This year’s Virgin Labfest reveled in the promise of theater unbound, offering fresh, uninhibited takes on familiar themes and stories
“THE VIRGIN LABFEST is a venue to be fearless,” so said playwright, actor and festival co-organizer Rody Vera in an interview with the Inquirer a week before the Labfest’s opening.
Fearlessness was indeed the hallmark of majority of the 18 plays that made their debut at this year’s recently concluded festival. For the most part, these “untried, untested, unpublished, unstaged” dramas reveled in the promise of theater unbound, offering fresh, uninhibited takes on familiar themes and stories.
No mainstream theater company, for instance, would dare touch Allan Lopez’s avant-garde jeremiad against corporate greed, “Kasaysayan” (directed by Victor Villareal), and not because it’s a bad play. It was, in fact, one of the festival’s strong entries, an acutely mordant indictment of the wages of profiteering and triumphalist capitalism.
What made it unwatchable to some, and virtually unmountable henceforth in the metro’s staid venues, was its dead-set refusal to be likable. It had obtuse dialogue that ran around in circles, characters that were less flesh-and-blood than symbols, and most shockingly, the unembarrassed use of blackly scatological humor.
At one point, excrement (not real, but an ickily plausible facsimile) was lobbed at the audience, to cringing shrieks. It was the most literal figuration in a play that was otherwise noteworthy for its enigmatic, elliptical ferocity.
The family, too, that hallowed cocoon of nurture and safety, took all manner of radical distillations in the Labfest, though not always with fair results.
Haresh Sharma's “Lizard,” directed by Nicolas Pichay
In “Lizard,” Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma deconstructed a Singaporean household roiled by a corrosive, violent ennui--a byproduct, he made clear, of his society’s blind pursuit of affluence and socially engineered conformity. That point is underscored by a picture of Lee Kwan Yew glowering Big Brother-like over the wrangling family.
“Lizard,” directed by Nicolas Pichay, had one vignette too many, but given its roots, it was a play that spoke truth to power with both directness and subtlety.
Playwright Debbie Ann Tan took the opposite tack with “Teroristang Labandera,” a hectic send-up of a Chinoy family’s materialist obsessions and the canny washerwoman who incinerates, literally, their parvenu fixations. Directing this comedy of errors was visiting Japanese artist Toshihisa Yoshida, who brought an over-the-top giddiness to the already overheated farce. It was hilarious for a while, but exhausting in the end.
Debbie Ann Tan's “Teroristang Labandera,” directed by Toshihisa Yoshida
In “Bagahe,” J. Dennis Teodosio sketched, in spare but pregnant language, the frictions between a son settled in America and his mother who yearned to go home. This quiet play of unspoken hurts and questions, directed by Rito Asilo, avoided melodrama and had a moving ending, but much of it suffered from rather stiff acting and hardly audible dialogue. What could have been a compelling chamber piece simply flatlined in places with the severely low-key tone.
J. Dennis Teodosio's “Bagahe,” directed by Rito Asilo
Families in extremis also defined Lani Montreal’s well-acted if unpolished story of immigrant alienation, “Looking for Darna,” directed by Khryss Adalia; Argel Tuason’s gritty “Kuyom,” directed by John Abul, about streetwalkers caught up in tenuous relationships—an unfortunate mess due to a ragged, underwritten script; Job Pagsibigan’s taut, effective psycho-drama “May Bumubulong,” directed by Christian Bautista (not the singer) as part of an independently produced trilogy for the Labfest; and George Vail Kabristante’s “My Padir Is an OCW,” directed by Issa Lopez.
Lani Montreal's “Looking for Darna,” directed by Khryss Adalia
Job Pagsibigan's “May Bumubulong,” directed by Christian Bautista
The last play, a roaring, color-saturated comedy that took on the tincture of Greek tragedy in its later scenes, evoked a genuine frisson of sleaze and danger in its depiction of third-rate bars and their marginal inhabitants. Though it could stand tightening, Kabristante’s burlesque featured some of the Labfest’s most engaging acting, courtesy of Ricky Rivero’s flaming transvestite and, especially, Rommel Benedicto’s turn as his conflicted son.
George Vail Kabristante's “My Padir Is an OCW,” directed by Issa Lopez
In “Ellas Inocentes,” family stayed in the background, but its pernicious claws remained front and center as two girls traded trivial stories that, little by little, revealed the abusive circumstances they were in.
With the slow accretion of horrifying details, culminating in the girls innocently play-acting their parents’ perverse lives, “Ellas Inocentes” acquired a mesmerizing power. The accomplished writing (by Layeta Bucoy), directing (by Tuxqs Rutaquio) and acting (by Lovely Balili and Ness Roque) stamped this play as the Labfest’s best entry.
