Different views on the VLF plays

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By Susan Claire Agbayani

Dominique Beatrice La Victoria — or simply, Vix — was soaking in the arts and culture scene of New York when her play Ang Bata sa Drum was staged at Virgin Labfest (VLF) at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) last year. Her mother bowed alongside director Dudz Terana in her stead after each performance. Ms. La Victoria revealed that the story was “loosely based on a story from my mother.”

Different views on the VLF plays

“After one year of missing out on this wonderful play, I finally got the chance to take my bow as a playwright; thank you for giving this play the honor to be staged again,” she wrote in a Facebook post, as Ang Bata sa Drum was one of the three plays chosen to be restaged at VLF again this year, together with Alexandra May Cardoso’s Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania, which was directed by Charles Yee (and which was adapted from Ian Rosales Casocot’s short story “The Sugilanon of Epefania’s Heartbreak”); and Carlo Vergara’s Mula sa Kulimliman, which was directed by Hazel Gutierrez. Together, they make up Set E of VLF 13.

Now on its 13th year, Virgin Labfest is an annual festival of unpublished, unstaged, untried, and untested works done in partnership with Writer’s Bloc, Inc. and Tanghalang Pilipino, Inc. The one-act plays are presented three in a set throughout the festival.

Different views on the VLF plays
Nothing But Dreams

“What’s wrong with dating a black guy?” Ms. La Victoria asked. She has “nothing but praise for Dingdong Novenario’s play, Nothing But Dreams,” which is part of this year’s Set D of plays.

“It’s so refreshing to see a play broach the subject of Filipinos’ racism towards blacks and African-Americans.” It was something that she observed throughout her nearly a year’s stay in New York.

“No one has ever addressed it — or talked about it — much less have a play written and staged that tackled the elephant in the room head on,” she said.

“Finally, we’re talking about it: how Filipinos use the N-word… carelessly; how Filipinos think they’re better than blacks because their skin is closer to the whites in the color spectrum.” Apart from thanking Novenario for writing the script, she also expressed gratitude to film-turned-theater director Carlos Siguion-Reyna “for giving it life in the Virgin Labfest.”

“VLF has always staged plays that address current socio-political issues, and I believe that it’s about time this kind of issue took center stage. I’ve never seen anything like it. Gosh. Gusto kong umiyak (I want to cry).”

She said that it was one of her favorite plays this year. And actor-turned-director Jonathan “Tad” Tadioan and an economist and professor from De La Salle University (who did not want to be named), agree.

“It has a tight script. It’s funny, yet cringe-worthy,” said the DLSU professor via private message on Messenger, citing the “dialogues that explore our underlying racism and voices out what we always think when we meet ‘colored’ people.”

While Mr. Tadioan “loves the entire cast of this play,” he also thinks that it’s fun to watch the ensemble of Adrian Ho’s Sincerity Biker’s Club, which was directed by Jenny Jamora.

Different views on the VLF plays
Sincerity Biker’s Club

Sincerity Biker’s Club (has a) tight script. It’s really funny, and succeeds in casting the effects of [extra judicial killings] on society. It was the rapport among the actors that made the play effective,” noted the DLSU professor.

Walang bida; lahat magaling (No lead; everyone excels),” Mr. Tadioan wrote in an FB post, but added that the thing that struck him the most was the return of actor Soliman Cruz to the stage: “Pinaka tumatak sa aking gunita nang makita ko si Soliman Cruz sa entablado.” It would be recalled that Mr. Cruz was a brilliant actor who, fallen on hard times, had been sleeping on the streets of Ermita and Malate for a few years now.

As for being “devirginized” as a playwright this year, Ho replied via Messenger, “I am delighted and honored to be working alongside talented and dedicated playwrights, actors, directors, stage managers, and theater producers at this year’s VLF 13. Even the theater fans have been so warm and welcoming. It has been such an amazing experience. Unforgettable no doubt!”

Mr. Tadioan also added, “Seeing (actresses) Angeli Bayani, Mara Paulina Marasigan, and Delphine Buencamino [a casting coup of sorts] in one play is truly delightful,” prompting him to exclaim, “you’re really something else, (director) George de Jesus.”

IN an FB post, DLSU Literature professor Dr. Genevieve Asenjo said that Set D is her favorite among all the sets.

Public Relations consultant and theater enthusiast Edwin Galvez found the performances of Cris Villonco (as Jose Rizal’s widow Josephine Bracken) and Bernardo Bernardo as a Babaylan in Set C’s Dear and Unhappy “interestingly imaginative.”

“Playwright Carlo Vergara’s reimagining of Bracken and what her life could have been had she stayed in the country during the Filipino-Spanish War was very engaging. Pang-Independence Day staging ang peg. It calls for true nationalism, which is odd (and very interesting and engaging that way) because the play was about Bracken, who we are not really familiar with as Rizal’s ‘wife,’” he said via Messenger.

“Everyone who worked on the play have transported me to that strange what-if that had only existed in my mind, that moment in our lives when we are called to greatness but at a price. And I thank the entire team for giving this playwright a magical experience,” Carlo Vergara said.

Mr. Galvez also complimented its lead actress, Ms. Villonco, “who was made up and so much in character when she played Josephine Bracken and I didn’t realize it was her until I was told. She was really effective here as an actor,” he added.

Different views on the VLF plays
Ang Bata sa Bus Stop

Rafael Cancino, who studies Integrated Liberal Arts and Medicine at UP Manila, also had a lot to say about Ang Bata sa Bus Stop, where a priest at a bus stop meets his younger self:

“Perhaps, the most silent of plays can introspectively create the loudest echoes. While some of the other plays relied on shock value [such as Eliza Victoria’s Ang Bahay Sa Gitna Ng Kawalan, directed by George de Jesus] and comedic tropes [Maynard Manansala’s and U Eliserio’s Hindi Ako Si Darna, directed by Andoy Ranay], Ang Bata Sa Bus Stop relied on nothing but heart and a road-side bench,” Cancino wrote on an FB post.

