Virginal, indeed: Review of 4th Virgin Labfest 2008

Virginal, indeed 
By Walter Ang
July 14, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

If a play is the fruit of a playwright's labor, then artistic collaborators like directors, actors, set designers and costume designers are the ones who tend and nurture the text into full blossom.

In this year's Virgin Labfest, the artistic collaboration of these different disciplines have produced four main sets of three one-acts that were staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, providing audiences with a veritable fruit orchard of subject matter to watch. A separate set was dedicated to children's plays adapted from published stories while another set featured three plays from last year's fest.

Although this writer was able to interview festival artistic director Rody Vera prior to the fest's opening, no details on staging were provided except for the line-up and synopses for each play. And that is always the fun and excitement of the Labfest, you truly never know what you're going to get.

With this many productions, audiences were treated to some that were a little raw, some choice picks, some that were run-of-the-mill, some that strained under their own weight and a few bad apples.

A little pruning needed 
Layeta Bucoy once again tackles her obsession with incest between siblings in "Las Mentiras de Gloria." Fortunate for Bucoy that her entry last year, "Ellas Innocentes," was chosen to be restaged. Unfortunately, for those who got to watch both her plays, it became clear that Las Mentiras is essentially a variation of the same banana.

Which is not to say that Las Mentiras was not a strong piece, given its tight dialogue, intrinsic rhythm and Tuxqs Rutaquio's sensitive direction. It did have a stray branch that needed clipping in the sorely miscast Bart Guingona as a working class grunt. Guingona bravely struggled with the Tagalog lines but ultimately was not able to project the bearing that was crucial to his character.

Njel de Mesa's use of glow-in-the-dark costumes, props and puppets as a device to push his adaptation of "Terangati" (under his own direction) worked well, but the material suffered an overly long overture and music that sounded too adult and heavy for a children's musical.

Koh Jun Eiow's "Ang Dalawa Niyang Libing" translated by Terrence Co and directed by Leo Rialp was an engaging clash of culture and religion. Rialp was able to add colorful theatrical touches with background scenes to add to his mis-en-scene as well as the use of a newspaper-reading, gossip-mongering Greek chorus. However, the story feels rushed for its one hour running time and yearns to be threshed out into a two-act play.

Both Terengati's and Dalawa's stagings were overscaled and busy for the standard small stage size used for all labfest productions, but should work better in larger venues.

Nurture to full bloom 
Argel Tuazon's adaptation of "Bru-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, Bru-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi" directed by Mayen EstaƱero and Job Pagsibigan's adaptation of "Uuwi na ang Nanay Kong si Darna" directed by Catherine Racsag were a breath of fresh air and earnest energy.

In Bru-ha, plucky Bea Sarah Angoba plays a girl who thinks her neighbor is a witch. Coaching her to add more variety to her delivery of lines will compliment her charming confidence and talent. EstaƱero's use of a roving cameraman and live broadcast screen in the story's TV game show scene was a clever element to add excitement and fun for audiences.

For Uuwi na, many adults in the audience were moved to tears due to scenes that heightened the story's inherent poignancy. A wise move by Racsag to balance out her otherwise fun and funky interpretation of the Filipina Everywoman. Further development will make these two children's plays blossom to their full potential.

Ripe for the picking 
Hase Hiroichi's "Amoy ng Langit," provided a sweet, relaxed, and genteel viewing experience with strong acting from its ensemble cast who interchangeably used Nihongo, Tagalog and English to tell the story of school girls and their encounter with one of the girls' sister's ghost.

Fans of anime, especially those featuring school girls in everyday non-eventful situations like "Kamichu (Gradeschool Goddess)," "Ichigo mashimaru (Strawberries and marshmallows)," and "Paradise Kiss," will surely appreciate the acting and pacing conventions employed by director Toshihisha Yoshida (such as the girls contentedly sighing loudly while reveling in the fact that "The sky is so blue!" and the fact that talking to ghosts seem like the most normal thing in the world) that are so characteristic of Japanese animation.

Despite the cultural quirks, because it did not try to be anything else than what it was, Amoy's sincere and unassuming staging was a pleasure to watch.

Rogelio Braga's "Ang Bayot, Ang Meranao,at ang Habal Habal sa isang Nakababagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte" directed by Nick Olanka offers sharp and witty dialogue in a tightly packed and slick conversation. Repartee zips merrily along between actors Joey Paras and Arnold Reyes, as they play an odd couple who offers enlightening and insightful points on the many guises of discrimination: political, geographical, religious, workplace-related, gender or otherwise.

Hilarious and never preachy, Ang Bayot deserves a run that should be as long as or longer than its title. Hopefully, itinerant actor Paras will stay in Manila long enough to be recast in order to preserve the great timing he and Reyes share.

Floy Quintos' "Ang Kalungkutan ng mga Reyna" (under his own direction) presents a strong argument for a possible solution to our country's ills: would we be better off as a monarchy? He gives us a lady president who becomes the Philippines' first queen and her conversations with a hairdresser on matters of taste (not state).

Sharmaine Buencamino is brilliant as Quintos' beautifully written character. Wisely steering clear of aping known female presidents, Beuncamino imbues Queen Yolanda with a roiling hysteria kept under a fragile veil of iron will.

Tuxqs Rutaquio, as the deadpan and sarcastic hairdresser, was the perfect foil to the queen's ravings. Through his eventual acquiescence to her desires, we see that underneath the queen's delusional ambition, Quintos' lines and Buencamino's interpretation effectively show her sincere and burning desire to uplift the country. Surreal, funny and full-to-the-bite with strong writing and strong acting, this production is hands down the best of the bunch.

A durian for everyone 
Which brings us to the one fruit that casts a divisive opinion. People either love or hate the durian, and in the same vein, it is impossible to have an in-between reaction to Allan Lopez's "Masaganang Ekonomiya" directed by Victor Villareal.

The story features an interrogator and his captive. It features elements such as a female actor playing the interrogator with a tumescent phallus sticking out of her groin and constant interruptions to the exposition as the interrogator goes into trances whenever he's possessed by a dyslexic horse.

Less performance than it was performance art with dialogue, as the production assaults audiences' patience and sensibilities, it also challenges notions of what theater should or can be. Unapologetic in its strangeness and definitely thought provoking, it cannot be described any other way except as exciting, trite, avant-garde, yawn-inducing, awesome and irritating all at the same time. It is either the labfest's worst production, or its best.

Also published online: 148250/Virginal-indeed