Jul 18, 2016

[Theater] Virgin LabFest 12 - Set C

I had already posted my review of the Virgin LabFest 12 - Set A shows last week and today's post covers my reviews of the Set C plays. These are the only two sets that we watched this time around primarily because of the connections of friends.

When it comes to experimental theater of this nature, you do expect a wild variety of topics and themes to come up. And while some productions will genuinely surprise you with some very novel and creative ideas, others may fall into the trap of more familiar patterns and ideas and rehashed concepts.

Set C was a weird of the oddly familiar and the strikingly new, although I think it's safe to say that we slanted more towards the former instead of the latter. For a time I was worried that maybe I was unconsciously favoring the play of our friend, but reading other reviews and comments about this set seems to indicate that some of my concerns weren't necessarily unwarranted.

Set C of Virgin Labfest 12 consisted of Mga Bisita Ni Jean as directed by Ariel Yonzon and written by Ma. Cecilia "Maki" dela Rosa, Bait as directed by Guelan Luarca and written by Mara Paulina Marasigan, and Mula sa Kulimliman as directed by Hazel Gutierrez and written by Carlo Vergara.

Mga Bisita ni Jean begins with the titular Jean (Sheenly Vee Gener) intently watching a foreign war movie when she receives a surprise phone calls. The news is obviously upsetting, but she eventually returns to watching her movie until her old friend Cage (Aldo Glenn Voncil) appears and teases her about old times in the rebel community army. Later Cage is replaced  by Ted (Aldo Vencilao) and he too talks about old times and long unanswered questions.

This play felt discordant with the themes it was trying to present as we had a group of revolutionaries with an odd love for mixed foreign media including movies like Dr. Zhivago and Powder, and yet are still trying to quote Chairman Mao. I'm not sure if it was absolutely essential that these characters were communist rebels when it eventually became more about the unrequited love that Ted had for Jean.

But the twist that was not a twist is the fact that Cage and Jean are actually dead, which was the only way to explain their unusually abrupt scene exits and to some degree their odd tendency to address the audience at large when supposedly speaking with Jean. Given the quirk that these plays are staged practically "in-the-round", there was also a lot of bad blocking that had the actors standing in a single line, thus repeatedly breaking sightlines. In the end I wasn't quite sure what the play wanted to say or if it had any moral ascendancy left to make any big claims. It was an odd mix of feeling heavy-handed along with rather vague.

This production became a weird bit of communist porn of a sort rating 1 out of 5.

Bait, the second play, was another heavy-handed ideologically charged drama that centered on a father and a teacher. Renante Bustamante plays the father of a Muslim boy placed in a predominantly Catholic school who got into an altercation with another boy because of how his Koran had been disrespected and desecrated. Naturally the father felt that his son was justified in his response of violence since respect for their holy book was one of the most important tenets of their religion. But at the same time, his son's response was somewhat extreme and now the other boy was in critical condition. And all we have is the teacher Mr. Arevalo (Kalil Almonte) trying to make the father understand why things were so dire.

Again, I felt like the direction for the play was a little odd and only further encumbered by the heavy subject matter. If the situation had resulted in the near-death of a student, wouldn't they involve more than just a prefect of discipline? Shouldn't the Principal and the Guidance Counselor have gotten involved as well? Was the father just fighting to protect his son from incrimination of a sort or was he actually fighting to keep his son in the school? At points it really sounded like the latter.

In an effort to show deep emotion, a lot of times the actors would stop their sentences because of the desire to show being quite emotionally troubled. But given how often it happened instead of just during key moments, it got more distracting over time or it even felt like perhaps the actors had forgotten their lines. And you have other weird character moments like the father going into prayer while the teacher decides this is the best time to share a Christian parable. Who does that sort of thing?

The were a heavy-handed effort in the writing to make the conflict feel difficult as the repeated stress of how this became about making a boy accountable for his actions versus his right to practice his religion freely. With the inconsistent acting and the weird plot, this was not one of my more favorite productions, thus rating 2 out of 5.

Mula sa Kulimliman was a nicely entertaining piece that had all the signatures of Carlo Vergara's stories including witty dialog, fantasy entering reality and of course comics - or in this cases komiks. the play is anchored by a young mother (Mayen Estanero), who struggles to cope with practically raising her son Jerome (Timothy Castillo) given her husband Gorio (Tad Tadioan) is away from long periods of time because of far-flung constructions jobs that he takes. But there's more to Gorio's life than she knows and when Gorio's other life threatens to invade their home life, he has to confess the truth - and the fact that their son had known all of this for some time.

I rather enjoyed Mayen's performance here as she was a feisty little thing who gets a lot of good zingers in on sheer grit alone. And she really does have a lot to handle with Castillo, who is a charming young man who manages to balance being a devoted son with being quite the smart aleck as well. Tadioan is appropriately nuts and I love him for it he really brings the cast together.

The play had a lot going on including snippets of radio play that I assumed were important but weren't always easy to catch while everyone else was talking. And there were the shadow play elements, which did result in some great moments but also weren't always clear, which is a natural consequence of the size of the space and how we were viewing the production from one side.

All that aside, the play initially feels like your usual slice-of-life stories with the mother trying her best to convince her son of the value of finishing his education despite the seeming fulfillment of other adults who never got a degree. But then there's the classic pivot that Carlo Vergare tends to enjoy that really tuns things around and has you now cheering for the deadbeats and losers the first part of the play had primed you to reject.

The play felt nicely tight in terms of structure with great internal progression across the theoretical "acts" or beats of the story. Plus it was a lot of fun and was the sort of romp that got the audience cheering as well, which is always great in a show. 4/5

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