Milieu in Art in Virgin Labfest 14’s Set A

Updated: Sep 22, 2018

by Roma Estrada

▶︎ If Virgin Labfest consciously aims to prove that art production and consumption is inevitably influenced by its time, then it successfully achieved this on the pilot day of its 14th year, as it staged Dustin Celestino's "Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida", Rolin Migyuel Obina's "Mga Bata sa Selda 43," and Anthony Kim Vergara's "Ang Inyong Mga Anak: Si Harold at Napoleon" as SET A, a cluster arguably founded on the power of resistance.

This staging is also timely: the day before, on June 26, we commemorated the 12th year since the abduction of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, who have become like the hundreds of desaparesidos (missing victims of political abductions and executions). “Mga Bata sa Selda 43” tells the story of Philip and Ino, two brothers who are random victims of the Duterte regime's war on drugs which encourages police brutality. Along with sounding the alarm on the rampant abuse of power among the police, the play contemplates on where victims of disappearances and abductions actually end up.

The playwright imagines a hypothetical place as some sort of prison (reminiscent of Sartre's “No Exit”) where the only redemption lies in getting found. This play reminds that in a country where political casualties are treated as collateral damage, the surfacing of missing persons is as difficult as the surfacing of truth itself.

“Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida” meanwhile challenges the audience's reasoning and emotional acuity by staging different versions of a story about a drug user named Jake. With different scenes artistically crafted within a single transforming space, “Mga Eksena” parallels conversations between Jake and Mike (his brother), and the conversations about Jake among the other member of the extended family: his father, younger brother, and cousin. This presents Jake's character from different perspectives, and the burden falls on Mike to make a decision about whether or not to give Jake up to tokhang – the Duterte regime’s strategy to purportedly get drug users to surrender to the police, but which has also racked up thousands in extrajudicial killings, with those in tokhang lists ending up dead.

As the vignettes of conversations go, the audience gets to play Mike, weighing the persuasions of his family towards Jake, putting his moral compass to a test. Not revealing or taking as stand about the more correct or valid characterization of Jake is part of the playwright’s ploy to drive home a conclusion that is a subtle but charged statement, a hanging inquiry for these times.

Whereas “Mga Bata” narrates the disregard for children’s lives under the Duterte regime, “Ang Inyong Mga Anak: Si Harold at Napoleon” banks on the promise of a young man who dedicates his poetry and life to progressive endeavors. Unlike the typical bildungsroman, the young man here has already discovered his purpose and is challenged to stand with firm resolve against the doubts of his mother. This play is essentially an inquiry into how previous generations have given up on the struggle for a nation free from all forms of tyranny and exploitation. It looks into how the current generation might remind them not to give up just yet.

With a grandmother growing senile, a politically-disillusioned mother, and a poet-activist still with hope and fervor, this play shows how different generations speak to one another, how they might agree and disagree, how they compromise, how they get lost and find their way again. Most importantly it shows how these generations might intersect towards continuing the goal for national emancipation.

As a collective of characters, VLF 14’s SET A reflects to some extent the Filipino in these Duterte times: some are lost – in all its meanings – like Philip and Ino, some are fence-sitting and refusing engagement like Mike, while some remain determined like the young spoken word poet ready to go to the countryside and risk life and limb in the context of a violent regime, no matter the seeming apathy of the social-media-driven many.

Reaffirming that art production and consumption is a statement in itself, Virgin Labfest reminds that theater production of these times can but talk resistance. The untried, untested plays of Set A are a relevant marker that the Duterte regime existed and continues to exist. And more importantly, that it has to cease to exist. ***

Set A of Virgin Labfest has the following playdates and times:

July 6, July 11 and July 15 at 3:00PM | June 27, July 5, July 10 and July 14 at 8:00PM.

Roma Estrada is a teacher, writer, and critic. She wrote this piece for Gaslight.