New theater group debuts with Canada-bound '13th of September'

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Aug 29 2019 01:11 PM | Updated as of Aug 29 2019 01:28 PM

New theater group debuts with Canada-bound '13th of September' 1
A scene from 13th of September. Photo courtesy of BOGT's Riki Benedicto

MANILA -- Proof that the local theater industry is booming and actively venturing outside its comfort zones is the newly hatched Be Our Guest Theatricals, or simply, BOGT, with its first production, "13th of September," which has been accepted as the Philippines' entry to the 9th Mont-Laurier International Theatre Festival in Quebec, Canada.

At the helm of BOGT is Tanghalang Pilipino-trained actor-director Riki Benedicto, who put it up with fellow theater actors Katreen dela Cruz ("Himala: Isang Musikal" 2019), Paw Mallari Castillo (young Junyee in "Balag at Angud") and Paolo "Lao" Rodriguez, another TP-honed actor now active in television like in ABS-CBN's "The General's Daughter," and films like "Buybust." 

Rodriguez is obviously the most famous member of BOGT with so much on his hands. He is also an acting coach and actor for the upcoming Ejay Falcon-Aljur Abrenica-Elisse Joson series "SanDugo," as well as Erik Matti's "On The Job 2."

Benedicto is also present artistic director of Dulaang Filipino, the resident student theater group at De La Salle University-College of Saint Benilde (CSB) dedicated to staging plays in Filipino. In total, Benedicto has directed around 20 plays at CSB, the annual Virgin Labfest at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and other productions. He has also been an acclaimed actor though of late, he's concentrating on his teaching job and directing events, digital ads and plays.

“13th of September” is reimagination of Lanie Robertson’s play "The Insanity of Mary Girard" translated into Filipino by the young, prolific playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc, who wrote the hilarious "Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal," the heart-wrenching "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala" and the Palanca-winning surreal comedy "Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All The Overcoat" for Virgin Labfest. He's also written TP's advocacy play on financial literacy "Lukot-Lukot, Bilog Bilog".

BOGT and "13th of September" were born through the help of Erehwon Center for the Arts by providing a space for the rehearsals. It has also become the home for BOGT. 

To give us an idea what "13th of September" is all about, here's a synopsis from "In 1790, Mary Girard is committed to an asylum. After Mary becomes pregnant by another man, her husband has her declared legally insane. Now, Mary sits in a chair as the 'furies' dance around and impersonate people from her past, present, and future. By the end of this haunting and highly theatrical piece, she has grown rather convincingly into her diagnosis."

In the playwright's note he wrote with dramaturg Drew Espenocilla, Deldoc shared this insight: "In the present, a lot of Mary Girards still exist -- victims of a harsh society whose leaders are oblivious to the horrendous truth. No wonder there is still a shadow of shame that seems to cover Mary Girard’s legacy. It staunchly proves that the stigma of mental illness, while far worse in the 19th century (in 1780s to 1790s particularly), still carries considerable weight in the modern times.

"Mary Girard was a woman way ahead of her time; a strong feminist who may have called for change during the wrong period. She was a victim of misfortune. And it is this play’s challenge to continue on her legacy -- to echo her cries until it reverberates so loud that those who chose not to hear it will have no choice but to listen. Her story compels us to reflect on the nature of our humanity, and how beautiful or terrible we, as people, could possibly be. Because the truth of it is that insanity lies within the minds of those who refuse to understand."

The biennial Mont-Laurier International Theatre Festival will take place from September 5 to 11 this year in Quebec, Canada. Benedicto said the play has been scheduled on September 9 at Espace Theatre, Muni-Spec in Mont-Laurier, a town near the riverbanks of Rivière du Lièvre in northwest Quebec. 

But first, local audience will have a chance to experience it in a limited two-day-four-performance run this weekend, August 31 and September 1, at the Zobel De Ayala Recital Hall in Maybank Performing Arts Theater in BGC, Taguig City. Both days have 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances.

There will be three actors: Adore Dominguez, a hair and makeup artist at ABS-CBN and chairman of Sining-Lani Poly Repertory Alumni, will play Mary Girard; freelance actor Marco Edward Calilao and Lao Rodriguez will play multiple roles. 

Excerpts from our interview with Deldoc and Benedicto:

New theater group debuts with Canada-bound '13th of September' 2
Be Our Guest Theatricals founding artistic director and actor Riki Benedicto. Photo by Jey Marquez

Q: Why chose this story for your maiden production?

