MANILA -- From performances to the writing, women artists dominated this year’s Virgin Labfest, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ annual theater event for “unpublished, unstaged, untested and untried” plays, which is now on the 12th year.
Five of the 12 one-act plays in the 2016 edition of Virgin Labfest, which starts its second week on Wednesday, were written by women, who were responsible for some of the more unusual pieces.
Eliza Victoria's "Marte" is an OFW sci-fi drama set in a colony in Mars in the future, while Herlyn Alegre took the Syrian refugee crisis to create a drama about displaced Filipinos in an unnamed tent city in "Bahay-Bahayan Tagu-Taguan." Ma. Cecilia de la Rosa, meanwhile, created a haunting love story about a former rebel who left the movement in "Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean."
The 12 plays were selected from a record 197 entries, according to festival director Tuxqs Rutaquio, who will also direct a staged reading of acclaimed playwright Layeta Bucoy's "Mac and Naty," scheduled for July 14.
Virgin Labfest 12 also features several outstanding performances from actresses led by veteran Irma Adlawan as a Marcos loyalist with an activist son in "Loyalist"; Sheenly Vee Gener as the titular character in "Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean"; Adriana Agcaoili as the "perfect" mother in "Hapagkainan"; Mayen Estanero in “Mula sa Kulimliman”; and the comic troika of "Si Jaya, Si Ronda, Si Barbara at ang Mahiwagang Kanta."
As in previous years, the three best plays will be restaged in next year's festival.
Here are four plays in this year’s Virgin Labfest, which I personally liked (in order):
“Mula sa Kulimliman”
“Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah” creator Carlo Vergara returns to Virgin Labfest in fine form with this brilliant one-act play that also takes him back to his comics roots. After his curious misstep with “The Missing Peace” about the Filipino obsession on beauty pageants, Vergara bounces back with his strongest play to date.
“Mula sa Kulimliman” opens with an after-school discussion between an ordinary housewife and her teenaged comics-obsessed son as they await the arrival of the man of the house, as well as her parents. But when her husband arrives from his construction work in Palawan, she discovers her husband’s shocking secret, which threatens to split their family apart.
Vergara starts “Mula sa Kulimliman” with his usual witty dialogue, dropping innocuous hints and springs a total surprise when the play’s twist is revealed. Director Hazel Gutierrez aids the storytelling with some nifty theatrical touches including Asian shadow play plus the effective use of music and sound effects.
But it is the stirring performance of lead actress Mayen Estanero that truly lifts the material, providing a dramatic dimension to the otherwise absurd plot, that had audiences erupting in rapturous applause.
“Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania”
Adapted from author Ian Rosales Casacot’s story “The Sugilanon of Epefania’s Heartbreak” which was first published in 2007, this highly enjoyable play from May Cardoso brings back fond memories of last year’s highly acclaimed “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mag Tala.”
Cardoso uses two drunken tambays at a neighborhood sari-sari store in Negros as her narrators, as they console a young man who has been dumped. They then tell him the story of Epefania, who falls madly in love with a boy but whose mother does not approve of her. As the two men tell her tale, the story springs to life in an old-school theatrical presentation that is endearing, funny and ultimately touching.
Young director Charles Yee keeps the story’s folksy Negrense flavor which jibes well with the drunk man’s tale setup anchored by Bong Cabrera’s animated and authentic performance.
“Ang Bata sa Drum”
Among the few straight dramas in this year’s lineup, this two-character play from Dominique La Victoria is perhaps the most affecting. Set in Northern Mindanao, “Ang Bata sa Drum” is written as an after-school conversation between two children: the title character, who literally is placed inside a drum as punishment throughout the entire play, and her slightly older sister.
With a mix of Bisaya and Tagalog, the two kids discuss their lot in life, as they have been left behind with their drunk father when their mother went to the big city for work. While the conversation often meanders, one senses both their hopes and resignation. She is hopeful that their mother would return to take her as she has promised but at the same she also feels guilty of leaving her brother behind.
La Victoria infused her play with symbolisms and kept many things unsaid, while director Dudz Terana bravely guided the two young actors and made the story naturally unfold. But the play’s final image was just heartbreaking and loaded with feels that left audience teary-eyed.
As a play, there are other better written ones than “Hapagkainan” from 21-year-old “virgin” playwright Rick Patriarca. But as directed by Chris Martinez, this was a well-realized, highly entertaining and shocking work that will be remembered by audiences.
Set up as a parody of Pinoy families in TV commercials — Patriarca admits he was inspired by an instant noodle ad — “Hapagkainan” revels in its absurdity and aims to provoke with its expletive-laden and explicit dialogue as the seemingly perfect family of four loses it. The daughter gets pregnant, the son is an addict and the father is fooling around — yet they still vainly try to project that everything’s fine and dandy.
The material is perfect for Martinez, best known for his thought-provoking comedy films like “Kimmy Dora: Ang Kiyemeng Prequel” and “Here Comes the Bride.” Working with a fine ensemble led by Arnold Reyes and Adriana Agcaoili, “Hapagkainan” had audiences laughing and roaring with approval.
Virgin Labfest 12 runs until July 17 with performances from Wednesday to Sunday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.