|The cast of "Ang Kuneho" with playwright Guelan Laurca and director Emmanuel dela Cruz. Photo from the Facebook page of Guelan Luarca
MANILA, Philippines – First, the good news: This year’s just concluded Virgin Labfest 8, a venue for “unpublished, unstaged, untested and untried” plays, proved to be hit among theatergoers who packed the Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) during the five performances attended by this writer.
A total of ten plays, consisting of one full-length play and nine one-act plays – made their debut at the two-week theater festival which ended on July 8, while three one-act plays from last year’s Virgin Labfest were brought back as part of the “revisited” set.
And while Virgin Labfest is a project of the CCP, its resident theater group Tanghalang Pilipino and the group Writer’s Bloc, actors and directors from other theater companies were involved in some of the productions – suggesting the festival’s growing importance within the theater community. Repertory Philippines regular Ana Abad Santos reprised her role in “An Evening at the Opera” written by Floy Quintos, while PETA’s Melvin Lee directed “Pagsubli.” There was even a reading of PETA’s upcoming play “D’ Wonder Twins of Boac,” which will be part of the company’s upcoming season.
Personalities from the movie and TV world were also represented at Virgin Labfest, led by award-winning film actress Gina Alajar, who starred in “Digital Divide.” Young actress Dimples Romana, meanwhile, played the central character in “Hayop,” which was directed by filmmaker Erik Matti.
Now, the bad news: Despite the excitement surrounding the festival, only a few plays stood out this year.
In fact, none of the entries in Virgin Labfest 8 could match the artistry shown by the three “revisited” plays – “An Evening at the Opera,” a political drama presented as a marital squabble between a governor and his wife, who insists on staging an Italian opera at the town plaza for her birthday; Rae Red’s “Kawala,” a comedy set inside an elevator of a high-rise condominium; and Dingdong Novenario’s “Kafatiran,” a comedy about gays during the outbreak of the Philippine revolution against Spain.
“Kafatiran,” in particular, was sheer delight, imaginatively transposing present-day gay fascination with language and beauty pageants to the Katipunan era, as it juxtaposes the fight for the country’s independence from Spain with the characters’ own personal struggles against discrimination and the freedom they enjoy while inside the closet (represented, in this case, by a safe house where they secretly meet).
Novanario’s display of brilliance in “Kafatiran” only added to the disappointment over his new play “Digital Divide,” which had a stellar cast led by Alajar and veteran stage actress Madeleine Nicolas. Despite a promising premise – a poor girl was found cheating on her scholarship exam, dashing the hopes of her mother for a better life – “Digital Divide” was ultimately hobbled by a didactic script and its indulgent use of video projection to locate the scenes.
The other plays, meanwhile, either lacked focus (the full-length “Totong Hilot” by Jose Dennis Teodosio), tackled a tired subject matter (“Alejandro” by Chuckberry Pascual) or featured probably the most annoying character in a play (“Symposium” by U Eliserio and Maynard Manansala).
Here are four plays in this year’s Virgin Labfest, which I personally liked:
“Mga Kuneho” by Guelan Luarca
Easily, this five-character murder mystery set inside a metal room was a standout for its graphic direction, blunt dialogue, intriguing setup and tight, flawless ensemble acting from Chrome Cosio, Marco Viana, Paul Jake Paule, Fitz Edward Bitana and Anthony Falcon.
In a nutshell, it’s about five guys, strangers to each other, who were hired to clean up a murder and ended up killing each other.
Luarca, who said he is a fan of playwright Harold Pinter, took inspiration from Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” about two hit men stuck in a basement. But as directed by indie filmmaker Emmanuel dela Cruz, the play could just as well have been inspired by American screenwriter and film director Quentin Tarantino, not only in terms of the onstage violence, but also in the high-strung and streaming verbal battles.
Dela Cruz also gave the play a strong visual aesthetic despite an austere black set with only a metal droplight. In one scene, he used a series of blackouts to suggest the slow passing of time and the characters’ growing boredom, with the five guys changing their blocking and poses each time the lights went on.
The shock of seeing feces onstage and the realistic violence with blood spurting out of gunshot wounds were not merely a show of audacity but a natural extension of the play’s gritty tone, pushing the envelope for an audience numbed by reality TV.
Yet despite the play’s admittedly Western setup, the characters exude an unmistakably Filipino brand of urban machismo, giving the play a unique flavor unlike anything else in the festival.
“Ang Unang Regla ni John” by Mario Mendez Jr.
This coming-of-age story recalls the indie movie “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros,” as it is similarly set in a macho Pinoy household, this time a small barber shop, struggling to compete with the proliferation of beauty parlors in the area.
John, who lives with his widower father and two older basketball-loving brothers, may not be highly effeminate like Maxie but he is already becoming aware of his sexuality as presented in a funny sequence involving an FHM ideal of a “dream girl.”
Director George de Jesus provided just the right dose of comedy without overwhelming the play’s simplicity with easy laughs.
The play, however, proved to be too short – in fact, there easily could be an act two should Mendez decide to further develop the plot and resolve the story. And he really should.
As is, though, it’s a fine vignette that could blossom into a modern stage classic.
“Pagsubli” by Aizel Cabilan
The quietest and probably the shortest play of this year’s loud bunch is also the most genuinely touching.
An old man and a young female tourist meet at a waiting area in Sagada. She’s looking for her wayward father, hoping to invite him to her upcoming wedding, while he is haunted by the loss of her daughter, praying that she will one day return. Despite the obvious setup, actors Dante Balois and Cheryl Ramos performed a shy, slow dance about false hopes and missed opportunities that gently haunts like the Kangkanaey lullabies sung at the play’s start.
Balois, in particular, gave an effortless performance that bristles with sincerity. Even without any big dramatic moments, Balois had a magnetic stage presence, drawing the audience with his authenticity.
Director Melvin Lee succeeded in transporting the audience to this romanticized location that you could almost feel the cold mountain air and the peaceful silence. His use of film was also the most successful, compared with the other plays, as the silent reel functioned as a necessary aid in what is essentially a play about memory.
Audiences left the theater divided as to the relationship of the two central characters, suggesting that Cabilan and Lee may have failed to clearly establish the link. However, much like the Kangkanaey melodies and occasional dialogue, one need not fully understand their meaning to be enthralled. “Pagsubli” goes straight to the heart.
“High Stakes” by Mixkaela Villalon
Despite distracting directorial touches and the musical chairs set to the aria “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” between scenes, “High Stakes” is actually a taut play that explores the Filipino penchant for “balato,” as well as “epal” tendencies.
The play revolves around a newspaper reporter who, after publishing an interview with missing grand lotto winner Teo Mesina, is hounded by the guy’s friends and enemies for information on his whereabouts.
Director Ron Capinding probably went for a lighter touch given the heavy topic by using audience interaction but personally I believed the material deserved a more intense treatment. Still the writing itself deserves to be commended.