Sex is a weapon in ‘Lysistrata ng Bakwit’

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The play 'Lysistrata ng Bakwit' is a worthy attempt to take back the empowerment that women lost in the face of war in Mindanao. Photo from TANGHALANG ATENEO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2008, women from the town of Dado in Maguindanao were displaced as a result of village clashes. Three years later and fed up with violence, they closed their legs in protest — at least until their husbands lay down their arms. It worked.

The hilarious, innovative solution to the armed conflict is reminiscent of Aristophanes' Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” where the women hold a sex strike to put an end to the war between Athens and Sparta. The titular character Lysistrata is a strong-willed leader who incites the strike, and the play covers how she must deal with impassioned women, fragile masculinity, and the bureaucracy that comes with fighting for peace.

In an age where war is still a stark reality in Mindanao, and in a time where women are becoming increasingly aware of their rights, “Lysistrata” is ripe for a contemporary and local adaptation. In the final production to its 39th season, Ateneo de Manila University’s oldest theater company, Tanghalang Ateneo, steps up to the plate.

“Lysistrata ng Bakwit” draws on the universality of war and sex to talk about how women bear the brunt of conflict — and, in the lack of effective government aid and law enforcement, they have to get creative.

download (1).jpg The play is directed by Dr. Ricky Abad, whose sociological background has a touch in the play's awareness of current events. The play also utilizes music from Filipino instruments, giving it a uniquely organic and culturally grounded sound. Photo from TANGHALANG ATENEO

While the play tackles war, gender politics takes center stage. Exaggerated, in-your-face sexual elements give the comedy its kick. The ragged costumes have hypersexualized features, making a caricature of the body; although it is initially there for shock value, it sets up funny turns later on. The otherwise minimalist set even features a giant penis, although this does not have much use on stage.

Because these elements are bloated, the audience turns to the spaces of the narrative that are not about sex: displacement, development, and the effects of conflict. The specific town where the play takes place is never  named — a good call that could situate the story anywhere. These spaces of food for thought are tucked in the nuances of dialogue, care of playwrights Gerald Manuel and Sabrina Basilio, who also doubles as Lysistrata.

The play is directed by Dr. Ricky Abad, whose sociological background has a touch in the play's awareness of current events. Abad was also behind Tanghalang Ateneo's award-winning “Sintang Dalisay,” a Mindanao-set adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Both plays utilize music from Filipino instruments, giving the play a uniquely organic and culturally grounded sound.

In one scene, Lysistrata is tasked with meeting the heads of the warring clans to convince them to settle for a peace treaty. The vice mayor, the government housing authority, and even a non-government organization specializing in peace initiatives speak down on her. While the officials say it is because she is inexperienced and a widow, the truth is in the subtext: they speak down on her because she is a woman, and she is displaced. It is simply difficult for those in positions of power to afford her the recognition she deserves.

All this is packed with punches of great comedic timing. Chase Salazar gives an authoritative air to Lysistrata, at once compassionate and cunning, recognizing the importance of restraint and picking her battles to win the war. Catherine Jane Lubangco plays a hilarious and sultry Mayet, who teases her husband until he agrees to send word to their commander.

download (3).jpg What makes “Lysistrata ng Bakwit” a necessary work of culture is a need for a diverse portrayal of the displaced and of the Mindanaoan. It shows us women who may need our help, but who do not need our pity. Photo from TANGHALANG ATENEO

It remains to be seen though, if the work will appeal to audiences in Mindanao. Admittedly, this might not be so to a conservative lot. However, it could resonate with younger university-based audiences in the region, if Tanghalang Ateneo will consider taking the play on tour. Its intention to provoke is sure to spark discussion.

After all, when we consider conflict in Mindanao, we often think about how those affected are deprived of necessities: food, water, shelter. We hardly ever think of sex, or how inconvenient being in an evacuation center is for a young couple in their honeymoon stage. When the difficult situation of displacement is rendered into art, we still think of stories that are morose, or which tread into the realm of poverty porn.

What makes “Lysistrata ng Bakwit” a necessary work of culture is a need for a diverse portrayal of the displaced and of the Mindanaoan. It shows us women who may need our help, but who do not need our pity. As such, it is worthy attempt to take back the empowerment that women lose in the face of war.

This is why the play's divisive ending may place its message of empowerment at risk, or even undercut it. However, upon further reflection, any other conclusion would be dishonest.

“Lysistrata ng Bakwit” understands there is no clean ending wrapped up in ribbons for a story that tackles conflict in Mindanao — at least not until the region sees a definitive end to conflict in real life. What makes this adaptation work is precisely because it recognizes that the difficult work of peace-building is not solely a woman's job.

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Tanghalang Ateneo's "Lysistrata ng Bakwit" runs at the Doreen Black Box, Areté Arts Wing at Ateneo de Manila University until May 5. Reserve your ticket here or contact Nina Calupitan for inquiries at 09214717960. Proceeds of the play will be donated to the Marawi Relief Fund.