Monday, July 27, 2009

Socially engaged theater--minus the speeches

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7.27.2009

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.

Panoramic view
In “Doc Resureccion,” that hermetic two-character set-up has been replaced by a five-member extended family set against a more panoramic social milieu.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.

Sympathetic ear
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.

Thought-provoking
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.

Ineffectual
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.

Grave lament
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.

Good rule
“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.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maraming salamat gibbs! Here's to more virgins!:) - tuxqs

Anonymous said...

I think the virgin labfest is improving every year. I just hope that they take in new materials from other writers and try other directors. I think labfest has more plays than it can accomodate in its annual fest. why not let theater students from other schools do materials not covered by the labfest for their thesis or classroom activities? I think two years from now, virgin labfest will further branch out? why not have a visayan labfest? or virgins from the islands? In spite of what others say, that payment should not be necessary for some materials, i think we need to support and nurture these writers initially for them to be able to at least hold the pen and be devirginized. :)

Rogelio Braga said...

Sala'am Gibbs...Thanks for including our work in the list. Nakakataba ng puso. I'm sure other people in the production will be happy - Rikki, the actors, Bailan...

Yep, as response to anonymous, Rody would like to have plays from other parts of the islands. Hopfully next year we see plays from other language and dialects, and also perspectives and realities.

Rody Vera said...

Hi Gibbs,

salamat nang marami. great article!

except that I beg to disagree with your parting sentence.

Ferdinand Mount says: “Politics works when it is lost in art.”

Gibbs says: "More art, less politics. A good rule--as in life, so on the stage that purports to reflect it. "

these are two different things, don't you think? I always believed that the writer's politics is a lot deeper when it intricately and tightly woven into the work. Politics doesn't become less when it gets "lost" in art-- it's what actually makes art more substantial, urgent, alive and human.

anyway, ang galing naman ng pagkakasulat. kitakits next year!

Rody

gibbs cadiz said...

hey TUXQS, great work! :)

ANONYMOUS, good point. i heard they're opening up the labfest to vernacular writers. let's hope madami magsubmit. :)

hey OGIE, thanks for being such a good sport. :)

RODY, i agree with you. poor phrasing on my part--i should have said 'more art, less politics than usual.' i meant, of course, not the absence of politics (my whole article was an argument FOR it), only its presentation in a more artful way. thanks! looking forward to labfest 6! :)

beektur said...

Gibbs, Rody -- agree ba or disagree? Anyway: both "more art, less politics" and "politics work when it is lost in art" underline the fact that art is above everything else: politics, religion, even life itself. Otherwise, why should it be placed in the pedestal of worship from the ancient times. I think the urgency of any political thought is when one gets to see its workings in the daily, pragmatic grinds of our lives and relationships. To paraphrase Martha Graham, the external battles boiling in our internal conflicts. I think this why Maliw was so effective in it's first half but not so when the disappearance of the daughter was so explicitly articulated. Politics -- regardless of views-- can be repetitive and tedious. How it impacts individuals is always new and revealing. That's why "Maratabat" failed miserably.

merman said...

to Rogelio Braga - it was just too bad that we were unable to watch your play, "Ang Bayot, ang Meranao, at ang Habal habal sa isang Nakakabagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte”. Its july 2nd performance was cancelled.

Great review Gibbs, as usual. :)

Rogelio Braga said...

Gibbs- nah, that's okay. In fact, I don't disagree with your perspectives and I don't feel bad about my work. I am happy you include me in that list. I always look at it as a challenge and most audience and readers have different views on my work.

Merman - As the playwright I am sending my sincerest apologies for what happened; I think CCP/VLF folks explained to the audience what happened. Hopefully, some good-hearted people will use the play in the future and I'll definitely send you and invite. =)

Beektur- That was sad that you feel that my work was a miserable failure. Hopefully, I'll get to write another play (or plays and write more more more plays) and send it to the stage and I can invite you. The play was really written with the intention that there is no movement, no healing, no moving on, no release. So I send it to a laboratory festival. I guess I have to polish my strategy more to send my intentions on stage. I tried using this in my other play, Oy, Oy, May Rush Hour sa 3rd World Country and I encountered the same response from audience and colleagues. Thanks for supporting the project. Daghang salamat pud!