“Thirty minutes before the bus is set to pick him up, Matanda — his baggage being his only companion — arrives at the bus stop. Matanda was a priest, but had decided to finally leave the clergy after 20 long years. Bata soon arrives and with him are questions on love, dreams, priesthood (which he dreams of undertaking), and coming home. They start out seemingly as strangers but their engaging dialogue, full of insight and the occasional witticism, eventually paints them as though they’d known each other their whole lives. Sari Saysay had come up with this most phenomenal script as his first VLF feature play. It subverts today’s trend of having controversial current events upon which plays are built. Instead, it is written with an inquisitive soul in its core, thoroughly reflective and self-scrutinizing. Jojo Cayabyab successfully represented the wisdom one only reaps with age and experience. One should not fail to note the star of the show — Omar Uddin — who played the sharp-minded Bata; he, at a very young age, was able to engage with the seasoned Cayabyab in a verbal joust, on a solid footing. Topper Fabregas’ direction was the unifying thread, tying together Messrs. Cayabyab, Uddin and Saysay’s magnificent material, providing a dynamic framework for the actors and the script. His simple and bare approach leaves nothing but their minds and hearts out for the audience to behold, from Cayabyab’s initial monologue to that most satisfying ending,” wrote Mr. Cancino.

Indeed, as VLF 13 Stage Manager Nikki Garde-Torres wrote in her FB microblog “Life at the Labfest,” “(the play is) Sari Saysay’s masterpiece of stillness and internal conversation.”

Kung binasag ng mga piyesa nina Ms. Layeta Bucoy at Sir Carlo Vergara ang isip ko dahil ina-analyze ko ang kanilang mga istorya, habang nanonood, ang piyesang ito ni Sir Sari Saysay (Ang Bata sa Bus Stop, directed by Topper Fabregas) ang bumasag sa puso ko. Durog na durog. Ang linyang iyon (“Hindi lahat ng pag-uwi ay pagbalik.”), shit, ang husay,” remarked poet, playwright and photographer Nippon Denzo in a Facebook post. (If the works of Layeta Bucoy and Carlo Vergara broke my mind because I analyzed their stories as I watched, it was the piece by Sari Saysay that broke my heart. To tiny pieces. That line [“Not all homecomings mean returning to one’s home”], shit, was so good.)

Natokhang ako ng linyang ito kanina. Napamura talaga ako habang nanonood sa sobrang pagka-overwhelm sa husay nang pagkakasulat. Ang simple pero ang sakit sa dibdib.” (It killed me. I couldn’t help but cuss from having been overwhelmed. It’s simple yet it’s heartwrenching.)

Two of the plays in VLF 13 deal with “the horror of fake news… presented most brilliantly” by Eljay Deldoc’s Pilipinas Kong Mahal with All the Overcoat (directed by Roobak Valle) of Set A, and Joshua Lim So’s Boses ng Masa (directed by Guelan Varela-Luarca) of Set B, wrote Torre on FB.

Rick Patriarcha’s “frighteningly familiar” Birdcage (directed by Ian Segarra) of Set A is “a play (about) office workers… who must deal with boredom and routine… and the helplessness of seeing a future with more of the same. Dead dreams,” she added.

Meantime, “pathos is shown” in Hindi Ako si Darna, of Set B, “a play about aging superheroes,” and Oggie Arcenas’ Loveteam (directed by Michael Williams) of Set A “which deals with gender, desperation, lust and affection,” and is “a play about choices, about secrets, honesty and dishonesty,” she noted.

Ryan Machado’s Ang Mga Puyong (directed by Ricardo Magno) of Set B is “unique in its presentation of a ritual of growth and maturity”; while Layeta Bucoy’s Si Dr. Dolly Dalisay at ang mga Ladybugs (directed by Jonathan Tadioan, of Set C) spoke to me of dreams broken by dishonesty, desperation and the anger and prejudice of society,” she wrote.

Catch the different sets until July 16.

“After years and years of having only 220 seats to fill, suddenly we find ourselves with 550 seats in both Batute and Aurelio Tolentino (Little Theater),” Torres announced, with a real lobby (and a lounge) to boot. “We have managed to bring forth, year after year after year, bumper crops of new works so good that they have won many awards (for three years in a row, we bagged the Palanca grand prize and every year we have plays in the top three), that they have been translated to film, and best of all these works have been picked up by other groups and performed all over the country and, yes, even in the US of A.”

Coming this weekend are stage readings at the Tanghalang Amado V. Hernandez (TAVH) Conference Room featuring Set B: Rolin Migyuel Cadallo Obina’s Ang Pag-Uulyanin ni Olivia Mendoza, directed by Emmanuel dela Cruz; and Kevin Tabora’s Andiyan Lang, directed by Dennis Marasigan at 6 p.m. on July 14. Also at 6 p.m. on July 16 is the Virgin Labfest Writing Fellowship Program Showcase, directed by Dennis Marasigan, also at TAVH.

The festival runs until July 16.

Tickets and passes are available at TicketWorld outlets and at the CCP Box Office. Tickets are P400 (at CCP Box Office) and P412 (TicketWorld). VLF festival passes — which can be used to see all sets of performances — are P1,600 each and available only at the CCP Box Office. For more information, contact the CCP Box Office at 832-3704 or TicketWorld at 891-9999.