Gino Gonzales, a musical, historical accuracy, and modern aesthetics


ON its 90th year, the Manila Metropolitan Theater (Tanghalang Pangkalakhan ng Maynila; informally the MET, officially the NCCA Metropolitan Theater) is reclaiming its old glory as a cultural enclave. It will host the staging of Lapulapu, Ang Datu ng Mactan, its first theatrical production since it closed in 1996.

The musical, directed by Dexter Santos, was shot virtually owing to Covid-19 restrictions. It is part of the Quincentennial Commemorations in the Philippines, the Year of Filipino Pre-Colonial Ancestors, and the National Indigenous Peoples’ Month. It started streaming on October 24 on the Facebook page of The Metropolitan Theater, and cross-posted on the pages of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, among others. NCCA chairman Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso spearheads the project as artistic director.

The sweeping historical play includes the Victory at Mactan in 1521, as seen by Lapulapu (Arman Ferrer), the circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan (Andre Tiangco), as told by Juan Sebastian Elcano (Robert Barbers); and the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, as seen from the lens of Reyna Juana (Cara Barredo). This meta tale explores how history, and what people choose to be the lessons from it, contribute to the cultural identity and to the strength of any nation.”

Along with the libretto (by Nicolas B. Pichay) and music (by Krina Cayabyab), the costumes are integral to the storytelling. Tasked to drive the narrative visually is Gino Gonzales, who is also the musical’s production designer.

Gonzales is an exhibition designer and scenographer who has worked on stage, film, TV and event productions. He is a protegee of and heir apparent to National Artist for Theater and Design Salvador Bernal. With Mark Lewis Higgins, he is the coauthor of Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs (1860-1960). The TernoCon is his brainchild.

The excitement over the MET’s reopening, working on precolonial garments and wanting to see the renovated interiors of the building up close sparked Gonzales’ interest in the project.

“I had to retrieve my research materials for [the GMA qusi-historical series] Amaya, which were fortunately intact and organized in clear books,” Gonzales said of the work process, detailed below. “I also reread William Henry Scott’s Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society and eyewitness accounts by Pigafetta to sort of get back into the swing of things.”

The challenge of creating and sourcing materials for the costumes

“These were all sourced during the incessant lockdowns, which prevented us from going to traditional sources, like Divisoria. I was looking at upholstery material and shawls at the Landmark. Ordering whatever could be found online. At some point, I even had an old prop curtain dismantled to create one of the priest’s vestments. I also asked Len Cabili to help us have a textile for Lapulapu woven in Mindanao. Whenever there was a chance, I dropped by a nearby Fabric Warehouse but you can imagine that they really wouldn’t have indigenous textiles, so I had to look for things that resembled them. I would squint my eyes at their rolls to kind of imagine what could pass off as period patterns.

“For Magellan, I opted to work with an older silhouette of men’s dress rather than the popular iconography, which you see in contemporary renderings of the Battle of Mactan. The white ruffs, padded doublet, and breeches. Many of the Western costume history books situate those clothes at a much much later date, closer to Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s arrival.”

The process before ideas are rendered into sketches, to melding concepts with the director’s visions,and then to being satisfied upon seeing the costumes worn by the actors

“I normally draw only after reading the script and meeting the rest of the artistic team. Then I worked with a team of two assistants, composed of Martha and Rowel, to assemble the materials.

“When I see them on actors, I don’t always have a sense of satisfaction. And that’s the truth. The sketch will rarely look 100 percent like the real thing. You’d be lucky to achieve a good 70 percent. So I try to tweak the actual execution in favor of the actors’ physiques and personalities. After all, the clothes are not ends in themselves. It’s not like I’m doing a fashion show. The clothes onstage are merely tools for actors to tell a story.”

Attending to fittings, rehearsals and performances: the challenges, protocols-wise

“I only had a few face-to-face meetings with the cast and crew. Measurements and fittings were done outdoors. Once at a parking lot at the CCP and at the garage of my base of operations. The performers who lived outside of Manila had to follow a video tutorial prepared by my assistants to do the measurements on themselves. The final fitting was done online. I was never at the actual production bubble. So a very experienced team took over for me. We were in touch via Zoom and Viber.

“Some of the greatest difficulties included the ever-shifting casting. Since the production had to be postponed a few times in compliance with the government’s safety regulations, we’ve had quite a number of casting relays and the body types were hardly ever similar. And in such an unusual situation, you have to make fast and sensible decisions. If this were 2018, I would have had the garments dismembered or completely changed right away. But this scenario challenged the team’s ability to find quicker solutions, such as unbuttoning doublets.

“We were actually fortunate to end up with a very cooperative and understanding cast, a group of troopers.”

Historical accuracy and modern aesthetics coming into play

“I tried to balance both. After all, this was initially conceived as a live musical for the theater, not a TV documentary. So clothes were built to be seen from a distance with predetermined color palettes for groups of people. I made a conscious effort to contrast the ‘natives’ with the ‘foreigners’ by using a lot of pattern on the former and more somber, solid colors for the latter.

“And I had to consider the fact that there was a lot of dance movement involved, with Dexter Santos at the helm. So clothes had to be built like dance costumes. Draping was anchored on a base to keep them from falling apart during the show. Gussets were added under arms for movement. Headpieces were interlined with rubber crepe soles to keep them in place—the usual tricks for the stage.”


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