By Teresa Naval
I saw my first and final sets of plays on two separate stormy afternoons—a fitting backdrop for the 12th Virgin Labfest’s theme, Binyag (Baptism). The theater festival showcases one-act plays stripped down to their core, as well as site-specific performances, film screenings (of plays translated into films), and staged readings. You won’t find life-size helicopters or flying monkeys over the course of five acts here. Instead, you have a small, intimate space close enough for you to cross over into the many different inner worlds of the plays for at least a few hours.
The featured works explore universal themes: love, friendship, wanting, reducing them to their kernel. A conversation between brother and sister, a quest to build a kite, a family dinner gone wrong. Below, we provide a quick glimpse into the heart of each play.
Dahan-Dahan Ang Paglubog Ng Araw (Jose Socrates delos Reyes, dir. Adolf Alix)
Upon entering the Tanghalang Huseng Batute, the stage is already set—an empty wheelchair, a table set for two. Dahan-Dahan Ang Paglubog Ng Araw is a play about a father battling cancer (we’re never told what kind, perhaps that’s the point) but it is also a statement on the generational gap and lack of communication, and the challenge of fulfilling familial roles. Chronic illness is taboo at the dinner table, so is money. Joseph struggles with both, as a former college professor who is both sick and broke. He keeps his daughter Maya out of the loop until it’s too late. We don’t know who Maya is outside her role as daughter and reluctant caretaker, and even at the end, we’re left guessing.
Ang Sugilanon Ng Kabiguan Ni Epefania (Alexandra May Cardoso, dir. Charles Yee), adapted from Ian Rosales Casocot’s The Sugilanon of Epefania’s Heartbreak
Myth and drunk storytelling transport us into a universe created by two different heartbreaks: Pedring’s, whose recent breakup inspires him to drink the night away, and Epefania’s, whose hyperbolic quest almost ushers in the end of the world.
The story-within-a-story framework can sometimes be trite, but not here. As the night grows darker and darker, and his companions grow louder and louder, Pedring is pulled deeper and deeper into Epefania’s mission to win Bangbangin’s heart, and so are we. Pedring and his drinking buddies enter Epefania’s story-world as gusts of wind or leaves, and watch intently as Epefania first meets Bangbangin. By the end, Pedring is so immersed into the tale that his companions laugh harder at him when they tell him it’s just a story.
Epefania is easily one of my favorites. It’s funny, meticulously directed, and has such distinct self-contained logic.
Si Jaya, Si Ronda, Si Barbra At Ang Mahiwagang Kanta (Oggie Arcenas, dir. Roobak Valle)
The premise is simple: three middle-aged best friends spend a night singing videoke, AKA Titas of Manila: The Play. Things get messy when a videoke token that has the power to grant any wish is added into the fray. Barbra the spirit conjurer wants love, Ronda the OFW wants her father to accept her and her partner, and trophy wife Jaya wants freedom from her husband, a powerful politico.
All three comfortably exchange quips and witty banter (non-verbatim, but a highlight definitely is “What do you think I am, a sex-starved matrona? Excuse you, hindi pa ako matrona!”). The play ends on a cheesy note, but it works. After all, how often do we get a body of work that celebrates female friendship? Brb, just gonna call my friends (the future Titas of Manila) and schedule a karaoke date.
Bahay-Bahayan Tagu-Taguan (Herlyn Alegre, dir. Ricardo Magno)
Drawing inspiration from refugee crises around the globe, Bahay-Bahayan Tagu-Taguan paints a picture of a country torn by war and a group of people marked by survival. The play is almost allegorical in nature, which is perhaps its best aspect and biggest downfall. Its setting makes it universal—a general overview of the millions of people struggling to define where “to” and “from” are—but without specific places or events to ground it, the plight of Eben, Fatima and her son Sami, and Dan has the tendency to grow very distant.
Ang Bata Sa Drum (Dominique La Victoria, dir. Dudz Terana)
A boy placed inside a drum as punishment sounds like the start of an absurdist tale (Nell and Nagg trapped in dustbins in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, for example), but the play is a straight drama anchored on being old enough to understand that the world is not a nice place, but too young to make sense of guilt and confusion.
Two siblings spend an afternoon talking about their drunk father, their absentee mother, spider-fighting, and chickens until the older sister reveals their mother might bring her to the city for good. We never see the younger brother, a decision that pays off thanks to the two actors’ command of space and tone. The play is a poignant letter to childhood, as much as it is a genuinely moving piece of theater. While there are layers of metaphor to unpack, Ang Bata sa Drum never loses its heart. It coils around the ribcage and lingers. Definitely the highlight of the festival.
Loyalist (Kanakan Balintagos, dir. Law Fajardo)
Imelda Marcos returns to the inang bayan. A mother is overjoyed. Her son, an artist-activist, is not. Both confront their political differences. There are jokes about marijuana, stories about Martial Law torture methods. Although it is set in the ’90s, the play is still incredibly relevant. How do you talk to family about politics? How do you fight against something despite having benefited from it? The play does not decide which side is right and which is wrong—that’s not its job. Loyalist does not preach, but instead shows that the answers aren’t as clear-cut as we’d like them to be—particularly if family is involved.
