by Pristine de Leon
▶︎ Sharing breathing space with someone implies a thrilling intimacy that I miss in live theater. The nearness that enables an exchange of heat—not contact, but charged air—also configures our most private encounters. Proximity amplifies presence, making the smallest of gestures consequential, possibly erotic, and somehow a little frightening. Maybe it’s the vital, intensified attention we give, at that moment of being near that makes viewing as potentially dangerous as loving. Every viewer and lover is familiar with this short-lived encounter. It lengthens time for us and turns one room into an everywhere.
A place that is lived-in and private becomes a stage set in the context of virtual theater. Done online, Virgin Labfest this year made me acutely aware of actors’ need for intimacy bred by togetherness in space. I think of Dapithapon and Gin Bilog, and imagine how a shared stage could have let them express the body’s raucous energies, all its itches and urges, and its need to move. This is why the chance to perform in a single room is the advantage of Doggy. Its actors, real-life partners Che Ramos Cosio and Chrome Cosio, perform this wrestling match of a play in a bedroom, making it the only piece in the festival’s features where actors’ bodies freely interact with each other and with the space.
There’s an uneasy, voyeuristic quality to this setup. Cut off from where they are, I’m given a view of the bedroom through a fixed camera placed slightly above eye level. I prop up the screen on my messy, wrinkled bed sheets, and watch the couple dig up the detritus of a toxic relationship. Playwright Dustin Celestino shows us what happens after a drinking game, where Mark finds out about his fiancé Jane’s past sexual adventures, and watches her best friend leave for what he can only imagine as exciting casual sex. Clearly a misogynist, Mark compares the women’s liberal behavior with what he describes as the dryness of their own sex life. Jane refuses to do the titular sexual position. The dissonance and discomfort Mark gets from a hurt male ego drives his rising temper and plunges Jane, and thereby us, into a nauseating spiral of gaslighting, slut-shaming, and non-stop nagging that quickly opens up an abusive environment.
“Dapat mas maingat ’yong babae kasi mas risky sa kanya ang casual encounter,” says Mark. I would have liked to tell him that the months I began to move on from an abusive relationship was when I started dating through Tinder. First dates were those tricky, risky, so-called “casual encounters” when we were shy enough to keep our distance. We would take time navigating that vast, gray promising unknown between touch and not-touching. Throughout, it was always the unsaid that intrigued me: the fact that we never said sex, but it dangled in the air. A glittering fruit that invites mutual, intuitive negotiating. If abuse was loss of control, the slow loss of self to someone else’s imagination, then it was a renewed sense of agency that I regained through deliberate acts of leaving, dating, flirting, and snatching that high hanging fruit whenever I liked to.
Actors and lovers know this, of course, how space conditions seduction, sex, and power play, how it can be harnessed, how it can tighten or expand depending on intimacy’s dynamics. Roobak Valle’s direction in Doggy makes Mark in command of this small, closed room. To Jane’s annoyance, he kneels and stands on the bed, invades her space, messes it up, pounces like a primate protective of its territory. Mark is an aggressive hulk of a character, reminding me of tight, winding connections between power and the forced occupation of space.
The actor does little to curb the intensity, and much of the performance is devoted to the hamming up and ramping up of this overbearing male bravado. Yet I’m wondering where is all this energy directed and what is the point of this act?
On earphones, I try to listen to Celestino’s lines and imagine how this could be restaged by other collaborators. Yet it is difficult to see past Valle’s direction and Cosio’s character interpretation. The male voice in this performance registers an incessant amplification of sound that reminds me of the abuse I knew years ago. It was a similar high-pitched intensity, the voice that would not recede, the sharp frequency that became a sonic environment. In the middle of watching, it hits me that I was Jane in this room and the room was in Baguio. I was being yelled at for what my body refused to do. I did not understand back then that abuse need not be physical. The immersion I knew for months was mental and ambient: a crippling state of alarm and anxiety; an atmosphere where space was claustrophobic, not small, but suffocating because of the intensity and immensity of noise. I might have left all these behind, but they could well be part of someone else’s experience of domestic abuse. What makes the play even more difficult to sit through is it summons the trauma of being stuck, locked down, and sensing nothing but the closed, unbearable interior.
I approach the material slowly as a viewer and as a critic, trying to navigate this position of being too close and keeping my distance. Perhaps I share shards of my own experience as a woman in an attempt to carve up a safe space that the play itself denies us. Empathy animates criticality. It is this vast, gray, vulnerable position that urges me to ask, why are we being subjected to this high-pitched intensity? Why are we shoved into a space where woman is made to suffer?
From the beginning, we glean an urge to examine what’s wrong with love and men under a magnifying glass. I sympathize with Celestino’s need to unmask machismo—because who, at this point in our lives, is not tired of the toxic masculine figures we encounter daily through the media? Yet it remains crucial to test the air this play enables. We are invited to look at lovers’ lives inside a snow globe, with an intensity of looking that tips over to visual pleasure. With no reprieve from the noise and no redressing, the urge to interrogate gives way to indulgence. I read it as almost fetishistic: the pleasure of watching and performing masculinity on steroids.
That the material would not elaborate on other aspects of Mark’s character—or why his fiancé even likes him in the first place—is also deeply unsettling. He never seems to gain dimension and remains an archetype in a one-act. Perhaps the danger with these portrayals is they risk projecting men themselves as one-dimensional. He is the hulking brute enslaved by egos, tempers, and sexual urges. It is the same image that buoys the logic of men as hopeless rapists.
How do we apply a nuanced gaze to cisgender men? How do we attempt a queering of ‘straight’ love?
To ask viewers to watch our productions is to invite them into an intimate space conditioned by their own vulnerability. It is this same vulnerability I draw from as I write this. A critic, as we often tend to forget, is first a viewer, and in this case, first a woman, bisexual, lover. I’m not interested in whether Jane refuses the ring or not, because making the woman win in the end would be the easiest cop-out. Instead, I would have liked to see them declare the wrestling match as a hoax, for the liberative potential of theater does not rest on its ending, but on the nuancing of portrayals, on the reflexivity of its agents, and on the radical empathy for which we strive. ***
Pristine de Leon is an art critic and teacher