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REVIEW: 12 Virgin Labfest “Hinga” Plays, Ranked

REVIEW: 12 Virgin Labfest “Hinga” Plays, Ranked

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The Philippine theater scene is slowly rising again and it’s fitting that one of the first shows to open its doors to live audiences is also one of the industry’s most enduring institutions. The Virgin Labfest adapted to survive in 2020 with plays that attempted to make use of the online medium. This year (its 17th!), it’s adapting once again by welcoming the emerging hybrid form where shows are first staged for a limited run for an in-person audience, and then later make recordings available for streaming.

While this new theater normal makes Philippine theater accessible unlike ever before, the medium still leaves much to be desired to even come close to capturing the unique magic that is live theater. But for the theater fan who need their fix, who considers it unthinkable to miss a VLF season, this year’s one-acts are streaming until July 10.

12. Bituing Marikit

Written by Bibeth Orteza; Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna
The big reveal in Bibeth Orteza’s Bituing Marikit is that the recently deceased woman three men have been calling their mother for years was, in fact, a transwoman. We are told that she had been a loving mother and wife, and not much else–because this isn’t her story. She is the dead body on the slab to be talked about and not known, to be the plot device for these group of men to sort out themselves and their emotions, the show largley offering little more than tired tropes and weak comedy.

11. Liberation

Written by Jerry O’Hara; Directed by Dennis Marasigan
It’s the end of the Japanese Occupation and with this end come the end of the Japanese soldiers’ raison d’etre. They’re questioning their orders, their purpose, and wondering where they ought to go from there. This is what Jerry O’Hara tried to explore in Liberation. It’s a heavy, historically rich hour that while noble in the questions it poses, asks it through a staging that’s only mildly compelling.

10. Huling Haraya Nina Ischia at Emeteria

Written by Ryan Machado; Directed by Regina De Vera
Plays with a touch of supernatural horror are rare to come by, so for Ryan Machado to continue to dare tell such tales enriches the smorgasbord of stories on offer during the VLF. This time, it’s a mother and daughter on their last night together before the daughter leaves for Manila. There are things they’re not saying that must be said, building up a pseudo-mystery that doesn’t really translate to intrigue so that by the end, the lasting impact it leaves is confusion.

9. Bienvenuta Al Lido Di Venezia

Written by George Vail Kabristante; Directed by Nanding Josef and Antonette Go
In George Vail Kabrisante’s Bienvenuta Al Lido Di Venezia, you’re not quite sure what the story is getting at. Plenty, with sudden revelations that paints an incredible and unbelievable life of a domestic helper before she ended up in the swanky cellar of an Italian contessa’s estate. The unravelling of her story is interesting, but there’s not much suspense built until it ends with two murders of which you’re not sure the purpose of, if there was one at all.

8. Absurdo: Event Day

Written by BJ Crisostomo; Directed by Mara Agleham
As advertised, this BJ Crisostomo play is indeed absurd. It’s the last half hour of the world and two project coordinators are preoccupied with doing their jobs (events planning) while complaining (rightly) about poor working conditions. It’s an exhibition, not an examination, of the events industry where the world may be in its last legs, but higher-ups are still preoccupied with perfectionism, sucking up to clients, and power-tripping underlings. While occasionally entertaining, the back and forth is so chaotic and boisterous to the point of deafening.

7. Student’s Handbook

Written by Anthony Kim Vergara; Directed by Erika Estacio
Anthony Kim Vergara has a lot to say in Student Handbook, some more effectively than others. There’s truth in school administration putting the institution’s best interests ahead of the students. All student handbooks are full of nonsensical guidelines governing student bodies, and what they did on their own time. But along with these insights, the story also clunkily tried to preach against people who are not taking an unknown virus seriously as though trying to ring an alarm bell, except the alarm bell had already been rung two and a half years ago.

6. Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito

Written by Eljay Deldoc; Directed by J. William Herbert Sigmund Go and Tess Jamias
Eljay Deldoc is telling an important story in Walang Bago sa Dulang Ito. It’s highly relevant, too, where we often encounter stories of young people failed by institutions in sexual misconduct cases. But the bug allegory is more than a bit much, as though the play is saying that because there’s nothing new about stories of abuse, then it must be dressed creatively to change it up somehow as though it’s one way such stories will feel fresh and relevant again for audiences to pay attention.

5. Mga Balo

Written by Ma. Cecilia de la Rosa; Directed by Adrienne Vergara
Ma Cecilia de la Rosa’s writing and Adrienne Vergara’s direction are truly symbiotic in Mga Balo. The stylized and highly choreographed staging doesn’t get in the way of de la Rosa’s at times enthrallingly knotty and superbly challenging experimentation where a playwright, self-aware, self-absorbed, but self-reflective, attempts to tell the story of women widowed by ex-President Duterte’s disastrous drug war. We’re taken inside the writing process, the at-times torturous second-guessing of one writer as she tries to strike a balance between giving voice to the voiceless and serving her own interest. A sampling of the kind of truly unique work that the VLF, at its best, can make possible.

4. ‘Nay May Dala Akong Pancit

Written by Juan Ekis; Directed by Karl Alexis Jingco
High concept comedy that’s unlike anything else on offer, ‘Nay, May Dala Akong Pancit, by Juan Ekis features two siblings who get a repeat of the same moment to try and protect their mother from pancit that seem to lead to her demise. They throw everything but the kitchen sink trying to change the outcome, including changing the genre, or even asking the audience for input. An absolute experience, it looked like a damn good time. If there’s a show that makes one wish they had made the pilgrimage to CCP instead of being #TeamBahay, it would be this.

3. Punks Not Dead

Written by Andrew Bonifacio Clete; Directed by Roobak Valle
It’s all fun and games until it isn’t in this Andrew Bonifacio Clete play. A mother goes to her child’s school to submit study modules, and hilariously (and rightfully) tries to contest the still-prevalent indoctrination of her child that people with tattoos must be a bad person and a criminal. We’re still in funny-because-true territory here, even when a fellow parent and police comes in to submit the same modules. The sustaining of the comedic tone, the persistent comedy of errors that has you laughing even as a gun is drawn and pointed is part of the show’s genius (directed by Roobak Valle). And then shots are fired. No one is laughing anymore. Because it can happen just like that: anybody, at any time, can be a Tokhang victim.

2. Fermata

Written by Dustin Celestino; Directed by Guelan Luarca
Playwright Dustin Celestino is on form in Fermata–a conversation between two old friends that start out pleasant and casual until it starts to uncover long-ago buried trauma. There’s a truthfulness in the way a man processes his experiences in this play that’s not at all common. Captivating, insightful, and raw, it’s even more heightened by a remarkable Basti Artadi who seemed to have found his metier in theater.

1. Unica Hijas

Written by Mikaela Regis; Directed by Pat Valera
Mikaela Regis’s coming-of-age romcom is so enamoring that it manages to reach out from the screen to nearly physically tug at your heartstrings. Age-appropriately performed with verve and charm by its leads Joy Delos Santos and Ash Nicanor. The stakes are sky-high for these two characters whose safe space–their school–is exposed as anything but after they’re threatened with sanctions for simply expressing their love for each other. Evocatively directed by Pat Valera (who clearly knows a thing or two about staging romance), you feel what these two characters feel: the kilig of first love, the terror of exposure, the catharsis of coming out. It’s sweet, and tender, and even musical. Exquisite.

Tickets: Php 300.00 - Php 800.00
Show Dates: Jun 16 '22, Jun 17 '22, Jun 18 '22, Jun 19 '22, Jun 23 '22, Jun 24 '22, Jun 25 '22, Jun 26 '22, Jun 30 '22, Jul 1 '22, Jul 2 '22, Jul 3 '22, Jul 4 '22, Jul 5 '22, Jul 6 '22, Jul 7 '22, Jul 8 '22, Jul 9 '22, Jul 10 '22
Venue: Tanghalang Huseng Batute, Cultural Center of the Philippines
Company: Tanghalang Pilipino, Writer's Bloc
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