The best offerings of this year’s Virgin Labfest talked politics without seeming to
NEW DRAMATIC WORKS THAT ARE “topical but freshly imagined”--that was our plea two years ago at the end of our omnibus review of that season’s Virgin Labfest.
We meant plays that examined society as much as the self in contemporary light, stripped of easy sloganeering or default flag-waving. Stories that combined public urgency with private griefs in ways that avoided the simplistic Manichean comforts of tidy talking points or grim propaganda.
Plays, in other words, that engaged the times while remaining true works of drama rather than bald sociopolitical theses or full-throated screeds.
It is our happy duty to report that the best offerings of this year’s Virgin Labfest were that kind--fresh works of vitality, insight and imagination that reflected the present unblinkingly, without being blinded by it.
This the plays achieved by shrewd sleight of hand. They talked politics without seeming to. They swung the light away from a pat, easily masticated presentation of “issues” to the more ambiguous terrain of complicated individuals--recognizable human beings--erupting in hurt, doubt, rage, bafflement, joy and remembering, as these people struggled to make sense of the public, communal domain of their lives.
The political, in short, rendered in powerfully personal terms.
Layeta Bucoy’s “Doc Resureccion, Gagamutin ang Bayan,” for example--the Labfest standout, and, incidentally, the latest noteworthy collaboration between Bucoy as playwright and Tuxqs Rutaquio as director.
Bucoy’s template in the last two Labfests had been the dark domestic drama. Both “Ellas Inocentes” in 2007 (also that year’s finest entry) and “Las Mentiras de Gloria” in 2008 were about fetid secrets buried in middle-class sibling relationships.
In “Doc Resureccion,” that hermetic two-character set-up has been replaced by a five-member extended family set against a more panoramic social milieu.
Jonathan Tadioan, Crispin Pineda and Riki Benedicto in Layeta Bucoy's “Doc Resureccion, Gagamutin ang Bayan,” directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio
A well-off doctor is running for town mayor; his ne’er-do-well fisherman cousin, bearing the same surname, is paid by the incumbent in a cynical move to game the system by confusing voters and stealing votes away from the appealing upstart.
Now the doctor is back in the dump he had fled long ago, begging the cousin and his family to withdraw from the race. By implication, his starched good intentions, fancy catchphrases and improved station in life give him a greater right to the town’s seat of power than his cousin’s more dubious motivations.
That, in any case, appeared to be the scheme. Until the play, with its increasingly savage dialogue, took a shocking turn near the end, involving a fish hook and a ripped-out eyeball.
It was a blindsiding, nightmarish punctuation to Bucoy’s incrementally constructed image of a body politic corroded to the core by lifelong class inequalities and hatreds, stoked in turn for Machiavellian ends by shadowy puppeteers.
An unsparing vision, “Doc Resureccion” had the searing smell of truth—helped along by the strongest cast assembled for a Labfest entry this year, led by young actors Jonathan Tadioan and Riki Benedicto.
Another festering political flashpoint, the unresolved disappearances of activists, got a sympathetic ear in two plays, Nicolas Pichay’s superb “Isang Araw sa Karnabal” and Reuel Molina Aguila’s affecting if talky “Maliw.”
Like “Doc Resureccion,” these plays were a reproach—subtle but unmistakable—of the poisonous political air that has seeped into and warped many lives and families in this country. There were no speeches to that effect, though. Only anguish, pained laughter, choked-back memories.
In “Isang Araw sa Karnabal,” expertly directed by Chris Millado and marvelously played by Skyzx Labastilla and Paolo O’Hara, Pichay sketched in precise, tragicomic strokes the dysfunctional interaction of two people scarred for good by their desaparecido experiences (the girl her father, the boy a brother).
General Palparan’s name was mentioned; he was never seen, but like a malevolent ghost, he and what he stood for was the inevitable ghoul at the end of the carnival tunnel, forever haunting the lives of these two characters.
Bembol Roco and Gigi Escalante in Reuel Molina Aguila’s “Maliw,” directed by Edna Vida Froilan
A similar spectral presence spooked the otherwise placid household in “Maliw,” directed by Edna Vida Froilan. In the aftermath of a lost daughter’s 30th birthday, a husband and wife (Bembol Roco--excellent--and Gigi Escalante--hammy) would finally confront, through tears and bitter hand-wringing, the void left by their daughter’s abduction years ago.
