Theater review: 4 must-watch plays in Virgin Labfest 2020

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 24 2020 12:17 PM

MANILA -- Virgin Labfest, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ annual theater event for “unpublished, unstaged, untested and untried” plays goes further into the unknown in its 16th year as it forges into unchartered territory by venturing into the digital realm.

It’s a brave decision for new festival director JK Anicoche, also the artistic director of Sipat Lawin Ensemble, who took over from Tuxqs Rutaquio. 

“As a theater educator, being invited to lead a 16-year old festival is a big opportunity to expand the possibilities of text-based theater-making, deepen conversations about theater and society and bring in present-day sensibilities,” he told ABS-CBN News in an earlier interview

But while this move opens up VLF to a potentially wider audience — the video-on-demand option on Vimeo even allows CCP to earn — presenting the plays live via streaming can be a frustrating experience for the audience given the unreliable state of internet connections here. After trying to watch the opening play “Doggy” by Dustin Celestino with a choppy connection, I gave up and just opted to wait for the plays to be uploaded on Vimeo for a bargain price of only P200 for the entire festival offerings.

But watching the plays smoothly with minimal buffering is just one part of the digital equation in today's COVID-era theater. The creators and actors also have to grapple with technology while practicing physical distancing. 

During the lockdown, theater fans have been treated to a range of theatrical experiences from filmed live performances to staged readings using the conferencing app Zoom. Before VLF 16, we have witnessed an excellent filmed performance of Celestino’s “Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida” and a hilarious Zoom reading of “Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal,” both acclaimed plays from past VLF editions.

Tanghalang Pilipino also debuted two short plays, "Lolo Doc" and the companion piece "Lola Doc," which playwright Layeta Bucoy wrote specifically during the lockdown as a videocall.

There are no filmed-as-live plays in this season’s VLF. The closest thing to a traditional play in the lineup is Celestino’s “Doggy” and that was mainly because they cast a real-life married couple, Chrome and Che Cosio, who are able to act out this toxic cautionary tale of sexual pasts and present, freely and safely in their own bedroom. 

The rest of the nine plays had to deal with actors literally phoning in their performance from their respective residences. While each play is prefaced by a theater simulation with the set designer discussing how it will look on the CCP stage, many of the assigned directors experimented on this new platform with varying results. At best, some of the plays felt like low-budget indie films; at worst, they looked like amateur content for YouTube with their inconsistent audio and video quality. 

This is indeed unfortunate for, say, Luisito Nario’s “Gin Bilog,” which could have been an intense black comedy onstage but instead was turned into a gag-show skit complete with laugh tracks and other effects; or Daryl Pasion’s “Papaano Turuan ang Babae Humawak ng Baril,” which could have been a solid acting showcase for Lhorvie Nuevo and Eshei Mesina, but sadly their affecting performances were blurred by the Zoom treatment.

That said, here are four plays in this year’s Virgin Labfest, which I personally liked (in order):

1. "Titser Kit" by Jobert Grey Landeza

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Screengrab from Vimeo

With its black-and-white cinematography and seamless editing, this two-character play, simply directed by Adrienne Vergara, has that effortless indie vibe, wonderfully playing up the charming presence of JM Salvado as a young Lumad student who is having a difficult time adjusting to a traditional school. For the entire play, he is hiding under a table, while the titular character (Io Balanon) coaxes him to go to the principal and explain himself. Reminiscent of Dominique La Victoria's excellent “Ang Bata sa Drum” (VLF 2016), “Titser Kit” quietly tackles the plight of the Lumad without resorting to overt politicking, as it narrates Patrick’s backstory. Such is the emotional power of the storytelling that even when the dialogue shifts to the Lumad language, we still understand the mounting frustrations and fears of both characters, leading up to that big reveal that will leave you broken. 

2. “The Boy-Boy and Friends Channel” by Anthony Kim Vergara

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Screengrab from Vimeo

There were scenes that were needlessly stretched but overall, young director Joshua Tayco succeeds in blending new media with theater. The play’s plot, about a bunch of guys who find success in creating content on YouTube after they lost their network jobs, naturally lends itself to this treatment, and I can totally see how this would work onstage, especially with this zany, all-star cast. But Vergara’s script isn’t just all gags and shades on the influencer and lad cultures, and the actors, especially Nicco Manalo and Anthony Falcon, were able to navigate these subtle shifts such that when the unexpected drama does erupt, it still completely made sense with a chilling ending that somehow reminded me of the macho flick “Deliverance.”

3. “Multiverse” by Juliene Mendoza

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Screengrab from Vimeo

Come to think of it, “Multiverse” could well be the nerdy son of the two previously mentioned plays. For the most part, it revels in the fandom of two brothers as they discuss superheroes and the multiverses they inhabit with geeky delight. But their bond is ultimately laced with guilt and grief and playwright Mendoza, a terrific actor with range, resists cheap sentiment, resulting in a poignant and touching family drama. Director Fitz Bitana lends a sense of whimsy to the action with his colorful comic panels and innovative fight scenes, although I couldn’t yet imagine how this would actually play out onstage.

4. “Pilot Episode” by Floyd Scott Tiogangco

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Screengrab from Vimeo

“Pilot Episode,” which presents a mental episode of a gay man who’s bipolar, is actually the most polished of the lot in its embrace of video, thanks largely to its director Giancarlo Abrahan, an award-winning indie director (“Sila-Sila,” “Paki”), with his purposeful multiple angles and precise composition. You could almost believe that the three actors are really interacting with each other, especially when objects are passed around. The play actually starts off as a monologue about having a panic attack in public. This turns out to be just a prologue as the play then proceeds to show the titular episode, which plays out at home in front of his just-as-confused parents. Phi Palmos gives us his best performance yet with able support from Missy Maramara and Jojit Lorenzo as his patient and understanding parents.