Ang Mga Bisita Ni Jean (Ma. Cecilia dela Rosa, dir. Ariel Yonzon)
Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean is a character study that humanizes members of the communist movement. It looks at Jean’s sources of grief: leaving the movement, marrying Brad, letting the One that Got Away go away for good. Jean is a love story through and through—from falling in love with people and causes, to falling out of love, to all the regrets and maybes and should have beens in between. Some of its purposeful directorial choices are striking, such as Ted with his back to the wall, challenging us to think about the persistence of memory.
Bait (Guelan Luarca, dir. Maria Paulina Marasigan)
A Christian boy defiles a Koran. A Muslim boy pushes him from the third floor. A reading teacher preaches about forgiveness. The themes explored in Bait can be hard to swallow in 40-odd minutes: hatred, religion, and (the lack of) empathy, but it is a gripping play. And a timely one, too. Bait is not the perfect play, but we need more like it, more works of art that force us to examine what makes society uncomfortable (the teacher asks the father if his family is full of extremists) and why.
Mula Sa Kulimliman (Carlo Vergara, dir. Hazel Gutierrez)
Graphic novelist Carlo Vergara (of Zsazsa Zaturnnah fame) returns to the stage with another comic-inspired play after ‘Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.’ ‘Mula sa Kulimliman’ tells the story of a housewife who discovers the truth about her husband (and her comic book-loving son). Hilarity ensues. Plus, there are glowing swords! Shadow play adds depth to the story and emphasizes Vergara’s roots as a graphic novelist. The script is razor-sharp, and the actors have fantastic comedic timing. A must-watch.
Marte (Eliza Victoria, dir. George de Jesus)
Science fiction is a genre that rarely gets featured in theater, but speculative fiction author Eliza Victoria is unafraid to make that jump. The titular Mars is full of chrome and rust, and is home to factories that produce robots and other gizmos. Tina and Lorie work in one such factory, and their story as a new breed of OFWs is what tethers the play to the familiar.
Despite humanity’s colonization of a new planet (and perhaps the rest of the solar system), problems have not changed: politicians are power-hungry, minimum-wage earners have little social mobility, relatives back home have little grasp of the realities of being Overseas Filipino Workers.
Daddy’s Girl (Ricardo Novenario, Nicolas Pichay)
Perhaps the most abstract work in the festival, Daddy’s Girl is a two-person examination of soul mates and sexual taboo, childhood trauma, guilt, and the relationship between a father and his daughter.
There is a lot to tackle here, but the play balances serious, sometimes uncomfortable discussion with references to pop culture (watch out for that Titanic scene!). Daddy’s Girl is an interesting play to study, from its mythological allusions to its multiple uses of sets and props (the bench becoming a boat, the ice cream becoming a hat).
Hapagkainan (Rick Patriaca, dir. Chris Martinez)
If you thought your family dinners were bad, wait ’til you enter this household. Hapagkainan is a loud, powerful piece of satire that explores many contemporary issues, from teen pregnancy to LGBT+ rights to society’s clashing definition of “progressive” principles (at one point, the father shouts: “I’m progressive! I am pro-death penalty!”).
The play highlights the desperation of a Filipino middle-class household to appear picture-perfect, even if it means they need to air each other’s dirty laundry over dinner. Also, “Kukunin ko lang ang ice cream sa ref” is one of the festival’s most memorable lines.
Set E (Revisited plays from last year’s Labfest)
Si Maria Isabella At Ang Guryon Ng Mga Tala (Eljay Casto Deldoc, dir. Ed Lacson, Jr.), adapted from Dean Francis Alfar’s The Kite of Stars
Maria Isabella falls in love with a boy who only looks at the sky. With the help of a young butcher boy, she embarks on a journey to build a giant kite that will bring her to the stars. The play takes a cue from communal storytelling, using multiple narrators, music, and the magic of shadow puppetry and lights (an underwater scene is particularly ethereal).
Maria Isabella wastes 60 years of her life looking for love—and so does the butcher boy. Maria Isabella is a melodic piece of theater, from the musical arrangement to the fluidity of movement on stage. It’s arresting visually as it is emotionally.
Hintayan Ng Langit (Juan Miguel Severo, dir. Raffy Tejada)
Lisang is stuck in a room waiting for her chance to go to heaven. Manolo, a man from her past, has just arrived. Both carry baggage. Both try to unpack a lifetime’s worth of pain and could have beens and almosts. Hintayan ng Langit discusses the way things go, and offers two people a second chance at a happy life together. Playwright Severo tempers his trademark hugot with pointed humor (“’Di pa nga judgment day pero jinu-judge mo na ako,” Lisang huffs at, quite literally, her guardian angel). The play is cathartic, and a welcome respite for old souls and young lovers alike.
Dalawang Gabi (Maynard Manansala, dir. Jade Castro)
A professor confesses her love to her former student. Years later, the student realizes that he feels the same. Dalawang Gabi discusses the pressures of growing old (and growing alone) and keeping up appearances. Effortlessly switching between melodrama and comedy, the play is a no-frills take on finding the right love at the wrong time (cue song, cue curtain).
The 12th Virgin Labfest: Binyag runs at the Cultural Center of the Philippines until July 17. Videos and photos from PelikuLove and the Virgin Labfest Facebook pages. Banner photo from the Philippine Daily Inquirer