Performing theater, online at least, has become a familiar sight during the pandemic. After all, the Virgin LabFest was presented live and free-of-charge this year via their official Facebook page. But if Sana OL, Present! has anything to prove, it’s that there’s still room for new talent in the world of online storytelling.
Sana OL, Present! is the response of the University of the Philippines (UP) Replings 19BC, aspiring theater hopefuls who wish to formally enter The UP Repertory Company, to the various issues unraveling in the country. Premiering last September 13, the theater production was co-presented by Rise for Education’s Tulong Isko, a donation drive that aims to help UP students transition to remote learning by providing monetary and gadget support.
A twinbill production chock-full of unabashed socio-political commentary, relatable dialogue, and absorbing storylines, this show does more than entertain for an hour and a half—it’s an eye-opener to the challenges that come with adapting to a new mode of learning.
A pandemic reality
The first production titled Sana OL! Tale as OLd as Taym is a clever, fairytale-esque play. Directed by Ron Simon Lomibao and performed by UP Replings batch Cning 19, the 40-minute play follows Ola Sanalahat, who is depicted as apathetic toward activists while having faith in the government, as she begins to deal with her online classes. Several issues are tackled, including the protagonist’s internet connectivity concerns and the lack of support from the government amid the pandemic.
The story runs parallel across two different dimensions: Ola’s “real” world and a Wizard of Oz-like world, where Ola meets characters such as the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Witch. The characters Ola encounters, both as a student and as a character in a fairytale, face different plights that echo the societal problems that many face today; the scene where the Scarecrow tells Ola that he will join and ask for help from the King implies there is a lack of support from the rulers for those in need. In the real world, meanwhile, Ola barely gets by with her online class due to unstable internet, mental health issues, as well as her parents losing their jobs.
The latter part of the play explores Ola’s breakdown as she is confronted with the overwhelming weight of her situation. It is here that Ola realizes that the King is far from the kind and thoughtful ruler she first imagined him to be, prompting her and the other characters to revolt against the King. This translates back to the real world, as during these moments, Ola is made aware of the trials and tribulations that have arisen during the pandemic.
The overall play exemplifies the hardships faced by many during this pandemic. Although the script deviated from the main narrative a few times, such as when a filler ad scene was shown, this doesn’t really sway away from the message the play intends to represent.
Zooming in on inequalities
The view of a synchronous Zoom class marks the beginning of Present! by batch BYErus-19. Directed by Kim Poy, the play features an online meeting between Bb. Norabelle Constantino, a private school teacher, and her class of grade 10 students—who each face different hindrances in their experience with remote learning.
With loud barking in the background, we are first introduced to Rose Marie Lim, who is forced to stay outside during class to catch a strong cellular data signal. Following her is entrepreneur Jhudy Mhaye Santos, who greets the class by promoting the face masks she sells. Lastly, we meet Edward del Rosario, who feels stressed over the proliferation of “DDS and trolls online”. As Bb. Norabelle orients them on their upcoming classes, each section of her presentation raises an issue that reveals just how difficult online learning is for the students.
Through its humorous portrayal of the realities that come with online classes, the play presents the truth that this kind of learning is not for everyone. Not for Rose Marie, whose voice comes out choppy and is held back by her household responsibilities; not for Jhudy Mhaye, whose family cannot afford tuition; and not even for Edward, who is despaired by the dire situation of the country. Further, it is not even comfortable for Bb. Norabelle, who, while initially supportive of the online class setup, later reveals her afflictions against it.
Present! reveals to its audience how the online learning setup comes with its own set of challenges, both for students and for educators. Its narrative exhibits how the push for better distance learning policies is not merely driven by students’ nor teachers’ laziness. Rather, it is motivated by the fact that they, given the government’s inadequacies, cannot transcend the systemic inequalities they face.
Of arts and advocacy
If there’s an underlying message to be discovered in this production, it’s that art and theater are effective platforms to drive home political advocacies. While the two plays make online learning the focal point of their narratives, they also made room to advance other social issues—fueling much needed conversations on the Anti-Terrorism Law, the lack of concrete government actions regarding the pandemic, the proposed jeepney phaseout, among others.
Sana OL, Present! reflects the kind of release that can be born out of the pent-up frustrations of young artists. With burning emotions tempered by lighthearted comedy, the productions create just the right blend of advocacy and performance. The ability of the UP Replings 19BC to weave thoughtful stories that entertain and provoke only means that the future of the UP Repertory Company is brimming with potential.