Anonymous said...

to Rogelio Braga - it was just too bad that we were unable to watch your play, "Ang Bayot, ang Meranao, at ang Habal habal sa isang Nakakabagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte”. Its july 2nd performance was cancelled. --> i like bayot when it was first performed last year (though i think puede na putulin iyong play noong nalaglag iyong bayot sa haba habal). this year's performance was dragging. and nagove the top na iyong bayot. sobra na ang costumes pa. may internal problems ata ang actors which affected the production kaya nacancel ang later permance dates. sayang.

Rogelio Braga said...

Hi Anonymous -- Thanks for the appreciation. Hopefully, some good-hearted people will use the play so we can see it again on stage. I'm having my two plays being translated now in Cebuano (So Sanggibo and Ang Mga Mananahi) so we can have it here in Cebu.

Regarding your suggestion, I was thinking about it but I thought it was going to be really tough job. More than the narrative that you see on stage the units of the play were alredy designed and in place to create the entire 'aura' of the work. If I have to remove or transfer one I have to re-design the entire play. I suggest you join us in my groups since we talk more of these processes in our weekly discussions: PETA Writers Pool (headed by Tim Dacanay) and/or the Writers' Bloc (headed by Rody Vera). But I appreciate the suggestion. In some ways I am getting your point maybe I have to guard myself of this on my next work.

Yes, I agree that the performances were really dragging. One thing that I always I ask (to the point of being annoying) to fellow artists who are using my plays is to be mindful of the cultural and religious nuances. So both Moros and non-Muslims readers/commentators from Mindanao read the scripts and then I revise it. And we send Moros and non-Muslim from Mindanao to rehearsals before we send it to the public.So I always ask them to guard themselves from ad libs and being too much. For example, in one the performances one of the actor added a line about muslims selling pirated DVDs - this is another unit that added to the flow of dialogues. And one the audience raised it to me and I agree with her (so the Muslim character was wearing a scapular - which I felt offended also); it was glaring because it was a unit that was never part of the entire design of the play: the play addresses people's stereotypes against Moros and gays and then you have an ad lib that connects Muslims to illegal transactions.

Sometimes it happens. We are only people and we can commit mistakes. You know how it feels that you give your time, efforts, your excitement and anticipation on you work (and cross islands leaving your work and your city just to see it)and then you see that on stage. It's like the feeling when an audience coming in late in the performance of your play and inconspicuously getting their seat in front of you. I always think that a play when it is being performed it ceases to be about the playwright and the actors: it is about the audience, the story, and the new perspective that we give to the world. And I always think those who use my plays are beautiful people. And then I realized just now that beautiful people, as always, can always always break your heart.

beektur said...

Mr Braga - I am taken aback by your grace. I may have come across as harsh in saying that "Maratabat" failed miserably (but now "a miserable failure.") My sweeping statement wanted to point out that it is the execution of the play that failed, not in your text. You acknowledge yourself that "performed [a play] ceases to be about the playwright." I felt that the material had a lot of potential. But owing to the brevity of the time alloted, the indecision to be either fully symbolical or realistic (unless that intent was to move between reality and memory/imagination) and the distracting prop, the production leaves me with neither full emotional, intellectual nor even physical resonance. But that's just me.

Still, more power to you and your art! Padayon!

beektur said...

oops, i meant but "NOT 'a miserable failure'".

Ingrid said...

Hello Mr. Gibbs Cadiz!

I was the stage manager for "Maliw" and would like to thank you for your wonderful insights. I learned a lot from them.

I would also like to point out that your article (the one posted on the Inquirer website) carries a translation of the line "Araw araw ay may darating na sirena." The translation went "Everyday, a mermaid will come."

I was shocked into loud guffaws when I saw this because we were kidding about the same thing during rehearsals. Nakakaloka po talaga, hehehe. The line meant something else entirely, of course.

Was it an editorial accident? I hope you can shed some light on this mind-boggling matter.

Thanks a lot; I look forward to more of your reviews. :)

gibbs cadiz said...

hi INGRID! wow, a big lol right there. somebody goofed in a big way, haha. thanks for pointing it out. in my defense, i have to explain that that wasn't my doing. my original text didn't carry any english translation for the filipino lines. however, i'm guessing the editors of the paper's online edition (separate from the editors of the print version, which includes me) translated the lines--since the online edition has a global audience--without clarifying with us their context or meaning. i'm really sorry for that laughable oversight. no excuse from us, obviously. i'll bring it up with the online edition guys asap. thanks again! :)

Ingrid said...

Maraming salamat po. :)

Ang masasabi ko na lang, ROFLMAO at salamat sa "intermission". Hahaha.

Thanks again, sir.

Carlo Pacolor Garcia said...

Salamat, Gibbs. ;)

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