Back to storytelling basics at the Virgin Labfest 12
Clear, coherent and sound storytelling above all else—that’s our tacit takeaway from this year’s Virgin Labfest, the annual festival of “untried, untested, unstaged” plays which ends the third and final week of its 12th edition tomorrow evening at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The unspoken reminder to tell a story with three-dimensional characters, carefully constructed conflict and lucid, imaginative writing, among other virtues, resonates with even greater urgency when one considers the festival entries individually—12 new one-act plays, five staged readings and three returning plays from the previous year—and how they achieved the principal goals of storytelling to varying degrees of success.
‘Mula sa Kulimliman’
Take, for example, Carlo Vergara’s “Mula sa Kulimliman.” In many ways, it is similar to the playwright’s previous hit, “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady,” which, before becoming the summer musical blockbuster of last year, began as one of the one-act nonmusical entries of the 2014 Labfest.
In telling the story of an ordinary housewife who discovers her husband isn’t exactly of this world, Vergara once again blurs the line between domestic reality and the realm of the fantastic. The result is this festival’s funniest and, to this writer’s mind, most accomplished piece of writing—crisp, emotionally resonant, unpredictable and polished down to the final punch line.
As directed by Hazel Gutierrez, “Mula sa Kulimliman” unleashes its rib-tickling surprises slowly, the laughs piling up and growing louder by the minute.
Jonathan Tadioan and Timothy Castillo are in terrific form as a father-and-son tandem sharing an unspeakable secret, but it is Mayen Estañero, as the oblivious wife and mother, who is the heart and soul of this play—an actress giving the performance of a lifetime in a play that matches the magnitude of her abilities.
“Mula sa Kulimliman” isn’t the smartest play in the house, however. That distinction belongs to Ricardo Novenario’s “Daddy’s Girl,” which explores the idea of soulmates and reincarnation against the backdrop of incest.
In the afterlife, man and woman, played by Marco Viaña and Skyzx Labastilla with throbbing plausibility and sensuality, try to untangle memory, time, feeling and a myriad of other abstractions. The concept alone may prove too cerebral, and thereby unappealing, to many, but it would be a miracle if a more intelligent play were to come along in the remaining half of the year.
Novenario’s language merges the tangible, metaphysical and the in-between, and how director Nicolas Pichay unravels the material’s complexity to let its humanity shine through only further asserts the importance of this piece.
‘Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania’
Imagination of a distinctly Filipino persuasion is the calling card of “Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania,” Alexandra May Cardoso’s Bisaya-Tagalog adaptation of Ian Rosales Casocot’s short story “The Sugilanon of Epefania’s Heartbreak.”
True to its title, it unspools like your grandmother’s run-of-the-mill folktale, complete with the indispensable elements of magic and unrequited love.
How, then, does one conjure sorcery and the supernatural forces born of a girl’s promise to win a man’s heart, on a space as small as the Tanghalang Huseng Batute?
The answer, Charles Yee’s masterful direction insists, is in the sheer eloquence—in the impeccable union of lights, music, costumes and choreography, and in the passionate ensemble playing (the near-flawless cast led by Blanche Buhia, searing as the heartbroken girl).
Thus, a production that is as heart-tugging as it is evocative of the infinite possibilities of love and the ordinariness of provincial life. And, also, one that furthers its young director’s ascent in the industry ladder, this being Yee’s second theatrical triumph for the year (after Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Kalantiaw”).
‘Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean’
An even more evocative piece is Ma. Cecilia dela Rosa’s “Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean,” about a former revolutionary coming to terms with love (of course), loss and the demons of her past. It would be no spoiler to say that her conversations with said visitors occur entirely inside her head.
Dela Rosa’s singular achievement is the poeticism of her play; it cascades like a river, the emotions ebbing and flowing, images from the past and present colliding in the stream of the female protagonist’s consciousness. What emerges is a poignantly drawn portrait of a woman—the richest construction of a character in this festival.
Ariel Yonzon’s direction may at times be confusing, but Sheenly Vee Gener’s consummate, fully fleshed-out portrayal of Jean is the reason to see this—a performance that adroitly transforms the play into a compelling feminist character study (with superb support from Randy Villarama and Aldo Vencilao as her fallen comrades).
The rest of the Labfest entries aren’t as spotless, sometimes for reasons that went beyond the constraints of the page.
For instance, Rick Patriarca’s comedy of manners, “Hapagkainan,” showcases a genuine festival virgin in his breakthrough moment. One may initially be of two minds regarding his over-reliance on cursing for comedy, but then gradually come to admire the naturalism of his dialogue.
This is the id made manifest in a play that sounds just like your squabbling loudmouthed neighbors. Adriana Agcaoili (recalling Kris Aquino on a sugar high), Adrienne Vergara and Arnold Reyes are in fine form as a family trying (and failing) to preserve its good manners at the dinner table. Unfortunately, all it takes is Mikoy Morales to be so obviously out of sync with director Chris Martinez’s idea of the play as a farce for the material to fall apart at the seams.
‘Ang Bata sa Drum’
Dominique La Victoria’s “Ang Bata sa Drum,” directed by Dudz Teraña, does not rely on acting pyrotechnics or verbal jousts, only on the skill of its young pair of actors (who are in dire need of a Bisaya accent coach) to tell a story of parental abuse. After all, there’s only so much one can do when a character is literally confined inside the titular drum for the entire show.
The play’s intimacy is its best asset. It takes its time revealing its secrets, letting the audience piece together a sordid picture of a broken family. Then it ends on a note that’s neither high nor loud—just small, as befits the play.
One may either find it touching, or quietly wonder whether all that meandering and narrative plodding actually went somewhere.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are two of the loudest and, by virtue of material, most relevant plays of the festival.
