Marawi, trains, and chemotherapy: A peek inside Virgin Labfest's ‘Silip’

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“Marawi Musicale,” now playing at this year's Virgin Labfest, is an important work that reminds us how there is a face and story behind every number in a rising displacement toll. Photo courtesy of CCP

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — This year's line-up of Virgin Labfest plays,“Silip,” are voyeuristic in nature — but not only in a sexual sense.

In the selection of plays for the fest’s 14th year, the viewer walks in on the characters in moments of vulnerability.

In Maki Dela Rosa's “Labor Room,” three mothers meet in a crowded labor room. Over the course of many deliveries, they reckon with birth and death. Dustin Celestino's “Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida,” is part-origin story and part-family drama as the relatives of a villain named Jake try to understand him. In Allan Lopez's “River Lethe,” two cancer patients find existential comfort and sexual satisfaction in each other's company.

The festival opened in 2005 with the intention of showcasing “untried, untested, and unstaged one-act plays,” a mission that still holds true more than a decade later. These glimpses of vulnerability and nakedness are not only a peek into characters' lives, but into the human condition.

Here are reviews from three plays of a set from  “Silip.”

“Marawi Musicale”

Kuya Jhong (Jonathan Tadioan) is the happy-go-lucky driving force behind a kitchen and evacuee feeding program in the 2017 Marawi crisis. Working with him are Salanka (Junelie Barrios Villegas), a mother of three whose husband has been missing, and her brother-in-law Khalid (Poppert Bernadas); they are also assisted by two volunteers (Lhorvie Nuevo and Nazer Salcedo) who provide music therapy to displaced children.

Playwright Tyron Casumpang masterfully weaves a narrative of how both Christian and Muslim volunteers reckon with the wars they fight inside of them, and the war that wages on outside.

The highlight of the score, set by Maynard de Guzman, is a prayer. Barrios delivers a haunting, sincere performance as Salanka; she opens the song with a bare voice, like a call from a mosque — and a call to her missing husband — as she implores Allah to return him.

This is followed closely by the song on the ringing of Jhong’s conscience, as he weighs whether to keep running the kitchen — which feeds a thousand kids — or to return to Manila, to where his sick son waits for him. It is a moral dilemma many development workers must face; every “no problem” from Jhong is as much an assurance to himself as to those he works with.

“Marawi Musicale,” directed by Ariel Yonzon, is an important work that reminds us how there is a face and story behind every number in a rising displacement toll. When neither the battle inside nor outside stops, which one takes precedence? It is a question anyone who has lived in conflict must grapple with — and it is for this reason that I hope this play will not culminate in Virgin Labfest. The narrative — and the music that comes with it — should be brought to people who will see themselves the most in its characters, particularly in evacuation centers and schools in Mindanao.

Amoy Pulbos ang mga Alabok sa Ilalim ng Riles ng Tren.JPG Marjorie Lorico, Bong Cabrera, and John Paulo Rodriguez in "Amoy Pulbos ang mga Alabok sa Ilalim ng Riles ng Tren." Photo courtesy of CCP

“Amoy Pulbos ang mga Alabok sa Ilalim ng Riles ng Tren”

Domestic partners Chona (Marjorie Lorico) and Ramil (Bong Cabrera) live in extreme poverty under a railroad bridge. They argue over their conditions and their misfortune after Ramil lost a ₱100,000 offer as a contestant on the set of “Pera o Bayong.” Then, as the play synopsis puts it, “a different train arrives.”

When that train arrives, it is slow and quiet — but even more rattling. The viewer must have a sharp eye and ear for detail to catch the subtleties laid by playwright Lino Balmes. Although his clues still leave room for questions, once the viewer picks them up, they will be disturbed.

Under careful direction from Tess Jamias, the play packs little ironies, like how the couple are covered in dust from the railroad — but tenderly pepper their son Igit (John Paulo Rodriguez) with baby powder before he heads to school. His uniform, covered in plastic on a hanger, is treated immaculately. It's an appropriate turn for a play which kicks off with great humor, but which later poses the question of whether we truly find poverty funny.

Another noteworthy feature of the play is its set, and how the whole house rattles and flickers with incoming trains. It is rightfully disorienting, but be warned that these short scenes — which transition between the arguments in their shack and flashbacks on the set of the noontime variety show — might be triggering to those prone to seizures.

The common fear with literature of this type is a tendency for poverty pornography, but “Amoy Pulbos ang mga Alabok sa Ilalim ng Riles ng Tren” is not that. Perhaps it is because of playwright Lino Balmes' whole characters: the exasperation Lorica conveys as Chona, the lost exhaustion Cabrera has as Ramil, or the way Rodriguez as Igit clings to his parents when they send him to school. From the Willie Revillame-like disembodied host called “Pareng Idol” (voiced by Paolo Rodriguez) to the laughing audience — we are all complicit.

River Lethe.JPG Paolo O’Hara and Dolly De Leon in "River Lethe." Photo courtesy of CCP

“River Lethe”

After chemotherapy, middle-aged cancer patients Abe (Paolo O’Hara) and Mara (Dolly De Leon) check into a love hotel. The co-patients-turned-friends with benefits “dip in the proverbial River Lethe,” where one drinks to forget.

Once past the question on plausibility — particularly, don't their families feel even a little bit guilty leaving them to go home alone after a chemo session? — the life and blood of the play starts to show. Some raunchy scenes are worked in for laughs and shock value, but the true action is in its pillow talk.

Care of playwright Allan Lopez, the characters have funny, smart banter where they negotiate their spaces in each other's lives — and in those of the people they love. The best dialogues include Mara's exposition of a crazy wet dream, and a debate on whether they are actually already dead. As the pair hurtle toward the inevitable, they seem to age backwards; as they bathe in the Lethe to forget, so they are forced to remember. The play, directed by Chris Martinez, poses serious questions about life, death, and the waiting room in between.


Virgin Labfest 14: Silip continues until July 15 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

For schedules and tickets visit the CCP website. The CCP is located at CCP Complex, Roxas Blvd., Pasay City.