Review of Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko: the perils of unbridled improvisation

The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” – Arthur Miller

Arriving at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Audio-Visual Hall at exactly six 0’clock, I saw some of the faculty members and decided to find a seat near them. I sat beside Professor Rica Cainglet of the Department of Chemistry but I had to later transfer near the stage to hear better the exchange of lines of the character. She mentioned about how she appreciates students presentations like this one. I could not agree more. It’s now time students divert their attention from some really vacuous projects that have no other goal but inane fun to those that have a bit of substance in them.

When I asked her how long the play would be, she said “Depende kung masadyahan ang casts.” (It depends if the casts enjoy their performance so much so that they may forget about the time.) Her response was striking. I knew this particular theatrical presentation was going to be different. And indeed it was.

Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko (Professor Gecko’s Way) is a one-act play written by Alfredo Santos in 1980. This hybrid of a dramatic and spirited humor play portrays the system and techniques of a professor who unconsciously revels in his colonial mentality, adoring Shakespeare and viewing history through Western eyes brought about by his obsolete college education. His four students, Kiko, Babols, Ningning and Bondying are caught in the wall-less classroom of Propesor Tuko learning from their teacher and in turn teaching their professor a lesson he’ll never forget.

The play attacks imperial powers and the oppressive system that is pervasive in the education during the 80s. However, despite it being written thirty years ago, the play remains relevant; it unfailingly inspired chuckles from the audience not only for the slapstick but also for the  subtle and obvious bitter parody of the Philippine educational system.

This is a version of the play by the only theater group at University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao, UP Intermedius. It was a smart decision to stage Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko in Hiligaynon instead of the original Tagalog because by doing so the play felt more real, the humor more amusing, and the characters easier to relate with.

Directed by Marvin Arcangel Aspiras, this version allowed the characters to be more free in rendering each performance different from the next (there were two show dates and two different venues). The entire play seemed to rely so much on the ability of the characters to improvise, but not too much as to veer away from the original intention of the playwright.

UP Intermedius also did a lot of changes in the play aside from language. The names of the characters were changed; they did away with Babols and replaced her with Bojo (or Benjo, it was unclear because of poor acoustics). Bondying, the character of the village idiot in the play, is a girl in this version.

This version of the play did not fare well in the technical aspect. The lighting, most of the time, was uncreative and inappropriate, if not primitive. Relying on the overhead fluorescent light, the characters looked as if they’re being probed on top of a dissecting table. And whenever foreground lighting directly in front was used, the orange light gave the characters a sinister look, which was not apt for the genre of this play.

The sound was equally bad, if not worse. The venue was too big for a presentation of this size. Because the venue was devoid of any curtains to absorb incidental noise, the supposed humorous lines were drowned in echoes, forcing the play to rely so much on the actions of the characters and the contortions in their faces to elicit laughter. To put it simply, the characters needed to exaggerate their own theatricality to deliver the message because the acoustics of the venue was not suitable for this play or any type other type of theatrical presentation.

I’ve seen presentations of experimental theater at the Bulwagang Huseng Batute in the Cultural Center of the Philippines. They call it, if I remember it correctly, intimate theater because the actors perform very near the audience, they can almost touch each other. Had this play been staged in this kind of venue, the very rich rhythm of Hiligaynon could have been brought out more effectively.

Those mentioned above, however, are lapses that can be ignored especially for a struggling school-based theater company.

The aspect that made this play animated during the earlier part proved to be the reason for its downfall. The improvisations of the actors, which provoked good laughter at first became tired and forced after the middle part, and it was obvious the audience felt this when these ad lib began to become redundant and unnecessary near the ending. The casts tried to be humorous for humor’s sake without considering whether that specific extemporaneous acts would help in the play achieving its goals.

The ability to ad lib is a sign of creativity, quick thinking in the midst of pressure. But real acting demands discipline acquired only through a careful study of the characterization and a passionate attempt to achieve perfection in the exacting art of the theater.

Worth mentioning, nevertheless, were the unforgettable performances of the characters of Kiko, female in this version, and her very adorable way of asserting the facts she knows by reading her ‘newly’ published history books written by Agoncillo, as well as the larger-than-life character of Propesor Tuko who, although limited by the static-ness of his character,  remained focus the entire time.

Bondying, turned out to be more annoying than funny at times, repeatedly and tediously extending parts which could’ve been altogether eliminated. The character of Ningning was overdone; so was Bojo’s (or Benjo’s).

After all, an actor can only do so much with a caricature.

Still, if there is any consolation, this Hiligaynon version of the play Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko is full of attitude. There was a serious effort to bring theater back to the university, an effort worth commending and nurturing. We can only hope UP Intermedius will come up with more productions, productions that would challenge the way we see our world and the way we think about the theater itself, and leave a statement that theater is alive in this part of the UP System.

Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko ( Professor Gecko’s Way) is a play in one act, written by Al Santos in 1980. It was first staged on 7 Feb 1980 by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) at the Dulaang Raha Sulayman in Front of Santiago, Manila. The original Filipino version was published in the PETA-KE Script Series 2 in 1983. The English translation was published in Nicanor G. Tiongson (ed), Modern ASEAN Plays: Philippines , Manila: ASEAN COCI, 1992.

This light dramatic and spirited humor play portrays the system and absurd techniques of a professor (who reveals colonial mentality as he adores Sharespeare and views history through Western eyes) to stressed on the attack on imperial powers and the oppressive. Thus, this play ends in a disagreement of the students and teachers who want to help this professor improve and update his absurd system.

4 thoughts on “Review of Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko: the perils of unbridled improvisation”

  1. Thanks for watching sir and for taking time to write a review. Rest assured that we will continue to improve talent-wise and resources-wise.

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