REVIEW: Theater of the young, the here, the now: 2010 National University and College Theater Festival

Theater of the young, the here, the now
By Walter Ang
March 8, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The 2010 National University and College Theater Festival organized by the National Commission of the Culture and Arts, titled "Tanghal!," featured the outputs of different school-based theater groups from across the country.

In the shows set in five venues across five days, it was exciting to see what college students (and their adult mentors) are thinking of, interested in, dealing with, and how they process these topics and emotions into performance.

The various forms, styles and methods of the productions gave audiences a chance to become aware of the different ways how production elements (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, etc.) can be used (or not used at all) to tell stories on stage.

Time constraints allowed us to catch only five of the seven showcase productions (marked with an asterisk) and several other participating productions.

We had to leave SamaSining (University of the Philippines-Los Banos)'s twinbill* of "Riders to the Sea" and its Tagalog translation "Sa Sinapupunan ng Laot," a few minutes into its second act so we could catch the latter half of Integrated Performing Arts Guild (Mindanao State University)'s "SugaTula*."

The attempt of "Riders" to use "Irish English" made the cast difficult to understand. But as soon as this story of a mother's fear of losing yet another child to the sea began its Tagalog translation, the production took shape and started delivering the goods. The language made sense, the acting flowed, the emotions came through, and the audience settled in to absorb the story's arching themes of loss and pain.

"SugaTula" set eight poems to movement. The last four poems we caught featured interpretations that used eye catching costumes and props, including a suspended ovoid wicker contraption and a fabric dummy hung from its neck.

The group has coined the term "transcreation" to describe its process of not merely translating, adapting or transforming the poems, but recreating them for the stage. It therefore set itself up for puzzled reactions from the audience since it did not offer much in creating anything particularly new. The spoken components were stilted by an elementary school declamatory style and the video projection of poems in their entirety felt redundant. The group has opportunities to build on their work by exploring differentiated delivery and more varied editing of the projections (for example, projecting words one by one or playing around with the placement of lines).

Both groups stood out with their unique movement vocabulary. Each had a distinct tack on how to move and how fast to do so. Both groups also employed live music that added a rich layer of sound to their works.

UP Repertory Company (University of the Philippines) staged a twinbill*. A satire on a teacher's frustrations with the upcoming elections, "Teachers Act" has a self-indulgent script that uses too much showbiz-theater-swardspeak humor as a device to elicit laughs, therefore losing the audience in its self-referential, self-involved, in-joke manner.

The playbill notes that it is actually the story of three different teachers. Audiences suspected the group's lack of preparation, given the way this piece was staged: two actors reading the script, acted out by three dancers.

Fortunately, the group redeems itself with, "Hello Philippines." A strong commentary on the search for personal motivation set in a call center. It shines in the way it articulates the kind of angst and quarter-life crisis that only Filipinos in their 20s can possess.

With a bit of tightening, allowing for stronger build-ups to the songs (deliberate and uncalled for off-key delivery notwithstanding), this show has the potential to become one of the defining musicals that speak of this past decade's emergent themes: of how Filipinos deal with balancing self identity and self worth against the explosion of the call center industry.

De La Salle University-Manila' Harlequin staged "Rizal is my President*," a musical that features long-dead Filipino heroes pondering on making Rizal the next president. Polished, light and fun, the musical would have ended on the right note were it not for a superfluous flourish involving a gun-wielding character towards the end of the show.

This group has had a Philippine Educational Theater Association senior artist as their moderator for a few years now and there is no doubt that the Peta influence has become heavy handed. The acting style, manner of delivery, music, animation style, use of wooden-boxes-as-set-pieces, among other elements, are all undeniably Peta in aesthetic. It would be nice to see this group find its own voice down the line.

Women's issues were tackled by Dulaang Pinay (Miriam College)'s "Fairy Tale Academy" and University of the East Drama Company's "Miss Philippines."

An allegory on the constructed roles of women, "Fairy Tale" featured colorful, textured costumes and strong songs. However, the cast seemed scared and lost while they were performing; energy and vocal projection were low. Working on these acting aspects, streamlining the text to make its point clearer, and figuring out why the main protagonist looks like Pocahontas instead of a Pinoy heroine should be the next steps for the group.

Clearly, UEDC had fun with its production, which allowed the audience to ride merrily along. Appropriate updates to this play from the late 70s, strong acting, steady comic timing, and an endearing sense of confidence from the students made this show about the (mis)adventures of beauty pageant contestants and their personal battles with society's stereotypes a standout.

Self and others
Tanghalang Saint Louis University tackled tradition and justice framed by a fraternal battle in "Kabsat (Brother)*." The intimate scene (using Filipino, Ilocano and Itneg) was steady and intense (though occasionally hit by bouts of histrionics). Supported by a textured (though overscaled) set design and the most intricate lighting design among all the festival participants, the cast exuded a calm assurance. In a bow to professionalism, this was the only delegation that had its own set of ushers.

Paulino Theater Group (St. Paul Seminary) staged "Playback Theater: Your Story, Our Play," an improv show where they acted out stories shared by audience members. The audience cheered on these future priests even as these young men were upstaged by the animated audience members who told their stories and volunteered for the show's ending activity. Working on their range of expression, imagination and theatricality will put them on their way to better shows.

It must be noted, given the nature of this festival, that one does not expect polish and prowess from the participants (though it wouldn't go unappreciated). Acting skills are at levels expected of the students' age and experience. Production elements like lighting design are par for the course, since everyone has to use the same standard designs. Limited time and resources, the exhaustion from travelling to Manila, and other factors thrown into the mix are what participants have to deal with on top of preparing for their shows.

What one expects and hopes to witness are effort, enthusiasm and, most importantly, sincerity. On these points, most of the groups were definitely up there. But at the end of the day, sometimes all an audience wants is good show.

University of San Agustin Little Theater has done just that: a damned good show. The group's dance drama "Tarangban*" is a based on a sugidanon (oral epic) that tells the journey (in English, Filipino and Kinaray-a) of Prince Humadapnon.

The show is great fun: there is adventure, search for love, magic, monsters, battles. The chanting (by members of the Panay Bukidnon Society) throughout the tight show adds a unique aural texture; the rousing music and sound design is exhilarating.

The choreography hits the right notes with movements that range from sweeping to angular. The costumes use interesting silhouettes and textures: eerie body shapes were created for a gaggle of evil sirens that had masks placed on top of heads instead of on faces, abaca hair, and upturned skirts that became giant hoods.

All these elements come to a whole and create fantastic imagery on stage. One imagines what the show must be like if done with its original five-level set design and full lighting design. (Someone please bring this group back to Manila to perform in a bigger venue with their complete production elements!)

The show is a timely reminder that with several movies lifted from Greek mythology ("Clash of the Titans" and "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief") coming out soon, parents and teachers should (must) ensure that Filipino children (and adults) are aware of and are given the chance to appreciate our very own myths and stories.

Also published online: