Saturday, March 23, 2019

Review of Tanghalang Ateneo's ALPHA KAPPA OMEGA: Baneful Brotherhood

March 24, 2019

In 1982, there was a bold groundbreaking film by director Mike de Leon entitled "Batch 81" which used the violence of college fraternies as social commentary against Martial Law. An award-winning classic as it was hailed, I had never seen the film. I did know about the late actor Mark Gil playing an frat neophyte named Sid Lucero (a character name which would later become the screen name of Gil's son Timothy when he became an actor). 

This year, with the tense political and social turmoil of Martial Law seemingly coming back, prolific playwright Guelan Luarca, son of Ward Luarca (who played Pacoy in the film) thought it was time to bring the story of "Batch 81" back as well. Luarca adapted the original screenplay written by Clodualdo del Mundo, Raquel Villavicencio and Mike de Leon into a script that brings Sid Lucero's story into the present time, this time on a theater stage. Luarca himself directed this new play, assisted by Tara Jamora Oppen

John Sanchez as Sid Lucero
(photo from TA by Aga Olympia)

There were six neophytes that year for the Alpha Kappa Omega fraternity. These were pre-med student Sid Lucero, scholar athlete Arni Enriquez, rich kid Ronnie Roxas Jr., provinci bumpkin Ding Magtibay, mama's boy Pacoy Ledesma and economics professor Santi Santillan. Their ruthless frat masters were led by Vince and Gonzales, who hazed the plebes in secret and made fools of them in public, all the in the name of losing their sense of ego for the sake of brotherhood.

Sid had to join the frat behind the back of his girlfriend Mariel, who hated frats because of a family tragedy. Arni's girlfriend Tina was a drug-addict, who just so happened to be the sister of Abet, the head master of a rival frat, the SOS. Ronnie was forced to live under the shadow of his father, who was an illustrious alumnus of the AKO. Pacoy wanted to prove his manhood after years of hiding under his mother's skirts. 45 year old Santi was bored with his life and wanted this thrill to quench his midlife crisis. 

Act 1 opened with a bang, showing us the known frat hazing practices, like the paddling, the bullying, the shaming and being made to run around campus in their underwear, all within the first 30 minutes. Later, more mind-boggling rites were shown. The neophytes would drink and spit beer into the the same cup being passed around, or be interrogated while a fellow neophyte was being electrocuted for wrong answers.

Cholo Ledesma and Chesca de la Cruz
as Pacoy Ledesma and Susan Estrada
(photo from TA, by Waldo Katigbak)

Act 2 would open happily with a comical drag show (rather protracted in my view) with the neophytes all dressed like beauty queens from gowns to bikinis, each one mouthing one classic Miss Universe question and answer after the other. However, the story would soon quickly take a most violent and tragic turn as the grim inevitability of gang wars entered the picture, and young lives were needlessly sacrificed. 

Biology major John Sanchez gave his seriouly intense Sid Lucero a scary vibe of fanaticism. Cholo Ledesma (who was impressive in TA's "Rites of Passage" in 2014) was shamelessly delightful as Pacoy, who boldly figured in the play's most embarrassng scenes. (Jose Primo Rafael Escurel alternates as Pacoy.) Veteran theater actor Ron Capinding was the most senior member of the cast and his portrayal of Santi Santillan was the most fleshed out. (Soc de los Reyes alternates as Santi.) The most memorable female performers were Chrisse Joy de los Santos (as the witty powertripping sorority girl Pearl) and Franchesca de la Cruz (as the hilarious prosititute Susan).

One of the best-written scenes in the play was the conversation between a remorseful Santi and their dean, the unfortunately named Miss Casuso, as played with jaded wisdom by Katski Flores. (Was Ms. Flores late for Act 1 today? The role of Ms. Casuso was played by an ensemble member who was reading and stumbling off the script on a clipboard.) Olive Nieto gave a marked performance in her single scene as Mrs. Enriquez, Arni's mother. (Meryll Soriano alternates as Mrs. Enriquez.) Jonel Mojica was imposing as Ronnie's father, based on his stage presence alone, with the minimum of lines. 

Katski Flores and Ron Capinding
as Ms. Casuso and Santi Santillan
(photo from TA, by Aga Olympia)

The youth and relative inexperience of the actors were evident, but it did not detract too much from their earnest performances.  Earvin Estioco (as Arni), Nico Nepomuceno (as Ronnie), Ram Catan (as Ding), Aric Mamonluk (as Vince), Renzo Guevara (as Gonzales), Kyle Woody Tan (as Abet), Jam Binay (as Mariel) and Dani Capinding (as Tina) all made their particular characters stand out. Alternates include Carlos Hombrebueno (as Gonzales), Kin Ivan Umpad (as Abet), Maxine de Jesus (as Pearl), Rose Clarence Co (as Mariel) and Renee Colleen (as Tina). 

The combined efforts of Nicolo Magno (choreography), D Cortezano (lighting design) and Xander Soriano (sound design) effectively created the frenetic illusion of the hazing and frat wars for the stage. Monica Sebial's stage design afforded the big cast enough space to move around, making use of every space available up front, even including the audience area in certain parts. 

Interestingly, the Ateneo does not have fraternities on campus. So Luarca and his dramaturg Brian Arda had to consult real frat members outside in order to recreate an authentic and realistic portrayal of the local frat subculture.  Aside from political commentary, Luarca also took shots against current sexist controversies within the Ateneo. It was not only a story about the young men, but also about the community around them who motivated and enabled them to behave the way they do. 

Writer-Director Guelan Luarca and the cast face the press after the show.


ALPHA KAPPA OMEGA opened last March 20 and will run up to April 13, 2019. Showtimes are as follows: March 20-23, 26-30, April 2-6, 9-13 | 7:30 pm, and matinees on March 23, 30, April 6, 13 at 2:30 pm. Tickets are sold at P400 (Regular), P350 (ADMU Student) and P300 (ADMU Scholar). Venue will be at the Rizal Mini Theater, Faber Hall, Ateneo de Manila University.

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