I thought it would be nice to repost this article Gibbs Cadiz wrote for the Philippine Daily Inquirer in August 2007. I have been thinking about this article a lot for the following reasons:
1. Now once again, I am as involved in the Lab Fest as I was in 2007. During VLF3, I saw all the sets and was very much involved in almost all of the aspects of it. Something I did not get to do for VLF4 as I missed a few sets, declined directing a play, then a staged reading and finally resigned as actor due to personal reasons; and something I did not get to do at all for VLF5, as I only caught JUST one set.
2. I see the same old familiar faces and names, and the new faces are those of the people I have worked with before – in Tanghalang Ateneo and Dulaang U.P.. or if not have worked with, went to school with, made friends because of friends of friends of friends. The theater world is really small.
This year I am missing Rogelio Braga. Really, I am. I’ve always loved how involved he is in socio-political issues and how unique his plays are. I hope Ogie you will have something for us next year, something perhaps you are writing now there in Cebu where you are. 🙂
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8.13.2007
This yearâ€™s Virgin Labfest reveled in the promise of theater unbound, offering fresh, uninhibited takes on familiar themes and stories
â€œTHE VIRGIN LABFEST is a venue to be fearless,â€ so said playwright, actor and festival co-organizer Rody Vera in an interview with the Inquirer a week before the Labfestâ€™s opening.
Fearlessness was indeed the hallmark of majority of the 18 plays that made their debut at this yearâ€™s recently concluded festival. For the most part, these â€œuntried, untested, unpublished, unstagedâ€ dramas reveled in the promise of theater unbound, offering fresh, uninhibited takes on familiar themes and stories.
No mainstream theater company, for instance, would dare touch Allan Lopezâ€™s avant-garde jeremiad against corporate greed, â€œKasaysayanâ€ (directed by Victor Villareal), and not because itâ€™s a bad play. It was, in fact, one of the festivalâ€™s strong entries, an acutely mordant indictment of the wages of profiteering and triumphalist capitalism.
What made it unwatchable to some, and virtually unmountable henceforth in the metroâ€™s staid venues, was its dead-set refusal to be likable. It had obtuse dialogue that ran around in circles, characters that were less flesh-and-blood than symbols, and most shockingly, the unembarrassed use of blackly scatological humor.
At one point, excrement (not real, but an ickily plausible facsimile) was lobbed at the audience, to cringing shrieks. It was the most literal figuration in a play that was otherwise noteworthy for its enigmatic, elliptical ferocity.
The family, too, that hallowed cocoon of nurture and safety, took all manner of radical distillations in the Labfest, though not always with fair results.
In â€œLizard,â€ Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma deconstructed a Singaporean household roiled by a corrosive, violent ennui–a byproduct, he made clear, of his societyâ€™s blind pursuit of affluence and socially engineered conformity. That point is underscored by a picture of Lee Kwan Yew glowering Big Brother-like over the wrangling family.
â€œLizard,â€ directed by Nicolas Pichay, had one vignette too many, but given its roots, it was a play that spoke truth to power with both directness and subtlety.
Playwright Debbie Ann Tan took the opposite tack with â€œTeroristang Labandera,â€ a hectic send-up of a Chinoy familyâ€™s materialist obsessions and the canny washerwoman who incinerates, literally, their parvenu fixations. Directing this comedy of errors was visiting Japanese artist Toshihisa Yoshida, who brought an over-the-top giddiness to the already overheated farce. It was hilarious for a while, but exhausting in the end.
In â€œBagahe,â€ J. Dennis Teodosio sketched, in spare but pregnant language, the frictions between a son settled in America and his mother who yearned to go home. This quiet play of unspoken hurts and questions, directed by Rito Asilo, avoided melodrama and had a moving ending, but much of it suffered from rather stiff acting and hardly audible dialogue. What could have been a compelling chamber piece simply flatlined in places with the severely low-key tone.
Families in extremis also defined Lani Montrealâ€™s well-acted if unpolished story of immigrant alienation, â€œLooking for Darna,â€ directed by Khryss Adalia; Argel Tuasonâ€™s gritty â€œKuyom,â€ directed by John Abul, about streetwalkers caught up in tenuous relationshipsâ€”an unfortunate mess due to a ragged, underwritten script; Job Pagsibiganâ€™s taut, effective psycho-drama â€œMay Bumubulong,â€ directed by Christian Bautista (not the singer) as part of an independently produced trilogy for the Labfest; and George Vail Kabristanteâ€™s â€œMy Padir Is an OCW,â€ directed by Issa Lopez.
The last play, a roaring, color-saturated comedy that took on the tincture of Greek tragedy in its later scenes, evoked a genuine frisson of sleaze and danger in its depiction of third-rate bars and their marginal inhabitants. Though it could stand tightening, Kabristanteâ€™s burlesque featured some of the Labfestâ€™s most engaging acting, courtesy of Ricky Riveroâ€™s flaming transvestite and, especially, Rommel Benedictoâ€™s turn as his conflicted son.
