June 25, 2015
Last year was the first time I had watched the Virgin Labfest in its 10th edition. I watched some pretty thought-provoking one-act plays then, and I would really like to watch more this year. This festival is all about giving the playwrights an opportunity to showcase their newest unstaged works. This year's 12 entries were selected from 156 plays submitted, the best of the best.
The 12 selected plays were once again divided into four sets of three. For each ticket you buy, you get to watch three one-act plays staged in the intimate Tanghalang Huseng Batute. I can only watch on Thursday matinees given my work schedule. Tickets were selling out very early on given the popularity of this theater festival. I bought my tickets as early as a month ago, May 21.
For today, I caught Set B. As before, I watched these plays without knowing what they were about and who would be acting in them. It turns out this is the most in-demand ticket of this festival as all remaining time slots showing Set B are already sold out!
1. MACHO DANCER A MUSICAL
Written by: Nicolas Pichay
Directed by: Ralph Pena
I have a feeling this particular play is the reason why Set B is the most popular set of the Labfest. The title alone makes it stand out. First it is a musical. I'm not sure if there had been musicals in the Labfest before, but I think being a musical is a plus among Pinoy audiences. Second, the bold, controversial and very provocative topic of macho dancers stirs up a lot of curiosity and interest.
The noted tandem of Nicolas Pichay as playwright and Ralph Pena as director is a dream pairing. Pichay is well-known as a Palanca Award hall of famer for his plays and poetry. Pena's directing credentials are Stateside as he had directed off-Broadway projects, even winning an Obie for "The Romance of Magno Rubio." However, with this project, the earthy and sensual topic of the material by itself upstage their illustrious credentials.
Before the play began, some macho dancers already took to the stage grinding their hips to a sleazy Boyz II Men song. Probably everyone in the audience were trying so hard not to look at the dancers straight in the eye in discomfiture. After they made their exit, the Philippine flag was brought out onstage for the National Anthem. This elicited nervous laughter among the audience.
The play was about a group of macho dancers in a seedy joint called The Tutubi Club: the brash Bert (Jojo Riguerra), the hirsute Daks (Tarek el Tayech), the young Juicy (Alexis Yasuda) and their aging elder Kuya Rudy (Paolo O'Hara). Their former colleague Paul (Riki Benedicto), who had left the club a year ago for training for post modern ballet choreography, is called back to teach them new dance styles for a big show. However, their savings were depleted, their club is shutting down and their last sponsor backed out. How can the guys get through this very low moment in their lives?
Even though the storyline sounds serious, the treatment is lighthearted and humorous. The rhythmic songs have absurd lyrics about India and elephants, which do not really make much sense. Only the climactic hiphop style song by Kuya Rudy at the end had proper context in the story. The staging still looked rough. I do not know if this was just because it was their first show, or it was really done that way on purpose to immerse the audience into the sordid world where these characters lived. There is no clear closure in the ending, leaving this material open perhaps to be expanded further in the future.
The five main actors have excellent chemistry with each other, coming off as real good friends. I have only seen El Tayech in those elegant Dulaang UP productions of old British plays, so it is a surprise to see him looking as hefty and grungy like he does here. I have seen Riguerra before as a young gay boy's fantasy in "Maxie the Musical", so his role here is a bit down the same alley. Fair and clean-cut Yasuda had strong stage presence and comic timing. O'Hara came across like everyone's favorite elder brother. It was Benedicto though who really shone as a lowly macho dancer who got thrust into snooty high society dancing with less than happy results. His raw performance as Paul was very natural and effortless.
2. HULING HULI
Written by: Herlyn Alegre
Directed by: Lawrence Fajardo
The team of Herlyn Alegre and Lawrence Fajardo was also responsible for one of the standout plays of VL IX entitled "Imbisibol". This had recently been turned into an award-winning indie film, also directed by Fajardo. The controversial material of "Huling Huli" also has a lot of cinematic potential.
This play deals with how some womenfolk in a small fishing village on an isolated island make a living by selling sexual favors in exchange for fish. It is said to be based on the recently exposed practice in Kenya called "joyoba," where sex is used as currency. They never mentioned if this practice actually exists here in the Philippines or not.
Melanie is an elderly lady still very actively selling sex to fishermen to earn money. She also pimps out the other women in town, and she earns a hefty commission from this. Stressed-out and sickly, Teresa wants out of this type of life already. However, young virginal NingNing is getting tempted to give in to the lure of money. The nets they are working on clearly signify that these women are trapped in this unenviable situation.
Ms. Peewee O'Hara is so grandmotherly in looks you'd be shocked by the language her mouth spews out as Melanie. Too bad the first time she makes a sexual trade with a fisherman was done offstage. It would have been more shocking if done onstage. Angelina Kanapi looks so sick as Teresa. I thought her cough was for real as it sounded so real. Turns out to be amazing acting because this cough was gone by curtain call. Martha Comia gets another sexually-charged role like what she usually does for Dulaang UP. She has got that right mix of innocence and worldliness in her face and body for these types of roles.
3. ANG NANAY KONG EX-NPA
Written by: Genevieve Asenjo and Mario Mendez
Directed by: Rody Vera
The final play of Set B is the quietest and most intimate. If you think the title alone already suggests that this is one serious play which will tackle very serious issues, you'd think right. This play was adapted from a scene in "Lumbay ng Dila," an award-winning 2010 novel by Genevieve Asenjo .
Sadyah ran into her estranged mother Teresa in a mall. They go to Sadyah's posh condo unit to catch up on things. Sadyah is now a successful published poet. Teresa is a respected NGO worker now, but she used to be known as Kumander Rafflesia of the NPA in Central Panay. Their reunion started awkwardly with small talk. Later, this led to long-kept secrets being revealed and long-held bitterness being openly expressed.
This purely conversational play only depended on the skill of its actors to make the words come alive. There were still a little missed lines here and there, but this is only their first show so I am sure their delivery will get better. Kat Castillo plays Sadyah, but her character was mainly written to set-up the perfect acting showcase for Marichu Belarmino, who was positively luminous and riveting as Teresa.