by Katrina Stuart Santiago
▶︎ It took a while to realize what playwright Lino Balmes and director Tess Jamias were doing in the play “Amoy Pulbos ang Alabok sa Ilalim ng Riles ng Tren” – a Virgin Labfest 14 one-act that only has that unnecessarily long title going against it.
Because everything about this play was on point. It does not miss a beat, not in its writing, not in its execution. There is a sense here of a vision so clear, the production all but carried the audience to its painfully logical conclusion. What is even more powerful is that none of us kick and scream, none of us refuse to participate in this exercise. In fact, by the time we realize we are participating at all, it is too late: we are already there, we have allowed this story to unfold, unable to extricate ourselves from its telling.
It is much like the story of poverty in this country. And we’re not talking about those fancy soap opera versions of struggle and suffering, where people are still smiling, living their lives with hopefulness despite hunger and need. One of the more critical decisions this play made was to decide to portray real poverty: the kind you can smell, that will make you cringe, that we would like to imagine does not exist because who can live like that?
Millions of Filipinos, that’s who.
As do Chona (Marjori Lorico) and Ramil (Bong Cabrera), who live in a makeshift home under the train tracks, where they crawl from one end of the tiny space to another, where they sleep and eat and drink their morning coffee with the droppings of dust from the train above. They live here with their young son Igit, who is loved dearly, who is reason for the couple’s dream of a life that could be better. And for a moment, that dream was reachable, on the stage of a game show, where Ramil was made to choose between some cash or the unknown contents of a bayong.
It is that moment on television that Chona and Ramil perennially go back to. They use it to rib each other, it is fodder for their jokes. But also, it is reason for anxiety and anger, for distress and dismay. It is what Chona throws in Ramil’s face, it is what Ramil accepts to have been his failure. After all he had hoped and prayed and believed God would give him all that he needed. What was wrong with that?
Everything is wrong in this play. The impoverishment that we are witness to, and the fact that interwoven with popular TV, we become complicit audience that will laugh at, will be entertained by, how a gameshow capitalizes on sob stories, magnifying these by controlling the narrative: here’s some sad music, here’s some happy music, here, please dance like you’re all excited, here, please cry like this is your one last hope. Here, have a consolation prize. Take this jacket. You can try again.
The skillfulness of storytelling is key here: Balmes is able to portray this life none of us live by highlighting its humanity, not so much given its hopefulness, but given its insistence on survival. There is no time here for long-drawn out pity parties, and even less time banking on possibilities – that dream had been lived, and it’s done now. This tiny family’s moving on, as a matter of course.
But also the success of this one-act is in its staging, and credit goes first to Jamias, who deftly worked the shifts between the time and place of hope and possibility on live TV, and of despair and desperation under the train tracks. These dexterous shifts in time is the best it’s been done on a VLF stage in years, and without it this play would’ve been an absolute failure.
Then there are its actors. Lorico and Cabrera play impoverishment to the hilt, where there is little else but living by the day, where there is nothing more but the sadness and the stench, where there is but a small bottle of talcum powder to cover up where they come from, who they are, even as it stands for the dead-end that they do not problematize: it is what it is, it is what we do to survive. These two are a revelation on stage: you believe they are Chona and Ramil.
But that is also because we’ve met a Chona and a Ramil at least once in our lives living in this country and all its poverties.
And we watch. ***
Amoy Pulbos and Mga Alabok sa Ilalim ng Riles Ng Tren is part of Set D of Virgin Labfest 14. It runs July 10 and July 14 at 3:00PM and July 13 at 8:00PM.