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Through Wooden Eyes

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The Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas has collected over thirty custom wooden puppets in the span of three family generations. Under the steady hands of a puppeteering family, the wooden dolls bring Asian folklore to life.

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Story by
Miguel Nacianceno
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The thought of watching a wooden puppet show at this age might be unusual at first.

It’s easy to presume that the practice of puppetry comes from an outdated era. In a time where the trajectory of entertainment points to digital, Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas, one of the Philippines oldest puppet theater companies keeps wonder alive with live performances right before our eyes.

The oldest recordings of the practice dates back to the 19th century, where small carts called the carrillo would be pushed around the streets, presenting shadow plays with figures made of cardboard. The practice that most Filipinos might be familiar with is the Higantes Festival in Angono, Rizal. However, the country’s modern puppetry tradition is quite young, revived when the Mulat theater was made and followed by many other theater companies and television shows—most notably, Batibot, which first aired in 1984.

As it stands, the Mulat theater now has over thirty custom wooden puppets, a collection started by Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio, a National Artist for Theater who created the company in the 1970s.

Exterior view of the gates leading to Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas

A Transference of Souls

The gates to the Mulat theater in Quezon City are embellished with an iron tapestry of animals, landscapes, and the faces of the sun and moon. Inside, the walls have faded with age, but you can easily tell that they were once vivid with greens, teals, and pinks. The hallways upstairs are lined with display cases filled with marionettes and puppets of all kinds. 

In the span of three family generations, these toys have gathered dust and patina—evidence of the long histories they’ve witnessed through their unblinking eyes. They may be still at the moment, but these characters are ready to come to life under the steady hands of the company puppeteers.

“Sa bawat puppet siguro may sari-sariling memories din ako na naka-attach sa kanila,” Aina Ramolete says. She is Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio’s granddaughter and is the latest member of the family to take up a significant role in the theater company. After graduating from the University of the Philippines (UP) in 2021, she has become the Associate Artistic Director of the Mulat Theater—a natural transition for someone who has been playing with the puppets since childhood. She first began backstage as a little girl handing out props to the puppeteers during plays, then onto holding single-rod puppets on stage, and over the years, eventually learning how to perform with the different styles of puppets in the theater.

Her grandmother is known to the world as the Grand Dame of Southeast Asian Children's Theater, but to Aina, she is simply her Lola Amel. Growing up, her bedtime stories were not about hungry caterpillars or families of talking bears, they were bespoke tales woven by her Lola’s vast knowledge of Asian folklore—sometimes Lola Amel would read to her Ramayana or Mahabharata myths, and other times she would simply conjure a tale out of thin air.

Sitting by the edge of the theater stage, Aina says that performing a puppet show is harder than it looks. Each wooden puppet has heft and one needs the practice and technique to hold up a figure for an hour straight while also making the puppet’s movements look as realistic as possible. Muscle cramps and fatigue are a hurdle on stage even for experienced puppeteers like her.

So, I ask her what her secret is to making the puppets’ movement so lifelike. She says, “Practice lang siguro. Ako personally? Nag-uusap lang kami ng puppet nang ganito—”

Aina picks up a beautiful wooden doll clad in a regal red cowl with gold trimmings and grabs two iron rods connected to its hands. The puppet raises its arms and tilts its head so slightly, so fluidly, as if to acknowledge me. I blink and it’s as if Aina has disappeared into the backdrop.

In the old and empty theater, Sita, Hindu goddess of the Ramayana myths, makes an appearance. “Minsan nag-iinteract lang kaming dalawa silently. Tapos, iniisip ko kung ano ba yung background nya, anong personality nya. On stage, si Sita pa rin siya, pero off stage, mas naglalaro lang kami.”

Aina and Sita move as one—both driven by a singular line of thought. 

Sita’s hands then fall slack and I am talking to Aina again. With her hands back on her lap, it’s riveting to watch the life she lends Sita take a pause. 

Inspired by Lola Amel’s travels abroad, the Japanese “bunraku” style of puppetry influences the performance of the Teatrong Mulat company. In performing bunraku style, they wear black garments and a hood that covers their face on stage. Their hands are a conduit for animation as another process, a transference of souls takes place.

Growing up, her mother and grandmother would always remind the puppeteers to direct all their energy into the puppets. Focusing on how they move, on how they look, and how they walk–all those nuances translate into the personality they breathe into the puppets. Each of the thirty wooden puppets in the theater were carved with a distinct identity, so they cannot be swapped for one another from the stories they belong to. Each puppeteer knows their character’s story by heart to be able to truthfully bring them to life.

“Sa sobrang focus mo sa kanila, parang nagme-merge kayo into one. So kung paano mo iniisip gawin yung movements for certain lines as yourself, iisipin mo rin kung paano papalabasin sa kanila,” she explains.

Under the limelight of the theater but not quite the center of attention per se, the practice of puppeteering also becomes a form of healing for Aina and many of the performers in the company. In a balancing act unique to their craft, they are able to hide and perform at the same time.

“Kapag nakatago ako, mas nae-express ko sarili ko. Feeling ko kasi hindi ako nagiging conscious sa sarili ko kapag nakatakip ako,” Aina says. On stage, the puppet that she plays becomes the mediator between the audience’s eyes and her body as a performer. Without scrutiny on how the puppeteers will look on stage, they are able to feel more comfortable expressing emotions through their movement.

Lola Amel’s Touch

In the middle of March, I visit the theater again at night to watch the puppeteers rehearse. It’s two weeks before they stage the Papet Pasyon, a yearly children-oriented retelling of the Passion of Christ. With a very lean team at work, the performers are heavily involved with every aspect of the show, including the worldbuilding. They have been there since dusk to help work on props they’ll be using for the show. On the floor, they all sit down together while painting a brood of paper machê chicks.

