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(From left) Actors Martha Comia, Peewee O'Hara, Orlando Sol and Mailes Kanapi in Herlyn Alegre's "Huling Huli."

Virgin Labfest XI: Staging plays that stray from the ‘safe’ path

VLF XI PosterBy Alvin I. Dacanay

This week theater lovers are expected to come to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) to catch the dozen dramatic works that are set to debut at the Virgin Labfest, the annual laboratory festival of untried, untested and unstaged plays that is now on its 11th year.

Ask these people about what compels them to come—what makes this festival appealing—and they would most likely cite the stories the participating playwrights tell in collaboration with their directors and actors. These stories are unlike those being churned out by mainstream movie studios or television networks: they challenge audiences, presenting them with another, fresher way of seeing things; or make them squirm in their seats, leaving them dazed or disturbed. These stories excite and provoke, with the best among them forever etched in the mind and in Philippine theater history.

Through the years, the Virgin Labfest has staged some pretty potent one-act plays: Anatomiya ng Pag-ibig, Allan B. Lopez’s surreal meditation on love that is divided into a dozen vignettes; Ang Unang Aswang, Rody Vera’s haunting reimagining of the aswang’s origins; Ellas Inocentes, Layeta P. Bucoy’s disturbing depiction of a family as seen through the eyes of its two youngest members; and Ang Kalungkutan ng mga Reyna, Floy C. Quintos’ ultimately poignant drama about a president trying to refashion herself as a queen with the help of a high-class hairdresser.

If its lineup is any indication, this year’s festival promises to include more titles in that already stellar list. A possible addition is Job A. Pagsibigan’s When Sam Met Jo, about a nuclear scientist who learns that her longtime crush—a fellow scientist—is from the future, who only traveled to the present to save her. Another is Bucoy’s Uod, Butete at Si Myrna, featuring Urian-winning actress Angeli Bayani as a prostitute preoccupied with her desirability, which she measures by using her relationships with a hoodlum and a cowardly tricycle driver.

Following the success of the award-winning screen adaptation of her Filipino-migrant play Imbisibol, Herlyn Alegre reunites with filmmaker Lawrence Fajardo for Huling Huli, about a middle-aged widow torn between keeping her principles and becoming like the women in her village who have no other means of supporting themselves: offering sexual favors to fishermen in exchange for the chance to buy the fish they caught and resell these in the market.

Sexuality also figures very prominently in what’s predicted to be a big hit at this year’s festival: Nicolas B. Pichay’s Macho Dancer: A Musical. It’s about a group of—what else?—macho dancers already past their prime who try to prevent the imminent closure of their rundown club by enlisting an ex-dancer to help choreograph “a postmodern ballet extravaganza” for their “Big Night,” which they hope would help recapture their—and the club’s—glory days.

Providing a sharp contrast to the frank sensuality in Pichay’s play is the wholesomeness of Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala, Eljay Castro Deldoc’s adaptation of novelist, dramatist and leading speculative-fiction advocate Dean Francis Alfar’s story ‘The Kite of Stars.” In it, a young woman embarks on what would turn out to be a decades-long quest to collect the materials needed to create a giant kite that could help fulfill her goal to become a star and finally capture the attention of the man she loves.

And, of course, there are the other plays that also have a good chance of making a favorable impression: Genevieve Asenjo and Em Mendez’s Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA, based on the former’s National Book Award-winning novel Lumbay ng Dila; Palanca awardee Maynard Manansala’s Dalawang Gabi; Jose Garcia’s Birtwal; Jerome Ignacio’s Kublihan; Alvin Molina’s An Expected; Jose Mari Sanchez’s Talo ang Walang Alam; and Juan Miguel Severo’s Hintayan ng Langit, which has ballet luminaries Edna Vida and Nonoy Froilan as its actors.

Clearly, there’s something for everyone at the Virgin Labfest, which has always prided itself in promoting diversity—in the perspectives presented, in the techniques employed, in the themes tackled—through the plays it picks for “bare bones” staging. In championing works that stray from the safe and conventional path—or, at least, try to—the Virgin Labfest has contributed to reenergizing Philippine theater, and that can only mean great things for its practitioners and supporters.

Virgin Labfest XI is organized by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Tanghalang Pilipino and Writer’s Bloc Inc., in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The festival runs at the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute and Bulwagang Amado Hernandez from June 24 to July 12. Tickets cost P300 per set, while festival passes cost P1,200. For ticket inquiries, call the CCP Box Office at (632) 832-3704 or visit Ticketworld. For more details about the festival, visit the CCP website or the Virgin Labfest Facebook page.