, Aicelle Santos, reprises her role as the twinkly-eyed dreamer, fresh from her West End venture. While not known as a biritera, Santos exudes effortless, irresistible charm onstage that she becomes a fitting representation of the Filipino spirit, a shining example of grit and persistence in a time of hopelessness. Last year’s new joiner as Aileen, Shaira Opsimar, also returns, alternating as the lead protagonist, with impressive vocals and promising onstage presence that lure you into her world with ease. However, it is Kim Molina’s perfect combination of comedic and dramatic prowess and disarming vocal chops that make her a favorite among all actresses who stepped onstage as Aileen.

With the richness of its character, Tolits has been the go-to crowd pleaser in each show, making filling the shoes of the role a tall order, requiring only an actor with such commanding presence and geniality to make it soar to the audience’s liking. Pepe Herrera, of course, makes this a walk in the park, with faultless timing and candor, not to mention, commendable vocals that make him the well-rounded performer we all know him to be. Newcomer, Joshua Bulot also steps into his own, after joining the roster in 2018, he has since become a powerhouse with unquestionable vocal talent and onstage presence.  The most interesting addition this season—surprising even—is young actor Derrick Monasterio, who assumes the larger-than-life role as the tisoy counterpart of Tolits—a buff, good-looking version of the beloved “gondola” master. While this is his first foray into live theater, there’s much to be admired to Monasterio’s performance, especially as he stood his ground, banking not just on his natural good looks but his laudable singing talent.

Pepe Herrera as the ever-charming crowd-pleaser Tolits. | Photo by Jazmine Ke

The ensemble also boasts of veteran theater greats making the production an unforgettable adventure—from legendary couple Robert and Isay Sena as Kiel and Kapitana Mary Jane respectively, renowned vocalist and coach Sweet Plantado-Tiongson and theater and onscreen actress Neomi Gonzales, and television and film regular Kakai Bautista, alternating for the roles of Mary Jane and Nanay Mercy. Returning as Kiel alternate is another OPM giant, Renz Verano, along with other renowned theater actors Rody Vera and Gie Onida, alternating as Fernan, the mysterious character that transforms from villain to friend. There’s also Poppert Bernadas and Vince Lim alternating with Salomon as the rebellious but talented Kenny. Jimi Marquez and Ron Alfonso then offer different flavors as the fun, “explosive” friend, Jewel.

Isay Sena as Mary Jane | Photo by Jazmine Ke

The seventh season run of Rak of Aegis was made possible with its partnership with the Organisasyon ng mga Pilipinong Mang-aawit (OPM) and The PhilPop MusicFest Foundation (Philpop), that resulted to the inclusion of new cast members from OPM legends Noel Cabangon as Kiel, Randy Santiago as Fernan, and Bayang Barrios and Janine Desiderio as Mary Jane alternates. Taking her spot as Nanay Mercy is another singing competition alum, Leah Patricio, who is a welcome addition to the already commendable cast as a revelation in her comedic talent as well as her sky-high renditions. There’s also the Wishcovery first-runner-up Kimberly Baluzo taking her first stride as Aileen this season.

Robert Sena as Tatay Kiel | Photo by Jazmine Ke

Among the reliable ensemble cast that make up the production, it is Carlon Matobato who takes a couple of scene-stealing turns as Aileen’s despicable boss and Brgy. Venezia’s Moses with the now-famous Baha Joss and Lola Remedios bit that left a remarkable mark. Also making great impression is ensemble cast member Gio Gahol, who is also an unsung hero behind the production’s choreography, expertly fashioning routines without taking focus away from the show’s narrative, to which he earned a Gawad Buhay award for Outstanding Choreography for a Musical.

Barangay Venezia as built and designed by Mio Infante. | Photo by Mikee Garcia

There’s also much to be raved about the production’s set design under the meticulous eye of multi-awarded designer, Mio Infante, with the melding of expert craftsmanship and new technology to bring an otherworldly but familiar setting of Barangay Venezia, including actual waterworks that transports audiences in a sensory, voyeuristic experience, allowing them to sit down and observe as life in Barangay Venezia unravels before their very eyes. This is then complemented by the playful lights design of Jonjon Villareal, to make the show an absolute spectacle to behold.

In essence, Rak is a satiric commentary on the plight of the Filipino—employing a mixture of great song performances, dry humor, camp, physical comedy, and even impromptu genius to appeal to its wide breadth of audiences.  Even as the production uses this hodge-podge of techniques to make an impact to the viewers, Legarda’s directing genius has masterfully woven all of these elements into one irresistible, intoxicating ride.

It is easy to be lost in the theatrics, the dance sequences, and the humor in a production as grand as this that it could ultimately lead to a highly-romanticized view of its milieu’s condition but what makes Rak all the more magical goes beyond its flashy presentation but on how it does not trivialize the Filipino experience, but coats its underlying social context in fun numbers and punchlines aimed at sparking an internal dialogue among its viewers on the line that demarcates hope from sheer escapist ideology, the ambitious versus delusion, leaning on skills over luck, and of course, the social imbalance between the powerful and moneyed and the powerless.

In every sense, Rak of Aegis, beyond its high-octane numbers, its hilarious skits, and blaring vocal performances, is a story of human triumph. Beneath the surface—the razzle-dazzle and the knee-slapping comedy is a poignant story of persistence and resilience, of clinging on to hope in a time of restlessness and desperation—making it an important achievement in Filipino theater.

That makes Rak of Aegis timeless. That makes Rak of Aegis forever.