The Virgin Labfest has been around for fifteen years, and it’s now one of theater’s most anticipated festivals of the year. Some of its offshoots include published collections of selected plays, countless restages beyond the annual Revisited set, beyond even the Philippines. It’s format of twelve ‘untried, untested, unstaged’ one-act plays remains exciting, not only for theater goers but for playwrights as well.
Last year, instead of select one-acts, it was the festival’s model that got its encore, with an ‘Extra’ VLF season that had its pilot run at Liceo De Cagayan University in Cagayan De Oro. Nine untried, untested, unstaged plays were put up, and all of them utilized Mindanaoan talent from playwrights, directors, to creatives, and performers. This ensured that the stories told were of Mindanao, and when they delve particularly into themes of religious and military conflict, they do so with an authenticity that in my opinion, is difficult to fabricate.
It’s the unang puga, the first ‘squeeze’, an apt theme for a festival that is not just the first of its kind, but has squeezed out stories that depict unique or even similar situations and how Mindanaoan culture plays into it. Karlwinn Paitan’s Unsay Koneksyon sa Iring and Lendz Barinque’s Ang Mga Babae sa Kusina each show different types of families, and the interesting dynamics between family members. Kusina also delves into religion and how it both unifies and divides.
Reil Benedict Obinque’s Act of Contrition is a confrontation, as was Angelo Dabbay’s Pultahan; the former confronts ills that had been done against the protagonist, while the latter confonts the ills the protagonist has done himself. Aldren Alferez’s Crystal Clear and Jim Raborar’s Bulan both tread the line of murky behavior, with the former asking the audiences where boundaries between teachers and students should lie, and the latter a comedic circumvention of sexual power dynamics, coated in supernatural lore.
The festival’s first set depict stories of unrest and injustice, necessary topics handled by theatermakers who know their people and their woes: Gil Nambatac’s Si Balaw ug ang Lablab sa Palawpao, a landgrabbing tragedy told mostly through dance, and Darren Bendanillo’s Banga and Norman Isla’s Daan Papunta, Daan Pabalik showing different sides and circumstances of war-torn areas of Mindanao.
It was a mixed bag of stories that cover a lot of ground, showing audiences that the Filipino story is many and varied, while simultaneously proving that we have more similarities than we have differences.
In addition to the sterling insight into Mindanao that one gleans from these specific crop of stories, it’s also a one-of-a-kind experience for this theater fan. Most of the acts are delivered in languages used in Mindanao–none of which I personally speak nor particularly understand–but it wasn’t a true barrier to enjoying and empathizing with these stories.
There’s a lot to see when you don’t understand the words; the production design becomes even more paramount, the non-verbal cues, the delivery becomes your lifeline. It’s almost like watching ballet, you’re challenged to pay attention to everything to follow the story, and then you realise that every theater show is very much the sum of all its parts. It’s experiencing theater outside of your comfort zone, and finding out that what you’ve always known is not the only way.
Future in the Regions
The thesis of the festival is that theater from wherever in the country it stems, is part of Philippine theater. This ought to go without saying, but there’s also no denying that local theater, for the most part, remains centered in Metro Manila. Perhaps with Extra VLF and more exchanges of Manila productions touring and regional shows being brought to the capital, us theatergoers will have a more well-rounded education of just how fellow Filipinos live, and just how rich our theater culture truly is.
If this unang puga in CDO is an indication of the verve and quality of future seasons, Extra VLF has the potential to be just as much of an institution as its mother festival. This could even foster a theater culture of fans in Manila looking beyond city limits, catching theater festivals out of town as they would music or cultural festivals.
No word yet on what’s next for Virgin Labfest’s newest, coolest offshoot. Maybe CDO will become its regular hub, maybe it will move from region to region and center on stories native to people of other regions. Whatever comes next, it will undoubtedly prove that there’s so much more out there, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.
The 16th Virgin Labfest in Manila will run from June 10 to June 28 later this year, headed by new festival director, JK Anicoche.
Photos courtesy of Festival Director Hobart Savior.