Necessity is the mother of invention as they say, and we’re witnessing it first-hand now as the Virgin Labfest shifts from onstage to online. What you’ll see when you watch these shows is beyond the sort of recorded live on stage or even ‘Zoom’ theater that we’ve seen so far–it’s something entirely new; a gobsmacking marriage of art, technology, and daring theatermakers who think so far out of the box, each one act offers a directorial surprise you might not have seen anywhere else.
The experience of watching is also entirely new and entirely thrilling–from calling back to tradition with those familiar chimes playing before every show, to the novelty of leaving real-time comments as the show unravels onscreen. Even the evolution of the year’s theme, “Kapit”, turning into the season’s battle cry in the comments section for when poor internet speeds get in the way, show the optimism of audiences to see a great show.
As for this year’s selection of one-acts, they’re all vastly different from each other, with a glaring unifyer being that all of this year’s playwrights for featured shows are men. Only time will tell if the Virgin Labfest will improve in showcasing female playwrights, but for right now, here are this year’s ‘untried, untested, and unstaged’ plays:
Written by Dustin Celestino; directed by Roobak Valle
When Roobak Valle directed Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal earlier this quarantine, it laid the foundation for what this year’s VLF has achieved this season. He showed us that theater can be done, can be live, in this time of social distancing. Doggy’s staging on the otherhand, has a real-life married couple performing the entirety of the play in one bedroom. It left nowhere for Celestino’s play to hide from; revealing it to just be gender stereotyping from start to finish. It feels like a subjection, of having to watch a poor woman get gaslit by her fiance, only for the play to have the gall to tease that she might marry him afterall.
Written by Jay Crisostomo IV; directed by Sigmund Roy Pecho
The period is crucial in understanding and liking this coming of age piece about a group of boys and their distinctly boy and distinctly 90s needs and interests. As it stands, the ribald jokes and crudity are its most memorable, offering a few chuckles and a running time that felt longer than it was.
#8. Gin Bilog
Written by Luisito Nario; directed by Harvey Estrada
How do you stage sex and violence when your performers are nowhere near each other? Estrada maximizes the limiting screen form to create believable proximity and chaos that you’re just able to suspend disbelief enough to blur the clearly separate screens. Despite the vulgarity and violence, Nario’s premise is playful, and touching very lightly into themes of urban poverty and family dynamics.
Written by Tyron Casumpang; directed by Jethro Tenorio
Most successful as an education on SOGIE, Casumpang’s BlackPink was at its clearest when explaining the difference between sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression through a colorful slideshow-y interlude involving many a talong, petsay and bayong. The themes touched are as broad as its comedy; sweeping through toxic masculinity, the ‘old school’ mentality on gender and sexuality, and a young boy’s coming of age.
#6. Mayang Bubot sa Tag-araw
Written by Mark Norman Boquiren; directed by Mark Mirando
It’s a mark of privilege, never having thought of the impact of Balikatan Exercises to local communities in the area, and Boquiren educates his audiences in this story of two childhood friends whose different life paths were informed and affected by living in proximity to this foreign invasion. Mirando’s ingenious use of shadow puppetry and backgrounds takes breaking screen barriers to another level, making it look as though his actors are in the same space.
#5. Papaano Turuan ang Babae Humawak ng Baril
Written by Daryl Pasion; directed by Erika Estacio
A timely and necessary narrative by Pasion revealing who the real villains are in the nightmarish reality lived by an impoverished couple living in the regions. A little too overwrought at times, with the husband’s experiences and story far more compelling than the wife, who is mostly a shock absorber for the internal turmoil being unleashed upon her.
#4. The Boyboy and Friends Channel
Written by Anthony Kim Vergara; Directed by Joshua Tayco
Like last year’s Wanted: Male Boarders, this show is another example of the genius that comes out when the director–this time, Joshua Tayco–leans into gimmick and camp. Boisterous and full of visual surprises from start to finish, including audience participation rewarding to those who chose to watch it live. The deliberate chaos of the direction doesn’t undercut the show, even when the story gets serious. Vergara’s writing also shows a compelling interplay of social responsibility, male expectations, and boyish friendship.
Written by Juliene Mendoza; directed by Fitz Edward Bitana
Mendoza takes us through the complicated relationship between two brothers, carefully peeling back layers to reveal real pain and then harsh truths. The comic book idea of the multiverse as a metaphor for grief and regret becomes deeply poignant, aided by Bitana’s comic book-coated visuals that give the show its high-action energy. It also lives up to its title by the end, offering audiences peeks inside alternate universes.
#2. Titser Kit
Written by Jobert Grey Landeza; directed by Adrienne Vergara
What tenderness we’re shown by Landeza in this story of a young Lumad student, with his favorite teacher, creating for himself some temporary peace from his terrifying reality. Vergara creates a realistic, physical togetherness necessary for such an intimate back-and-forth, that only adds to the story’s climax. It’s sweet, and quiet, and emotional, transcending language barriers and even internet speeds. Beautiful.
#1. Pilot Episode
Written by Floyd Scott Tiogangco; directed by Giancarlo Abrahan
Frustrating and agitating from start to finish, but that’s precisely the point of this portrait of a young man suffering from a bipolar disorder. Tiogangco starts off by walking us through what it’s like to seek help, and then shows us what its like to have an episode, and what it’s like to witness a loved one go through an episode. Deeply disorientating. And then you realize just how much work needs to be done here by way of supporting and understanding mental health. Abrahan’s multiple angles, the way the actors look and talk to each other as though they’re all inhabiting the same space, Phi Palmos delivering an unforgettable, piercing performance alongside Missy Maramara and Jojit Lorenzo–utterly masterful.
This year’s Virgin Labfest set a high bar for this new form of theater. It’s exciting, and even hopeful, to see theater adapt to the times like this. It makes me believe in its resilience to survive even the most ravaging global disasters, because theater–despite the state of arts funding and non-existent government support will make us believe–is essential; to safeguard our culture, protest against power, and most importantly, tell our stories.
Tickets: Php 100.00 – Php 200.00
Show Dates: Jun 10 ‘20, Jun 11 ‘20, Jun 12 ‘20, Jun 13 ‘20, Jun 14 ‘20, Jun 16 ‘20, Jun 17 ‘20, Jun 18 ‘20, Jun 19 ‘20, Jun 20 ‘20, Jun 21 ‘20, Jun 23 ‘20, Jun 24 ‘20, Jun 25 ‘20, Jun 26 ‘20, Jun 27’ 20, Jun 28, 20
Venue: Cultural Center of the Philippines on Facebook and Vimeo
Company: Writer’s Bloc