Passions and Obsessions

Contra Mundum: Becoming Bitoy (again)

Or how Roeder Camañag, in his 50s, realistically reprised the role of a 25-year-old, 26 years later

Roeder Camañag playing the 25 year old Bitoy Camacho in 2023 at age 53 (Photo Credit: Trixie Dauz)

“To remember and to sing, that is my vocation – Bitoy Camacho
from the original English text of Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino

It was that night when he just came back from Oskar Peralta for a fitting for Contra Mundum, the epic concert held May 6 at the Metropolitan theater.  The show featured an all-star cast, a full orchestra and the involvement of many National Artists, both late and living.  Production told him the cast needed to look “todo glam” for the finale.   The actor, Roeder Camañag, didn’t want to look like anyone’s P.A.

The only chance of that happening is if Roeder wanted to look like a P.A., because the multi-awarded, highly pedigreed actor can transform and even disappear completely into any number of characters.  This is what he is known for.

Dennis Marasigan, VP and artistic director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, has said this about the actor:  “I have worked with Roeder in theater and film, and that is largely because he is one of the most dependable and talented actors the country has today. Coupled with his talent is the passion to always push himself beyond his comfort zone, such that he disappears completely into his roles.”

When he is not acting however, Roeder looks like a handsome Filipino man with elegant presence and bearing.   Nevertheless, Roeder will follow production, and not take shortcuts.

Fashion designer Oskar Peralta, the very first Filipino to ever have a design featured in Vogue magazine, had asked to dress him.  Roeder agreed because Oskar has been the first stylist of his career.  Roeder was not yet a professional actor then but a teen matinee idol whose Platinum hit Sana Naman reigned supreme in the OPM airwaves.  He and Oskar had remained good friends over the years.  I was excited because I thought the fashion icon’s recent Filipiniana collection was tremendous.  I asked Roeder to show me what Oskar created for him.

That night Roeder sent me photos of the custom creations by Oskar.  Two outfits looked good, but one had him looking particularly debonair in a perfectly fitted tuxedo worthy of James Bond.

That’s when I noticed it.

“Uh what happened to you?  You lost so much weight?!”

“I did”

“How much weight?  Looks like a lot!”

The shape of his face changed.  Thinner with more angles.  Voila le cheekbones!

“15 pounds.  I wanted to get to the exact same frame I was 26 years ago.”

“Same frame?  But you look thinner now than you did 26 years ago!!” quickly posting a photo of him at age 27 in 1997 at the CCP Main Stage.

1997 production of ‘Ang Larawan, the Musical’ at the CCP Main Stage. Roeder is on the far left.

Roeder at 27 in the original production of ‘Larawan, the Musical’ in 1997

“No, that’s just the angle of the camera.  It’s the same.”

My silent thought bubble: 15 pounds? But I saw him less than two weeks ago, this weight loss is too fast.

“How’d you do it?”

“I cut sugar and I did somatic dancing, but I didn’t starve myself.”

He said that because he knew he’d hear me do another one of my self-care advocacy speeches that would make Dely Atay-Atayan sound sweet.  I sometimes gave him those speeches as a concerned friend.  I hurriedly googled “somatic dancing.”   Must have been some dancing!

I know what kind of an artist he is, the kind that goes to great length to practise his craft at the highest level and to deliver the utmost in every role he plays, to the point sometimes that his health is affected.  Like that time he lost a lot of weight for Geegee and Waterina.  He fell ill for a while after that run.  And while I’m thrilled that he won the Aliw Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Geegee in 2018, I don’t want him to get sick again.

Roeder shedding real tears as Geegee in Artist Playground’s ‘Geegee and Waterina’ (2018)

For artists like Roeder who are serious about craft, the discipline can take a toll.  Forget the weeks on end of filming in difficult rural areas, Roeder once let himself be buried alive (seriously) for the Lav Diaz film Melancholia (2008), or one time he flopped his body as if lifeless on a horse in the same film.  His face was that close to the horse’s balls!  (Not funny! Ok it’s a bit funny)

Heartbreaking scene in the Lav Diaz film ‘Melancholia’ (2008) where Roeder’s character, a journalist with sympathy for the NPA, writes letters and throws them into the river immediately after, knowing that his end is near. This is the moment when after ripping pages of his precious notebook into the water, he hurls his pen in the rapids.

Indigenous folk dig out the body of Roeder buried in the mound of dirt.

See his face now? How long did he have to wait under the dirt without breathing?

Yes, that’s Roder on a small horse as it is filmed walking through the rough jungle.

Seriously now, what I want is for him to be more gentle with himself.

However, when it comes to the craft of theater, there’s no stopping the absolute dedication and  devotion in the man, or the artist in the man.  Such as how he approached re-mastering the music for Contra Mundum.  He wasn’t required to but he got up early in the morning to catch orchestra rehearsals, even though it was technically just for the orchestra.

