New blood in Leyte’s passion play
PALO, Leyte—Rebirth—not death—was foremost on the mind of actor Bryan Pacheco as he prepared to reenact a scene for a seventh time playing Jesus Christ on Good Friday.
Stroking a requisite bushy beard he grew for four months, the 42-year-old former altar boy, now father of three boys, contemplated the future for the cast of “Pamalandong,” one of the oldest and most vibrant passion plays in the country.
“Our players and actors are dying. But new blood is always coming in, so our rich tradition in this town of telling the greatest story ever told lives on,” Pacheco said, as he put on a lily-white robe and crimson cloak to play Christ.
Pacheco was referring to the deaths this week of Manuel C. Margallo Sr. and Rogelio C. Cayaco Sr., two veteran actors of “Pamalandong” (a Waray term meaning meditation), signaling a generational shift in the most widely attended Lenten street theater in Eastern Visayas, depicting the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
But despite the two thespians’ deaths, this town—still basking in the afterglow of the historic visit of Pope Francis on Jan. 17 —held for the 41st year the elaborate event patterned after the Oberammergau passion play in Bavaria, Germany, where villagers also act as players.
A throng of tourists and the Catholic faithful followed the Good Friday spectacle.
‘Show must go on’
“While we mourn the deaths of two of our players, we are happy to say that our little community theater here is alive and well. The show must go on,” said Mabel Moron-Sevilla, stage director.
A retired educator, Sevilla, 67, took over after her father, the former director and Palo Mayor Salvador Moron, died in an accident on May 8, 2012, at age 91.
Moron founded “Pamalandong,” started in 1974 with the late local artists Jeremias Acebedo and Ampelo Villacorte. A young priest from Carigara town, Msgr. Ben Lloren Sabillo, wrote the original script that is still being used today.
With a cast of more than 300 players, the Pamalandong theater group also bewailed that Sabillo, who died on July 14, 2014, did not get the credit he deserved.
“The life of Christ comes alive on our streets during Holy Week because of what Monsignor Sabillo has written more than 40 years ago,” said Meldy Diamante, 64, a retired bank employee who used to play Mary Magdalene in the 1970s.
“Our Lenten observance today is richer because of what (Sabillo) did,” Diamante added.
Based on the Bible, Sabillo’s script covers the brief life of Jesus starting with his betrayal by Judas Iscariot at the garden of Gethsemane and ends with his crucifixion on Golgotha.
In their heydays, Cayaco and Margallo represented the talented pool of local players who volunteered to do an act of penance by simply playing their chosen roles under the searing heat of the sun.
Cayaco, an Amerasian who died of a stroke on March 26 at age 68, was the horseback-riding Roman centurion who drew oohs and ahhs from the audience with his drop-dead George Hamilton good looks.
“(Cayaco) looked like he came straight out of a Hollywood movie screen. But he had a mean kick,” said Ernesto Palacio, 75, a carpenter.
Palacio was a retired actor who played a Roman centurion used to flogging and kicking Jesus, played mostly by good-looking seminarians from nearby Sacred Heart Seminary, until the mold was broken in 1994 when Ciriaco Agner Jr., a local dentist, started playing Jesus.
“I broke the tradition of seminarians playing Christ. But I am proud of what I did,” said Agner who played Christ a record 14 times.
Bothered by health issues, Agner literally handed down the cross to Pacheco in 2009. A 61-year-old town councilor, Agner now plays Joseph of Arimathea who took down the body of Jesus after his death. His late father and namesake Ciriaco Agner Sr., played Nicodemus.
Succumbing to multiple organ failure at age 88 on March 29, Margallo was an original member of Penitentes, the century-old brotherhood of robe-wearing penitents in this town.
“We are saddened by our loss, but we will always be grateful for their contributions to our tradition, ” Sevilla said in tribute to Cayaco and Margallo.
Sevilla is excited that a new generation of actors is filling the roles of the aging players.
“Everybody is welcome to join, especially if they pay for their costumes,” Sevilla said.
“I am happy to be a part of this tradition. For me, this role allows me to find the inner peace that I seek,” said Katrina Regis, 23, a Catholic Relief Services nurse.
On Good Friday, Regis spent her fourth year playing one of the women of Jerusalem who met and comforted Christ on his way to Calvary.
“Playing a Penitente allows me to start a new life and reflect on my bad deeds of the past,” said high school dropout Lemar Tanega, 18.
Marlon Manuel Saboren, president of Penitentes, said the group had more than 300 members, despite the group’s stringent adherence to living morally upright lives.
“This unique experience keeps us morally grounded,” said Saboren, a 38-year-old fireman.
In the case of Cayaco and Margallo, their roles were immediately taken up by their sons, Clyde Cayaco and Bobby Margallo, as the two elderly players’ health deteriorated.
“I am proud to wear my father’s uniform now,” said Margallo, 56, a local artist.
As for Pacheco, he hopes one of his three sons will take over from him. “The torch is always being passed. And our rich Lenten tradition of death and rebirth is secure,” Pacheco said.
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