MANILA -- Live theater is back and it is but fitting that Virgin Labfest is the first major theatrical event to make its bow in the new normal.
After all, this annual theater festival of “unpublished, unstaged, untested and untried” one-act plays has, over the years, become a unifying force in the local theater community. Artists from the various theater groups, both professional and school-based, have made VLF a veritable playground where they can break free from their usual fare, as well as a potent breeding ground for new playwrights, actors, directors and other creatives.
After experimenting with video streaming for its 2020 edition during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, with decidedly mixed results — at best, some of the plays felt like low-budget indie films; at worst, they looked like amateur content for YouTube — and a full break the year after, VLF 17 was a triumphant return to form for the much-awaited festival with tickets quickly selling out for the two-week run at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
New festival co-directors Marco Viana and Tess Jamias have assembled a balanced selection of 12 plays from Labfest “virgins” and festival “sukis” covering topics ranging from political to personal. The plays were then grouped into four thematic sets and presented at its old blackbox venue, Tanghalang Huseng Batute.
The very first play of Set A, Ma. Cecilia de la Rosa’s “Mga Balo” immediately set the tone and declared that VLF is indeed back in business, with its meta story-telling, #StopTheKillings message and another winning Skyzx Labastilla performance.
Over the next four days, VLF regaled audiences with a diverse lineup of plays from energetic physical comedies (Juan Ekis’s “Nay, May Dala Akong Pancit” with its “Groundhog Day” plot) to seemingly esoteric dramas (Eljay Castro Deldoc’s “Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito” with its lectures on millipedes as a backdrop to a sexual assault within the science community).
Yet despite this success, VLF 17 also cautions us that we are still living in precarious times. Seat markers ensured that physical distancing is maintained while ushers guided audiences out of the theater by groups. Pre-show announcements reminded us to wear masks at all times and discouraged socializing at the lobby.
Outside the CCP, the familiar orange shuttles to Taft Avenue are gone, as with some favorite pre- and post-show haunts at the once-bustling Harbour Square. (Icebergs, you are sorely missed.)
Two plays in VLF 17 have started incorporating facets about the pandemic into their plot, although it may take some time before we see a more definitive take on the subject. Anthony Kim Vergara’s “Student’s Handbook” is set in February 2020, just weeks before the lockdown, back when even school officials were skeptical about the coronavirus, while Andrew Bonifacio Clete’s “Punks Not Dead” happens during the height of the crisis.
But as we basked in the rapturous applause for the final play, Dustin Celestino’s “Fermata,” we are reminded of what we have sorely missed in the last two years — that powerful collective feeling of excitement and gratitude that only the best of live theater can deliver.
Here are four plays in this year’s Virgin Labfest, which I personally liked (in order):
1. ‘Fermata’ by Dustin Celestino
He showed great promise with his cleverly structured “Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida” for VLF 14 but with “Fermata,” by far the best in this year’s VLF, Dustin Celestino proved that he is undoubtedly a major talent to watch out for. He also cements his reputation as an astute observer of Pinoy masculinity and here, he gives us a tender and honest story of male friendship, sexual abuse, role models, trauma, and guilt. Celestino finds a kindred soul in Guelan Luarca, himself also a fantastic playwright, who directs “Fermata” with the same restraint, while rock star Basti Artadi gives a remarkable and truthful performance that surely adds to his legend.
2. ‘Punks Not Dead’ by Andrew Bonifacio Clete
“Punks Not Dead” will go down as the first staged play that tried to capture the often surreal struggles brought about by the pandemic. Here, Clete focuses on the student learning modules used by the Department of Education in lieu of face-to-face classes. Directed by VLF veteran Roobak Valle, this comedy takes off from a particular study question that links tattoos with criminality that promptly went viral on social media. As the misunderstandings pile up to zany heights, the play takes a swift turn with an unexpected ending meant to shock us from our increasing complacency in our supposed new normal and to remind us of problems that continue to persist in the shadows.
3. ‘Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito’ by Eljay Castro Deldoc
VLF exists mainly because of plays like this with its unlikely subject (millipedes) and timely social message. Eljay Castro Deldoc employs the rather cold tone of academic research to tell the facts of the story and the systemic cover up of sexual abuses in supposed safe, learned institutions. Working with Jamias, comebacking director and VLF co-founder Herbie Go, now based in New York, gave it a beguiling, highly theatrical staging with a large red train draped across the stage and strewn with dead leaves with the tight ensemble of five women in identical insect-like body suits, taking on multiple roles.
4. ‘Unica Hijas’ by Mikaela Regis
“Unica Hijas” could also be called “Wala Ring Bago sa Dulang Ito,” a coming-of-age coming-out story set in an all-girls Catholic school. But what is new here is that the “kilig” is real and well-earned. Playwright Mikaela Regis offers a refreshing Gen Z attitude towards same-sex relations that is both upfront yet still somehow innocent. It’s also hard not to root for the two girls Nikki and Mitch, winningly played by Joy Delos Santos and Ash Nicanor. Extra points go to the current indie pop music score that truly lifted that ending.
As a hybrid event, VLF 17 will also have an online component, this time with filmed performances from the CCP run streaming on Ticket2Me from July 1-10.