Trigger warning: This piece includes discussions about sexual assault and harassment.
Virgin Labfest 2023’s opening sets wrestle with our ever-heightened zeitgeist, as they provide commentaries about the cultural conversations that we are allowed to have today, how institutions continue to neglect people living on the fringes, and how art can become complicit in maintaining injustice.
Set A: Adulting 101 feels more tame in its thematic concerns, laying out its critique by examining fractured relationships between siblings, a couple, a child, and his parents. Set B: Rebelasyon, on the contrary, displays a more overt interrogation of impunity and historical erasure, and how theater can enable such abuses.
Here is a closer look at each staging.
10 to Midnight (written by Juliene Mendoza, directed by Sarah Facuri)
A few minutes before midnight, Bien (Bombi Plata) visits his younger brother Billy (Jerome Dawis) at his home, hoping for a shoulder to cry on, but Billy isn’t pleased with the surprise arrival.
Banking on this premise, 10 to Midnight raises fundamental questions about mending relationships, mental health, career failure, and dealing with substance abuse. What makes the play work is the empathy and humanity that writer Juliene Mendoza and director Sarah Facuri extend to their characters, placing us right into the heart of Bien’s situation, but also not forgetting to show the difficulty in trying to bear someone’s weight.
So we understand Billy, who still comes to his brother’s aid, despite facing his own dilemma. We understand why sometimes his brother gets under his skin, as highlighted by his moment of outburst—a scene that would have been far more touching had the blockings been given more thought. But there is a tenderness that buoys the play’s message, best depicted when Bien remembers his brother’s birthday and offers him a gift.
Warm and concise, 10 to Midnight reminds us how tricky healing can get, how we can only do so much for the people we hold dear in our hearts, and how, sometimes, we only ever need someone who is willing to listen amidst all the crippling noise.
O (written by Raymund Barcelon, directed by Missy Maramara)
O is too hot to handle, precisely because of the sex appeal and onstage chemistry of Juan Carlos Galano and Aryn Cristobal. Here are two bodies and two souls, so beautiful to look at.
But it is not all beauty and hotness. The play opens with a raunchy bed scene, complete with dirty talk and an exposed rear end. When the two are at the peak of the deed, Astrid (Cristobal) breaks up with Oliver (Galano), revealing that her partner doesn’t let her finish in bed.
What is initially an issue of sexual dissatisfaction rolls into complex discussions about women’s bodies, marriage as an end goal, the male ego, and making relationships work. But despite the charm of both actors, O leaves something to be desired, especially in terms of narrative daring: of peeling away its layers further and deeper, of making the stakes in Astrid’s decision more pronounced, of raising more questions about Oliver’s toxic masculinity, and of being more open to exploring gray areas. It's something that will leave the audience with a powerful sensation, as though they’re experiencing the orgasm that Astrid badly needs.
Nevertheless, O makes a wise choice by going for an endnote that magnifies how women can actively assert autonomy over their bodies, how they can create so many options outside of married life, and how it has never been their duty to satisfy men’s pleasures, just as Astrid leaves her lover, throws her engagement ring in the trash, and walks away—no longer afraid to make mistakes and to speak her truth.
Regine: The Fairy Gaymother (written by Chuck Smith, directed by Mark Daniel Dalacat)
Regine: The Fairy Gaymother understands, with searing awareness, the material and cultural significance of the story it depicts onstage. By spotlighting queer life in and out of the closet, it resurfaces the community’s struggles that most people only remember, if at all, when the calendar strikes June.
Written by Chuck Smith and directed by Mark Daniel Dalacat, the play centers around Diego (Adrian Lindayag), who wishes to come out at his own pace but gets intimidated by his parents (Tex Ordoñez-De Leon and Ron Capindig). Then things take a wild, intriguing course as Regine Velasquez (Anton Diva), Diego’s fairy gaymother, visits him.
