Lungs, written by English playwright Duncan Macmillan with this performance directed by Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan, took to the stage in Power Mac Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati, last September 22. It will continue to run on weekends until October 7. It follows the relationship of M and W, portrayed by Jake Cuenca and Isabella Jose respectively, as they carry a conversation about having a baby and the associated anxieties and agonies of anticipated parenthood.
Driven by the strength of its characters and dialogue, the cast’s artistry shines through. The stage is bare save for a black-edged cube with transparent and open middles on all sides, through which the audience peers to watch the two actors’ performance.
Throughout the show, the couple grapple with the uncertainty of having a child and the consequences that come with their decision. Their relationship’s dynamics change with the transforming problems that plague their choice. Economic issues pop up in a conversation about who the breadwinner should be; familial relations are brought up in a discussion on who is to be told about the pregnancy. Tragedy strikes, and their strained relationship demonstrates the struggling, suffocating dynamics of trying to be there for one another, only to find that they’ve gradually become more injurious to each other.
Their story is portrayed within a box sitting atop a square platform. The edges of the box rise as black columns, each side holding white fluorescent lamps facing inward, giving the appearance of a cube screen floating in the middle of the theater. The room is just an extension of that box, with rows of cushioned chairs positioned at each side of the square. Watching the cube shape from those seats gives the impression of peeking into snapshots of M and W’s lives, as if eavesdropping on moments too intimate.
Never once did I feel the setup too caved in or the space inadequate. I’d put forward that it was precisely because of this simplicity that the production made the artistic choices that it did, evident in the script and the actors’ maximization of the stage. There are no costume changes, but a mental image of a baby bump isn’t hard to piece together when W is smiling at a mirror that’s really just a sea of faces in an onlooking crowd. There are no set props or backdrops in general, but it isn’t hard to visualize the green wallpaper of the baby’s room that W has set up in anticipation and that M gazes upon in awe.
The lights complement the scenes well through using a combination of blinding white tubes on the box with overhead blue, yellow, and magenta spotlights—to portray the time of day; to shroud W in a soft glow as she struggles with loss; to cast long shadows as M and W find themselves on opposite edges of the cube, unable to face each other again.
The cube setup means not every angle is seen from a single vantage point. The actors play with the space as if it’s a stage for a combat sport match. Striking with their words, the characters wrestle with each other, fighting to reach some semblance of an agreement. With each spiral of conflict unraveled, there is little room left to breathe. It’s not quite like a film or TV show that cuts to individual character shots in the midst of a conversation, nor does it follow the usual blocking rules that direct theater actors to face the audience for their features to be seen.
But, owing to the brilliance of the actors’ portrayal of human complexity and interpersonal relations, not all the angles necessarily have to be visible to grasp the tensions running high throughout each scene. It is in their intensity that the otherwise formulaic skeleton of a romance-heartbreak story comes alive with a novel freshness, allowing them to assert the piece as their own vivid, but not overplayed, rendition of hurt and comfort.
For Cuenca’s debut, he brings past television and film acting experience to the stage in the moment-by-moment change of emotions, in the way he carries and paces himself. The audience is privy to how his face contorts with exasperation then astonishment, left dumbfounded as ramblings tumble out of W’s mouth. W is rendered with both vulnerability and strength; Jose utilizes her character’s hysterical outbursts to deliver the underlying persona creating such reactions. She performs with a deep-rooted understanding of the courage it takes for a woman to be making life-changing decisions and to be dealing with such pains and anxieties. The heaving storm of grief and frustration that leaves her frame weary, the shifting eyes and pacing back and forth as she explains her qualms—symptomatic of an overthinker, overachiever, compounded by layers of sadness and self-doubt underneath.
In Literature, intertextuality states that one’s understanding of any piece is anchored on encounters with other texts, on past experiences that shape one’s thinking and interpretation. The script of Lungs exploits this for its scene transitions to become a key strength, contributing to the story’s authentic undertones.
Uninhibited by the absence of set design changes and entrance and exit cues, the passage of time is distinctly marked in the slight pause followed by a sudden shift in the actors’ position as well as in the well-written dialogue. The story understands that the audience is intelligent enough to fill in the gaps and understand the story. M saying “Hey, you look good” post break-up scene, for instance, reveals the characters have bumped into each other again after a significant time skip.
However, given that the dialogue carries the weight of the story’s development, the audio was not as crisp as it should be. In some scenes, there was a slight echo or strong bass output that masked the clarity of the speech, and I couldn’t quite place if it was a technical issue or a problem with the actors’ diction and the lines being too long to process on the spot.
There was a phase somewhere in the lower half of the play where I’d nearly felt tempted to zone out and let the conversation pass. It was a sense of restlessness, a feeling of discomfort, but it wasn’t from the explicit language nor directly due to the maturity of the themes being addressed. If anything, the unsettling sentiment comes from emotional fatigue. Lungs dauntlessly displays harsh truths, then asks its audience to listen to the relationship being laid bare—that we allow our heart to feel the same range of emotions the characters are experiencing. That’s the disconcerting part; it’s draining to consume every bit of anguish the story delivers through its lines.
In the end, the audience feels almost as breathless and exhausted as the actors who had to deliver each word with the right nuance of tone, speed, and flux of voice. The play is powerful and gripping because it taps into a place of great sensitivity, portraying realities of flaws and problems that perhaps not everyone is prepared to face.
Although the story itself doesn’t quite qualify as a revolutionary, first-of-its-kind narrative, the show is able to present a groundbreaking way to tell an old but persistently relevant tale, and the inventive stage execution of Lungs is certainly a contemplative and gratifying experience. The play doesn’t give enough time to digest its message during the unrelenting back-and-forth verbal war dragged over a 90-minute outpouring, but it does offer something to ponder afterwards regarding our own agency in navigating social interactions. I’d watch the show again to take a deeper listen to the dialogue, and perhaps to see a different angle of the production unfold from an unfamiliar corner of the room.