Aina tells me that Lola Amel herself used to be very hands-on with the prop making for all their shows, which is why they all are as well. By the entrance there are photos of Lola Amel teaching Aina how to sew sequins on a puppet’s costume one by one. When she’d draw, Lola Amel would push her to embellish her drawings. “Punuin mo yung paper—as in kulayan mo lahat!” she’d say.

Knowing this makes Lola Amel’s hand in the theater easier to notice. No corner of the space is untouched by her intricate sense of style. It’s evident when you walk on a colorful floor tile with flower imprints or when you hold on to the iron stair railings twisted to resemble rays of the sun. 

This year will mark the first time the theater will perform the Papet Pasyon live without Lola Amel since her passing in 2020. Dr. Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete, Aina’s mother and the Artistic Director of Teatrong Mulat says that staging it once again only makes them all miss Lola Amel even more. “Pero, ito din yung way to show na tuloy pa rin ang [legacy] niya,” she says.

When they finish rehearsals late into the night, Dr. Amihan insists I join them for their team dinner. She says that Lola Amel considered all the puppeteers in the company as family, so despite growing up as her only daughter, it had never felt lonely for her—her Ate’s and Kuya’s were the cast of puppeteers that livened up the theater.

For the performers, puppeteering is more of a hobby that provides an outlet for them to enjoy. But the cast has shown great commitment to the craft to rehearse during the weekends after their full-time jobs.

The theater company is quite small, and for most of the Papet Pasyon’s running, she tells me that the only compensation they were able to give their team in past years were snacks and a family meal at the end of each day. While they used to operate on a volunteer system, it is one of the company’s goals to one day make the theater stable enough to support and compensate the puppeteers regularly, so that puppetry can be not just a hobby they are passionate about, but a profession to take more seriously. In the meantime, whoever comes to the rehearsals are welcome to eat with them at the dinner table. Between bites, I listen in to their conversations about their earlier run through.

In their field, gathering funding for their shows is usually a challenge. Most of the time, their operations are funded by children’s field trip visits to the theater or invitational shows they stage in schools. They also regularly apply for grants from UP or the Cultural Center of the Philippines but especially during the lockdowns, they had to make ends meet using their own family’s savings.

However, things are a bit different this year. For the first time, they have been commissioned by the Manila Metropolitan Theater (MET) to stage the Papet Pasyon in front of a live audience. This means that all the cast and crew will be compensated by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts who owns and manages the MET, hopefully giving the Mulat theater financial footing to stage more plays in the future. This will also be the first time in two years that they are performing in front of the kids again. So, there is pressure and excitement building up among the puppeteers.

In front of me at the dinner table is Carlito Amalia who has been a puppeteer for almost twenty years already. He has stayed for so long because the Papet Pasyon has become his own panata, a yearly devotion he performs during Holy Week. Also, he had treasured the conversations he would have with Lola Amel while making props during their previous iterations of the show. Reminiscing, he tells me, “Enjoy lang ako noon kasi hindi ba’t nakakainspire din makasama siya bilang isang alagad ng sining? Parang ina lang talaga siya sa aming lahat. Tinuruan niya ako maging puppeteer.”

Tata Cruz, the newest puppeteer at the company, had never met Lola Amel herself, but the family she’s built and the culture she cultivated in the company has instilled this love of puppetry in her. “I’ll just be happy performing. Kasi hindi ba ganun talaga ‘pag sa arts? You're performing for the love of it.”

Prinsipe Bahaghari

There were some changes in how the company usually stages the play. The opulence of the Metropolitan Manila Theater stands in contrast to the colorful palette of the Mulat theater they had performed in all these years.

The cast is also used to Lola Amel's presence while they bid all the kids farewell. But even without her there, the lobby is still packed with children and parents looking forward to seeing the puppets of Aina, Dr. Amihan, and the rest of the performers up close–a marker that the show was a huge success.

Back in my first visit at the Mulat theater, I asked Aina how it feels to be surrounded by her grandmother’s art. A wistful smile appears on her face, “Siyempre nakakamiss. Minsan, feeling ko nandiyan lang siya. Parang lalabas lang siya dito sa theater anytime.” There’s a short lull in our conversation after she tells me this, and it makes the theater feel quieter than before.

The title of National Artist cannot fully encapsulate the love Lola Amel had for this craft. Her intricate vision and infectious spirit had built the company that keeps this puppetry tradition alive. Dr. Amihan never really puts pressure on her children to continue Lola Amel’s legacy like she has, but the effort that her family pours into the craft is evident. 

Lola Amel had created the theater because she wanted her daughter, Dr. Amihan, to grow up with stories that she could call her own. And now, Aina wants to tell stories of her own too. She tells stories for kids like her who have now grown up and are navigating more complicated emotions—like grief or loss—that she’s still learning how to process herself.

This year, Aina and Dr. Amihan are aiming to bring Aina’s college thesis to a bigger stage: a Filipino adaptation of the Little Prince called Prinsipe Bahaghari. Aina and her playwright have talked about the great amount of losses that people have experienced in recent years, so she hopes that her play is able to help people through that loss.

“Sinasabi kasi [ng Little Prince] na hindi nagmamatter yung physical body [ng mga taong nawala sa atin]. Basta yung memory mo together with them ang balik-balikan mo. Parang reminder lang siya sa mga tao na yung memories naman nandiyan, so nandiyan pa rin sila.”

At the end of the original Little Prince story, the Pilot is faced with an unfortunate fate as his friend, the Little Prince, gets bit by a venomous snake. In their final moments together, the Prince turns to the stars and offers the Pilot solace for when he leaves him. “And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend.”

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