Lindayag's intensity moves us in a way that lets us share the experience—and not only the view—of Diego’s interior life, of a life that so many of us in the community have long been enduring and striving to change. This performance, however, will not be possible if not for an equally terrific supporting cast: the hilarious and animated Ordoñez-De Leon, the naturally effective Capindig, and the revelatory Anton Diva.
When the hilarity peters out, all that is left is a razor-sharp message: that no matter how the state and right-wing evangelists deny us—queer and trans people—of our rights, and no matter how the world tries to eradicate our stories, we will always push back and carry on. We will actively imagine a world that can never claim our light, just as Diego, in the final image, belts his heart out to a Regine classic, allowing himself to truly shine, hopeful and unapologetic, as if to say, here I come (out)!
Tuloy Ang Palabas (written by Layeta Bucoy, directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio)
Set during the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines, Tuloy Ang Palabas sees Solita (Shamaine Buencamino) arguing with her niece Adeling (Rissey Reyes-Robinson) about staging the story of their patron saint in time for their town’s fiesta.
At first, the play skirts around what it wants to say, until one notices how Adeling’s dress is stained with blood and how she tries to conceal the foul smell, detailing how she’s been raped by the town’s gobernadorcillo who commissions their performance. But Solita, blinded by her desperation to be seen as an accomplished performer, washes her hand off the violence, twistedly claiming that it is solely the way to pull themselves out of poverty.
Tuloy Ang Palabas unearths how the network of neglect, if not challenged, can lead to routine violence; how poverty forces the disenfranchised to ignore questions of ethics and morality; and how convenient it is to keep mum in the face of injustice.
Yet for their well-meaning attempt at reopening an important discussion, it’s frustrating to see that writer Layeta Bucoy and director Tuxqs Rutaquio refuse to offer Adeling the very empathy that they hope the audience extends to her. One might ask: Is it not possible to imagine something better for victims and survivors of abuse, considering that their stories have long been mined and narrativized onstage? Is it so hard to offer them a semblance of justice, even just in fiction, in art?
Dominador Gonzales: National Artist (written by Dingdong Novenario, directed by George de Jesus)
In hopes of reviving his playwriting career, Oliver (Riki Benedicto) desires to collaborate with his former mentor and lover Dmon (Joel Saracho), now rumored to receive the National Artist award for his contributions to Philippine theater.
It is clear that writer Dingdong Novenario and director George de Jesus interrogate how art and its creators can also be complicit in maintaining the status quo, in sweeping under the rug so many stories of abuse.
The script, in its levity and sharpness, is littered with digs at problematic artists and politicians. Novenario also has a proclivity for erotic humor, as demonstrated in a scene where Oliver teases Edward (AJ Sison), the houseboy, about being well-versed in using Grindr while the latter preps his coffee.
It takes a lucid artistic eye to pull off what Dominador Gonzales: National Artist does in its brief runtime: how mentorship can perpetuate sexual assault and trauma, how gender politics and power dynamics roll on a slippery Möbius strip, and how craft can fail us as much as it can give us hope—all expertly captured by its small yet tenacious cast.
Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol (written by Andrew Estacio, directed by Nazer Salcedo)
Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol is an absolute riot. It follows a group of theater artists seemingly hitting a fever dream upon the arrival of their dramaturg (Kath Castillo) on their final rehearsal day.
While writer Andrew Estacio and director Nazer Salcedo overstuff the material with information that affects the pace at times, one cannot deny that the staging is effective because of its commitment to its own absurdity. And so much of this work, thanks in large part to Adrienne Vergara, who commands an incredible stage presence: one that makes her a cut above the rest but also elevates the work of her fellow actors, if not the entire staging.
But apart from the comedic miracle, the play comes with a caveat, excavating how potent theater, or any work of art, can be as a tool not only for imagining worlds beyond but also for promoting historical erasure, and how entertainment can often be deceiving, especially under a time of heightened precarity.
Like a work in progress, Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol still requires some refinement. Yet what it achieves is beyond enough to warrant a second viewing, if not more. A genius and generous piece that remains with you, even after exiting the theater.