Riki Benedicto: Wala pang Be Our Guest nung sinulat ito but intended ko talaga siya for festivals abroad. It’s very complex and very appealing sa abroad. As the artistic director ng Dulaang Filipino of CSB, I read materials for the line-up of every season. I've read the play many years ago, and if mounted, I wanted older actors, so hindi siya pwede sa DF. 

There’s a group na alumnus ako and during a homecoming, I bumped into Kuya Adore (the one playing Mary Girard). Immediately in my mind, I found my Mary Girard. 

Last year, there was a call for entry from Mont-Laurier and they accepted my proposal.

First, we offered the play to several groups as our co-producers then it boiled down to a sole production so we can control the flow. Mabilis ang decision-making and all. 

So 'dun pinanganak ang Be our Guest Theatricals. Konti kasi ang Philippine theater exposure sa international platform, maybe because magastos, multi-disciplinary and it takes time to put up. So nagkaroon kami ng palitan ng ideas ni Katreen, paano ang magiging thrust ng BOGT.

Leap of faith talaga. I believe in the material, that it should be seen, historical and it may sound a cliché’ pero nag-e-echo siya sa maraming bagay lalo na 'yung idea na lagi tayong naghahanap ng ituturo, may social relevance pero hindi in-your-face, may empowerment, at hindi siya LGBT play or feminist play, political play or even mental-health issue play. Para sa lahat siya and it’s very universal.

I still believe that theater should not be spoon-feeding and hinayaan natin mag-interpret ang mga manunuood. Dapat mag-ignite siya ng discussion or palitan ng ideas after watching a production dapat bukas. I want to challenge 'yung restrictive definition ng ganitong mga perception. Kung mayroon akong 400 audiences na nanuod, mayroon silang 400 plays na napanuod.

My experiences abroad participating sa mga international theater festivals made me realize na ang dami pa nating pwedeng magawa sa mga piyesa at materials na meron tayo. 'Yung idea na, nagko-communicate, at nagpapalitan ng ideas, discussion, ibababa ang ego. Kumbaga I learned na dapat nagtutulungan tayo for development ng artists.

I went to Czech Republic last February to March, and sobrang impressive ang tingin nila sa mga ganitong gawain. 'ART is never a competition.' 'Yan ang thrust nila, meaning, ang mga nauna na sa larangan na 'yun, ay tumutulong mag-develop ng mga bagong artist, bibigyan nila ng platform, bibigyan nila ng experience, hindi hinila hihintayin na tumanda at manghina sila bago nila bigyan ng opportunity ang mga new breed. Major inspiration ko ang festival na 'to. 

 Q. Struggle ang pag-mount ng '13th of September', starting with getting rehearsal venues, funding the trip to Quebec. So bale, kayo ang unang theater group na mapapasali sa festival na to? Or may nauna na?

Benedicto: Sobrang hirap kaya sobrang pasasalamat sa Erehwon na nagbigay ng rehearsal venue at maging bahagi na ng Art Council nila. Ganun din sa BGC Arts Center na ang laki ng discount binigay sa amin. Siyempre dun sa mga sponsors, at nag-pledge at patuloy na bumibili ng tickets.

Ang first na Southeast Asian entry is from the Philippines and that first Philippine entry was 'Oedipus' by Dulaang Filipino, which I directed in 2015. Maganda kasi 'yung festival, maayos, maganda. And what makes it interesting ay run siya ng community ng Mont-Laurier. 

They requested for a theater, pinondohan ng city government, then binalik sa community. Sobrang impressive talaga. Nanunuod at uma-attend ang mga politicians sa kanila without security detail. So ganun 'yung energy ng festival.

Q: The choices for actors playing the roles, were they handpicked?

Benedicto: Yes, since I’m an actor to begin with, I always get actors na magwo-work together, at mag-i-ignite ng conversation dialogues, even 'yung mga designers. I asked them to be my collaborators, so I treat them as my partners. 

 Q. Bilang director, bakit kailangang mapanuod ng mga theater enthusiasts ang play na ito? Anong experience ang kakaiba? 

Benedicto: They play will challenge the restrictive definition of your perception. 

Q: Is this the first time you are working on a material by Eljay? 

Benedicto: I first worked with Eljay sa isang prod many years ago, and ang una kong nagustuhan kay Eljay ay una, magaling umintindi ng thoughts ko; pangalawa, mabilis mag-revise; at pangatlo, kaya nya i-fill 'yung mga missing thoughts ko. Minsan kasi vague ako magsalita. Then gumawa kami ng adaptation ng 'Julius Caesar' for DF. 

