by Andrea Macalino
▶︎ In perhaps an attempt to appear self-reflexive, Nicolas Pichay’s Larong Demonyo (direction by Jose Estrella) begins with its two characters appearing to reflect on art. The object of their reflection? A painting beyond the audience’s sight, one which appears brilliant to the old Heneral Videla (Leo Rialp) but seems nothing but abstraction to the self-confessed simpleton, Efren (Johnny Maglinao).
The General is insistent: there is meaning in the painting, even if Efren is convinced that some blobs in the artwork are merely reminiscent of shit. In this way the production wisely conveys one of its founding dilemmas to its audience: how must one interpret Philippine history, especially an unresolved tragedy that time and again seems impossible to defeat? Too, once the name of the painting is revealed—“1986,” both Efren and the audience are alerted to the central project of the work: not merely the Edsa Revolution, but the ghost of Martial Law.
A Commissioned History
The general, as he speaks of himself, is crucial to the instigation of this miracle revolution: in the very room where he and Efren banter, he says, he agreed to help put the revolution into action. He has called for the young man, precisely, not simply to boast this fact, but to instigate a comeback. The old general finally wishes to leave the solitary confinement of the island he has secured for himself—in literal terms, and eventually in the political sphere as well. First, he is to commission the young man before him to write his biography, and then, when the public has re-learned of him, in the next year he will run for President.
But the pen he commission turns out to be a blunder: his personal assistant in far-away Manila, where he owns a factory of sardines has sent him the wrong man. Instead of a scholarly writer, a rising star among his generation, he has been sent a young man who simply (according to said young man) wanted to apply as a factory worker. This turning point, warning to both old general and audience that something beyond administrative error is at work; Efren now becomes the vengeful heir who inherits the trauma of his grandfather who has turned senile, forever scarred by the torture he suffered during Martial Law under the hands of none other than General Videla. This, however, rather than propelling the plot forward, only restricts it and introduces some rather incoherent symbols which muddles what becomes a violent debate between the two characters.
Old Dog, New Tricks
The title of the work—even the rage that sustains its two characters—speaks of a demon. One would be eager to use such in a historical context. Martial Law and the EDSA Revolution, in its aftermath—all speak of demons of the past who refuse to die. And yet the metaphor, as it plays out through Larong Demonyo instead appears doggedly, howling like a mad canine in the form of Efren, whose disguise begins to slip as he reveals more and more about his mad grandfather, who has coped with his trauma with the help of Random, his imaginary dog—a reminder of the random acts of violence that mark the history of the Marcos administration.
The General too (although with more subtlety), adds to this dogged imagery. In his eyes, he is a hero compared to his comrades who pocketed as much ill-wealth as they could under Martial Law, people he called “Aywanna,” as in “I wanna build this” or “I wanna own that.” Such spiteful reminiscence paints history as “dog-eat-world,” and perhaps, more interestingly, paints a portrait of a nation ran by a mad dog: a metaphor which, unfortunately, appears less inaccurate than one might want to admit.
One is nevertheless left to wonder if the thought of the demon is enough to hold the play together. If the intended effect, for instance, was for the demon to be embodied not only by the deluded General but also by the vengeful Efren, something in the young thespian’s rage leaves much to be desired, as the expression of rage at times fell short because inconsistent, seeming only to follow instructions by a script which should be nearly invisible to an audience who only really need to see the script’s enactment alone.
Still, one success embodied by the work is the set design: compact but functional, it is much like the figure of the General himself, and indicative of the isolated island where he resides. The throw pillows on the wooden chairs are adorned with what appear to be Monstera leaves, pointing to an idyllic tropical life that belies the simmering political ambitions of the General. Meanwhile, his three tables serve different purposes. The one at the forefront holds the General’s liquor. Behind it, sits his writing desk, which holds a drawer with a gun. Adjacent to this writing desk, some strides away, sits a small table, on which the General’s precious chess set awaits, strategically placed such that when Efren pours the two liquor for a second time, his back turned to the older man, the former is able to conceal the white powder he pours into the latter’s drink.
The Missing Checkmate
Another point of interest is the game implied by the title and played by its characters. At one point, before the play descends and into violence, Efren and the General play chess, a game of utmost strategy. It is perhaps one of the stronger metaphors in the play, for strategy is the one thing the General scolds Efren for. More than once, he critiques the young man, insisting that he has not prepared enough for his attack on the aging military man.
The question of strategy is central to the work, furthermore, as when General Videla critiques his assailant for not being more strategic, his critique is applicable to the current discourse as well. “Martial Law na naman? Wala bang iba?” The inquiries are easy enough to shut down at first—Martial Law, after all, will remain relevant for as long as denial of it and its repercussions exist, for as long as its lawlessness and inhumane operations find its way in current policies.
But there is an indication in the General’s dissatisfaction which is worth paying attention to: for if, indeed, Martial Law is indispensable to political critique and the study of local history, the same Martial Law which continues to haunt the people, then doesn’t this perennial haunting strongly imply that Martial Law, is in fact, a many-headed gorgon, nourished and cared for by institutions and individuals alike, reptilian in its ability to lose a limb and grow it again.
Of course, strategy in battle goes beyond the chessboard here—and yet, as General Vidal mocks Efren for, is social media necessarily the best site for that battle? And here, Efren relents. At this mocking challenge, Efren momentarily discards his original plan of uploading the humiliating photos he has taken of General Videla and delays his departure. Rather he puts down his belongings and plays chess with the old man again. This time, however, unlike their first round, the battle no longer takes place on a literal chessboard. Instead, the two sit face-to-face, almost like equals, such that the reversal of power from General Videla to Efren is somehow stabilized.
In this final battle of wits, the two players continue to rely on algebraic notations to move their pieces; however, unlike the first round when the General’s cherished pieces remained on the chessboard, with Efren moving them for both himself and the General, the second round unfolds on a chessboard that exists only in the mind of the players. In the meantime, the chess pieces remain scattered on the floor, casualties of Efren’s rage. In this final round, the chessboard thus functions almost like the painting at the beginning: a mental battlefield that exists only for the players.
But something is amiss in the culmination of Pichay’s work. Or rather, its cliffhanger of an ending comes across not as a promise of intrigue but as a rather circuitous question. Efren, now convinced that the battle he fights must come to an end with a game of chess with Videla, ultimately fails to bring the discourse further. One can even say he does not bring it any farther, as certainly his decision to stay and play chess with the old General stays true, in fact, to Videla’s isolation as a lonely old man in a far-flung island. If sole focus on provisional noise using social media, as per the General, is futile and without strategy, a similar frustration arises when one considers that in Efren’s choice to stay, he is indeed unable to bring the discourse outside the physical and discursive island that both characters now occupy. That in the final stroke, the chessboard only exists for the two of them, in fact isolates the discourse further.
On one hand, of course, there might be something redeemable here, as the isolation demonstrates the echo chamber that has become of Martial Law discourse and its related parts—impunity and fascism, for instance. In this sense, one might suggest that the isolation of the two characters, their retreat into the invisible chessboard at the end of the play awakens the audience into their own entrapment in the constantly tired ways of discussing the many-headed monster.
Ultimately, however, this line of demonstration is itself lacking in light of the previous fury of Efren and the preference for strategy as endorsed by the General. For as the lights dim on the disarray of a room, in a distant island where history is tucked away and silent, there is little suggestion that there is any other way to discuss unresolved injustices. The only thing left to do, it seems, is to bewail it in isolation.
Andrea Macalino is a fictionist and teacher.