Philippine theater

REVIEW: Shorts and Briefs’ ‘Save the Coffee Jelly,’ ’11:11,’ ‘Latency,’ ‘Grief Registry’

Lé Baltar

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REVIEW: Shorts and Briefs’ ‘Save the Coffee Jelly,’ ’11:11,’ ‘Latency,’ ‘Grief Registry’

Photos from Eksena PH Facebook

'The first four works in this year’s Shorts and Briefs find common ground in illustrating grief'

Spoilers ahead.

Creative outlets that specifically hold and provide more opportunity for upcoming artists and creators enrich, in many cases, the way we assess art — one that does not only point out what’s good and bad but, more importantly, discern the differences in the birthing process, artistic decisions, funding, and even the very space in which the art is presented.

This is the impulse that informs the creation of Eksena PH’s Shorts and Briefs, an independent theater festival dedicated to first-time, inexperienced playwrights and performers. This year, the festival returns for its ninth edition, following its two-year hiatus because of the pandemic.

The show is made up of eight plays, each mostly running for around 10-12 minutes.

Programmed this way, the festival implores audience members and critics alike to see each staging not only in isolation but through the bigger picture that these individual parts generate. How does each work elevate or make up for the gaps of one another? What tone and nuance emerge from this particular curation, and how does it inform the overall viewing experience? 

Following this line of thinking, the first four works in this year’s Shorts and Briefs find common ground in illustrating grief arising from various provenances: from climate change, to the death of a significant other, to navigating hardened life under lockdown, to outgrowing a once-promising relationship.

Often hilarious and introspective, what connects these plays, assembled by festival director Karl Alexis Jingco, further is how they open up discussions about our ever-worrying present and potential futures, and how we make sense of many crises, from the most personal and intimate, down to larger, collective struggles. This, despite some shortcomings in form and execution.

Save the Coffee Jelly (written by Ejay Villafania, directed by Cyril Cruz Balderama)

Like the title warrants, Ejay Villafania’s Save the Coffee Jelly sounds and seems quite absurd. It finds a group of conyo friends gathering at a café to talk about the supposed extinction of coffee, to which they all share a deep connection with. 

Whatever works in the play is because it physicalizes its comedy and, by extension, the grief that consumes its characters, allowing the small ensemble (played by Jamie Alabin, Stephen Dusaban Jr., Jhon Rex Benico, and Risah Salazar) to really go over the top and cast bigger movements onstage, just as the conversation rolls into larger issues: how state leaders continue to sideline climate change and its ripple effects, how environmental campaigns led by capitalist corporations never really benefit the communities they are meant to help, and how they wear activism like a badge, solely to gain more income. 

When juxtaposed against the rest of the plays in the first half, there isn’t much arresting about Save the Coffee Jelly. The actors, at times, also overpower each other. What the staging understands, though, is that its strength lies in the cleverness of its script, toying with the conyo humor and these bunch of privileged people and how they respond to matters that are much more urgent that they imagine it to be. It’s a work that knows its limitations, but still manages to make the most out of it.

11:11 (written by Billie Fuentes, directed by Alecx Lorica)

Much of the success of Billie Fuentes’s 11:11 hinges on the dynamic of its lead actors, Allen Amoguis and Miko Insame, who immediately captivate the audience as their characters meet-cute the moment the clock, on an uneventful day, strikes the titular time. This also pays off because of the intimacy that Makati-based Draper Startup House, the festival’s venue, affords the play, allowing the characters (including that of Isabelle Sophie’s) to unintentionally banter with audience members and create amazing rapport with them.

Knowing the duration limit, director Alecx Lorica also makes the right decision to condense timelines and blur temporal space through costume changes and music, depicting in the process the changes that the central characters undergo.

But there’s no denying that, after exhausting how the central romance will go about, 11:11 goes down quite a foreseeable, if not a copout-like, route. Yet, if one manages to get past this, one will be rewarded with a shattering image of grief and life caught in a standstill, evident in the desperation of Amoguis’ character to bargain with death and time; to share, even for a brief moment, another dance with the person he deeply loves. And Amoguis does a pretty great job throughout the staging, hilarious one moment but emotionally devastating the next.

Towards the end, 11:11 asserts a fairly simple message: to choose love not just for another person but also for ourselves, even if it feels like the most impossible thing to do. To still choose love despite, despite, despite.

Latency (written by Sean Macaraeg and Francis Peralta, directed by Eunice Pacifico)

Adapted from their previous work Online Class, Sean Macaraeg and Francis Peralta’s Latency centers on PJ (played remarkably by Don Joseph Budoso), a high school student burdened with the pressure of virtual learning at the height of the pandemic. Macaraeg and Peralta, in collaboration with director Eunice Pacifico, creates tension out of the seesaw condition that PJ finds himself in, balancing remote schooling with his responsibilities at home. There is a level of grief that the work asserts here in the way the central character is forced to confront the turbulent changes that he has been dealt with.

The challenges brought by pandemic education in the past three years have become a steady source of material onscreen and onstage. Latency discusses this frantic state by surfacing the mental health struggles that many students encounter, especially at times when military lockdowns and ludicrous state policies have been heightened.

All of this peaks in a scene when the lead character is relentlessly hounded by his overbearing sibling (Trent Joshua Asuncion) and strict teacher (Matthew Ordoñez) — a scene that is very much reflective of our country’s educational crisis and the inefficiency of our national healthcare services. And despite its convenient endnote, Latency stakes its thesis as clear as it can be.

Grief Registry (written by Aldrich Alcantara, directed by Jemuel Satumba) 

Out of the first four plays in the festival’s opening day, Grief Registry has the strongest material and execution. Aldrich Alcantara’s script sees a young couple opening gifts days after their marriage, until they come across a mysterious present.

Reminiscent of Raymund Barcelon’s O, much of the staging works because of the levity that the playwright provides the characters, and Loti Abad and Richard Aquino are just so good in their roles, knowing how to externalize the hopes and misgivings of their characters and, in the process, elevate their chemistry through their receptiveness and presence of mind onstage. This makes their clever exchanges seem so effortless.

Abad is particularly endearing. There’s just something so naturally funny in the way she delivers her lines and reacts to the nonchalance of Aquino’s character, especially in moments when the latter’s principles are placed into question.

However, the play’s treatment of the image of the sex worker to put its argument forward and come up with its conclusion feels a little too convenient. But one can appreciate how Grief Registry attempts to carve so many possibilities for women outside of married life — to afford them dignity and the right to shape their paths, outside of the dictates of patriarchy and its unrelenting demands. –

Shorts and Briefs 9’s closing show is on August 27 at Draper Startup House, Makati.

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