Life Is A Trap (A set of three one-act plays in Virgin Labfest 5)

Note:  Because this is a very informal review, and a blog entry, I will do away with polite criticisms, big words, and politically correct statements.  This piece spews a lot of unfounded biases, stereotypes, chauvinistic tones, and b.s.

Anybody who lives in Manila knows that traveling to CCP is like traversing an ocean. Unless one’s a lover of theater or a college student being required to watch a play, nobody in his right mind would even think of going there.  Between a P200-ticket play in a far-flung CCP and a P150 movie that’s one MRT ride to the mall, there’s no competition.   I’m saying this because I think the enormous task that goes with driving to Manila just to be theatrically entertained inevitably affects one’s appreciation/critical assessment of a play.  Because if one went out of his way, spent 500 bucks on gas, got stuck in traffic, passed through chaotic and hole-ridden streets, dodged pedestrians that clog every conceivable space on the road, and paid outrageous parking fees, then the play just had to be fucking good.  Otherwise, even if it was only mildly OK, it would end up being the worst play in the history of theater… in the world.

Last Saturday, and midway through the three plays at Virgin Labfest 5, I was ready to internalize Roger Ebert and declare the set the worst in the festival.  What saved the day was Chris Millado’s Isang Araw sa Karnabal, which came in last.  Yes, you heard Vanessa Williams: save the best for last.

In terms of cohesion, I didn’t know if there was much between the three plays.  I meant to catch a different set that had titles suggesting they were about gays, sex, or both.  For this set, I kept guessing why the three plays were grouped together.  Presumably they would have some similarities, but they’re as alien to each other as Lea Salonga is to Aegis.  They are miles apart in terms of setting, subject, theme, or treatment.  I can perhaps connect them through school stereotypes:  Paigan will be a La Salle production with its over-the-top and often clichéd and unproblematized (read stupid) understanding of Filipino patriotism, Hate Restaurants‘ an Ateneo play because it’s so disengaged from the “real world” (like most Ateneans), and Isang Araw sa Karnabal a Dulaang UP for its political setting, high dosage of wit and humor, and intelligent script.  Or, maybe it’s about the school system:  Paigan is a high school play, Hate Restaurants can pass for a college production, and Isang Araw theater graduate thesis.  Or perhaps it was meant to showcase the theater groups in Manila:  Paigan is a Peta production, Hate Restaurants is definitely from Repertory Philippines, and Isang Araw a Tanghalang Pilipino production.

Paigan is set somewhere in Batangas (the actors sported Batangueno accent) during the American colonial period.  The title refers to the Filipinos’ supposed way of pronouncing Fagan (David Fagan), a Negro G.I who had deserted the Americans and defected to the insurrection.  It comically tells the story of two friends who are wrestling with each other on whether to free or behead Fagan who has a 600-dollar head bounty.  The dialogues are all about being a Filipino, being oppressed, having foreign allies, and – of course – independence from foreign white rulers.  Few backgrounder monologues punctuate the play to show Uncle Sam’s evil agenda, a love story between rich girl and poor boy, and poverty in the barrio.  The play  actually begins and ends in newscast format, underscoring how noble acts like Fagan’s are today often trivialized and sensationalized.  This is supposed to be deplorable, because this means that we have forgotten – and do not in fact value – our heroes – some of whom are even foreigners – who had risked their lives for our independence.  The play wants us to feel bad because Fagan is supposed to be more Filipino than many of us who are squabbling over our own petty concerns.  The melancholic fade-away music in the end plus the gunshots that kill all of the four characters give a very symbolic meaning and poignant feeling of a forgotten period when Filipinos’ passion for their beloved Philippines ran in their veins like the blood of the youth.  Because that is all gone today, by implication, the play wants to say that this lack of patriotism is the reason we’re such a fucked up country.

