An old male gay national artist is visited at his house by a protégé who was also one of his lovers in their younger years. The visitor asks his former mentor to teach him again how to write plays after decades of building a career in the corporate world.
On the roof of a house in what looked like a densely populated, economically challenged neighborhood in the city, an "aswang" or shape-shifting monster who feeds on internal organs of both the living and dead people has an "existential" conversation with a "manananggal," described in Philippine folklore as a flying half-bodied monster who also feeds on human flesh.
In another set, a teenaged, closeted gay is pressured to come out and finds support from a fairy godmother who looks like pop star Regine Velasquez.
Then there’s the story behind the mesmerizing though intriguing classic Filipino song "Jocelynang Baliwag," oftentimes described "kundiman" of the revolution. Who was the real person behind the name?
Theater therapy, whether from catharsis or comic relief, is all we need these days and these stories are just four of the 12 new one-act plays at the Virgin Labfest (VLF) 18 with the theme "Hitik" (loosely translated abundant, ample).
We had a chance to catch some of the plays during dress tech rehearsals and we can say those stories mentioned above, besides being brilliantly conceptualized and staged, would be among the crowd drawers.
On what title and who wrote and directed them, it’s for the audience to find out as VLF 18 starts today, June 7, Wednesday and runs until June 25, Sunday, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' (CCP) Black Box Theater or Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez (TIG).
For the faithful and first-timers, this year’s lineup has the familiar names of playwrights from previous VLFs like Dingdong Novenario (“Dominador Gonzales: National Artist"), Layeta Bucoy ("Tuloy and Palabas"), Jerry O’ Hara ("O'Donnell"), Dustin Celestino (“Fermata”), and Juliene Mendoza ("10 to Midnight").
Then there are the virgins. There's Raymund Barcelon's sex comedy titled "O" directed by Missy Maramara and Andrew Estacio's historical play within a play "Ang Awit Ng Dalagang Marmol" directed by Nazer Salcedo. We overheard former CCP artistic director Chris Millado describing Estacio’s play as “brilliant,” and we agree this could be this year’s biggest surprise.
Playwright Zheg Arban’s "Room 209" is a no-holds barred critique on hazing and other inhumane treatments of neophyte cadets and lower classmen at the Philippine Military Academy. It is directed by Delphine Buencamino.
There’s Jules Pamisa's "Mga Halimaw Rin Kami" directed by Tat Soriano, Shenn Apillado's "Hawaii, Here We Come" directed by Mark Mirando, Marjay Manalastas' "Ang Tuyom" directed by Gio Potes, and award-winning entertainment journalist Chuck D. Smith debuting as virgin playwright with "Regine: Fairy Gaymother" directed by Mark Daniel Dalacat.
The youngest is Ophalain Margaux Serrano, a senior creative writing student from University of Santo Tomas, whose debut play is the two-hander "Hukay" directed by Philippine Educational Theater Association's veteran director-actor-mentor Melvin Lee.
Unlike in the previous VLFs, this is the first time it’s going to be held at TIG that has a total capacity of 300 audience members on a regular performance. However, for VLF the allowed seats are reduced to 240 due to health protocols. Still, it’s a higher number compared with VLF’s usual home, the intimate 220-seat Tanghalang Huseng Batute at the CCP Main Theater, which as we all know is under renovation until 2025.
From last year's VLF, the revisited plays are the hilarious "Punks Not Dead" by Andrew Bonifacio Clete, the riot-of-a-comedy "Nay, May Dala Akong Pancit" by Juan Ekis, and the hauntingly cathartic "Fermata" by Dustin Celestino.
Last year, "Fermata" was directed by Guelan Luarca. Since Luarca is in graduate school in New York, the directorial chair has been given to the capable hands of Tanghalang Pilipino Actor’s Company senior member Antonette Go-Yadao.
The original cast has rocker Basti Artadi essaying the role of a jazz bar owner being visited by the son of his former mentor, a legendary musician, who recently died. The son, played by Xander Soriano, tries to reconnect with him in the hope to solve a mystery about his late father. This year, former VLF regulars Paolo O’ Hara and Cris Pasturan take over, respectively, the roles played by Artadi and Soriano.
How they are going to attack the roles of broken men would be worth watching. We missed the Set E (Revisited) DTR and we can't say much but judging from O’Hara and Pasturan’s previous roles not only in previous VLF plays but Tanghalang Pilipino's as well, they will surely give justice, if not, add a new dimension to the characters.
MORE TWO-HANDERS TO WATCH OUT FOR
From what we've experienced, notable performances are in the two-handers.
There’s Benedicto and Joel Saracho in "Dominador Gonzales: National Artist,” directed by George de Jesus III. Benedicto may have a tendency to overact in some scenes as the gay lover to Saracho’s character Dominador and seducer to the young, naïve looking houseboy who is, take note, an award-winning poet, played by AJ Sison. Still, Benedicto pulls it off and makes Saracho appear like playing a supporting role.
There’s a line spoken by Saracho about one of the perks of being a national artist, that is, watching all shows at the CCP for free. In the audience was National Artist for Dance Agnes Locsin seated at the front row and watching her from behind, we saw her shoulders shaking a lot from too much laughing. This satire on the current state of culture and the arts is, indeed, another brilliantly written piece by Novenario (remember "Kafatiran") and worth a second watch.
There's also Andoy Ranay playing a middle-aged farmer who has a hidden affection for his childhood friend, now a policeman, played by Floyd Tena in Serrano’s "Hukay." This two-hander is actually a charming love story set in a forest with a dead horse. If the animal is metaphor for something else, the audiences have to figure it out.
Mendoza’s heartbreaking "10 to Midnight" and directed by Sarah Facuri has filmmaker Bombi Plata and Jerome Dawis playing brothers who try to fix their frayed relationship. Plata, who has been assistant director to most films by siblings Jon and Raymond Red, told ABS-CBN he is thankful and elated to be a virgin actor in VLF.
Other two-handers that stuck to our memory is that of Shamaine Centenera Buencamino and Rissey Reyes-Robinson in Tuxqs Bucoy's "Tuloy Ang Palabas," directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio. We won’t say much about the plot, but just to see Centenera-Buencamino back in VLF is enough reason to drive all the way to the CCP and line up for tickets. Centenera-Buencamino can read a mamihan (noodle house) menu and makes it sound like a Shakespearean monologue.
Contrary to what was announced earlier that tickets have been sold out, the VLF organizers assure there are still available seats for those who go to TIG earlier and become "chance passengers" as festival holders don't come at the same time.
Then again, there are free shows and lectures. For example there are the one-show-only first-come-first-served staged readings. The four plays that made it are “My Lover's Presscon” written by Ross Manicad, “Kamay ng Orasan” by Marc Noesis Marquez, "Sino Ang Pumatay Kay Mr. Masangkay?" by U Eliserio, and “TBT: Takbo, Batang Tondo" written by Mikaella Yoj B. Sanchez.
For full schedules, visit the VLF and CCP social media accounts.