Last weekend, I got to watch two plays: Red Turnip Theater’s Constellations and Repertory Philippines’ Almost, Maine. Both are excellent love stories, but their execution is different. Constellations tells the blossoming relationship of a couple told through multiverses, while Almost, Maine tells nine stories of love lost, found, and confounded. At the end of each show, the cast encouraged the audience to tell their families and friends about it to fill more seats.
It’s the same spiel at every show, regardless of company. After giving their bows, the cast usually invites viewers to invite other people to fill the theater. And each time a play blows me away, I am left wondering: why aren’t Filipinos watching theater?
Red Turnip Theater’s Cock
It’s hard to pinpoint why Filipinos haven’t made theatergoing a social habit. Could it be that they’re intimated with theater’s image as a hobby of the rich? Or are they turned off by ticket prices, which are more expensive than a ticket to the cinema (including popcorn)?
Whatever the case, local theater is Philippine entertainment’s best-kept secret. The stage is home to brilliant talents acting out exceptional stories. I am a fan of theater because of the intimacy, of actually watching a narrative unfold. It gives me a voyeuristic pleasure watching people flesh out their stories, whether it’s a drama or a comedy. It’s an artistic and cultured version of eavesdropping.
For Constellations and Almost, Maine, I watched from the second row, where I felt like I was part of the drama. As opposed to watching movies on screen, there’s an energy that passes between the actors and the audience. I watched the first production of Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s Battalia Royale, an adaptation of the Japanese Battle Royale, at the CCP driveway, where you have to run with the actors as they disperse around the area. Students are killed right in front of you, and if you get too close, blood will splash all over your clothes.
Cherie Gil as Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop
You have to admire the actors, who must internalize his role and memorize all his lines. They don’t have the luxury of stopping between takes to remember a cue. I once watched Cherie Gil perform Full Gallop, a one-woman play about noted fashion editor Diana Vreeland. She already impressed everyone by acting alone, but during the show, she brought in a large bouquet of flowers she had to put in a vase. The bouquet proved unwieldy, and she struggled to put it in without breaking out of character. Another time, I watched real-life couple David and Jennifer Bianco in Venus in Fur. A play-within-a-play, the Biancos missed the next line. They had to go through the script they were holding, but they couldn’t find their place so they settled on a random page, deciding to start from there. Indeed, the stage is where actors are truly tested.
Another reason why I love the theater is there are no restrictions to the stories. There’s no organization policing them like what the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board does for film and TV. I’ve seen provocative works on stage, like Red Turnip Theater’s Cock, a gay man who orchestrates a dinner between him, his ex-boyfriend, and his new girlfriend. The stage is set like a ring for a cockfight, where the ex-boyfriend and girlfriend fight for the man. There’s also Repertory’s Run For Your Wife, a slapstick comedy about a man who has two wives. And just recently, Ballet Philippines’ Opera, which artist Gabriel Barredo filled the stage with his macabre installation of the same name.
The cast of Rak of Aegis
It would be ridiculous to assume that theater is inaccessible. There’s a play practically every month. The two leading production companies are Repertory Philippines and the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). Rep is known for its English plays, while PETA is known for its Filipino plays. PETA has done an amazing job adapting Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Lino Brocka’s Bona (with the amazing Eugene Domingo) on stage. They are also behind the wildly successful Rak of Aegis, a musical featuring the songs of Aegis, which I loved so much that I watched it three times. I was lucky to have seen the first production, where they invited Aegis on stage to sing for the crowd. They recently finished 3 Stars and a Sun, a musical set to the music of Francis Magalona.
The Sandbox Collective’s No Filter
Aside from Rep and PETA, new theater companies are sprouting like Red Turnip, which does provocative straight plays and The Sandbox Collective, which chooses stories for the younger generation. Their debut play Dani Girl was a hit, as was No Filter, a play by millennials, for millennials, and performed by millennials. There are other trusted theater companies like Actor’s Actor, Inc., 9Works Theatrical, Tanghalang Pilipino, Sipat Lawin Ensemble, and Resorts World Manila’s Full House Theater Company. Schools also have outstanding theater companies, like Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas (DUP) and Ateneo Entablado.
It might be a little more expensive than what people pay in the cinema, but they’re not as expensive as one may think. Seeing provocative stories acted by superb actors in intimate settings is completely worth it. Theater may be Philippine entertainment’s best-kept secret, but I’m telling everyone about it.