I know the play wants to tackle big ideas such as Filipinos’ sense of nationalism, patriotism, or what have you.  I just can’t get the image of the playwright outside US embassy and shouting “Down with U.S. imperialism!” out of my head.  Yes, Fagan will not probably ring a bell to many Filipinos, which is bad, and his story is clearly an inspiring one, but PLEASE! Enough of this exorcising of the past!  In this day and age of globalization where previously colonized countries are registering high GNP, isn’t it about time that we find other people to blame for our miseries other than Spain and US, for really crying out loud?  What about the government?  Or corruption?  Filipinos have a false sense of development related to an oppressed past.  Our very melodramatic view of the past and of the tragic stories of our heroes who died for the Philippines doesn’t really help.  The level of guilt we have for being less Filipino than we should be will not improve the economy.  Patriotism, or the lack of it, has nothing to do with the mess we’re all in.  Have you seen how patriotic North Koreans are? How about USSR people before the union collapsed?  China did not become a very promising super power state because of its citizens’ patriotism but because it opened its markets in the last decade.  Enough of this shit and stupid preachy-kind-of plays!

Hate Restaurants is a play I love and hate at the same time because it unintentionally gives a glimpse of how the Filipino conyotic and burgis (read those nakaka-asar-as-in-grabeh- guys from Ateneo, La Salle, and College of Business Administration in UP) probably think and act, which is stupidly funny and offensive at the same time.  I love it because I’ve many friends whose real life tragedies and dramas revolve around their crazy officemates.  I hate it because, shit, they seem to live in Mars and not in the Philippines where many people’s daily problems are getting hungry, sick, and being oppressed/exploited.  The play is utterly devoid of issues such as poverty or corruption in the country.  It’s about weird middle class people in weird middle class situations with weird cults driving every possible normal person/place under its dominion.  The characters speak in English in the accent of the conyotic yuppies in Makati.  The setting is in a restaurant that could be somewhere in Makati, Ortigas, Manhattan, San Francisco, who cares!  It doesn’t matter, because they’re all urbanites with urban concerns and urban sense of paranoia.  Plot: very sane cute girl works as a chef in a restaurant that is owned by very insane woman who’s madly in love with her insane and supercilious macho but nerdy-looking chef employee who himself hates everyone in his workplace, especially this other insane and sadako-looking manager-employee.  One day, restaurant is invaded by people from friends of science cult who look like haughty Makati office girls and who don’t eat flour, only barley.  Each person from the restaurant is eventually converted to the friends of science, and sane cute girl uses flour with all her might to defend herself  from these mad people.  There is another character in the play, the mouse, who is beheaded and who in the end reappears to kill his butcher.

Okay, so this is probably satire, or making fun of the often weird-acting and weird-looking city people.  I love the way the play concerns itself with the neurosis of the middle class, their issues with co-employees, officemates, boss, and other people who have a world of their own.  For this play to be shown to a middle class audience who probably share the dilemmas of the characters in the play but who live in a third world country is so… perfect!  In one level, I can clearly relate with the problems of the sane cute girl and I can identify people I know who are exactly like the weird neurotic characters in the play.  In another level, because the play does not tell me where it is set or does not even attempt to make a statement about glaring issues about poverty or corruption – clearly the “real” truths about the place where I live – I feel alienated by the play.  It’s as if it doesn’t give a shit about theater’s moral obligation (is there?) to address gripping issues that affect/afflict its audience.  In this sense, it’s very academic.  It doesn’t have a political view or leaning to preach to its audience, it just presents the lives of a composite group – the middle class – and its sensibilities.

But Filipino middle class are nuanced by the ever present face of poverty.  Who doesn’t have a yaya who’s poor or a driver whose family lives in the squatter’s area?  And from what I’ve studied in college, middle class Filipinos do not necessarily have Western middle class sensibilities or culture capital (yes, after Bourdieu).  In short, a Filipino chef who may live in a condo unit in The Fort and drives a Honda may have different values and concerns compared to his contemporaries in Sydney or London.  She may probably have poor relatives, or parents totally dependent on her, or she may be sending several siblings to school.  The play is therefore actually very alienating even to middle class Filipinos, except maybe to those few who come from Ateneo or La Salle, grew up in gated communities, chauffeured to “safe” places in Metro Manila, and whose idea of poverty is getting a second-hand iPod instead of a brand new.

