An alphabet of hookups and a deconstructed ‘Hamlet’ stand out at Karnabal Festival

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“Love and Other Apps” and “The Mousetrap: Anti-Hamlet” (pictured) both bring forth new ideas that turn Philippine theater on its head, whether it’s audience interaction on a Viber group chat or a self-reflexive Shakespeare performance in three languages. Photo courtesy of KARNABAL FESTIVAL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The sheer magnitude of Karnabal Festival is a little difficult to comprehend, in a good way. With over 40 shows — performances, plays, talks, workshops, exhibitions, gatherings, and gigs — across five platforms taking place in theaters, cafes, and even houses across the Maginhawa Art District in Quezon City. The event spans the UP Village, Sikatuna Village, Teachers Village, and Brgy. Central, where the 12-day festival gathers more than 200 artists and thousands of audience members.

Still there? Good. If you’re wondering what, exactly, Karnabal is, it’s a celebration of independent contemporary performance and Philippine theater, a place for concepts and undertakings to grow from ideas to something more concrete. It uses a blank ticketing system that allows audiences to comment on what they’ve seen. It’s also a social experiment that asks them to determine the price of the show based on their opinion of it and their economic capacity — a crowdfunding and crowdsourcing of sorts. 

The first Karnabal, held last year, became a breeding ground for great new works, which were featured this year in the main platform for further development. To get a taste of the proceedings, CNN Philippines Life attended two work-in-progress performances from the Karnabal X platform, which showcases completely new works under the theme “Encounters in Transitions.”

love and other apps Produced by Theater in Alternative Platforms, "Love and Other Apps" is an episodic play about the highs and lows of dating in the digital age.

I is for innovation

Held in Blacksoup Cafe+Artspace on Maginhawa St., Theater in Alternative Platforms’s “Love and Other Apps” is an episodic play and monologue about modern dating in a decidedly digital, internet-ruled world. It unfolds under the pretense of a “Teh Talk” (an obvious play on TED Talk) by a young woman, known only as “Ate Mingle,” who, having written a book on relationships, immediately begins recounting an alphabet of hookups: one dating deal-breaker for every letter of the alphabet, and one man whose name begins with the same letter.

But what sets “Love and Other Apps” apart most of all is its employment of audience interaction. Forget about holding mirrors as the actors project onto you, or having the villain leer at you during his hammy spiel — this show puts you in a live Viber group chat with Ate Mingle herself, where you can comment in real time, join the discussion, and help steer the course of the monologue. There’s even a little thrill in the fact that Ate Mingle shares photos of her conquests, like Jeff (“J is for jejemon”) and Tristan (“T is for tanga”). She also sometimes asks the audience, verbally, to guess what the letters stand for, which garners a lot of creative, sometimes sexual, and mostly hilarious responses, like “Q is for cucumber.”

Nobody can resist chismis, especially if it’s about someone’s dating situation, which explains the innate charm of “Love and Other Apps.” It’s a fresh and zeitgeisty take on technological romance by an independent woman who embraces her sexuality, and it’s full of cultural slang that’s native to both Filipinos and a generation raised by the World Wide Web: dick picks, ghosting, unlisurf, and the dreaded “k.”

Ate Mingle has lived. She has dated someone who tried to persuade her to become part of some pyramid scam: “Yung iba diyan, papangakuan ka ng love, faith, loyalty. Si Quasi, tri-triplehin yung pera mo.” She has faked an exorcism for an overly religious boyfriend. She has even gotten herself a stalker: “Takot na takot; at the same time, gandang-ganda sa sarili.” And what really sells it, aside from the Viber chat, of course, is the performance of the actress Mariko Urimoto, her delivery equal parts inviting and confident, able to adapt to the comments and land jokes as if they were all accompanied by mic drops. 

If this is the new form of experimental theater, you really can’t help but wonder what else is yet to come.

Mousetrap "The Mousetrap: Anti-Hamlet" takes its name from the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare's classic tragedy and transcends traditional adaptations by increasing the meta-theater aspect of "Hamlet."

To be or not to be, etc.

The second scene of “The Mousetrap: Anti-Hamlet” begins with the slow dimming of lights to pitch-black darkness and the sudden, eerie sounds of wind building up in the theater. Christopher Aronson, Guelan Luarca, and Ness Roque-Lumbres — the multi-hyphenates who make up the cast in its entirety and conceptualized the play themselves — then don papier mâché masks and shine flashlights as they move in a circle. All three are the ghost of King Hamlet. And if it’s not creepy to you, then it’s definitely moving, to say the least.

The easiest way to describe “Mousetrap” would be to say that it is a deconstructed adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy. It takes its name, of course, from the play-within-a-play, and the “Anti” in the title is a vague indicator that this will not be your typical display of fake madness (or is it?) driven by grief from everyone’s favorite moody man-child. Loose in form, it features Aronson, Luarca, and Roque-Lumbres at times taking turns playing a single role, mostly that of Hamlet himself, giving powerful and nuanced performances of different versions of his soliloquies. A single performance of the play is done in up to three languages — Filipino, English, and Spanish — owing to the fact that Luarca is a translator.

It’s important to note that “Hamlet” is meta-theater. “Mousetrap” is well aware of this, and uses this knowledge to its advantage by upping its meta aspects. Metafiction is, after all, dependent on self-awareness, which “Mousetrap” successfully invokes by turning an already out-of-the-box “Hamlet” adaptation into a commentary on acting and theater itself as a craft. The audience is asked to sit on the stage with the actors in a makeshift panopticon — a play on Shakespeare’s Globe, perhaps. In lieu of scenes from the classic play, the cast reads from texts about the art of acting. Roque-Lumbres, acting as Aronson during a scene in which the cast all read manifestos and musings written by one another, declares, “I’m tired of pretending, so I decided to do a production of ‘Hamlet.’ Fuck me.”   

The performance ends just before the original play’s climax, depicting a tacked-on “deleted scene” about the actors in Prince Hamlet’s original “The Mousetrap,” where they realize that Hamlet’s writing just might hold some heavy, politically charged truth. It’s a scene that produces the funniest lines and moments by design, but it also has the most emotional pull, as the actors (whether you’re referring to real people or fictional characters) decide that acting, or any passion, is worth dying for. 

There is a mention of the transformative power of theater that often takes its audiences to other worlds. The show is minimalist; the actors carry crumped, mismatched scripts held together by paper clips and use paper crowns and blankets as costumes — deliberately, maybe, to invoke this exact idea. And all things considered, “Mousetrap” is one transformative piece of work.