How many times can one spin variations on the theme of entrapment and escape, the need to flee what has become a destructively unsettled—or its flip side, becalmed—state?
At the recent Virgin Labfest 7, which closed a couple of Sundays ago after a two-week run at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Huseng Batute, 10 new plays—nine one-act and one full-length production—preoccupied themselves with that central motif in ways that summoned verve, ambition and style, if not always illuminating insight, the iterations going the whole hog from the grimly highbrow to the unabashedly populist.
Not that they were aware of it, it appears. For the first time since its founding seven years ago, this annual festival of “untried, untested, unstaged plays” did away with concept pegs or themed titles for its play sets of three entries each, preferring to let the materials coalesce by themselves and the audience to find a common thread in them, if ever.
Still, while the resulting smorgasbord seemed random by virtue of the plays’ dissimilar stories, directorial treatments, and even performance styles, what emerged, quite serendipitously, was a unifying subject: freedom and flight.
It’s the existential question, for instance, at the core of the Labfest’s best entries—Rae Red’s “Kawala,” Dingdong Novenario’s “Kafatiran” and Floy Quintos’ “Evening at the Opera”—all of them about characters stuck in some dead-end halfway zone, scuffling to wrest an inch or two of traction from their pinched, pallid existences for that long hoped-for leap into a more habitable realm.
In Red’s “Kawala,” directed by Paolo O’Hara, that premise is transformed into a vibrantly funny tale of an elevator boy who, after five years in his dreary job, finally has the chance to bolt out on the wings of his newly acquired college degree.
But on a fateful day when the other lift goes on the blink and the most colorful tenants of the high-rise he works in are forced to pack themselves into his tiny chamber, there to splatter out their secrets and messy private entanglements, Mr. Elevator Boy ends up looking at his station in life with fresh eyes.
Red’s dialogue could at times be obvious (“Masyado kasing delikado sa labas, mas ligtas dito sa loob,” went one), but on the whole it crackled with assurance and energy. And with only one-half of the stage as performance space, O’Hara masterfully maneuvered the action with the help of what amounted to be the Labfest’s tautest ensemble—Jerry O’Hara, Jelson Bay, Tess Jamias, Peewee O’Hara and Regina de Vera, and the gifted Cris Pasturan as the hapless elevator boy.
Imprisonment of a different sort, and era, informed Novenario’s audacious “Kafatiran,” about four Katipuneros on the eve of the Philippine Revolution wrestling with their shared secret—not the one about being insurrectos, but the kind that dared not speak its name.
In a dazzling feat of historical revisionism, Novenario ransacked the gay pop zeitgeist and seamlessly grafted some of its most recognizable totems and talismans to his period milieu, in the end proposing nothing less than the origins of, say, gay patois (the Katipunan’s manifesto rendered in a newly invented language); the queer penchant for embellishment and ceremony (the secret codes and rituals, the Santacruzan as proto-beauty pageant); and, most resonantly, the fighters’ dash into battle as the allegorical equivalent of coming out and coming to terms with one’s self, despite the odds.
In its sheer impudence, appeal to plausibility and bravura staging (by director JK Anicoche), “Kafatiran” came closest to the Labfest’s spirit of fresh, thought-provoking, taboo-breaking theater. Anicoche’s smartest move was to eschew camp, the default tack in material like this, for a rigorously un-ironic, ultimately more stirring, approach. Except for Ian Lomongo, who tended to fumble his lines, Acey Aguilar, Abner Delina, and especially newbie actor Marco Viaña, as the barely contained young Katipunero alive to the heaving world around him, were in fine form.
‘Evening at the Opera’
Meanwhile, Quintos’ “Evening at the Opera,” directed by Jomari José, revisited well-worn territory—the world of warlord politicians and their dutiful wives, in this case, the shrewd, sophisticated Miranda (Ana Abad Santos) and her desire to bring opera to the kapitolyo in her province, “Fitzcarraldo”-like.
Between the everyday thuggery of her governor-husband (Jonathan Tadioan) and the badgering of her long-dead mother (Frances Makil-Ignacio), present in her consciousness as the generational link to a sordid family legacy of public privilege and private emotional appeasement, Miranda struggles to negotiate a sacred place for herself, to find a shred of beauty in the gutter she’s in. (Why opera for their penurious town? rages her husband. “All that rage and hate and anger made beautiful, all the ugliness of human nature made bearable,” she says.)