Isang Araw sa Karnabal is the play among the three that has the least number of actors (two), the least number of stage props (Bermuda floor and a bench), and the least number of monologues.  But it’s the most funny, compelling, and moving story.  I think it’s also the better directed of the three.  And the script!  It’s one of the wittiest and serious plays I’ve encountered.  Nick Pichay is a master storyteller in this play.  The scene opens with Tony sitting in a bench in Enchanted Paradise (a.k.a. Enchanted Kingdom) which is her and Zaldy’s, her quasi-boyfriend, trysting place.  While waiting for Zaldy she listens and sings with the Carpenters’ The Way We Were in her mp3 player.  Something happens in the middle of the song: the chorus part has gone, replaced by another song.  She is bewildered, almost seized by panic, and rewinds the track.  Then Zaldy appears.  The audience then spends 45 minutes with Zaldy and Tony at the carnival as they try different rides, discuss their future plans, confirm their commitments to a cause and with each other, and make bitter and sad decisions.  The carnival experience reveals that they met in a counseling group; both had a family member who’s a desaparecido (a missing person presumably killed because of his/her political beliefs).  While Zaldy has tried to move on and attempts to create some semblance of life around him, Tony is still resolved in finding her father, even after she has discovered that he has another family.  Tony persuades Zaldy to continue his search for his sister’s killers, or at least help her look for her father.  In truth, Tony is also measuring his commitment to her or to their possible future marital relationship.  When she realizes he’s not up to it, she decides to rid of him, and the child she’s bearing with him.  She gives him one last chance, to eat the shit-toy which she tells Zaldy to be a candy and a sign of one’s unwavering love to a woman.  Zaldy has second thoughts, and Tony walks out of the stage and tells him they’ll see each other one of these days.  “Txt txt”, she says.  In truth, she has already left him.

I know this play is good because I can’t stop from laughing at the often humor-peppered dialogues even when the subject is about people disappearing and presumably getting murdered.  I don’t know how the script does it, but while guffawing I was also feeling so bad witnessing how the characters continue to struggle and seem to be conflicted to eternity by the disappearance of their family members.  Their tormented souls are displayed when almost everything in the carnival, a place that is supposed to be a fantasy playground and an escape from reality, is linked to their current predicaments and/or emotions: the missing chorus lines in Tony’s mp3 player referring to missing people, the carnival game of shooting moving animals is Tony’s rage and resolve to avenge her father, the horror ride becoming an analogy of the frightening scenario and political environment they’re in, and the plunging roller coaster a metaphor for Tony’s decision to drop and abort her child.

The direction is class A.  I can’t for the life of me still believe how, with only the help of the stage lights and the actor’s body movements, I was convinced that I was also on a ride with Zaldy and Tony as they went through the exhilirating highs and lows of the roller coaster.  If the play can give me that kind of effect, then it must really be a good one.

Note:

Thanks to Gibbs Cadiz for the tree ticket(s) and the man at the front house who got frightened when I told him I was from the PRESS and needed two more additional tickets for my friends.  My friends became an instant theater convert after seeing the three plays and went on to watch the other sets.

SET E: Life is a Trap (Three Plays in Search of Escape)

June 27: 3pm, 8pm
June 30: 8pm
July 1: 3pm

Isang Araw sa Karnabal by Nicolas B. Pichay, directed by Chris Millado

Paigan by Liza Magtoto, directed by Sigrid Bernardo

Hate Restaurants by David Finnigan, directed by J. Victor Villareal

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9 thoughts on “Life Is A Trap (A set of three one-act plays in Virgin Labfest 5)

  1. An impossible review. How did you manage writing like a bitch but still sounding like Bourdieu?

    I’m thinking of watching all the sets. Hahaha.

    Wish you’re here.

  2. Isang araw sa karnabal na siya hindi peryahan.

    Si tony yung babaeng character at si zaldy yung lalaking caharacter.

  3. Thanks for writing about the theatre. I hope you continue to do so. I, too, brave hailstorms just to watch plays hoping to find a gem. But even if I don’t, I still find myself enjoying the theatre. I always appreciate the undeniable fact that the actors are real and performing live for the audience. It’s a great gift– actual presence.

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