Bypassing complicities in "Ang Huling El Bimbo"

by Oscar Tantoco Serquiña

▶︎ The hype machine is on for "Ang Huling El Bimbo." Facebook and Twitter are drowning in the frenzy of many quarters and fronts. It is a raving enabled by this latest offering from the Philippine theatre world, which aims to see us through our seemingly endless quarantined days at home and the range of boredoms that they subsequently generate. I have thought of jumping into the fray, giving this play a chance with the hope of piercing through the mass hysteria of impromptu fans and critics of this canned and now streamed theatre. I would like to preface my points with bottomless praise for the stellar performances of El Bimbo’s cast of characters, especially the leads (and Tiya Dely) whose energy, talent, verve, and vibe are nothing but contagiously enlivening, unlike the virus of our extended days of uncertainty and dread.

1. "El Bimbo" carries both a burden and a blessing: the songs of the well-loved band of the 1990s, Eraserheads, are at the front and center of this play. The institutions that back up the play have also seemingly primed the play for success. How can it fail when the play already announces itself, with a sense of either irony or vanity, as “A Hit Musical”? How can it fail when all the spectacular resources like the posh theatre of Resorts World Manila, for example, have been made available for the play? How can it fail when the much vaunted who’s who of contemporary Philippine theatre constitute the production, as indicated in the opening credits of the play’s online version? How can it fail when the conditions under which we watch it now—online, free, and for a cause—allow El Bimbo to not only go viral and spreadable on the Internet but also garner all the praise for a “job well done”? As we speak, the play’s online version, hosted by the YouTube channel of ABS-CBN Entertainment (which has 26.9 millions subscribers), has already breached 3 million views. How can the play fail if it is enlisted to solicit donations for a media conglomerate’s charitable foundations? We are held hostage by this advocacy. But must we all pour praise and surrender critique? Is this play ready for the success of the Eraserheads? Is it ready, moreover, to succeed through their success?

2. Despite all the institutional backup, the media glitz, the online rave, the nostalgia of hardcore, residual, and emerging fans, the play, in my estimation, affords us all manner of disappointment and frustration. This is a case where the hardware, sadly, does not meet the software.

And this disconnection stems from a most basic, and therefore most fundamental, component: the play’s narrative. A critic has previously reviewed this play and pointed out its narratological flaws: the lack of a police warrant to bring the lead characters to the police station, the diminishment of human agency of the female lead Joy, the lack of capacity of Tiya Dely to revolt against Councilor Banlaoi, and the insufficient justification behind the lead male characters' abandonment of Joy. All these, as I will show below, go to the heart not only of the dramaturgical and directorial flaws of the play; they, too, expose its ideological consciousness and blindspots.

3. Like most musical productions that pay homage to the body of work of the artist or the group of artists around which they are significantly formed, El Bimbo pumps up itself through the songs of the Eraserheads. It exploits this repertoire to the hilt. And like all exploitation, it must necessarily butcher the well-loved hits or make them bleed. I am driven to ask therefore: How did the play structure the narrative through the songs? Conversely, how did the play intend to recast the songs through the narrative? The songs of the Eraserheads, here, are taken quite literally: the play brings the narrative to UP, it talks about masculine camaraderie, it talks about young heterosexist romance, it talks about rape, it talks about joyful and hopeful juvenilia. The songs of the Eraserheads are placed in the context of the 1990s, where the young leads reside and contend with the aftermaths of dictatorial rule; but they too are contextualized in the contemporary period, where the old leads are situated and deal with their middle class privileges, betrayals of all sorts, the ghosts of their pasts, and the shortsightedness of the present. The songs work well with the narrative at times, but for the most part, I sense that they are merely slotted into the narrative, like a sort of coin inserted into a machine for entertainment to finally commence.

4. The musical production pivots around the concept of nostalgia, and in doing so, it also naturally touches on the problem of forgetting. In the play’s beginning, one of the characters asks: “Sino sa atin ang nagbago?” This prompts another to suggest: “Balikan natin ang dating mundo?” And from there, we all slide down slippery memory lane. Nostalgia here is the world of UP. It is the songs of the Eraserheads. It is the idealism and activism of yore. It is our young and sweet love. It is both our youthful capacities to break free from strict guardianships of parents, as well as our youthful incapacities to fully embrace the so-called real world of the professions and therefore the prospects of self-sufficiencies. In other words, nostalgia is activated here to make us imagine a prelapsarian state—a time before the fall of men and women—where all characters used to brim with vigor and vitality. Or where they are, while not totally devoid of worldliness, definitely still made unaware of their complicities and concessions with a corrupted and corruptive world. The past is where the probinsyano, the young aktibista, the budding beki, the romantic coño remain. The present, conversely, is where the sellout director, the harried government agency employee, and the closeted Christian businessman live. Having said that, nostalgia is the promise that the play offers: on the one hand, it make us relish a so-called place of innocence, and on the other hand, it soothes our sordid present selves with the rhetoric of “we can right the wrong,” “we can change our ways,” or “we can make amends with the past.” Nostalgia also becomes the main, if not sole, reason for the three main leads’ ultimate gesture of charity toward Ligaya, Joy’s daughter, after her mother’s tragic death. That is, they can be kind, generous, and accommodating toward her because mayroon naman silang pinagsamahan ng—at mayroon silang kasalanan sa—ina nung bata.

5. And so nostalgia here is also the bitter pill, if not the poison, that "El Bimbo" makes us ingest. For one, it forces us to infantilize ourselves—again and again—as we relish a past state of self and society that was allegedly ours but now no longer ours. For another, it affords us to stroke our middle class fantasies of growth and development. That we have moved on, and that we can still move further away. All of this, as the play shows, is a cruel optimism, to use the term of the theorist and critic Lauren Berlant. Nostalgia here is the affective condition that at once sustains and spoils you.

