PETA makes no bones about where they stand politically, and Liza Magtoto’s “A Game of Trolls” is the culmination of their stand. Director Maribel Legarda describes it as their “protest play”, and it comes across as such. In response to the recent burial of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, their message to the audience is clear: #MarcosIsNOTaHero.
The story starts off in the battleground we call our Facebook news feeds. Hector (Myke Salomon) is a paid internet troll whose job it is to bolster the Marcos agenda, or at least disrupt the opposition. It’s a 9-to-5 job, with an office that works like a call-center company ran by maniacal boss Bimbam (Vince Lim).
Against the multimedia backdrop (video by Joee Mejias) of facts, figures, arguments, and counter-arguments, the ‘organized’ trolls perform the first song, touching on troll logic: start with non sequitur; if that doesn’t work, go ad hominem. Vincent De Jesus (as music and lyricist) captures the pulse of the political social media warfare and uncovers the simple truth that you can’t win against people who don’t care and who have nothing to lose.
Hector lends his skills to the cause without compunction, not out of passion for the position he’s fighting for but out of apathy. He is, however, not beyond convincing. Ghosts of near-forgotten Martial Law victims start to haunt him, afraid they’ll be “erased from the cloud”. In reveries akin to A Christmas Carol, they take him back and make him experience their story. During this, he also meets poet Emman Lacaba, speaking his work “An open letter to Filipino Artists”. Actor John Moran’s delivery did not do the poem justice. Fortunately, the words were projected in the background, allowing the audience to better read and understand the piece.
That fire of concern for his fellow man, that #BayanMunaBagoSarili activism doesn’t quite take with Hector. His personal experiences have turned him cynical. He had a lonely childhood, as his mother Tere (Upeng Fernandez) chose to fight the Marcos regime instead of being a present mother. She had been caught and imprisoned, but the story chooses to display the internal conflict of a mother who chose to fight, who knew the possible consequences, instead of putting the blame on a regime that would’ve torn their family apart one way or the other.
Tere does finally tell the tale of what she experienced at the hands of her captors, and Ms. Fernandez performs the emotional, poignant, almost haunting number that does not only speak of the unspeakable horrors of the Marcos regime, but the unique terror that befalls the women, especially.
No stone is left unturned in Ms. Magtoto’s play. It’s at a level of awareness that enables it to touch on economic class. There’s a joke over how freedom and activism is so ‘burgis’, you laugh but it also puts at the forefront the fact that fighting for the country is almost a privilege of the middle class. Gold Villar also sings a song about EJKs, and how it exclusively happens to the poor.
The show does end on a hopeful note, and a clear call to action for people to ask about their people’s past. It’s the special hour-and-a-half preview Ms. Legarda calls an “extended trailer” (full run in April), which could explain why there’s a lack of character development (as with Ms. Villar’s character, whose only purpose I could tell was to play Heck’s long-suffering love interest). But, the politics, the protest, and the heart of the musical was already there ready and bursting to be told and heard.
“A Game of Trolls” is a shining example of the power of theater to transcend entertainment, or even art. With this piece, PETA has lived up to its mission to educate. It sought for audiences to understand and care about their history, and in that regard, it has been triumphant.