Art Theater Clinique's 'Pinter Plays' is disturbing and exciting

'Pinter Plays'--disturbing and exciting
By Walter Ang
September 22, 2008

The Art Theater Clinique of Far Eastern University (FEU) presents an edgy, disturbing, and, ultimately, exciting production in its staging of "Pinter Plays." In this "devised theater performance," director J. Victor Villareal has selected scenes from three plays written by Harold Pinter, namely, "The Lover," "The Collection," and "The Homecoming," and does the directorial equivalent of hurling them into a blender and macerating them into a strange and intriguing show.

The intimate FEU Arts Studio where the production is staged sets a claustrophobic tone with its low ceilings. The acting area, deliberately placed under a low-hanging beam (even lower than the ceiling), creates a heightened sense of dread. Dribbles and spatters of red paint on the cyclorama panels and stage floor signal anxiety and foreboding.

Wikipedia notes that Pinter's works "often involve strong conflicts among ambivalent characters fighting for verbal and territorial dominance." Villareal takes these themes, mines them for all the sexual subtext they're worth and articulates everything unsaid through physical action.

Ambiguous indeed
Definitely not for audiences looking for wholesome family fare, Villareal injects the tight one-hour staging with gratuitous amounts of violence and obscenity. To wit, the show begins with four actors engaging in contorted coital poses (fully clothed) as they deliver their lines in an excerpted scene from "The Lover." The actors are actually playing only two characters (so it seems) and there is much ambiguity on who is really who and what is really what.

Villareal doesn't even use a single line from "The Collection," and instead, presents a bewildering choreographed bacchanalia of orgasmic shrieking.

The extraction from "The Homecoming" has the most semblance of a narrative, if you can call it that. A father and his son have a ridiculous argument about a pair of misplaced scissors. The lines seem mundane enough, but actors Arvin Baracena (the father) and Wilbert Castillo (the son) are made to scream, no, wail at each other.

Baracena, in particular, cuts a hefty presence onstage, his stocky frame notwithstanding, with a palpable and seemingly unending fury. Aggressive and predatory, when he drops the fourth wall and wades through front row audience's seats to look for the missing pair of scissors, he evokes discomfort and even fear.

The scene from "The Collection" ends with what can either be interpreted as a depraved, humiliating, submission scene involving the father, his sons and one of his son's wife, or a manipulative reversal-domination of the male brood by the wife.

Clearly, Villareal enjoys creating unease and relishes the indefinite. Pinter's work has also been described as "complex and contradictory." In the gray area between tragedy and farce, with a bit of theater-of-the-absurd thrown in, these two are a match, all right.

Love it or leave it
The cast of brave, young actors exhibit such howling rage, such scalding angst, such torrid abandon that it was impressive to behold. It's as if they threw all doubt out the window and submitted their trust completely to Villareal to guide them through the material.

All that moaning, shouting and moving about is actually easy to dismiss as gimmicky and a weak attempt at shock value, but for some inexplicable reason, in this off-kilter universe that Villareal has created, he somehow strikes a delicate balance and it works. Audiences who caught Villareal's direction of "Masaganang Ekonomiya" in Virgin Labfest 4 will be familiar with this style of in-your-face theater. His directorial conceits were a bit overwrought "Masganang" and did not quite work, but with some self-editing, it soars in "Pinter Plays."

To be fair, this is a production that not all audiences will like. His staging for "Pinter Plays" is the kind that younger or more adventurous audiences are more likely to appreciate. Given that majority of ATC's audiences are college students, the stage grammar Villareal employs evidently speaks to their language. Even in the more violent scenes onstage, they pick up on the dark comedy of it all and laugh the easiest and the hardest.

All bets are off in this insane, self-contained reality as the show ends on a hilarious note. Baracena and Castillo reprise their earlier father-and-son scene, line-per-line and with the same angry intensity, but this time, in complete gayspeak. It's probably Villareal's punchline and he's winking: if you didn't get it, then most likely, the joke's on you.

ATC will be staging "Spoof," a stand-up comedy show from Nov. 27 to 29 with 7pm shows at FEU Plaza. Admission is free! For details, call 735-5621 loc. 236 or visit