Philippine theater

REVIEW: Tanghalang Ateneo misfires in season opener ‘Ardór’

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REVIEW: Tanghalang Ateneo misfires in season opener ‘Ardór’

TENSE. A scene from the play 'Ardor.'

Zoe Tababa

'It’s not that the play lacks the ability to imagine a world beyond; it’s because the one it chooses to imagine is far more dangerous that the present we are in'

Spoilers ahead.

Any staging entrusted with opening another theater season carries the burden of expectations and, at the same time, sets the tone for its successors. It’s a fiddly push and pull of things that can end up going down any route. In the case of Tanghalang Ateneo, now in its 45th year, it is Guelan Varela-Luarca’s dystopian play Ardór that takes on this Herculean task.

At the center of the story, set in an ambiguous future, is Z (Yani Lopez), an artist who finds a renewed sense of activism after reconnecting with her former lover, Astrid (Camille Banawa), who is still active in the movement and now in a relationship with guerrilla leader Luther (Kagi Umpad). Each of these characters represents various ideologies that eventually get challenged by Z’s cousin and so-called indigo child, Kali (Cholo Ledesma), whose proclivity for utter destruction sees himself leading an anarchistic crusade against all forces that hamper the struggle for national liberation.

It’s clear from the get-go that Ardór banks on open defiance, as the play opens with a protest, highlighting social issues that relentlessly impair the Philippines, from human rights abuses, to historical distortion, to the state’s inoperative pandemic response. 

Characters are often furious and frustrated, and Varela-Luarca maintains this emotional aria through pyrotechnics. By playing with fire, literally and figuratively, the director finds an apt metaphor to illustrate our nation’s sorrowful past, fraught present, and hardened future, and how these temporal spaces are always intertwined. 

Kali’s central monologue displays this best. The self-righteous child, right after burning a cop alive, begins to toy with a fatalistic ideology, rejecting the one that grounds the current armed movement being waged across the country – to supposedly think the way the lumpen society does. And it helps that Ledesma is able to own this defeatist view that consumes his character, all while offering his performance some levity the moment Kali loses this façade. Ledesma is the conduit through which Ardór articulates its thesis.

Adult, Male, Man
DARK. A scene from the play ‘Ardor.’ Zoe Tababa

Apart from this, the play works because of how Varela-Luarca makes wise use of D Cortezano’s set design. Beautiful and arresting images are created every time the director insists on having separate moments in which actors move in slow motion or present a tableau, as the central scene takes place simultaneously. The use of the stage is so economical that it becomes easier for Varela-Luarca to blur space and time. Moments of silence and grief are also rendered more touching by Jethro Nibaten and Luis Sumilong’s lighting design.

From these observations alone, Ardór clearly owns all the technical ammunition to succeed, yet the entire staging begins to feel like a misfire when one looks more closely and deeply into the narrative that it projects. In fact, the work asserts a bold preoccupation: “What if the only hope for social change is total annihilation?” And so one sees Kali steering his blind followers into a movement that is eager to destroy everything, as if to form a new society from nothing.

But what the staging atrociously misses is that there is no genuine change that can ever emerge from a place whose impulse is only to annihilate. Hope can never figure in this decrepit world, precisely because it doesn’t even recognize it. The play also says that it “aims to pay tribute to our collective desire for change,” yet fails to understand that there are no social, collective, and grounded movements that happen spontaneously. And this is why the struggle for national liberation is and will always be protracted, because it knows that it isn’t perfect, so it must be willing to correct its errors, sharpen its guiding theory and practice, and adapt to our ever-changing present. Like Z says, “Hindi naman wholesale ang ideology (Ideology is not wholesale).”

So one might find it jarring and shortsighted how the play rushes to present a new social order, or what it loosely considers a movement, without even interrogating why the armed and revolutionary struggle in the country exists in the first place, and how it manages to remain alive and expand for decades despite claims of subjugation from the government, which is now under the son of a dictator.

Whatever resistance Ardór thinks it espouses only winds up serving its myopic understanding of the world. It’s not that the play lacks the ability to imagine a world beyond; it’s because the one it chooses to imagine is far more dangerous that the present we are in. So by the time it reaches its final image, one cannot help but think how the staging, at its core, feels like a thought experiment that has already been exhausted many times over, and never really comes up with useful insight and convincing analysis for the argument it is so keen to talk about. –

“Ardór” runs until September 9, 2023.

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