He would come early, always at least an hour early, just so he could sit, listen, absorb and master the music.  No orchestra rehearsals with voice were organized yet, but he wanted those rehearsals.  He desired those rehearsals and he got them.  He didn’t miss a single one.  He didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

Roeder in orchestra rehearsal with National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, Celeste Legaspi and Agot Isidro

Roeder doesn’t read music in a formal sense, but he has this special gift, the gift of a truly incredible eidetic memory, and is able to remember every nuance of note and dynamic just by listening.  Doesn’t matter if he’s playing a sung-through musical with a lead role that requires he be onstage for almost the entire show, he will learn the music and perform it to a T.  Case in point is his tour de force lead performance in the musical  Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini where he brilliantly essayed the role of the Sublime Paralytic.

On a side note, that is the show that blew me away (watch the recording here), that confirmed to me this man is world-class talent, on the same level as any Tony awardee.  He could play in the West End or Broadway on a dime, if he wanted to.  So why isn’t he?  We’ll have to cover that in another piece.  Director of Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini Dexter Santos said about Roeder as the choice for the lead role: “Roeder was the only and first actor that came into my mind. Floy told me that he has already thought of an actor who will play the lead role. I was very afraid that he might be thinking of somebody else but to our surprise, we were both eyeing for Roeder,” he shared.

Dexter is referring to the prolific playwright Floy Quintos who wrote the libretto for Huling Lagda…

“He is an actor who listens. He is an actor who is willing to experiment and saturate possibilities. He is an actor who successfully owns every role because he works hard for it,” Santos explained.

Roeder’s turn as Mabini was cited by Broadway World Philippines as the Best Performance of an Actor for a Musical in 2014

On another side note, the thing Roeder does in memorizing music, he also does with scripts.  Roeder can study a script once, and know his lines.  During rehearsals, he is always the first to drop script.  For non-theater geeks, that means he’s the first to memorize his lines and do blocking without holding any script, even if he has the most lines!  This amazing gift of Roeder’s can be super annoying for other actors he works with, such as that time the entire cast of a show comprised mostly of the CCP actor’s company got so pissed off as Roeder revealed them all as slowpokes in memory work relative to himself.

But the man is a genius, and not just in that respect.

I tell him that btw, that he’s a genius, but he is very humble, and objects each time I say it.

On a third side note, Roeder must have felt so trapped in the wheelchair he had to maneuver around in that Mabini show because what most people don’t realize is that the man could have been the principal dancer of a major ballet company.  He has trained classically and performed with some of the best ballet and modern dancers here and abroad, including with Elizabeth Roxas, who was for many years principal dancer at the Alvin Ailey Dance company, and as an alternate of Nonoy Froilan who was principal dancer of Ballet Philippines (also in the cast of Contra Mundum playing Don Lorenzo Marasigan).

The likely reason National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab will never forget Roeder is not because of Roeder’s involvement in the original Larawan musical in 1997.  It is because when Roeder was a 17-year-old voice student at the Ryan Cayabyab music school, he performed, for his recital, a perfect triple pirouette in front of the composer while singing the high part of Corner of the Sky without a slight quiver in his voice.

What the?  Triple Pirouette at 17 with barely a year of classical training?!  I had eightyears of ballet training and could only do single pirouettes.  Many ballet dancers struggle with the triple.

“How on earth did you do it?”, I asked

“I had a very strong leg.”

The man also has a talent for understatement.

Dance is very important to Roeder, and considers the Ballet Philippines power couple, Edna Vida and Nonoy Froilan among his most important mentors.

Lea Salonga gave Roeder a standing ovation for this performance with Ballet Philippines

Chris Millado, director of Contra Mundum, was also the one who recruited Roeder for a highly coveted spot with the CCP Actor’s Company directly as a senior member in the ’90s.  This hardly ever happens. Nobody joins the AC and is immediately a senior member.  Every new recruit needs to pay one’s dues as an intern.  Not Roeder.  The very first time Chris Millado saw Roeder perform was in the original Larawan musical.   It was a breakout role for Roeder as a 27-year-old, and a huge thrill for him to be directed by the musical’s librettist, the late great Rolando Tinio, National Artist for Theater and Literature.  Larawan, the musical would be Mr. Tiinio’s last production.  Roeder cherishes the experience and plans to honor the iconic Mr. Tinio in future projects, possibly with the ultra dynamic theater company he established, Artist Playground.

Roeder’s massive efforts to be in top physical and performing condition for the 2023 concert, to enable him to embody and deliver the role of the 25-year-old Bitoy Camacho paid off big time because during rehearsals Millado said with amazement that at 53, Roeder still looks the same as when he was 27, when he played Bitoy Camacho 26 years ago.   “Para kang lumunok ng tatlong gallon na collagen!,” exclaimed Millado.

Despite having less than a month to prepare, one of the things that excited Roeder about being cast again as Bitoy was the opportunity to work with the luminous songstress and thespian Celeste Legaspi.  She was co-producer of both musical productions (1997-98 and 2023) and the original Candida of the musical.  Celeste Legaspi and Roeder never lost their bond working together from the 90s.

Roeder with Celeste Legaspi, happy to work together again with the acclaimed songstress

In transforming himself to a role 28 years younger than himself, Roeder’s serious theater make-up skills personally picked up from Germany might have helped.  But you can’t do much with make-up without the base of a youthful facial structure, which the man has, coupled with the expression of youth.

