Philippine theater

Virgin Labfest ‘Set A’ review: Grief in gray areas

Jason Tan Liwag

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Virgin Labfest ‘Set A’ review: Grief in gray areas
Set A of Virgin Labfest 2022 finds a writer, a family, and a young entomologist on the intersection of grief and grace. Spoilers ahead.

As a person who spent nine years of his life onstage, I’ve always found it difficult to write about theater. I understand, all too well, the difficulties within the art form: the time and labor that goes into it, the material conditions that shape the work, the political realities that artists often feel the need to respond to, and the sheer thanklessness of the endeavor. Live performances in physical spaces have only begun recovering and the reality is that a theater review, whether constructive or crass, will impact the artists differently because of these inequities in financial and cultural capital.

If I cannot pan something, what use is my praise?

Despite its recalcitrance to criticism, theater, as an art form, demands to be written about. Its ephemeral quality has made it an imperative — great shows are easily forgotten, bad work metastasizes, practices remain uncriticized, conversations about the art remain within four walls. Writing is, in a way, an act of conferring importance to the work, honoring the risks taken, recommending successful processes, pointing out the mistakes made, and laying out the paths towards adaptation. Criticism is a way of holding the art, the art form, and the artists behind it to a high regard. Great criticism does not only cast judgment but encourages audiences to notice what they’re noticing.

Virgin Labfest’s “Set A” understands this. All three pieces revolve around a form of criticism — of institutions that oppress us, of practices that keep stories of the marginalized misrepresented, of outdated beliefs that shackle the human experience, of how communities remain complicit in maintaining the status quo. Each work is an attempt at exhuming the untold and using art as a way to hold the powers that be accountable. 

Ariane Mnouchkine, the founding Artistic Director of Théâtre du Soleil in France, once said: “You should go out of the theater more human than you went in.”

Here is an attempt at reflecting that transformation:

Mga Balo (by Maki de la Rosa, directed by Adrienne Vergara)

In the process of writing about Mga Balo, I encountered the same conundrum as its protagonist. The play centers around a young writer (Alon Segarra) who, after encountering writer’s block, seeks the help of the widows within her play (Pau Benitez and the excellent Skyzx Labastilla). How does one write about, let alone critique, something that is still a lived reality for the disenfranchised?

Several ethical dilemmas are raised by writer Maki de la Rosa and director Adrienne Vergara — the difficulty of articulating the experiences of others, the burden of doing justice to borrowed stories, the inherent bias towards formalism in elite spaces, and more. What is radical about Mga Balo is how it reframes art as a “process” rather than a “product.” Key to this is in how the widows who are subjects of the play — despite being nameless and imagined — are able to speak for themselves, challenge the ideologies used to represent their stories, and actively take a role in shaping how they are seen.

Yet one cannot help but impulsively reject one of the play’s final statements — the call “to keep adding to the conversation.” All too often, terrible (political) art refuses to create a space for silence because it prioritizes the voice of its creators. However, the final image of Mga Balo shows its team aren’t from such ilk. Instead, Mga Balo ends by creating a third space for commemoration — where the three women recite the names of the victims of violence under the Duterte administration. While the set changes require more purpose and ease, the final transformation of Wika Nadera’s set from keyboard keys into tombstones, later adorned with candles and flowers, is haunting.

It is an image that reminds us that art can feel pointless in the face of incomprehensible violence and corruptible power; that theater is not always successful as a tool for empathy. Mga Balo knows that it cannot bring back the dead, it can only hold their fragments — their struggle, their joy, their humanity — for the living. Stories like these will continue to exist as long as death-dealing systems remain. But it is the futility of this endeavor that keeps artists creating and that keeps audiences returning. Art will never be enough. But we continue in the hopes that someday, somehow, it might be.

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Bituing Marikit (by Bibeth Orteza, directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna)

Of the plays in Set A, Bituing Marikit has the most interesting premise because it has the most to lose.

After the death of their matriarch Carmela, Allan (Gie Onida) and his three sons — Peping (JV Ibesate), Bok (Earle Figuracion), and Butching (Joshua Tayco) — reunite at a provincial morgue. While waiting for their father to return, Peping tells his brothers that he refuses to have Nanay Carmela embalmed and is instead requesting that she be cremated. When asked why he would suggest such a thing, he lifts the cloth above her waist and shows his brothers his reason: Nanay Carmela has a penis.

