Philippine theater

REVIEW: Shorts and Briefs’ ‘Ang Tigas ng Ulo Mo,’ ‘Bakit Bata,’ ‘Homecoming,’ ‘Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe’

Lé Baltar

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REVIEW: Shorts and Briefs’ ‘Ang Tigas ng Ulo Mo,’ ‘Bakit Bata,’ ‘Homecoming,’ ‘Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe’
'Each play is a delight, precisely because of how cleverly each writer and director toys with the image of the deceased'

Death is the central subject that threads the last half of this year’s Shorts and Briefs theater festival, organized by Eksena PH. Each play is a delight, precisely because of how cleverly each writer and director toys with the image of the deceased. Death as a form of reconnection, as stagnancy, or as a force of evil. A dead father is suddenly resurrected. Two ghosts find themselves at the crossroads of letting go and moving forward. A father and his son are forced to tear open fresh wounds. A wife takes revenge.

And despite their imperfections individually, these four plays succeed in creating a whole that is at once surprising, tricky, and sheer fun. If this is any indication of what local theater is going to be, then we’re in for a promising track. 

Here is a closer look at each piece.

Ang Tigas ng Ulo Mo (written by Julay Elloso, Frank Lyod, and Paulo Amaden, directed by Paulo Almaden)

Ang Tigas ng Ulo Mo asserts its comedy from the get-go. The script — written by Julay Elloso, Frank Lyod, and Paulo Amaden — sees three siblings, born to three different mothers, in an uncanny encounter with their deceased father, who suddenly gets resurrected. 

Much of the characterization of the brothers (and even the humor of the piece itself) plays with many stereotypes: the image of the baklang maton (muscular gay), a drunkard, and a self-righteous eldest sibling. And the trio of Deo Briones, Nan Traviña, and Tomi Gimenez makes this treatment work, often relying on physical comedy to drive home their characters’ motivations and turning each scene into a riot.

That is, until the narrative begins to sound a little preachy and the jokes too forced (for instance, when the patriarch says, “I love you, sons of bitches!”). Lilit Reyes, as the father, also delivers quite monotonous acting. So when the staging loses its steam, especially in such a brief runtime, it becomes hard to take any more interest in the direction it tries to pursue.

Bakit Bata (written by Wilfredo Alipala, directed by Earl Justin Lipana)

Wilfredo Alipala’s Bakit Bata crafts a version of purgatory as a train terminal, where two young, lost souls are stuck, and where the ticket to the promise of an afterlife rests on accomplishing a critical task: each of them must scare three children, apparently the sole beings who can see ghosts. 

What is commendable in the staging is that it doesn’t take its premise all too seriously, thanks in large part to the hilarity of the tandem of Ado Villanueva and Arel Luzong, especially in moments when they begin to reenact their past lives, made more dramatic and entertaining by the lighting design, as well as Earl Justin Lipana’s direction. 

Villanueva and Luzong, apart from being funny, also seem so effortless in the way they peel away the conditions that shape their characters. This is also where the play finds its narrative texture, as it tackles issues concerning mental health and human rights (in one scene, a voiceover of ex-president Rodrigo Duterte’s chilling military command can be heard). And the play knows better than to make these things look trivial or resort to cheap emotion. It actually handles its commentary pretty well. 

Bakit Bata, above anything else, is a story of our troubled present, about the ghosts alive at every turn – social and material ghosts that are far more haunting and dangerous.

Homecoming (written by Dino Quintana, directed by Ciriaco Jan Clarion)

As a story about connection and reconnection, Dino Quintana’s Homecoming fares better when compared to Ang Tigas ng Ulo Mo. Quintana’s writing uproots the lived experiences of Filipino migrant workers through the character of Sol (Lila Silvestre), who carefully preps the balikbayan box that she’s bringing to her family; little does she know that only the box would make it back home. 

And the play opens with this weight of grief that Sol’s husband (Rome Juanatas) and only son (Jason Viadnes) must face. Now, the unboxing process also means unpacking all the baggage they (refuse to) carry, all the emotions they try to bottle up. This is best illustrated in their struggle to come up with a decision: to open the box, leave it be, or throw it away altogether. And despite some overlaps in the dialogue, the performances of Juanatas and Viadnes capture this push-and-pull feeling with so much heart, often attuned to the contained tension of their characters.

What is more impressive in the staging is how it experiments with temporal space, as brilliantly demonstrated by director Ciriaco Jan Clarion in a scene where Sol loads the balikbayan box, while her husband and son simultaneously empty it, as though they’re in shared space. It’s such a fitting image that one cannot help but think not only about the enormity of this grief, but also how this reality speaks to thousands of Filipinos abroad; that this isn’t really new, but devastating all the same. So when Homecoming arrives at the endnote, it’s difficult not to appreciate its earnestness.

Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe (written by Tim Rone Villanueva, directed by Naye Hedriana)

There’s no denying that the perfect way to close this year’s Shorts and Briefs is through Tim Rone Villanueva’s Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe — the most innovative and satisfying work in the entire festival.

The story is deceptively simple. Flor (Shannaiah Cabunagan) thoughtfully prepares all the favorite dishes of her husband Zito (Edward Solon) in time for their anniversary, only to find out that the latter no longer appreciates her cooking. Zito argues that he’s now eating healthy, so he prefers the dishes served by Hilda, their neighbor who runs a carinderia.

Aside from its clever wordplay and political humor, which really pay off, what makes this dark comedy difficult to look away from is the towering presence of Cabunagan, who anchors the entire staging. It’s particularly astonishing how she shifts from one tone to the next with such ease: from sincere, to frantic, to hilarious, to effectively chilling. Even just the way her face reacts to every line already says so much about her character. It’s hard to believe that this is her first time doing this.

And Villanueva’s plotting, elevated by the sharpness of director Naye Hedriana, really sticks because it builds and builds with relentless anticipation, eventually peaking in the show’s most rewarding moment, where Cabunagan, blanketed by a piercing red light, laughs and laughs maniacally, while holding Hilda’s mutilated hand and repeatedly calling her husband baboy (a pig).

Mga Nakasusuyang Putahe does all this within 10 minutes, which only proves how clearly it understands the beauty and possibilities of not only the form but theater at large. –

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