While “Evening at the Opera” broke no new ground on the subject of politics and power, as a character study of an otherwise capable woman who has contorted herself into a grotesque life of complicitness and compromise, it was riveting and very nearly devastating. Abad Santos, Makil-Ignacio and Tadioan virtually seared the stage with their intensity (in Makil-Ignacio’s case, impeccable comic timing). And the smile on Makil-Ignacio’s face after her daughter repudiates her with a slap easily qualified as the creepiest scene in the Labfest.
The scarce pleasures and grating perils of cramped circumstances also coursed through two other strong entries, Mixkaela Villalon’s “Streetlight Manifesto,” and Rachelle Rodriguez and Wennielyn Fajilan’s “Kinaumagahan.”
In the former, a female gun-for-hire (Adrienne Vergara) chafes at the cheapness of her trade. She hates the lowlifes and desperadoes she’s being contracted to kill; her sights are set on becoming a Robin Hood for the poor, the dispossessed and the oppressed. “May prinsipyo ako! Gusto ko ng makabuluhang pagpatay!” she tells her cohort (Bong Cabrera), an easygoing hit-man with a liking for Hawaiian shirts, who promptly tries to nudge her back into place. “Hindi ka superhero, uy! Ni hindi ka nga hero. Ikaw ang kabaliktaran ng hero, ang hinahabol at hinuhuli ng mga hero para sila maging hero!”
“Streetlight Manifesto” featured a completely believable turn by Vergara as the party girl-attired assassin Gillian (Paolo O’Hara and Ness Roque completed the cast). Directed with flair by Ed Lacson Jr., it hummed with a hip, mordant sensibility—quite a rare voice from a debuting playwright. Its amoral playfulness, exploding now and then into savage violence, could only be called Tarantinoesque—not original by any chance, but bracing nonetheless when transposed to local culture.
Rodriguez and Fajilan’s “Kinaumagahan” offered less exotic characters as protagonists: a young couple trying to make ends meet, and their relationship work, even as their respective jobs keep them mostly apart. He is a call center agent who works at night, she a nurse on duty in the mornings. In that tiny sliver of togetherness at sunrise just before she’s off to work and he to bed, they bicker and make love (or try to—fatigue’s a bummer), seesawing between the last vestiges of their immaturity and the grown-up disposition now required by their circumstances.
This slice-of-life setup reads verily like a cliché, but the resulting play directed by Riki Benedicto was, in fact, buoyant and heartfelt. The two leads, Noel Escondo and Via Antonio, achieved an appealing chemistry, and their layered interaction conveyed both the burdens of their characters as well as the deliverance the couple has staked a claim to down the road.
‘The Valley Mission Care’
The Labfest’s most poignant performance, however, belonged to Siegfried Sepulveda in Russell Legaspi’s “The Valley Mission Care.” A lonely widower living in a US nursing home, hungry for stories from the recently arrived Filipino nurse (Mayen Estañero) assigned to him, Sepulveda’s cranky, frail-looking geezer convinces the nurse, against her better judgment, to help him leave the nursing home one night for an unexplained rendezvous he is adamant to fulfill on a desolate California beach at sunrise.
Missy Maramara’s staging of this plainspoken material was unwieldy, with fitful blackouts and awkward scene and set transitions. But the last minutes of the play—when the widower finally reveals, in a wordless gesture, why he has risked coming to this remote spot on this chilly morning—was profoundly moving. In that elegiac moment, the old man’s earlier admonitions to the nurse rang truest. “Why do you want to leave?” she protests. “The Valley gives you everything!” “You don’t need everything!” he bellows back.
‘Isang Gabi Bago Magbukas ang “Portrait of an Artist as Filipino” ni Nick Joaquin’
All these preceding plays, incidentally, were of the one-act format. A full-length entry, the first in the Labfest, was submitted this year by Carlo Pacolor Garcia in the form of “Isang Gabi Bago Magbukas ang ‘Portrait of an Artist as Filipino’ ni Nick Joaquin.”
The production had the biggest cast in the Labfest—15 actors—and so director Paul Santiago’s most basic achievement was, as it were, to have whipped this straggly mass into a divertingly parodic if decidedly shallow whodunit-cum-valentine to the theater-making of old, with standout comic touches from Paolo Rodriguez and Che Ramos.
Garcia borrowed a signature Agatha Christie trope—all the various personages conspiring in on a murder that would now haunt them, as a storm and an unseen vengeful killer help to trap them inside a rundown theater while they rehearse for the opening of Joaquin’s landmark play—but the dialogue is winkingly smart-alecky. “You mean you’re doing this because you have mommy and daddy issues?” demands one when the murderer is revealed. “Why don’t you try acting?”
