Virgin Labfest: Brave new worlds

Jessel Duque
RAPPLER contributor Jessel Duque reviews 3 plays from the recently-ended Virgin Labfest 8

PART OF THE VIRGIN Labfest 8 poster

MANILA, Philippines – The Virgin Labfest continued to seduce with its “untried, untested and unstaged” plays at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last June 27 to July 8.

The 8th season boasted of a new artistic director, Tuxqs Rutaquio, and a fresh crop of “virgins.” There were 5 sets of plays, 12 one-acts, one full-length children’s play, a showcase from this year’s writing fellows and a retrospective from previous editions. 

The allure of the shiny and new is hard to resist; but in a world where everything has a price, putting hard-earned money down for two hours of entertainment cannot be left to a game of chance. Most people would not hesitate to plunk down Php 300 for a Hollywood 3D feature. There is comfort in formula and the familiar. You know what you’re in for: a superhero franchise, the pas de deux of a romantic comedy and moments of escape from a humdrum life. 

To spend the same amount to watch a set of one-act plays lasting 35 to 45 minutes each from first time playwrights and directors — that takes guts (sometimes literal) and a willingness to gamble an entire afternoon or evening on a story that leaves you thinking you either hit the jackpot or are coming down from a bad head trip. 

This is all part of the risky business of theater; and after 8 years, the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute was drenched by the blood of virgins and veterans alike.

‘High Stakes’ 

REHEARSAL PHOTO OF MIXKAELA Villalon’s 'High Stakes.' Used with permission from the playwright

Mixkaela Villalon’s High Stakes took a page from the news: What sort of life awaits the lone winner of the 700-million-peso lotto jackpot? Drug dealer and junk shop worker Teo Mesina’s life was already complicated, and became more so after people crawled out of the woodwork. But before they can ask for balato, Teo disappears. 

This is the enigma that fueled Villalon’s play. Everyone has a motive for finding Teo. The karaoke singing gangster wants to settle the score for all the times his mates saved Teo from jail. The cop with the unfortunate sappy ringtone who shows up at Silver’s bar wants to nail Teo for all his crimes. Gabby Kasador desperately wants to escape the gossip pages and become a legitimate journalist. Bar girl Silver only wants to send her daughter Isabela to school. 

Like the painting that was never shown in Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino or Veep’s Selena Meyers asking if the President of the United States called, what is unsaid or unseen is always more interesting. In the mad search for Teo, what was unearthed was the skeleton of truth. 

In that regard, High Stakes knew how to tease its audience with its missing piece, although the outcome was something we suspected all along. Is Teo dead or alive? Was it really about serving justice or serving a happy meal? Was it about following one’s heart or following the clues to a dead man’s treasure?

In the end, it was never about Teo. It was about how far we are willing to go to get what we really want. 


THE CAST OF 'ALEJANDRO.' From the Virgin Labfest Facebook page

Chuckberry Pascual’s Alejandro explored the intricacies of a gay man’s relationship with a straight man. A middle-aged gay man sits in the lobby of a motel while waiting for his 23-year-old paramour to show up so they can celebrate their 7th year together. 

Alejandro takes too long to show up for the celebration, and the waiting is a chance for the dainty man with the scarf and the crochet needles to assess where this relationship is going. The motel’s guard and the janitor turn out to be familiar with his situation — they, too, are gay men but of a different mold and time. They are working class men for whom a relationship is a two-way street. Affection is not bought with shopping money, although they’re not averse if their beloved insists on giving gifts. 

Director Roeder Camanag understands that waiting is always a tense game, best played by those who can volley quips with just the right amount of raunchiness that makes the theater erupt with laughter. The play is at its most entertaining when these men exchange views about the politics of love, sex and money. The titular Alejandro, when he finally shows up, is sufficiently awkward, and makes demands pouting like the teenage boy he recently was. When Alejandro hugs the man in the scarf, he is a little boy on his first day of school.

It is so tempting to hang on tight, but we know we must let him go. 

‘Mga Kuneho’

THE CAST OF 'MGA KUNEHO.' From the director's Facebook page

Guelan Luarca’s Mga Kuneho was propelled by the rawness and unbridled enthusiasm of its cast. 5 men are entrusted with a seemingly easy task: transfer a body bag from one room to another in exchange for 4 million pesos. The men are anonymous, known only as letters in a multiple choice exam, their backgrounds as wildly extreme as a drug addict from Sta. Ana to a writer who needs money to marry his girlfriend. But then they are trapped in the room and a note is slipped in: only one of them can leave, and only after they’ve killed everyone else. 

It is to the credit of the cast and director that the play was able to thrive on its very sparse premise but they make it work. Director Emmanuel de la Cruz guns for bleak nihilism with a touch of the absurd. Nobody knows why they are sent there, and by whom. The stage was empty save for one swinging lamp overhead, and the feeling of entrapment echoed each time the men kicked the unseen metal doors.

When a man in a rabbit mask cavorts on the suddenly psychedelic stage, we realize that it’s the kind of world where there is no recourse but to wait for the worst to be over and hope that when the door opens, there really is a world outside that threshold. –