Theater review: Dulaang UP harrowingly tackles sexual abuse in one-woman play

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 28 2018 12:56 PM

The original source of "Ang Dalagita'y 'sang Bagay na Di-buo" is a 2013 debut novel by Irish writer Eimear McBride entitled "A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing." In 2014, it was adapted into a play by Annie Ryan for one woman to perform. Ryan wrote the script under strict terms to not change a single word from the book, only managing its length to fit a reasonable time limit for a stage play. Dulaang UP had been granted the rights to translate and adapt this intense play for the Filipino audience by the pen of Rody Vera and direction of José Estrella.

The life of a young woman is traced from her time in the womb to her birth, through her childhood under the thumb of her abusive mother, her early teens when she first encountered her slimy uncle, then her days in the university when she apparently freed herself from her past. When her elder brother fell seriously ill though, she was forced to return home to be with him. It was then that she had to relive her old nightmares all over again, and then some. 

I read that it took Eimear McBride only six months to write her novel, but she had to wait 10 years before she found a publisher who had the guts to set it to print. The text of the novel was in no way conventional. It was not easy to read not only because of the distressing topic, but also because it was boldly experimental, written in a sort of stream of consciousness style, with no quotation marks to set off dialogues. 

The script of Ryan was likewise just a continuing monologue with no indication of which character was saying what. The translator, director, dramaturgist and the actresses had to figure out the various personalities the solo performer would have to embody in the entire length of this almost two-hour play all on her own. 

Aside from the girl, there was also the mother (very religious yet unsympathetic, always stern and angry with the girl), the brother (seriously ill since childhood, the "you" the girl addresses for the whole play), the uncle (a creep with a nebulous personality -- as if the girl was uncertain about what to think about him until too late). There were also a myriad of more minor characters: the strict grandfather, the patronizing aunt, the best friend, the doctor, the religious fanatics, those multiple sex partners in school and the sick sex pervert in the woods. 

Any actress who was willing to take up the challenge to perform this play is a very brave soul. Not only is she going to have to portray several characters, these are characters who were literally at each others throats in many cases. She would be practically be memorizing all the lines of all the characters, from the lead down to the extras. She needed to give each role a distinct face, voice and personality, and not mix them up as she went from one to another. She would have to bare her soul on that stage as the protagonist goes into various stages of her physical and emotional breakdown.

The four Dalagitas: Skyzx Labastilla, Missy Maramara, Opaline Santos and Harriet Damole. Photo from Missy Maramara's FB page

I have seen this play two times already before writing out this review in full. On my first day, I caught Missy Maramara as the girl. I was seated at the very back row of the theater towards the left side. On my second day, I caught Skyzx Labastilla as the girl, I was seated much closer to the stage on the fifth row center. The viewing experience was very heavy both times given the bleak nature of the play (but of course I was able to pay more attention to the details of the script better the second time around). 

The acting instructions of director Estrella appeared to be specific for each particular scene, since both actresses basically did the same general motions. Each actress just came up with subtle individual detail changes to set their Girl apart from the other Girls. Opaline Santos and Harriet Damole also alternate to tackle the role on certain show times. 

Maramara and Labastilla seem to be the more senior actresses of the four. I wonder how it would be to have one of the younger actresses perform, especially since the Girl should only be age 20 by the final scene. The effect could probably be more hair-raising.

There were constants that the actresses have to work with onstage: like the chair (the girl's only crutch onstage, specially designed for stability and abuse), the video projections to depict outdoor scenes, and those perfectly timed disturbing sound effects by Jon Lazam that heighten the tension, emotion and pain of the scenes where they were used. They had some water waiting at both sides of the stage to keep their throats hydrated at very brief breaks. 

At the end, a square hall of mirrors opened up in the middle of the stark black backdrop to frame the haunting final scene. The lighting was so vital in the whole play, especially that final scene with the mirrors. The effect of the playing lights during that final scene with the mirrors looked different depending on where I sat, each with their own dramatic impact. Kudos to the mirrors designer Mark Justiniani and light designer Barbie Tan Tiongco for the mesmerizing illusion of depth, buoyancy and calm during this key moment of the play.

This was the first time I have seen Maramara perform. I only knew her by reputation as an experienced practitioner of solo theater. She had taken on the one-woman show "Clytemnestra" (as adapted from various sources by Kiara Pipino) and performed it both abroad and locally (which I unfortunately missed). She had also written, directed and performed her very own one-woman work entitled "Love, Liz" which she debuted in the United Solo Festival in New York back in 2013. 

Talkback session with Ina Bolivar and Skyzx Labastilla after a performance. Photo by author

As for Labastilla, I have seen her act in a couple of two-hander short plays back in 2016. One was the perplexing "Daddy's Girl" at the Virgin Labfest XII, and later that year, it was the traumatizing "Indigo Child" as part of the "Never Again" festival of Martial Law plays. In both plays, she delivered lengthy emotionally draining monologues about a girl who was recounting her experiences of abuse (sexual and more). These two prior one-act plays more than prepared her for this much longer and more devastating full length project. 

Because the play dealt with a very disturbing subject matter, a talk back/debriefing session was held after each show where members of the audience can ask questions from the actress and the dramaturg Ina Azarcon-Bolivar, or vent their feelings about the play they just saw. 

This harrowing play confronts the audience with the fact that sexual abuse happens in real life and it is uglier than they can ever imagine. The victims' lives are destroyed, and many times, they have no family, no friends, no religion to turn to because of the shame that pervades their lives after suffering the abuse. This play aims to give all those girls who suffer in silence a loud enough voice so people can finally listen to their desperate calls. Do watch and echo their cries for help. 

"Ang Dalagita'y 'sang Bagay na Di-buo" runs until March 11 at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, 2/F Palma Hall, UP Diliman, Quezon City.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."