Too bad the play stayed mostly on that level, declining to mine the rich possibilities and implications of the pedigree to which it had attached itself.
Three more productions made their respective riffs on the notion of moving on and closure—or the lack of it: Juan Ekis’ “Requiem”; Patrick Valera’s “Mga Lobo Tulad Ng Buwan”; and Joey Paras’ “Bawal Tumawid, Nakamamatay.”
In each case, the play was directed by the playwright himself. And in each case, alas, the end results were less than galvanizing, making the three the weakest entries in the festival.
Coincidence, or a telling pattern? Interestingly, CCP Performing Arts department head Chris Millado, though not specifically addressing these works, had this to say in a pre-Labfest interview: “Next year, we will recommend that playwrights not direct their own plays. Based on my own experience, it would be better if you entrust your work to another creative mind. It enhances the work. Theater is a collaborative process. The writing process continues inside the theater.”
Take Ekis’ “Requiem,” which floundered on some basic weaknesses that another, more objective pair of eyes might have helped cure. The text was not only relitigating a hackneyed topic—incest, and how it renders its victims deeply dysfunctional, unable to escape the past—but it also telegraphed its theme, even the play’s dramatic structure, too broadly in the dialogue.
“Can I sleep here?” the playwright sister repeatedly asks her painter brother. Later, she says, “Ayaw mo kay Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht.” “I like Pinter,” replies the brother—baldly referencing “Requiem’s” own attempt at Pinteresque pauses and pregnant silences.
There were too many of them, unfortunately, dissipating instead of amplifying any sense of tension in the play. Adding to the tedium, the two leads (Joel Parcon and Frankie Pascua) were uninvolving, clearly despite their best efforts, and Ekis’ own direction was wan, unimaginative.
‘Bawal Tumawid, Nakamamatay’
If “Requiem” suffered from a case of dullness, Paras’ “Bawal Tumawid, Nakamamatay” had an overdose of the opposite. A rambling, overheated mass of fuzzy scenes and characters whose glib, punchline-drunk back-and-forth would not have been out of place in a comedy bar, this play was a virtual TV sitcom transplanted to the stage (a fact underscored by an actual product plug for Globe Telecoms jammed into the dialogue.)
The nominal story, about a girl (Kiki Baento) stuck in traffic while on her way to her estranged father’s funeral, and an old man with a tragic backstory with whom she bonds on that choked street corner, became a slender excuse for Paras’ cluttered staging; the actors’ all-over-the-place mugging (gasp, was that old man the venerable Leo Rialp?); and an incoherent melee for a finale that, had it also involved buckets of water thrown around, would have paid full measure to the material’s TV-comedy aspirations. The crowd lapped it up, though, so we’re happy to concede they saw something we didn’t.
‘Mga Lobo Tulad ng Buwan’
Finally, there’s Valera’s “Mga Lobo Tulad Ng Buwan,” an “elegy,” as the playwright called it, to the victims and survivors of the M/V Princess of the Stars, which sank a few years ago off the coast of Romblon amid a storm and became one of the worst sea disasters in recent memory.
Valera’s idea of honoring grief and ensuring eternal remembrance was through a work that bypassed accessible narrative, deploying instead mood, movement, visual allegory—the stark white stage blanketed with paper containing the names of the victims, for instance.
In this quasi-dream world, three women (Mary Jane Alejo, Kate Sabate and Chic San Agustin) cling to lamentation and memory for the kin and friends they lost at sea. Their characters, to be blunt about it, registered less as flesh-and-blood people roiled by real emotion, as constructs for the playwright’s high-toned reckoning of, and forced myth-making about, the disaster. (To rejoin the living and put their pain behind, the women pay fealty to a “sirena ng karagatan.”)
Valera’s theatricality, his imagination and willingness to defy convention are to be admired. But this bloodless, self-conscious exercise, its voice veering jarringly from the literal to the poetic, evinced not one true note from its ocean of abstracted anguish.
Ironically, it subverted the very thesis of Valera’s work, that, as one character put it, “Ang alaala ng trahedya ay walang talinhaga para sa mga nawalan” (“The memory of tragedy holds no metaphor for the bereaved”—Valera himself in his director’s notes). At 40 minutes or so, “Mga Lobo Tulad Ng Buwan” was nothing if not a blown-up metaphor.
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