Carlos Celdran once quipped: “Philippine politics is like ‘Game of Thrones,’ but everyone’s pangit.”
While we may have laughed at that, it may have also given us pause. Sadly, Filipinos have been known to make fun of their misfortune.
Over the past year, the country has been embroiled in a political circus like no other, and people have been polarized into two (or maybe, even more) opposing camps.
Through all this, social media has played a huge role in creating this great divide. Never has Facebook or Twitter or Instagram seen such a flurry of activity from users. Posts promoting one camp, another one tearing at the other and vice versa make their daily appearance on our social media feeds with clockwork regularity. It has become a war of words and information overload that has given rise to an army of trolls on either side.
Trolls, which in pre-Internet times referred to disfigured creatures that hid under bridges or behind trees and caused mischief to humans, now rule. Riding on the anonymity that social media provides, these trolls pop up on your social media feed and behave pretty much like the mythical beings they were named after.
Fake accounts and multiple accounts allow them to bombard us with fake news, or nasty comments or propaganda. With each team of trolls goading and baiting us to defend and react to posts, it has become quite a spectacle to watch and popcorn has never enjoyed such a peak in sales.
It is against this backdrop that Liza Magtoto, the lady responsible for bringing us “Rak of Aegis” and “Care Divas,” penned “A Game of Trolls,” Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (PETA) musical that pokes mild fun yet prods quite forcefully at this creature birthed by the worldwide web.
Directed by Maribel Legarda (who, by the way, also directed “Rak”), the play starts simply enough, opening onto a simple stage that reminds one of the insides of a computer. We find a group of young people staring at their laptops, their phones and their tablets typing away at great speed, flinging and dodging retorts aimed to rewrite martial law history and silence (via non sequitur replies spelled with a generous dollop of H’s) those who oppose it.
A “team leader” pushes them on, encouraging them to post, post, post. Copy-paste is the order of the day – the snarkier, the better. No need to check facts, just muddy the water and make them drink it.
For almost two hours, we follow Heck (played alternately by Myke Salomon and TJ Valderrama), one of the trolls who admits he is in it solely for the money, as he goes through a journey of self-discovery. His apathy is what makes him seem invincible and he is able to hurl back insults and tear down arguments against martial law without remorse.
He is hounded by his boss, Bimbam, the son of a former Marcos crony, whose goal is to defeat anti-martial law sentiments by throwing out paragraphs of misinformation laced with annoying opinions.
In scenes reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” we see Heck visited by ghosts of regimes past: Bobby de la Paz, Eman Lacaba, Macli-ing Dulag. Hector’s mother Nanay Tere, a former activist, provides the real-life electric shock to Heck as they go through the rigors of healing their strained relationship.
Heck, of course, is not without a romantic interest as we have Cons, a young lady who sits on the opposite side of the fence and from who Heck hides his troll life. A near tragedy involving Cons and Nanay Tere during a pro-human rights concert gate-crashed by – you guessed it – trolls serves as the turning point for Heck.
All of this happens amidst dialogue peppered with millennial jargon, evocative music by Vincent de Jesus (of the “Care Divas” fame) and a host of cookie cutter characters that only further emphasized the phrase du jour: copy and paste.
It is engaging and hopefully, for many of us, thought-provoking. While it seems to poke fun at “troll life” and may even be said to present only one side of the coin, the play provides us with bitter tablets of truth.
Flashbacks from the Marcos regime, as told by a few of its well-known casualties, provide a lens that mirrors certain aspects of our current situation, a warning perhaps of what may be if we continue on this trajectory we are riding.
A scene which was added for the play’s September run showing the anger at Kian de los Santos’ death ties it all in and provides a chilling reinforcement. The characters are mostly millennials and it is to them that the play seems to call out to – to help them learn about the past, to help them avoid the mistakes we made.
TJ Valderrama brought to stage the necessary angst and baggage one expects from a young adult wrestling with abandonment issues. Heck is a confused young man, only wanting to make a living yet knowing somehow that what he is doing isn’t how things should be, and Valderrama is able to bring this nuanced mix to his portrayal.
Upeng Galang-Fernandez, a PETA veteran, combines vulnerability and strength in her portrayal of Nanay Tere. Nanay Tere’s monologues about her experiences during the martial law years, first as an activist on the run and later as a political prisoner, are delivered by Ms. Galang-Fernandez with the right amount of anger and pain and an underlying hint of pride for those years when fighting back was the honorable thing to do.
Gold Villar-Lim who plays Cons amply displayed the spunk and grit that the millennial women are known for. Vince Lim, who plays Bimbam, the team leader of the trolls, makes his character so unlikeable you’d want to block him outright should you run across him on social media in real life.
While the plot may seem simplistic and rather predictable, “A Game of Trolls” nevertheless achieves one of the things it set out to do: create awareness. Awareness as to the existence of trolls and how they operate, you ask? No, we don’t need that. We are all pretty much aware of how many of them are out there and how they make our lives miserable (or more entertaining, it depends on how you want to see it).
What we need is to be aware of how easy it is to be manipulated and how we have allowed that to happen. What we need is awareness that our recent history is slowly being re-written. What we need is awareness that feels like a quick kick to the shin telling us that there is more to what we see, and that curiosity and asking questions are vital during these times.
Known for its politically themed plays, PETA certainly lives up to the standards and principles: that art is a vehicle to inform, to educate, to disturb and hopefully to effect change.
After a successful sneak preview performance in April 2017, “A Game of Trolls” now has a full run at the PETA Theater for the entire month of September. The play will also be shown in several schools in the metro and in the provinces, the schedule for which will be announced at a later date. Tickets are available via Ticketworld and at the PETA-Phinma Theater.