What does a confession demand of its listener? I fiddle with this question as I watch members of a four-man ensemble come forward and strip down to their underwear as they share stories of shame.
It has been a riotous hour. After long stretches of manic exhaustion, jumping and writhing across three spaces, the actors address us directly and confide what seem to be deeply personal wounds. But are the stories their own? The weight of these secrets fall on my lap and I wonder what I’ve done to receive the intimacy. What role do I play as a viewer? Am I a confidante or an interrogator?
Langgam Performance Troupe (LPT) does away with the stage as they open Portraits last Oct. 28 at Calle Wright. It is the first of three shows. The venue, a house-turned-gallery, finds audiences leaning against moss-lined walls, seated on the floor, and climbing up steps.
“Theater and performance can exist without the conventional theater space,” explains LPT artistic director Jenny Logico-Cruz. “We’ve always been open to that, but in this instance, it’s our first time to do it with an art gallery.”
For eight years, LPT has been staging performance-experiments, what it calls process-based pieces that approach practice as research. Portraits owes the thrill of its open form—it has a structure but no linear story—to collaborative devising techniques.
LPT is the first performance group to have been invited for a residency at Calle Wright. It’s exciting to see how this disciplinary meeting might draw links between devised theater and installation, performance art, and participatory practice. Upon seeing the material, Calle Wright’s program curator Gary-Ross Pastrana thought of Roberto Chabet’s use of mirrors in conceptual art. Pastrana and LPT are looking to develop an art exhibition and other public programs throughout their residency until December.
Portraits takes liberties with its source material. Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray lends the play its central motif, mirroring, but it might be misleading to call the performance an adaptation. Wilde’s novel hinges on a portrait of the achingly beautiful Dorian, a picture which ages while the man does not. Here, actors engage with their own “portraits” by holding up mirrors, screaming at them, pressing their bodies against them with kinetic excess.
The performance is divided into three “rounds.” At the end of which, we, the viewers, are each asked to award a medal to an actor who seems the most credible Dorian Gray.
Mirroring and echoing define their gestures. Rico del Rosario, the director who also serves as our guide and narrator, echoes lines from Wilde’s book, plucking out ideas on art that signal self-referentiality (“All art is quite useless”). Later, Wilde’s lines are echoed by the actors, bouncing from mouth to mouth and breaking out in humorous asides in Filipino. At times, actors try to draw out a word from the viewer. “What’s your favorite color?” one asks. I say “black,” a lie, and he repeats it.
Portraits promises a contemporary spin on Wilde’s 1890 novel by channeling the hedonism around Dorian’s portrait into a critique of social media and selfie culture. These references lend currency to the performance, but at certain moments, also dilute it (or at least water down its Dadaist fire). Much more interesting to me than the many parallels drawn around portraits, mirrors, and the digital age, is queerness. By spotlighting male bodies in its quartet of actors, Portraits generates the electricity suppressed in Wilde’s work, the wonderful queerness that buoyed the novel but damned the author.
In the discourse around participatory and performance art, there’s a palpable shift from referentiality to affect and relationality. Queerness, like love, is a relational exercise. Perhaps this is in my mind when I turn to another audience member, art curator Stephanie Frondoso, and wonder aloud if we, the audience, could intervene. “Maybe,” she says, “but it looks dangerous.” And I agree.
Actors stomp their feet on rain-drenched gravel, jump on a concrete ledge, exhaust all angst and eros onto the mirror and onto each other. Their intense physical exertion, in the third round, breaks into an emotional unburdening. There is extreme vulnerability as they undress and confide, but this intimacy is, sadly, one that viewers could hardly reciprocate through bodily movement. We mostly occupy the sides of the room, maybe afraid of getting whacked by mirrors.
“I thought I just entered a fraternity hazing,” was how another audience member, Alvin Zafra, described the experience of seeing actors undress and share shame stories. At first, I felt dubious about this very masculine-coded interpretation. But it also aligns with the angle of intensity. Actors, isolated by the yellow light, are forced to bare themselves, telling stories that relay the kinds of pain a body can suffer. To interpret it as hazing stresses the sadistic rather than the intimate. Maybe it leads back to technology and the viewer’s punishing gaze.
What does a confession ask of its listener? In mainstream theater, we might say it demands empathy, the emotional dividend we pay in response to staged wounds. But this is not mainstream theater and there is no stage. By choosing Calle Wright as a space, with its living rooms and kitchens and the ghosts of lives that crowd each corner, LPT has wonderfully laid the groundwork for a different kind of relation. Perhaps its limitation is that it hesitates to follow through on the premise/promise.
Here’s another spin to the question: What does performance demand of the viewer’s body? How can empathy be a bodily response?
When the narrator asks us who wins as Dorian, I approach an actor, slip a medal around his neck in lieu of an embrace.
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Portraits is showing on Nov. 25 and Dec. 16, 2023 at Calle Wright in Malate, Manila.