Isa kasi si Eljay sa mga writer na hindi hirap sa revisions, at magma-match kami 'pag nag-uusap. I mean honestly speaking, lalo na 'pag new material, hindi dahil naisulat na mountable na. And Eljay is one of those writers na talagang nakikipag-collaborate. At hindi mataas ang ego.

Playwright speaks

New theater group debuts with Canada-bound '13th of September' 3
Much-awarded, prolific playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc. Photo courtesy of Eljay Deldoc

Q: So you will join them in Quebec?

Deldoc: Originally, yes. Pero I decided to decline. Bukod sa may day job ako, mas practical na hindi na lang ako sumama. Bawas personal expense, bawas sa iga-gather na budget ng team. Siyempre, priority 'yung director at actors kaya sabi ko, next time na ako. Hindi naman siguro ito ang first and last international festival para sa 'min.

Q: Tell us a brief backgrounder on how you were approached for this production.

Deldoc: Last year pa ako kinausap ni Riki about this project. Sa kanya galing 'yung material, at may malinaw na siyang vision sa staging. Originally, i-stage siya ng isang university theater group. Hindi lang natuloy. Pero the idea of an international festival has always been there. Naniniwala si Riki na makakapasok ito somewhere. Naniwala rin naman ako. 

Q: The play would be in Filipino also pagdating sa Mont-Laurier? With translations? Paano siya?

Deldoc: Yes, the performance will be in Filipino. May English supertitles na ipo-project, written by Drew Espenocilla, ang dramaturg ng production. 

Q: Were you familiar with Lanie Robertson's work before this? First time ko na-encounter sya.

Deldoc: Hindi ko rin alam 'yung materyal. Pinadala lang sa akin ni Riki 'yung kopya niya ng libro. After reading the material, noon pa lang ako nagresearch about Lanie Robertson and Mary Girard.

Q: This is a translation not an adaptation, to be clear about it. So mas madali for you? Unlike with "Kite of Stars" for "Guryon", di ba?

Deldoc: Yes, translation, pero re-imagined version. Hindi ko masabing madali dahil challenging isalin 'yung original text. Una, may limang chorus called 'furies' 'yung original text. Ang vision ni Riki, small cast lang. Multiple roles. So I have to adjust my version. 

Pangalawa, ang complicated ng lines ng mga furies. Representation kasi sila ng mga mental condition so 'yung way ng pagkakasulat ni Lanie, stylized. Sinubukan ko naman na isalin pati 'yung style na 'yun. 

Pangatlo, I had to give a new take sa storytelling dahil ang design ni Riki ay 'drag.' The play is a 'drag performance.' Nagamit ko rin 
'yung mga research dahil naipasok ko 'yung ilang detalye sa play. For instance, 'yung title mismo ng play. 13th of September in the year 1815 ang death ni Mary Girard, ayon sa online accounts ni Mister Girard. Although may mga resources like Wikipedia na nagsasabing September 15, mas sinunod ko yung account ni Mister Girard. 

Q. How long is the play pala? May intermission? Did you make revisions before its premiere? A word or two here and there?

Deldoc: Walang intermission. A little over an hour. Si Riki na mismo ang nag-cut ng ilang lines para mas aligned doon sa design na 'drag performance.'

Q: How would you describe Riki's attack on this?

Deldoc: Pangatlo na namin ito ni Riki. Pinakahuli 'yung 'Alyas July,' reimagination naman ng 'Julius Caesar' na ginawa ng Dulaang Filipino sa CSB. Palaging may gustong patunayan si Riki and I admire his conviction pagdating sa pagkukwento. On the onset, alam kong ambitious 'yung vision niya for the play. Pero nung nakita ko 'yung nabuo nila, nakita ko naman na nagtagumpay siya.

Q: Objectively, Mary Girard is such a tragic character. Ano naisip mo noong una mo nabasa ang story nya? May tatalo pa ba sa sinapit nya? 

Deldoc: Totoo naman na kaaawa-awa yung sinapit niya. Pero mas nakita ko 'yung courage niya to endure 25 years of humiliation and physical abuse dahil ginawa siyang psychological experiment. So 'yun ang mas tumatak sa ’kin. That I have to retell her story dahil ilang taon na ang lumipas, a lot of people still don’t recognize mental illness as a valid health concern.

Tickets for the Maybank Performing Arts Theater run are available in Ticketworld and at the venue.