“Desaparesidos,” running until Sept. 2 at the Doreen Black Box Theater in the Ateneo’s Areté complex, is a restaging of Guelan Luarca’s adaptation of the Lualhati Bautista novel. PHOTOS BY IRVIN ARENAS
Total surrender—that’s the singular effect of the best theater productions on the viewer. So completely are you transported into another world, another time, deep into the hearts and minds of imagined people, that the show ceases to be just make-believe; it becomes an experience, absorbing and unforgettable.
UP Playwrights’ Theatre’s “Angry Christ” was one such production. So, too, were Atlantis Productions’ “Next to Normal,” Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Middle Finger” from 2014, and, earlier this year, The Sandbox Collective’s “Himala, Isang Musikal.”
Into this exclusive company now storms “Desaparesidos,” a brilliantly mounted production that fuses fury, fear and, in its final moments, faint slivers of hope as it plunges the viewer head first into some of the darkest moments of contemporary Filipino history.
The production, running until Sept. 2 at the Doreen Black Box Theater in the Ateneo’s Areté complex, is a restaging of Guelan Luarca’s adaptation of the Lualhati Bautista novel. (Its 2016 premiere, it bears mentioning, was prompted by the burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a national insult enabled by the Duterte administration.)
On the surface, “Desaparesidos” neatly splits into two acts: The first is a visually harrowing chronicle of Anna and Roy’s time as New People’s Army activists during the Marcos regime; the second deals with their life as a married couple after the despot’s fall.
But what everything boils down to is a search for truth and closure: Anna looks for the child she had entrusted to a fellow activist’s wife; Roy is haunted by having been forced, under torture, to kill a comrade; Lorena, Anna and Roy’s daughter, struggles to understand why her parents prioritized their activism and left her to the care of surrogate families; Malaya, a girl from Canada, seeks answers to her past.
In this production, memories weave in and out of the story, even across acts, the versions—and more importantly, the meaning—of events never fully clear until the heartrending finale. This “Desaparesidos” is no mere invitation to passively witness; through the small lives of its characters, it becomes another galvanizing battle cry to “never forget.”
Herein enters Luarca’s genius as director. He employs all the faculties—and virtually every inch—of the theater at his disposal to create a production that is as inventive as it is visceral. And he is aided by a superior design team: Charles Yee (set), Rowel Pasion (costumes), D Cortezano (lights), Arvy Dimaculangan (sound), Steven Tansiongco (projections) and Jomelle Era (movement).
Their individual aesthetic appears to be simplicity, but harnessed as a whole, they turn scene after scene into stunning, powerful evocations of the imagined past. Through simple sleights of hand, torture sequences are enacted with gut-wrenching tangibility, while a relatively peaceful safe house becomes a horrific battleground in a matter of seconds.
The cast is phenomenal, from Chic San Agustin as a steely Anna, to Jewel Tomolin, seething with rebellion and confusion as Lorena, to Teetin Villanueva as Karla, the woman who eventually bridges Anna’s past and present. And Brian Sy, as Roy, is in a league of his own—an actor finally landing the role and spotlight worthy of his talents.
“Painful” is a word many have associated with this production, and rightfully so. For it would only be downright disrespectful to sugarcoat or take shortcuts in one’s depiction of this horrific past, when the lives of thousands were rendered inexistent under the watch of someone many in this country are now passing off as a hero.
For two and a half hours, Luarca’s “Desaparesidos” unflinchingly brings such horror to life, that the viewer may hopefully acquire a more layered and empathetic understanding of the present we’re grappling with. It is unquestionably a fiery addition to the pinnacles of local theatrical experiences, and deserves to be seen again and again and again, until we can no longer forget.