It is clear that writer Bibeth Orteza and director Carlos Siguion-Reyna want to examine toxic ideas of masculinity, challenge provincial ideas of family and gender identity, and promote the idea that love can conquer all. These good intentions, on their own, would have been enough for applause. 

But why must Carmela — the sun around which the living orbit like satellites — be treated like a set piece throughout the process? Why must her body be defiled by her sons without second thought? Why must she be subjected to false accusations of child molestation, even if there is no evidence against her? Why must her goodness be questioned even in death? Why is it that her worth is only recognized in association to their father? Is there really no other way to examine such topics without dehumanizing the queer body? 

Others will argue that such choices stem from a desire for verisimilitude — “things like this happen in the province all the time.” But art does not have to be realistic for it to be truthful and the imperative to do what is right outweighs the imperative of realism, especially when such realism contradicts the lessons drawn from the work.

When one looks at the characters who are alive, one will also notice their thinness. In the souvenir program, Siguion-Reyna speaks about providing unspoken backstories for each character. Why not speak these motivations, these wounds, into existence? Is the play not about taking the skeletons out of the closet? Why do we know so little about the brothers by the end?

It is why the final image — the four men singing Bituing Marikit back to their bituing marikit — rings so hollow. Its ineffectiveness might be attributed to uneven acting among the brothers or the logical missteps in the staging. But its problems run deeper: all the journeys feel like shortcuts; nothing seems to have been exhumed. There are no transformations to be witnessed, nor metaphorical bodies laid to rest.

Bibeth Orteza and Carlos Siguion-Reyna have created stunning work throughout their artistic careers. Bituing Marikit is not one of them.

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Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito (by Eljay Castro Deldoc, directed by Herbie Go and Tess Jamias)

It begins with a warning: “Alam niyo na ang kwentong ito.”

Then, it shifts into something reminiscent of Isabella Rosselini’s Green Porno — with comically delivered parallels drawn between the life of a millipede and a budding academic (only referred to as hija, played by Claudia Enriquez). 

Then, an act of violence. At first, obscured and stylized like in Pedro Almodovar’s Hable con Ella. Clothes peel away like exoskeletons, while she witnesses herself have an out-of-body experience, noticing how the violation has choreography and the steps are far too familiar. Despite her protests, the body keeps the score.

Suddenly, she is a stranger in her own form and specters of the rape are everywhere — in car rides, site visits, academic institutions, at home. Safety is no longer a given; it must be negotiated. Around her, an ensemble of women — Marj Lorico, Wenah Nagales, Kath Castillo, and Ji-ann Lachica, each of whom deserves to be named for their excellence — act out the characters in her life, behaving like either friend and foe, a reminder that women can act like men too.

By tapping into the history of how sexual assault is discussed and depicted, writer Eljay Deldoc and directors Herbie Go and Tess Jamias unearth the core of the violence — that it is not about sex, but power — and in the process of proving one’s victimhood, one is inevitably violated by the system, no matter how benevolent it may seem.

We wait for her to break or to maybe even die, because stories like this often end in such ways. Yet she does not. She is alive and plays a lullaby, “Ili-ili Tulog Anay,” on the ukulele for her child. She is telling the story because she has already survived it. She is telling the story to tell others that it is possible to live past it. 

What is most important about Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito is how it uses fiction to give its protagonist a chance at justice and closure. Hurdle after hurdle, Enriquez remains vulnerable yet steadfast in her pursuit, rejecting the role of victimhood thrust onto her character by society, hopeful that there will be those who will believe in and do the right thing.

Like the best kind of art, Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito challenges the status quo and how we participate in upholding it through the myths we perpetuate and silence. It ends with a reclamation, a declaration, that extends to the festival’s other sets; beyond the four walls of the theater: 

“I am so much more.” –

Virgin Labfest 2022 was held in person at the CCP Tanghalang Huseng Batute from June 16 to June 26. Online streaming will be from June 30 till July 10. Tickets are available via Ticket2Me.

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.