THE NATIVITY STORY. Linda Manalo’s “Panunuluyan” presents the narrative based on the biblical accounts about Jesus Christ’s birth. As an annual tradition, The Xavier Stage adapts the play, as directed by TXS director Hobart Savior, every Christmas season to commemorate and celebrate the essence of the holiday. Photo by Angelo Lorenzo

Review by Angelo Lorenzo

Two thousand years ago, the Son of God was born in a manger beneath what wise men beheld as the brightest star. This is the highlight of the narrative which Xavier Center for Culture and the Arts director Hobart Savior considers “the greatest story about love ever told” during The Xavier Stage’s production of Linda Manalo’s “Panunuluyan.”

This narrative took center stage during a two-day theatrical run from Thursday (December 20) to Friday (December 21) at the Xavier Little Theater. Performing the play has become an annual tradition for one of Xavier Ateneo’s exceptional resident theater company with a repertoire inspired by stories that have lasted for centuries.

Just days prior, TXS has staged a localized version of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at Silliman University in Dumaguete. But among all their productions — from plays that traced back to the Renaissance or those that have been commended with accolades by the highest literary prize in the Philippines — only one evokes the essence of Christmas with the portrayal of its origin.

The Nativity story

Inspired by the accounts of Jesus Christ’s birth in the Gospels, Manalo’s “Panunuluyan” takes literary liberties from the source material for effective plot devices. At the same time, it does not miss out on important doctrinal details.

Some scenes, which have been mentioned in the Bible but not elaborated enough by its text, had been emphasized, such as the wise men charting the stars and agreeing to follow the brightest one, Joseph’s (played by Business Administration senior Nikko Sanchez) jubilant request for his betrothal with Mary (Campus Ministry’s Danica Fabella), and Herod’s villainous monologue as he plotted to kill innocents to retain power and authority. Other scenes had been portrayed with dialogues literally taken from the Gospels, particularly the Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel hailed Mary as “full of grace” and eventually announced her immaculate conception.

In this version of the nativity, Manalo conveyed the conflict as the doubt of one’s faith in God. With disbelief about his aged wife’s pregnancy, Zachariah lost his ability to speak, which he later regained after believing that God gave them a son to be the prophet who would, later on, baptize the Messiah. In the same way, Joseph struggled to accept Mary’s conception based on the hearsays of his community, which he later overcame after Angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him the truth. Even the wise men, who seemed to digest every phenomenon with scientific evidence, started to believe that the Son of God was the infant in the manger to whom they gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh — gifts that fit royalty that only the silent night’s brightest star can shine over.

Centering on the events that happened before, during, and after Christ’s birth may be the heart on this take of the nativity story, but with TXS’ production, the narrative sustained the Christmas spirit onstage.

Christmas tradition

Perhaps one of the advantages of artistic liberties is to know what style works in production to present a classical tale familiar to many but with a different approach. With the language in Filipino, the set design has also been inspired by local culture. Bamboos stood onstage, and depending on the scenes, transitioned from being a temple to a shelter, to a stable that housed the nativity scene without being transferred from one spot to another.

The Middle Eastern-inspired costumes garbed the characters as accurately as the play’s setting - with Mary’s blue veil and white robe paying homage to the Lady of Lourdes. Scene transitions caused no delay as the cast utilized almost all areas within the theater apart from the stage - wherein Joseph had to lead Mary from behind the last row of seats, treading through one side in the hall, before reaching the stage to seek for shelter when she was about to give birth.

But what sets this year’s production unique from the rest of the previous performances was the applause during its opening night, an evidence that the play, although presented annually, still tugs people’s heartstrings as they are re-introduced to the meaning of Christmas.

TXS’s most recent adaptation of Manalo’s “Panunuluyan” continued the tradition in celebrating and commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. With Savior directing an exceptional cast mostly composed of students, teachers, and members of the Xavier Ateneo community, the production resonated with the message that has inspired countless stories two thousand years later - God’s unconditional love as manifested by His Son, who was born in a manger, and who would eventually redeem the world as the atonement for sins.∎

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