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A return to live theater and stories about life

TANGHALANG Huseng Batute at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) opened its doors to the public for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit for the first weekend of live performances for the 17th Virgin Labfest (VLF): Hinga, the theater festival of untried, untested, and unstaged plays.

This writer bought early bird tickets for Sets A and B — the one-act plays are grouped in sets of three — for that weekend, June 16 to 19.

SET A: LIFE IS FULL OF SURPRISES

Mga Balo

Written by Ma. Cecilia De La Rosa, and directed by Adrienne Vergara

Before the show, actor Alon Segarra, playing a writer, roams around the stage, seemingly frustrated, while trying to get work done. Techno music and an all-white set suggest a Black Mirror episode. When the show officially starts, the audience learns that the writer has been awake for 35 hours and is thinking hard about the future of the play she is writing. She then seeks the help of the main characters — two widows (played by Pau Benitez and Skyzx Labastilla) whose husbands were victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs).

Portable white boxes on the set were used very well — for sound effects when banged to suggest the sound of chaos and gunshots, and, when moved, to clearly set the change of location, from a bedroom to a morgue, the exterior of a neighborhood, and a cemetery.

Mga Balo tackles a writer confronted with who she is writing her play for and why. She worries that stories on EJKs have been told numerous times and is concerned about how to make her play unique. Even if there are many similar stories, it remains a relevant story as many of the victims’ names remain unknown.

Bituing Marikit

Written by Bibeth Orteza, and directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna

Allan’s second wife, Carmela is dead. He wheels her body into the morgue singing “Bituing Marikit” by National Artist for Music Nicanor Abelardo. Her stepsons Peping, and Butching arrive from Manila, while Bok arrives from Dubai. Something about their stepmother is revealed.

The story is short and simple, and presented very Filipino behavior towards maintaining a family’s image in the neighborhood. The cast singing the kundiman “Bituing Marikit” fits the message of the play. It does not need much time to show the importance of acceptance, love for family, and the need to disregard other people’s opinions.

Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito

Written by Eljay Castro Deldoc, and directed by J. William Herbert Sigmund Go and Tess Jamias

During the intermission between plays, a paper printed with facts about millipedes was distributed to the audience. Music featuring the sounds of nature played and actors walked around the stage in nicely tailored skin-tone costumes, doing vocal warmups before the show transformed the stage of Tanghalang Huseng Batute into a forest.

Hija (played by Claudia Enriquez), a scientist, is working on her thesis on the behavior of millipedes for her higher education studies. While doing her research and field work, she encounters sexual abuse and victim-blaming from people in positions of power.

The play is able to discuss a serious topic in a light tone. The playwright successfully juxtaposes Hija’s decisions and behavior with how a millipede thrives in its environment.

As the title of the play says, there is nothing new about abuse of power and victimization. But still, each story waiting to be told is a testament to how these transgressions continue unpunished in our society.

SET B: LIFE IS STRANGE FICTION

Liberation

Written by Jerry O’Hara, and directed by Dennis Marasigan

An old lady in a wheelchair appears at the opening scene, exclaiming how sweet it is to hear the word, “Liberation.” Then the scene changes to her memory of the Second World War. In 1945, three Japanese soldiers find themselves in Manila as the Americans enter the city. In the face of death, one soldier goes on a rampage, one holds on what is left of his humanity by sparing the life of a Filipino child, and the other continues to follow orders blindly.

The dialogue between the three Japanese soldiers allows the audience to understand how conflicted they are between fulfilling their duty — they have been ordered to kill innocent civilians — versus taking the high moral ground despite the fact that this is insubordination. The play has a slow exposition and only picks up when the child enters the story. The actors are superb, they carry the dramatic tone of the story and keep the audience attentive.

At the end we learn that the survivor in the story may have been liberated during the war, but the memories of the dark period continue to haunt her. Those who have lived through a dark period such as the Second World War are testaments to our country’s history, which at present is continuously challenged with distortion.

Absurdo Events Day

Written by BJ Crisostomo, and directed by Mara Agleham

Aly and Rain (played by Thea Marabut and Io Balanon) are event coordinators of an End of the World Party. While the rest of the crowd is enjoying their final minutes on earth, the co-workers almost collapse from exhaustion.

It is easy to relate to the play’s example of toxic grind culture. Best friends, Aly and Rain get time alone backstage and reflect on the sacrifices they made for work: time they could have spent with their family and for themselves, rendering overtime at the expense of their physical and mental health. Both characters eventually come to terms with the value of their work, as the world comes to an end.

The play was funny from start to finish, as it also leaves the audience pondering over what matters more to them in a capitalistic society.

Nay May Dala Akong Pansit

Written by Juan Ekis, and directed by Karl Alexis Jingco

The final story in the set is a comedy that plays around the soap opera trope of a protagonist coming home with pansit (a noodle dish) only to find out that someone in the family has died.

The protagonists find that they are trapped in a metaphysical loop of a soap opera, repeating the same scenario over and over again in an attempt to stop their mother’s death.

The actors — Lian Silverio as Kuya, Manok Nellas-Bagadiong as Bunso, Mia Bolaños as Nanay, and Tommy Alejandrino as Tindero — were a delight to watch. The audience gets tired along with the actors as they repeat the scenes and root for them to succeed. The play is so laugh-out-loud funny that I lost count of the scene repetition. Aside from different endings, the scene was acted out in the style of different genres such as horror and a musical, yet still maintained the comedy. It also included a bit of audience interaction and improvisation which made it more enjoyable.

THEATER IS BACKI am glad that the theater is finally back live. It felt good to see familiar faces and enjoy the energy of a live audience again after two years. The festival remains entertaining as it tackles relevant stories. Every play manages to start a discourse, on the elements of the staging, the themes and issues presented in each play.

While I understand that the organizers of the festival decided to show just one set a day to avoid overcrowding (the pandemic is still, after all, ongoing), it was challenging as a viewer to have to travel back and forth to the Cultural Center for four days to watch each set live. So, I settled for seeing two sets live. I will be watching Sets C and D online.

The 17th Virgin Labfest (VLF) runs until June 26 at the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute. The 12 featured plays are divided into four sets with performances scheduled at 2 and 7 p.m. The festival’s plays will also be screened online from June 30 to July 10 at ticket2me.net. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/thevirginlabfest. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman

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