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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, March 02, 2012

entry arrow12:32 PM | Curtains Up, Lights On

At curtain call last Thursday night for Eve Ensler’s A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer, nobody among the audience at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium clapped. Not at first. And then only a timid few—nothing resounding the way one would applaud a circus act.

Yet that relative silence in the house at the end of the show—the tenth year offering by VDay Silliman University, which traditionally stages Ensler’s infinitely lighter The Vagina Monologues—was not an indictment of its quality. On the contrary. I think it was the fitting reception to a play that was in turns funny and harrowing—but more the latter than anything else. As Silliman President Ben S. Malayang III once put it in the 2008 staging of the same play, “I don’t know whether to clap or not at the end of each monologue. The performances were fantastic, but the issues they presented were brutally frank it felt wrong to hear the sound of applause.”

Suzanne Lu-Bascara as a Sudanese nun in "They Took All of Us."

Indeed, the performances this time around were sterling and precisely observed, distilled to uncanny identifiability and pathos by director Dessa Quesada-Palm who has outdone herself. Consider the stories we get from MMRP… Lawyer Myrish Cadapan-Antonio plays a woman questioning the sadomasochistic relationship she finds herself having with her husband in “The Perfect Marriage.” Globe marketing head Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio plays a woman remembering a violation she had to endure in childhood during soccer camp in “First Kiss.” Hochi Benitez plays a rape victim detailing, with unflinching thoroughness, her brutalization in “Groceries.” Jessica Delos Santos plays a plucky girl who decides to fight off being gang-raped in “Blueberry Hill.” Francelle Bagaforo plays a Hollywood actress who dreams of roles that go beyond beaten-up (or dead) prostitutes in “I Can’t Wait.” Arlene Delloso-Uypitching essays a plea to breaking our own patterns and cycles of violence in “True.” And Ms. Palm herself plays the allegorical role of an exhausted, unpaid, unacknowledged female workhorse (e.g., the unsung housewife) in “Woman Work.”

And those were the “lighter” monologues. When we get to Naddie May Orillana’s Guatemalan run-away wife trapped dying in a container box on the way “to a better life” in “Celia,” or Earnest Hope Tinambacan’s curiously moving story of an artist who gives his body to suffer in the hands of women who have themselves suffered much in “The Destruction Artist,” or Suzanne Lu-Bascara’s Sudanese nun begging for the lives of her girls kidnapped by a militia in “They Took All of Us,” the tone for the play was complete: this was all unsettling darkness that embraces, but also one that limns hope and light; this was a reckoning and rebuke of a world given to so much violence against women and children…

The play was a necessary purging and eye-opener for many of us in the Luce Auditorium. It is difficult material to stage, but Ms. Palm has done it with its integrity intact. The fact that she has midwifed it to the spectacular form we saw on the Luce stage last March 1 speaks of just how Ms. Palm has contributed to a revival of theater in Negros Oriental.

A revival there definitely is. The past two years have seen a boon for theater in Dumaguete, and MMRP is only one of the many productions that seemed to have sprouted in town. Even the late director Evelyn Aldecoa herself seemed to have sensed this, giving an inspired revival of Godspell in December only a few weeks before she passed away.

But we have been talking much too long about the demise of staged drama in Dumaguete. For a long time, we were content only in remembering the glory days when the likes of Ephraim Bejar, Lemuel Torrevillas, Junix Inocian, Paul Palmore, Andy Bais, Laurie Hutchison-Raymundo, Amiel Leonardia, Leoncio Deriada, Jenny Lind Aldecoa-Delorino, Bobby Flores Villasis, among others, had the city in thrall with their prolific outputs. After their generation, there has been relative silence. Of course, once in a while, some student directors—Ana Maria Borja and Claude Ramos among them—would inflame Silliman University with productions of one-act plays and manageable full-length projects, always to have this flame quenched by the fact of graduation.

And yet, I’m beginning to think this is changing. Consider, for example, the explosion of original material being put up: there was the cast-penned musical extravaganza Kabsi a few months ago, which was followed by its sequel only last January—two trifle pieces of jokes and songs that made up in craziness and fun what it lacked in substance and form; there was the original musical First Step a year ago, with music by Jai Molina Dollente and Anna Katrina Espino, which first sparked the idea in campus that original work was possible to stage; then there was Nizah Bagares’s Pepe and Me, a playful contemporary take on Jose Rizal, reimagining him for contemporary youth. As deftly directed by Mr. Tinambacan, it proved to be the most mature among the plays being created now by Silliman students—and it helps perhaps that Mr. Tinambacan has been trained by Ms. Palm in the ubiquitous Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts. YATTA, for the last few years, has been training its young thespians with playwriting work, and the effort has yielded a considerable body of theatrical works with an eye for social advocacy, from waste management to human trafficking. Consider Mr. Tinambacan’s own We Accept Boarders, staged a few weeks back by Linwell Bongcasan in Silliman Hall. A delightful farce of student dorm life, it may well prove to be the seminal work that will lead the way to a full-blown theater renaissance in Dumaguete.

There are palpable signs of this already. Only last week, the National Committee on Dramatic Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts brought to Dumaguete the sixth edition of the annual Tanghal, the national university and community-based theater festival. This was in co-sponsorship with Silliman’s Cultural Affairs Committee and YATTA.

It goes without saying that the three-day festival has given local dramatics a significant boost, giving enthusiasts in Dumaguete a glimpse of the possibilities of regional theater. It has also underlined for many of us in Dumaguete a sense that a love for theater can be essential for a love of life.

There is also something about theater that unites the artists among all of us. This is the one art form that—beyond the requisite control of the action, the direction, and the subtle dramas of lighting and sound—also anticipates a consideration for other arts: there’s also music, sometimes there’s dance, there’s literature, and there’s design. To be in theater is to participate in a community of almost kindred spirits—and that is what I have witnessed with Tanghal 6.

We saw the breadth of the dramatic imagination from almost all corners of the Visayas—from Bohol, the exquisite rendition of history through the pangalay (Antequera and Punta Cruz Cultural Collective’s Tawag sa Bantayan and Tamblot); from Iloilo, the possibilities of contemporarizing classic texts for added resonance (University of San Agustin Little Theater’s Ciento Cincuenta: Mga Bagong Kabanatang Noli at Fili); from Bacolod, the staggering realism of an all-too-common reality heightened to gritty catharsis (University of St. La Salle Maskara Theater Ensemble’s Room Service), as well as the eye-opening theatrical possibilities of Pinoy hip-hop (College of San Agustin Kanlaon Theater Guild’s Circulo); from Dumaguete, the lofty reach of representational theater for social awareness—complete with music and the laughter (YATTA’s
 Kaluwasan sa Damgo ni Greta and Artista Sillimaniana’s Ang Tiririt ng Ibong Adarna). Theater practitioners Jojie Benitez, Glenn Sevilla Mas, Rudy Reveche, and Gardy Labad also gave workshops and shared their expertise of decades to a new generation of theater makers—which is what we most need right now: a continual act of inheritance and passing on.

For three days, what we saw was a full engagement into an art that is all-consuming, but for the better. What we saw was enough for us to know that theater is alive and well and has stronger significance in our society: it magnifies for us, after all, in more dramatic ways, how we are as human beings, and as Filipinos.

[photo by Joop Miranda]

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