The promise that Virgin Labfest (VLF) makes is that of staging untried, untested plays, the ones that might not get the opportunity to be staged otherwise, and certainly not at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the mileage this allows. And while it’s entirely possible and acceptable that others have gotten tired of this festival after 12 years, my tendency is to value VLF still for what it remains: a festival of experiments in the one-act as form, and of adventures in stories that are rarely done or discussed in theater, if not in culture in general.
And sure there will be stories that are rough around the edges, but if you place that in the context of a theater scene that is dominated by foreign plays and musicals on repeat, I’d rather see original Pinoy one-act plays any time. Here, reviews of the three plays of Set C of this year’s harvest of plays, at a time when everyone’s a critic, yet so few spend the time and energy to do reviews.
Ghosts of guilt
Ang Mga Bisita Ni Jean (written by Maki dela Rosa, directed by Ariel Yonzon) is about one woman’s psychosis as wrought by her past, which has had massive repercussions on her present that remains difficult because she is un-free – literally dependent on her father, figuratively falling back on the false freedom of writing solely for oneself.
Jean’s past was the armed struggle; her present, this struggle of justifying the decision to leave it. The magnitude of her guilt is equal to the immensity of her decision: the self versus nation, bourgeois romance versus the collective, individual aspirations versus comradeship. In conversation with two men from her past, layers of her story are revealed as bits and pieces of her crises. She is forced to defend her decisions; she finds that she lacks the words.
This could easily have become a dense and tedious discussion about love and romance versus serving the nation; instead it is (thankfully!) as close to a light romance as one can get given the ideological baggage the material decides to carry. In fact, the narrative unfolds gracefully and swiftly, with nary a sense of the weight of the dogma it is informed by. Here, love and romance is revealed to exist even in the struggle, maybe differently from what we know, but also the same in many ways: there are the ones that got away, the possibility of incompatibility and wrong decisions, the need for intimacy, the comfort in another’s strangeness.
Sheenly Gener’s portrayal of Jean captures every shift in tone, every dreamy look, every skip in her step, so that we might find a character that is familiar: to be so enamored with romance despite the multitude of things deemed more important. One wishes though that the character would build up towards a feistiness, where she might assert her right to her own decisions, repercussions be damned.
Regardless, the daring to even do this story makes it worth watching. That it is absolutely enjoyable, directed with a deft hand, written sensibly and gracefully without falling back on dogma, is just a bonus.
Bait (written by Guelan Luarca, directed by Mara Marasigan) captures our crises as a Catholic country at a time of religious diversity, through the microcosm of a school where students, regardless of religion, are to be treated equally. A father and an English teacher discuss the repercussions of one Muslim student pushing a classmate from the third floor after the latter tore apart his Koran. The father is adamant: my son is not at fault, he was the aggrieved, not the aggressor here. The English teacher meanwhile speaks for Catholic Philippines: violence is unacceptable, Sir.
The teacher is young and naïve, and he believes he sees the Muslim boy without the cloak of his religion; he of course does not, cannot, know who his student is given the stereotypes he lives against. Here is where the conversation between teacher and father comes to a head: when it becomes clear that the difference between Catholic and Muslim is also about the lack and loss of opportunities given religion. It is a fact we forget on these shores, Catholic as we are.
Renante Bustamante as the father builds a character that is a delicate balance between refusing the stereotypes while necessarily falling back on distinct mannerisms and gestures to draw his difference from the Catholic teacher. That beyond the angry outbursts what shines through is the paternal anxiety of losing his son to this incident, is to Bustamante’s credit.
Kalil Almonte holds his own, but might be bogged down by his character’s youthfulness, the one that says without thinking: are you an extremist Sir? And then is unable to recover from it. That long fable about the rich man and poor man and God welcoming them both into heaven also needs fleshing out: one is unsure if the discussion is even about forgiveness, as much as it (still) is about difference and hate.
One admires the snappiness of this story’s telling, where other than that fable, there is no word that can be missed, no part of it that’s redundant. Standing on opposite sides of this discussion, the two men (mis)understand each other at every turn, highlighting our own crises really, and our own anxieties to begin with, about that which we cannot discuss. That Bait decides to even engage us in this discussion, already imbues it with importance.
Fantasy, as a matter of fact
Mula sa Kulimliman (written by Carlo Vergara, directed by Hazel Gutierrez) harks back to a Pinoy tradition of fantastic storytelling, where reality and fantasy are intricately interwoven, to create a world that is believable because real in its predicaments.
Here is a stereotypical Pinoy provincial nuclear family with all its contingent issues. The mother is your every-manang, the one who is good-natured no matter her struggles, who raises an teenage son with an openness to his misbehaviors, who is practical and wais-na-misis waiting for husband to come home from long periods away for work. She is at a point when her world might family become perfect: her estranged parents are coming to visit her little family – she is giddy with excitement.
Her husband comes home and this love is established to have been worth its difficulties.
This is some good ol’ Pinoy romansahan between husband and wife, in Tagalog banter that is hilariously irreverent. The familiarity the audience might have with this local pop culture stereotype is what allows for the little we know of the father to be enough – this is the skillfulness that allows for the narrative to unfold the way it does, slowly but surely revealing the fantastic with nary a foreshadowing.
That the son, careless teenager as he is, turns out to be the voice of reason here, the one who balances belief and disbelief, the one who grounds his parents in their common present, makes him this narrative’s rupture: he lives in both the real and fantastic, nothing defies belief.
To say that this production hit the jackpot with this cast would be an understatement. Timothy Castillo does the teenage devil-may-care attitude with equal parts pa-cool boredom and youthful excitement. We are reminded here of Jonathan Tadioan’s comedic timing, his ability to build upon characters and see these through to their logical conclusions – absurd, fantastic, real as that might come. But it is Mayen Estañero who is critical to this narrative, and she is perfect: her joyful butihing maybahay is informed by the depth of her difficulties and sorrows, and you watch her going to town with this stereotype through to its unusual unraveling.
These three meanwhile have this material to thank for its succinctness, its crispness: no moment is out-of-place, and no second is wasted in its telling. The pace of its direction keeps up with the plot twist and its unraveling: it’s like reading a book you can’t put down until it ends. Mula sa Kulimliman does so to your satisfaction, that is if you can appreciate the local fantastic for what it is: the rupture between the real and the imagined, our (dis)belief a measure of who we are as a people, too.