Layeta Bucoy's “Ellas Inocentes,” directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio
Two other plays could compete for that honor, give or take a few points. Niel de Mesa’s children’s play, “Mga Obra ni Maestra,” which he also directed, was a terrific blend of sassy theater and video and animé elements--a way forward, if you will, for a new generation of audiences weaned on MTV and Japanese manga.
“Mga Obra ni Maestra,” written and directed by Niel de Mesa
This fully realized concoction of outrageous costumes, earnest dialogue and wide-ranging imagination engaged the senses from beginning to end, with 10-year-old Abbey Gonzalez stealing the show with her precocious self-assurance.
At the polar end of “Mga Obra ni Maestra” was Japanese playwright Yoji Sakate’s Noh play “Three Sisters,” about shell-shocked soldiers returning from a war and encountering actors rehearsing a play in a devastated town.
Yoji Sakate's “Three Sisters,” directed by Jose Estrella
A kind of elegiac fugue on the civilizing power of art over barbarity, Sakate’s dream-like work found a great ally in José Estrella, who, with atmospheric direction and the intense acting of her cast led by Mailes Kanapi, created a theatrical piece of sweeping emotional liberation dipped in autumnal colors.
Narumol Thammapruksa's “He-Me-She-It,” directed by Jaime del Mundo
The third non-Filipino play, “He-Me-She-It,” by Thai writer Narumol Thammapruksa, also dealt with the themes of escape and freedom, but its allusive voice and frankly meager writing barely came to life, despite Jaime del Mundo’s visually faultless direction.
A similar lack of depth and tension plagued Oggie Arcenas’ “Seance,” a yarn about an upstart writer and a shady clairvoyant that, as directed by Erick Castro, had its finger on the funny bone and nowhere else.
Arlo de Guzman’s “Three Unsent Letters,” meanwhile, panted with the most purple lines, viz: “You are my greatest achievement, which makes you my greatest failure as well.” And, “You shouldn’t have made me love you.” “I didn’t make you love me; I was just being me.”
Arlo de Guzman's “Three Unsent Letters,” directed by Rody Vera
This soggy epistolary play, directed by Vera himself, featured a sensational scene of two actors writhing buck naked in a tub. The ensuing proceedings, alas, couldn’t generate half the same heat.
The two other children’s plays aside from “Mga Obra ni Maestra,” Rene Villanueva’s “Bertdey ni Guido” (directed by George de Jesus III), and James Cansanay’s “Kung Pwede Sanang Ipagpalit ang Tatay” (directed by Catherine Racsag), both employed winning whimsical devices to reel in their hyperactive audiences.
James Cansanay’s “Kung Pwede Sanang Ipagpalit ang Tatay,” directed by Catherine Racsag
Racsag’s use of shadow play in Cansanay’s plain-spoken work--about kids coming to terms with their parents’ stern love--was ingenious, giving the play added punch. De Jesus III used bouncy music with the same skill in “Bertdey ni Guido,” allowing for extensive audience participation in a story that had no less than the Edsa Revolution as backdrop.
Teodosio’s second Labfest entry, “Pobreng Alindahaw,” directed by Delfin Ilao, also took on the trappings of children’s theater with its animal characters, scrappy costumes and allegorical narrative.
But while it had grown-up things to say about identity and going for one’s dreams, it also ended up too talky for its own good. Among the actors, Christian Faustino worked the hardest--and funniest--to keep the flab at least interesting.
None of the preceding 17 plays, as you might have noticed, dealt with socio-political issues, overt or otherwise. In this year’s Labfest, only one did--Rogelio Braga’s “Sa Pagdating ng Barbaro,” directed by Nick Olanka.
Here, an embittered man would travel to a remote hamlet in Mindanao in search of a college friend, and a means to kill himself. From this somber premise, Braga enlarged his canvas to lay bare the psychosis of a town permanently traumatized by war. Every time a nearby bullet factory tested its products, the townsfolk turned glassy eyed, robotic--zombie-fied by the unending military conflict around them.
Rogelio Braga's “Sa Pagdating ng Barbaro,” directed by Nick Olanka
Provocative and disturbing, with a clever twist for an ending, “Sa Pagdating ng Barbaro” was a modest but successfully realized attempt to examine issues far larger than individual relationships, family dysfunction or workplace angst.
Given the tenor of the times, fearlessness of this kind--topical yet freshly imagined--deserves a stronger shot from our new crop of playwrights. Perhaps in next year’s Labfest?