Jul 3, 2014

[Theater] Virgin LabFest 9 Revisited

The Virgin LabFest or VLF is essentially a public workshop - an opportunity to stage what they term to be brand new plays - "untried, untested, unstaged, unpublished" productions that become quite the opportunity for budding playrights. Now on its 10th year, the VLF continues to help writers bring their one-act plays to the stage the public where folks can experience them as they were meant to be - through the magic of theater.

I've never made the time to attend the plays before - in truth I had only really heard about the festival within the past few years or so. But this year we wanted to address that gap in our cultural experience and made sure to allot time to catch some of the plays this year.

Plus there's the fact that our friend Carlo Vergara had two shows in the festival this year, and so we really didn't want to miss it a second time around. Thus our first forray into the VLF world consisted of "SET E" - or Virgin Labfest 9 Revisited.

Virgin LabFest 9 Revisited is a set of three one-act plays that were selected from last year's line-up of shows. They're essentially the best of last year's group - or at least among the most popular, if you want to look at things from that perspective. I won't post formal scored reviews for the plays given their rather raw nature, but we'll discuss each one.

ISAANG DAAN was the first play, as written by Lisa Magtoto and directed by Ed Lacson. Here we have a balikbayan father named Ting (Jelson Bay) who has brought his daughter Bituin (Thea Gloria) to the historic street named after one of their ancestors, who had been a hero during the revolution against Spain. But after a while, the find that the street sign is barely holding together and the entire area is set to be demolished in order to make way for a new highway to be named after the Mayor - who just happens to visit the site. And as Ting is pleading the case of his heroic ancestor, along comes an informal settler who is being forced to move because of the highway project and later still an NGO worker standing up for someone's rights. And thus the madness of all of them arguing over what should happen to this small street and what it potentially means to each of them.

First, I was totally surprised by the size of the cast for this one-act play. Clearly the writer had an ambitious plot and had a lot that she wanted to say about this situation. It was certainly a clever piece with a lot going on and some pretty complex messages that it wanted t deliver. But given the format and the need for brevity given the one-act nature of things, I think the narrative could have benefited from a little editing to focus on just a few points. Still, it was pretty well-performed and was entertaining as a whole.

IMBISIBOL was the second production, and was a lot heavier than any of the other plays. It was written by Herlyn Alegre and directed by Lawrence Fajardo. It starts out simple enough with two friends - Manang Linda (Ces Quesada) and Benjie (Bernardo Bernardo) - meeting up in Japan. Manang Linda is fortunate enough to have made the transition into becoming a legal resident in Japan while Benjie remains an illegal worker - hence the title of the play. The two swap stories and Linda gives all the letters meant for Benjie that had been sent to her address to prevent the authorities from tacking down Benjie. In time they are joined by Manuel (Onyl Torres), who is another illegal who works as an escort. And as Benjie and Manuel compare and contrast their respective approaches to surviving in Japan, they are finally joined by Rodel (Junjun Quintana, Jr.) who is fairly new in Japan. But Rodel is hiding a significant complication - the fact that he has killed someone. And this twist may bring down misfortune on them all.

The highlight of this play is the amazing camaraderie between Ces Quesada and Bernardo Bernardo. On their own their performances were just okay, but together they make for an amazing pair and one can totally believe that they've been friends for years. The build-up to the big twist took a while, in my opinion, and perhaps the pacing was meant for a longer play. Given the official synopsis stressed the murder as part of the story, it takes a while to get to that event. But Quesada and Bernardo are enough of a delight to watch that the time just drifts away.

KUNG PAANO AKO NAGING LEADING LADY was the main reason we had gone this year since we had missed out watching it last year. It was written by Carlo Vergara and directed by Chris Martinez and holds the odd achievement of being the only Virgin LabFest play to have ever been adapted into a comic book. The core premise is simply enough - Mely (Kiki Baento) is a maid for a team of superheroes. And as much as she does her best to follow their rules, she has crossed the line by allowing her sister, Viva (Skyzx Labastilla) to stay with her for a while since their mother and her had a fight. As Mely cleans, the two slowly discuss the pass and the conflicts between them. But there's more to Viva that what Mely assumes, and the ending might be a bit of a surprise for most.

This was easily the most "commercial" of the plays - and I mean no insult in that manner. Carl has already demonstrated a great mastery of comedic yet compelling dialog in his comics and this was something easily applied to the script for this play. Mely and Viva are fully realized characters with a lot of complexity - all of which make for a great basis for questions and inevitably drama. Throw in some strong actors and a great superhero premise and the whole thing is paced like a good comic book - with a cliffhanger ending, as appropriate. It's easy to see why this became a crowd favorite - if only someone would sponsor developing this into a full musical as had been previously announced.

Overall, the whole Virgin LabFest experience was a nice one, the kind of fulfilling artistic exercise that leaves both your mind and your heart full of, well, a sense of fulfillment, to sound redundant. And I think we'll do our best to make a habit of this - starting with us catching SET B this Sunday.

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