Kanakan Balintagos’ “Loyalist,” directed by Lawrence Fajardo, concerns a mother-and-son tandem in 1991, on the day of the Marcoses’ return to the Philippines. It may as well be 2016, to judge solely by the mother’s adoration for Imelda.
Irma Adlawan plays the mother to rollicking perfection and glowing ease; the son, a UP student with leftist leanings, is played by Abner Delina Jr., who employs his by-now familiar fidgety acting kinetics.
Up to a certain point, there’s no stopping “Loyalist” from hitting the right comedic notes. Then it descends into maudlin territory, resorting to a longwinded narration of the past and the horrors of Martial Law to get its point across. Thus, its climactic memory scene becomes pointless in its staleness.
Guelan Luarca’s “Bait” is even more polarizing. A Muslim kid has had his Quran desecrated, so he pushes the offender, a fellow classmate, off a building. Now the Muslim boy’s father and a teacher find themselves in a heated discussion about Islam, cultural differences, respect, tolerance and forgiveness.
In the age of the Syrian refugee crisis and other horrors caused by the Islamic State, it is very easy to see how “Bait” deserves to be heard by an audience. At one point, the word “extremist” pops up in the conversation.
But Luarca appears to forget this is the theater. One does not simply string together a set of arguments, to be spoken by archetypes, and pass it off as a play. Else, you get a piece that’s manipulative, exasperatingly didactic and, for a playwright of Luarca’s caliber, highly disappointing.
With Mara Marasigan’s unsophisticated direction, Renante Bustamante (as the father) and Kalil Almonte (miscast as the teacher) are left to their own devices, spouting rhetoric in deafening decibels.
Eliza Victoria’s “Marte,” directed by George de Jesus III, offers some semblance of novelty by setting the play in Mars at a time when corporations have extended their reach beyond the atmosphere. And that is about its most interesting aspect.
Featuring what is unarguably the Labfest’s most intricate set (resembling a miniature Dumbledore’s office from the “Harry Potter” movies), “Marte” is more than anything a statement on its first-time playwright. Victoria, one of the country’s best speculative fictionists, would do well to work more on her dialogue and the subsequent theatrical realization of her make-believe world.
Even the best efforts of Martha Comia and a completely believable Stella Cañete-Mendoza aren’t enough to usher this play away from dreary soap-opera territory.
‘Si Jaya, si Ronda, si Barbra at ang Mahiwagang Kanta’
The Labfest entry with the longest title, “Si Jaya, si Ronda, si Barbra at ang Mahiwagang Kanta,” also feels the longest.
In a karaoke bar, three women—a politician’s wife, an OFW and a self-styled fortune-teller—reunite and sing their hearts out. Also, they attempt to contact the spirits and fight for a supposedly magical token.
This play (directed by Roobak Valle) is a comedy, and actresses Doreen Bernal and Dorothy Matriano make damn sure the audience gets that by visibly and self-consciously trying to land punchline after punchline. For almost an hour, playwright Oggie Arcenas laboriously builds his story on gag upon gag, and before long it reaches a tiresome point.
Then, he proceeds to write what could be the most indolent ending for a play this reviewer has seen in at least the past seven years, sucking out whatever little sense is left in the entire endeavor.
Herlyn Alegre’s “Bahay-bahayan, Tagu-taguan,” directed by Ricardo Magno, isn’t as disrespectful to the notion of storytelling. Here the playwright once again explores the idea of displacement (familiar ground for her), this time in a refugee camp.
The production, however, demands too much from the viewer, and gives too little in return. The notion of home is scrutinized in manifold ways, most of them echoing each other. The play fancies itself a figurative piece, but the tone and delivery are mostly literal, with even the actors appearing not too invested in what their characters are saying.
‘Dahan-dahan ang Paglubog ng Araw’
As for Jose Socrates delos Reyes’ “Dahan-dahan ang Paglubog ng Araw,” about a teenage daughter and her cancer-stricken father (set to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel)—well, where to begin?
In brief, and going back to the festival’s catchphrase, the concept is neither untried nor untested. One can only imagine how things would have turned out had director Adolf Alix somehow found a way to sprinkle a bit more virgin freshness on the tedious material.
Staged reading, revisited plays
The presence of middling material makes one wonder, really, why something like Vincent de Jesus’ “Changing Partners” wasn’t chosen instead for the main lineup.
As a staged reading directed by Rem Zamora, this one-act musical is already a fully realized show, featuring heartrending turns from Sandino Martin and Giannina Ocampo, and providing a home for one of de Jesus’ best songs, “Ang Maamong Mukha ng Pag-ibig Mong Sinugaling.”
As for the Revisited set, Juan Miguel Severo’s “Hintayan ng Langit” remains the same lightweight, “kilig”-driven crowdpleaser; while Maynard Manansala’s “Dalawang Gabi” becomes a misfire with its new lead actress, Candy Pangilinan, who spouts the best of the playwright’s deliberately written lines with not much thought.
Eljay Castro Deldoc’s “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala,” however, has only grown more beautiful in stature. The young cast assembled by Ed Lacson Jr. are now clearly more comfortable with their roles, able to let more of the story’s comedy surface.
At one “Guryon” performance, a gaffe with the prop kite was quickly salvaged by the cast and turned into an opportunity for ad-libbing, to the audience’s delight. Now that’s how you tell a winning story.
The Virgin Labfest, running at CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute, has remaining performances today and tomorrow. Call 8323704/06 or 8321125 loc. 1409, or visit ticketworld.com.ph.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, follow on Twitter twitter.com/vincegyu, or visit him at vincengregorii.blogspot.com.
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