In â€œEllas Inocentes,â€ family stayed in the background, but its pernicious claws remained front and center as two girls traded trivial stories that, little by little, revealed the abusive circumstances they were in.
With the slow accretion of horrifying details, culminating in the girls innocently play-acting their parentsâ€™ perverse lives, â€œEllas Inocentesâ€ acquired a mesmerizing power. The accomplished writing (by Layeta Bucoy), directing (by Tuxqs Rutaquio) and acting (by Lovely Balili and Ness Roque) stamped this play as the Labfestâ€™s best entry.
Two other plays could compete for that honor, give or take a few points. Niel de Mesaâ€™s childrenâ€™s play, â€œMga Obra ni Maestra,â€ which he also directed, was a terrific blend of sassy theater and video and animÃ© elements–a way forward, if you will, for a new generation of audiences weaned on MTV and Japanese manga.
This fully realized concoction of outrageous costumes, earnest dialogue and wide-ranging imagination engaged the senses from beginning to end, with 10-year-old Abbey Gonzalez stealing the show with her precocious self-assurance.
At the polar end of â€œMga Obra ni Maestraâ€ was Japanese playwright Yoji Sakateâ€™s Noh play â€œThree Sisters,â€ about shell-shocked soldiers returning from a war and encountering actors rehearsing a play in a devastated town.
A kind of elegiac fugue on the civilizing power of art over barbarity, Sakateâ€™s dream-like work found a great ally in JosÃ© Estrella, who, with atmospheric direction and the intense acting of her cast led by Mailes Kanapi, created a theatrical piece of sweeping emotional liberation dipped in autumnal colors.
The third non-Filipino play, â€œHe-Me-She-It,â€ by Thai writer Narumol Thammapruksa, also dealt with the themes of escape and freedom, but its allusive voice and frankly meager writing barely came to life, despite Jaime del Mundoâ€™s visually faultless direction.
A similar lack of depth and tension plagued Oggie Arcenasâ€™ â€œSeance,â€ a yarn about an upstart writer and a shady clairvoyant that, as directed by Erick Castro, had its finger on the funny bone and nowhere else.
Arlo de Guzmanâ€™s â€œThree Unsent Letters,â€ meanwhile, panted with the most purple lines, viz: â€œYou are my greatest achievement, which makes you my greatest failure as well.â€ And, â€œYou shouldnâ€™t have made me love you.â€ â€œI didnâ€™t make you love me; I was just being me.â€
This soggy epistolary play, directed by Vera himself, featured a sensational scene of two actors writhing buck naked in a tub. The ensuing proceedings, alas, couldnâ€™t generate half the same heat.
The two other childrenâ€™s plays aside from â€œMga Obra ni Maestra,â€ Rene Villanuevaâ€™s â€œBertdey ni Guidoâ€ (directed by George de Jesus III), and James Cansanayâ€™s â€œKung Pwede Sanang Ipagpalit ang Tatayâ€ (directed by Catherine Racsag), both employed winning whimsical devices to reel in their hyperactive audiences.
Racsagâ€™s use of shadow play in Cansanayâ€™s plain-spoken work–about kids coming to terms with their parentsâ€™ stern love–was ingenious, giving the play added punch. De Jesus III used bouncy music with the same skill in â€œBertdey ni Guido,â€ allowing for extensive audience participation in a story that had no less than the Edsa Revolution as backdrop.
Teodosioâ€™s second Labfest entry, â€œPobreng Alindahaw,â€ directed by Delfin Ilao, also took on the trappings of childrenâ€™s theater with its animal characters, scrappy costumes and allegorical narrative.
But while it had grown-up things to say about identity and going for oneâ€™s dreams, it also ended up too talky for its own good. Among the actors, Christian Faustino worked the hardest–and funniest–to keep the flab at least interesting.
None of the preceding 17 plays, as you might have noticed, dealt with socio-political issues, overt or otherwise. In this yearâ€™s Labfest, only one did–Rogelio Bragaâ€™s â€œSa Pagdating ng Barbaro,â€ directed by Nick Olanka.
Here, an embittered man would travel to a remote hamlet in Mindanao in search of a college friend, and a means to kill himself. From this somber premise, Braga enlarged his canvas to lay bare the psychosis of a town permanently traumatized by war. Every time a nearby bullet factory tested its products, the townsfolk turned glassy eyed, robotic–zombie-fied by the unending military conflict around them.
Provocative and disturbing, with a clever twist for an ending, â€œSa Pagdating ng Barbaroâ€ was a modest but successfully realized attempt to examine issues far larger than individual relationships, family dysfunction or workplace angst.
Given the tenor of the times, fearlessness of this kind–topical yet freshly imagined–deserves a stronger shot from our new crop of playwrights. Perhaps in next yearâ€™s Labfest?