The only good thing I can say about Artist Playground’s “Roses for Ben”, is that it features a character that is surprisingly matter-of-factly genderfluid. He self-identifies as such early in the musical, and we are told that he’s had meaningful relations with men, women, and what in the gay community are referred to as “bears”.
I suppose there are also some songs that are good, and might even be beautiful out of context, and the music has that musical theater quality to it that’s melodious to listen to— but that’s about it.
Everything else is a confounding, endless, melodramatic mess that doesn’t make much sense. Playwright Rayne Jarabo’s language of choice is Taglish for no real reason. I suppose the eponymous character, Ben, is solidly middle class and deft English and Tagalog skills signifies that— but that feels like giving the playwright too much credit. Some of the songs are also inexplicably purely English seemingly out of pure whim.
Depending on how much you know about HIV, you might learn a thing or two about it watching the show. Factual, scientific things that a doctor character says in a dialogue. And I suppose for that, this show might be worth it, but that’s still sitting through so much dross and song and melodrama that doesn’t add up to much narratively.
The plot is about Ben, who is a millennial and also sexually experienced. We are introduced to characters in his life, and characters in their lives and the drama they get up to that could give the most convoluted afternoon soaps a run for their money.
It’s also terribly hysterical, with a cast that perform as though to be louder is to be better. But the performances are besides the point, and that point is that this show feels like a padded, rough first draft. While Artist Playground’s commitment to develop new talent is commendable, charging a thousand pesos a ticket is quite a lot to ask for something that is, frankly, undercooked.
Director Roeder Camanag doesn’t reign anything or anyone in. If the actors are moved to hysteria, so be it. If they overplay the comedy, if they bask in over characterizations, then so be it. It also dips in and out of breaking the fourth wall constantly for seemingly no reason. Sometimes the characters are singing at each other, most of the time they pick a mic and sing as though they’re in a cabaret that feels like an overuse of the Brechtian method.
The choices made in this show are too inconsistent and random to be deliberate, and too melodramatic to be truthful.
None of it feels true enough to connect or sympathise with, or even to learn from. It delves into themes that are very serious and yet presented without finesse or depth or nuance. There’s casual sex, and adultery, and gender fluidity, and sexual predators, and dealing with and living with HIV and yet none of these characters seem to understand the seriousness of their predicaments. Sure they cry and sing a sad song or two, but then something else grave and poorly explored happens.
The show’s technical aspects also seem like an afterthought, with a set design of painted panels you can’t quite comprehend.
Stories about what it’s like to be LGBTQ+, to live with HIV, in Manila ought to be told and seen, but with humanity and complexity that depicts reality and truth—you won’t get that from “Roses for Ben”.
Tickets: Php 900.00 - Php 1,000.00 Show Dates: June 15 ’19, June 16 ’19, June 22 ’19, June 23 ’19 Venue: Arts Above, 112 West Ave, Quezon City, Metro Manila Running Time: approx. 1 hour and 45 minutes (no intermission) Credits: Rayne jarabo (book & lyrics), Roeder Camanag (director), Jesse Lucas (musical director), Arnold Bascal (assistant musical director), Lezlie Dailisan (choreographer) Cast: Jude Matthew Servilla, Benj Espina, Beaulah Mae Saycon, Mirriam Reyes, Kim De Las Alas, Bobby Martino, Dene Gomez, Khen Dels, Nikki Herrera, April Jasmin Rosales, Jerome Fuguso Company: Artist Playground