“Araw-araw may darating na sirena,” rued the mother, refusing to forget. By the play’s cathartic end, she would take the first tentative steps toward letting go and rejoining the land of the living.
Politics of a different sort--the gender and cultural kind--made a welcome, thought-provoking appearance in Sheilfa Alojamiento’s play about lesbianism, “Boy-Gel ang Gelpren ni Mommy.” Alojamiento is a Davao-based writer, and this play, directed with assured quirky charm by Carlo Pacolor Garcia, was her debut in the Labfest.
Karenina Haniel, Che Ramos and Unika Zapata in Sheilfa Alojamiento’s “Boy-Gel ang Gelpren ni Mommy,” directed by Carlo Pacolor Garcia
Mom, long separated from Dad, is taking in a new lover who looks like a girl but dresses and moves like a boy and is named Jun (June, it turns out). The kids, a boy and a girl, are confused. Who’d be the man of the house?
“Si Mommy ang boy, siya ang mas matanda at naghahanap-buhay,” says the bossy elder kid--just one of the play’s telling lines.
In an inspired bit of casting, the boy was played by a girl--Karenina Haniel, who proved to be remarkably plausible in the role even as she remained evidently of the female species. At its best, her straight-faced gender-bending furthered the play’s point about the changing, malleable nature of common gender pegs.
For every one of these plays, though--works that dissected the here and now in intensely human terms--there were others that sought to frame the debate in stridently literal or allegorical ways, to largely foiled result.
Bong Cabrera, Gi-an Ronquillo, Jerald Napoles and Paolo Rodriguez in Liza Magtoto's “Paigan,” directed by Sigrid Bernardo
Liza Magtoto placed racism, colonialism and empire-building in the crosshairs of her play “Paigan.” Taking off from a historical footnote--an African-American infantryman who deserted his unit and sided with Aguinaldo’s forces during the Fil-American War in the 1900s--“Paigan” offered two Filipino guerillas in a tug-of-war over ideals, innocence, empathy, the atavistic urge to oppress the Other.
Should they turn the deserter over to the Yanks for a hefty reward, or does he deserve protection for his like-minded rejection of the imperialist war?
A rich premise, and director Sigrid Bernardo’s vaudeville approach to the material--masks and fanfare and farce--seemed apt at first. Defying, however, the play’s insistence on its historical grounding, the passages that came out were hectoring and heavy-handed, jarringly contemporary from one line to the next.
“Magkaiba man tayo ng kulay, magkapareho ang kasaysayan natin,” went one argument between the two Filipinos, now devalued from characters worth caring about to mere soapboxes.
“Naniniwala siyang kaya nating magsarili,” went another. “Siya” referring to Fagen, the black soldier, in a platitudinous bid to project modern attitudes to an era-specific figure and conscript him as a partisan for latter-day polemical skirmishes.
Something else other than anachronistic dialogue hobbled Rogelio Braga’s “So Sangibo a Ranon na Piyatay o Satiman a Tadman,” a grave lament on the bloody history of Mindanao done in a bluntly abstract vein.
Paolo Rodriguez, Mayen Estanero and Roence Santos in Rogelio Braga's “So Sangibo a Ranon na Piyatay o Satiman a Tadman,” directed by Riki Benedicto
A young man agonizes over his unrequited passion for a hooker. The woman, of course, is Mindanao--her rape at an early age by her soldier father the ravishment of a proud, unbowed region. And the glum, angry idealist learning of her horrific past stands for every Muslim radicalized, or about to be, by war and brutality.
Despite its tense, clenched tenor, movement--the lack of it--defined this play. Braga’s text was dense and roundabout, the line “Eto na ang huling gabing pagkikita nila,” for instance, underlined as pivotal simply by having it repeated and bounced around among the characters.
A military raid on a village was a brief spark; in a mini coup de théâtre, first-time director Riki Benedicto orchestrated the set piece with a blacked-out stage scored to screams and slashing flashlight beams.
But that moment of adrenaline wasn’t enough to rouse the play from its becalmed, deadweight sense of self-regard. In the end, it would abandon whatever adherence it had to that fundamental tenet of storytelling--“Show, don’t tell”--by having the young man read a letter that tallied up the whole politics of the play.
There it was: in place of inconvenient drama, a manifesto.
“Politics in literature does its business best when we are least aware of its presence,” reminded the British writer--and politician!--Sir Ferdinand Mount in a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in London. “Politics works when it is lost in art.”
More art, less politics. A good rule--as in life, so on the stage that purports to reflect it.