Here he is in 2023, at 53 transformed into the 25-year-old Bitoy, the affable if nosy friend of the Marasigan family in the story.  Amazing!

On preview night, Roeder’s transformation to the 25 year old Bitoy Camacho is complete!

I attended the May 6 show and was thrilled to see Roeder as the first actor onstage, setting the scene with a dramatic entrance.  Just as I predicted, He would be marvelous as Bitoy once again.  If anyone could achieve such a challenging feat of theatre, Roeder could, and he did!

Roeder breaks into a Fosse move while on a quick break rehearsing the opening of Contra Mundum

I sat beside Gardy Labad, a top NCCA official, venerable genius composer of musicals and zarzuelas, honored impresario of the Loboc Children’s Choir and performance arts luminary who had just days ago sent me a scathing 9-minute-and-27-second voice message, skewering a vlog I dared put out on the original Larawan musical prologue.

He reminded me that the first Filipino translation of Larawan was in fact done by Krip Yuson and staged by PETA at the beautiful Lindy Locsin designed Rajah Sulayman Theatre at Fort Santiago in 1969-1970.  tito Gardy said that he in fact wrote the score for that production, and that it was my Lolo Doroy Valencia, who executive produced that show.  I was thrilled to discover my Lolo’s critical involvement not just in that production, but also in the 1979 version of the same play directed by Lino Brocka.

But I digress.  As I was saying, tito Gardy sat beside me and was very frank about certain parts of the show saying things like  “I don’t like the choreography there.”  or “He’s too old to play that role”.  I listen closely because tito Gardy knows what he is talking about.  He didn’t say Roeder was too old to play Bitoy though, which feels like a major compliment to me.

Roeder with Agot Isidro and Celeste Legaspi on stage May 6th with orchestra (photo credit. Trixie Dauz)

Roeder played Act 1 of the concert as Bitoy, which meant he spent the most time onstage for that act, with the most singing lines.  It was musically a slightly abbreviated version of the original but still one got to enjoy the story unfold with the help of Roeder’s compelling gift of storytelling through performance.

Whatever fears Roeder had in preparing for the role were now gone, bolstered by Mr. C.’s comments during rehearsal that his voice is fuller now in his 50s than when he was in his 20s, and well able to reach the highest notes in the score.

Roeder performing a duet with Ricky Davao, who played the original Tony Javier. (Photo Credit: Trixie Dauz)

When I asked him what it was like playing Bitoy Camacho 26 years later, on that stage, with those people, this is what he said:

“Playing Bitoy now that I am 53 I found a deeper understanding of his motivation on why he visited Candida and Paula.  Maybe because I am more sure of myself now as an artist,  I felt Bitoy is more aggressive as a reporter, eager to really cover the story of Don Lorenzo’s Obra, a very selfish reason, and also the shame when he was confronted by the two sisters regarding his intention, and how he felt sorry for them when he realized their condition.”

Roeder with Agot Isidro, who played Paula in the 2023 Contra Mundum concert
(Photo Credit: Trixie Dauz)

He did not speak of the spectacle, the star power, of future opportunities or any of the externals, but instead he is looking deeply at the text, refining his character,  looking for nuance, still mining the text for understanding, pondering discoveries.

Roeder with Film and TV Star Bea Alonzo, whom Roeder said did a fantastic job in her first ever role on stage. She was in fact luminous and masterful! Roeder hopes she will do more in theatre from now on.

I asked him if any doors have opened because of this production.

“I’m not aware if there are doors that opened or will open after that performance. All I know is that I enjoyed it very much.”

Finally I asked what playing Bitoy in 2023 meant to him.

“To be able to relive my past accomplishment by being the first singing Bitoy Camacho, the first actor to breathe life to the works of our National Artists, Nick Joaquin’s Bitoy, the words of Rolando Tinio and the music of Ryan Cayabyab, and to able to share my work to this generation meant a lot to me.”

I have this theory that the character of Bitoy Camacho, who also plays the narrator, is actually the alter-ego of Nick Joaquin.  Joaquin writes in the original text spoken by Bitoy, “To remember and to sing:  that is my vocation….”  It is a quote often attributed to our National Artist for Literature.  Rolando Tinio echoing the same thought, wrote in 1997, ““To remember and to sing” remains our vocation.”

Roeder, through the exacting and joyous practice of his craft, infuses passion and life into these very words.

As only the best actors can, it is as if every National Artist involved in Larawan still lives large in that brief shining moment Roeder becomes Bitoy.

Roeder at his curtain call, in bespoke Oskar Peralta

The two Bitoys of Contra Mundum

To learn more about Roeder and even communicate with him, go to http://Roeder.World.

To listen to a long form interview of Roeder, go to:

To find out more about Artist Playground, where Roeder is Artistic Director, go to:

To read more from and/or to communicate with the author, Rhea Valencia Ferro, go to:

Email her your thoughts about Roeder, Contra Mundum, Philippine Theatre here:  [email protected]

To watch the Contra Mundum concert, watch the recording HERE.

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