The poignantly silent or subdued moments in Dulaang UP’s “Collection” are what hit you like a fist to the stomach, or make that sense of disquiet creep under your skin. Probably because they are few and far between, amidst endless scenes of bragging auctioneers, swaggering fashionistas, the raving show-biz crowd and half-a-dozen big players who just want to outshout everyone else.
Subtlety holds no premium for the larger-than-life characters in this play who make no bones about their agenda and announce it to the rest of the world: The industrialist Don Manolo (Leo Rialp), international jeweler Tatiana (Alya Honasan), beauty magnate Stephen Yan (Roeder Camanag) and creative genius Alphonse (Alexander Cortez).
They’ve lorded it over our society for decades—and their kind, for centuries—and will gladly throw the public some bread and circuses just to keep them happy, contented and at peace. The circuses are your favorite talk show, your next trendy fashion line, your next popular movie, while the bread can amount to a measly contest win of P40,000.
And master auctioneer Carlo Vibal (Jeremy Domingo) who can probably sell you your own grandmother with the right hype, obliges them with one spectacular sale after another.
In this fictional futuristic world brought to life by Dexter Santos’ able direction, our national patrimony, from Rizal’s novels to the Banaue rice terraces, is being sold to the highest bidder. In the guise of making our heritage more accessible to those who can’t afford to go to the nearest tourist spot or the museum, Don Manolo will be building a theme park to house the Chocolate Hills transplanted straight from Bohol.
That is probably why the message of the play hits you during those all-too-few quiet moments. In one of the most telling scenes, Carlo reluctantly admits his guilt at the violation of another national treasure. Manolo assures him “You will get over it.” Almost a heartbeat later, Carlo shrugs his discomfort off: “I already have.”
What triggered the auctioneer his momentary pangs of conscience was the discovery of an almost lifelike body beside the next national icon he was going to sell: The youthful, innocent Hermana Augusta Beata (Teetin Villanueva) seemingly sleeping beside a centuries-old carved statue of the Lady of Lost Souls, both of them still not giving in to rot and decay after centuries.
Vibal could ably ignore a hundred protesting tribesmen and their student supporters, but the presence of this hibernating guardian brings back the memories of the blood, sweat and tears that hundreds of our ancestors had shed for it.
The body of the Hermana Augusta is history incarnate, not quickly dismissed, not even after it disintegrates into ashes seconds after its discovery.
One can argue that a centuries-old statue may not quite equal the spectacle of a sale of the Banaue rice terraces. True, hype can accomplish that (and this point would have been more convincing if the advertising done for the Virgin was glossier and downright more commercial).
But playwright Floyd Quintos could not have chosen a more apt model for his theme—the quest for a national soul, or the fight to regain it.
In compelling flashbacks that show us the history of the creation of the Virgin, the Hermana symbolizes the uncorrupted purity of the Filipino soul. Wars can be fought for it, honest spiritual souls may love and protect it, the Inquisition may persecute it, and the people it serves can alternately venerate and turn against it. But throughout this tumult, the statue’s ivory remains as perfectly preserved as the Hermana’s nubile body.
Convert that embodiment of the national psyche into crass commercialism, though, and the statue deteriorates and the Hermana’s body disintegrates. It is a sin that not all the science in the world can explain, and an enigma that the student protester Gus (Red Concepcion) wants answered.
The quest for immortality is echoed in the quest for power and riches by Tatiana, Alphonse and the government lackey Helena. Yan, meanwhile, wants to study and literally capture the mysterious processes of the spirit, that he can then convert into a wellness product. If this Tsinoy balikbayan represents the future, his competitor Don Manolo is a relic of our colonial past, using his remaining affluence to endlessly collect treasures that will disprove his fading glory.
War of words
The engaging war of words between Manolo and Yan is but a preview of the real but quietly played showdown between the spirit of the Hermana and Vibal. Domingo plays to near perfection his conscience-stricken modern pragmatist, and he finds his match in Villanueva’s ruthless simplicity.
In this fatal dialogue, no quarter is given, and none asked. Not to cast any aspersions on Quintos’ fine work, but one wonders if this exchange could have been more moving had the Hermana answered in her native tongue.
Santos keeps things rising to a crescendo, until all hell breaks loose. The end may have been inevitable. To a certain degree, it can also make you lose track of the many characters that you had invested in.
Only after the smoke clears does the audience see what has happened to them individually. A little crowd control could have given us our own individual time with each character, even if it were only in their final seconds. However, all of them are caught in the stampede, their personalities and interests drowned in history’s final payback. And maybe that’s the final point that Santos wanted to drive home.
“Collection” runs until March 2-3, with 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. shows, at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall, University of the Philippines Diliman. Call Dulaang UP 9261349, 9818500 local 2449, 4337840 and look for Camille Guevarra or Samanta Clarin.