6. This play, in my estimation, is defeatist in many ways. It defeats human agency and activism. It defeats the long struggle for women liberation. It defeats the LGBTQ community. It defeats the struggle against heterosexism, patriarchy, violence against women and children. I will even make the wager that it defeats theatre itself—especially its liberating, radicalizing, empowering potentialities that we easily celebrate, at one point, and easily forget or choose to forget, at another. "El Bimbo" hates just every single character populating its narrative: Joy gets raped; the three main male students, Anthony, Hector, and Emman, will lose their youthful vivacities and will forever be hounded by their guilt—or the lack of it; their equally pitiful aged versions do not know any personal or professional contentment; Tiya Dely, despite her thriving business and culinary skills, loses all manner of enterprise to fend for herself and for her granddaughter and chooses to be held hostage by Banlaoi, who is nothing but a stock character whose vileness does not change from start to end.

7. This play hates its women most especially. The women are beholden to men, who are fated without contention, in the play, to fetishize them, to sexually assault them, to frustrate their goals, to padlock and bastardize their source of business, to suspend their lives and dreams, to structure their lifeworlds, to transform them into drug peddlers, bar girls, geriatric and unemployed subjects, to kill them by the most harrowing means, to claim the right to mourn their deaths, to salvage their kin from poverty, and so on. What is most striking to me is how Joy, throughout her lifetime, has been circled and yet curtailed by all the men in the play: she does not have a father, she is considered just a girlfriend to Hector or a best friend to Anthony, she does not know the father of her daughter. While Joy, I must say, seems the most agentive, empowered, delightful character in this play, she too is the most doomed and failed. She is the perennial outsider given her social class, and yet--or maybe because of that--she is the body that is placed at the center of the narrative. She is, indeed, also the lynchpin connecting these masculine lives together, and forever. Must she also be that figure that the play wishes to purge as its abject figure but ultimately cannot? Equally striking is how even her dreams for her daughter Ligaya pivot around Anthony, Hector, and Emman. Up to her last days, Joy only wanted to introduce her daughter to these men. The shade of prostitution here must be chalked up, in my mind. And so should the insufficiencies of the female figure to live and labor for a decent life and the irresistible cravings for paternal presences and surrogacies until the play’s very end! There is both directorial and dramaturgical violence in this relay of depictions of women, to say the least. And that such violence is allowed to fill the theatre, first, and to stream from our screens, second, is flabbergasting, particularly at a time when the nation is led by a misogynistic President who looks at and speaks about women only as body parts.

8. The play hates its only discernible gay character too. He who is mingled with men filled with chauvinism, toxic activism, and middle class sensibilities; who is beaten up by his father and laughed at in military drills; who never gets to out himself to others beyond Joy whom he would eventually disavow; who is forced to marry a woman; and who is turned into a pedophile and a Christian. All of these might be possible in the narrative of the play, but do they have to be? And why? All of these, too, might be capturing a certain character of the 1990s, perhaps a more restrictive time, but why do they have to be replicated in a play in the 21st century, and without any manner of questioning or redressing at that?

9. The play is about complicities, for sure. But more pressingly, it is about ways to bypass those complicities. As the young Hector says to his pack, after Joy was raped by hoodlums in their presence: “Walang magsusumbong. Hindi ito nangyari.” As middle-aged professionals, Anthony, Hector, and Emman distance themselves from a struggling Joy by shutting her out of their world. Until she dies a tragic death. In my mind, this is the play’s interesting premise: “We all fail each other. And we are each other’s failures.”

That said, the play offers a corrective to these faults: it allows the three male lead characters to take some stake on the dead body of Joy by way of taking charge of her hospital fees and her funeral rites, at one level; and through standing by her grandmother and daughter in the play’s final funeral scenes. How do we measure this treatment of a eulogy and of compassion? How do we celebrate a failed life to the tune of the Eraserheads’ arguably most famous song, Ang Huling El Bimbo? How do we make sense of that re-banding of "brothers"—Anthony, Hector, and Emman—and the reminiscences that come with it? How can we make sense of that celebration in the end, with the car--an essential fixture in the play, as it is the primal site of Joy’s sexual degradation--revolving around the stage, and now outlined with glowing lights, with the young Joy, Emman, Anthony, Hector, and Ligaya on top of it, waving their hands to the audience and basking in confetti?

10. I find it deeply troubling that a play about rape, harassment, physical violence, and emotional blackmail becomes a fundraiser for ABS-CBN’s Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation. When I saw Ernie Lopez, chairman of the said foundation, thanking and praising the play while it is on intermission, I couldn’t help but think: does he know what he is getting his Foundation into? Does he know the kind of narratological structure of the play through which his Foundation wants to extract some donations for its beneficiaries?

11. The previous point is important because it brings into relief the need to clarify not only our artistic productions but also our artistic commitments or alliances and the ethical considerations we make along the way. It drives us to reconsider, time and again, what we make visible and resonant on stage, what we offer as sound and spectacle, what we process as entertainment and advocacy. Lastly, it should compel us not only to ask questions—hard questions—but also to become responsible with our responses to those questions, especially now that our current conditions serve as unprecedented opportunities for us to provide and cultivate other ways of viewing, listening, staging, thinking, and definitely, creating for a world that turns to art and theatre especially in these dark and shapeshifting days.

This review was first published on the author's Facebook account, May 9 2020.