BLACK HEARTS AT PLAY
(Published February 7, 2005)
AT the end of Laro, Floy Quintos and Miguel Castro's incendiary new play on twisted love among urban gay men, 10 actors engage in what must be the longest, most unsettling orgy scene in Philippine theater ever.
It's not particularly explicit, if by that is meant the amount of skin bared onstage. Nudity in this case takes a backseat to carefully choreographed blocking and movements, effective lighting and manufactured smoke to suggest the heights (or lows) of homosexual abandon.
At the end of the debauchery, the actors untangle themselves one by one and spread out across the stage. You would think they'd look blissful after the kinky fun they've just had, but there is no joy in their faces. Only exhaustion.
They search for hungry eyes in the audience and, in flat, lifeless voices, say over and over, “Tara, tena,” until the blood-red lights fade out.
Call it an invitation to hell.
The 10 characters are players locked in a fervid cycle of deceptive, dangerous games, each one more high-stakes than the last, every one a warped offspring of the human need to connect and find some semblance of affection--at any price, if necessary--in a world gone cold.
Laro's structure--10 interlocking stories, each vignette featuring two actors, one of whom moves on to become half of the next featured pair--is based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play Der Reigen (more popularly known as La Ronde).
Set in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the play is a bleak romantic roundelay that traces the flings and flirtations of 10 prototypical individuals of that period--Prostitute, Soldier, Count, etc. The material has always been provocative for its stark view of love as a petri dish for all sorts of pestilential human behavior.
In Schnitzler's view (also reiterated in Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Schnitzler's novel Traumnovelle), the search for love and emotional security can often lead down squalid passageways where violence, abuse, power and brutality become the soul of human company and the currency of their transactions.
All that bloodletting can only result in bloodless facsimiles of lives, and, in Schnitzler's universe, it does with horrifying precision.
That sensibility has always resonated in works set in materially abundant eras with patrician societies grown dull and flaccid (Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses for pre-Bastille France, for instance, or Bret Easton Ellis' novel Less Than Zero and David Rabe's play Hurlyburly for Reagan-era America).
But in Laro, Quintos and Castro's conceit is to situate that destructive anomie in present-day Manila, in its small but volcanically complex gay society where, for all its surface urban freedom, tribal passions still reign and the terrain of kindred connections often feels like a battlefield.
The conceit works, chiefly because the playwrights have apparently parked their inhibitions elsewhere to come up with dialogue that's remarkable for its clarity as for its casual, if bitter, truth.
The writers' familiarity with the milieu is the play's strongest suit. The lines have the ring of unforgiving certainty to them, and the work, directed by Quintos, acquires tremendous power from that honesty.
The audience may find itself wincing more than once at the brutal portraits drawn up in Laro. The dialogue that opens the play, between a policeman and a call boy, ends up in an unexpected act of violence. That gesture repeats itself in ever more painful guises as the cop moves on to a transvestite performer, the transvestite meets up with his lover, the lover goes on an eyeball with an anxious kid, and so on.
Along the way, Laro becomes a bracing meditation on identity, longing and survival, as the characters acquire new shadings to curtain their true selves. The brutish cop bottoms to the cross-dresser, the naive call boy dreams of finding love, an aging philanthropist mocks all notions of it, and an “ideal” gay yuppie turns out to be a serial cruiser.
These characters are stereotypes, yet by the end of the play they have undergone revelatory transformations. They remain desperate creatures, but somehow some chink in their cold carapace has rendered them more vulnerable, more recognizably human.
This kind of quicksilver evolution (each vignette lasts for only about 15 minutes) is difficult without the right cast, but fortunately Laro is populated with talented actors who bravely go over the cliff with the material.
The sharpest episode, between the gay yuppie and his listless young lover, is played by Castro himself and Jomari Jose. Here, the playwrights' obvious experience with upper-middle-class, gentrified lives with all their soft linens, scented candles, Starbucks and Ikea furniture produces a hilariously crisp satire of gay bourgeoisie. Greenbelt denizens are welcome to sit through this segment without flinching.
Peter Serrano is excellent as the cross-dresser, and he is greatly aided by his character's tart one-liners. At the other end of the spectrum is Neil Ryan Sese, who brings feral force to his portrayal of an action star/underwear model who beds with the jaded philanthropist (Rolando Inocencio).
The dialogue between this pair is the play's most philosophical, touching as it does on the meaning of physical beauty and the limits of self-satisfaction to someone rich enough to buy everything he wants. But that moment is brought down to earth by a startlingly sexual, predatory twist.
The call boy, whose desire for simple affection makes him the play's “conscience,” if you will, is played by Lloyd Vincent Barredo (ably subbing for Marcus Madrigal). Barredo is a hunk with the face of a choirboy, and that combination makes him an ideal choice for the role.
John Dekster Santos, Julien Mendoza, Perry Esca¤o and Richard Signey round up the strong cast. We have no idea who's straight and who's gay among them, but all together, and without the slightest twitch of doubt or inhibition, these actors bring Laro to terrific life.
When they utter, “Tara, tena,” at the end of the play, think of it not only as a cautionary peek into lives marked by shadows and rot, but also as a potent finish to a work of theater that gleams darkly, like a black pearl.