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Unmute: Enduring inescapable realities

DLSU Harlequin Theatre Guild (HTG) presented its first online film production, Unmute, last September 23 to 25 on AnimoSpace, and on September 27 in a closed Facebook group. 

The show presented a collection of four plays that offered glimpses of life during the pandemic, interweaving relevant social issues into each narrative. The virtual curtains opened with a message from HTG’s Artistic Director, Raffy Tejada, who said that theater thrives in spite of the uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last man standing

White Noise, a play in three parts, employs video diaries to tell the story of five characters from different perspectives at various stages of quarantine.

Sapantaha welcomes us to the 32nd day of the lockdown, introducing two students, two teachers, and Tita Jennifer as they document their daily activities through vlogging. From the outset, one can feel that something is amiss: Jessica, Martin, and Tita Jennifer’s cheery disposition starkly contrasted Ms. Marites and Ms. Levi’s overwhelming concern with the government’s handling of the new education system. Days pass, and in Yugto, the audience sees the characters facing more difficult scenarios. The tone shifts from a jolly mood to a melancholic one as each problem finally culminates in Pagsamo, where the characters find themselves hitting rock bottom. 

White Noise’s simple narrative brilliantly takes the audience through the country’s lackluster handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each character—from Ms. Levi’s weariness of how the government treats its educators to Martin’s slow breakdown on academics—was powerfully portrayed by their actors, capturing the raw emotion one might experience during these uncertain times. 

The video diaries also provide a more intimate view of events, making the characters feel more realistic to the audience. The unique approach reminds everyone that they can and should use their voice during the pandemic, an idea encapsulated best by Ms. Levi’s final reminder to viewers: “Kung may boses ako para magsalita, anong dahilan ko para manahimik?”

(If I have a voice to speak up, then what reason do I have to remain silent?) 

So close, yet so far

The second play, Salamat, Patawad, at Paalam, features three siblings—separated by the pandemic, connected only through a Zoom call—as they mourn the loss of their longtime caretaker, Manang Doddy. By letting viewers listen in on the intimate conversations, revelations, and confrontations of Bene, Gwen, and Sam, the play presents the fragility of life in the time of COVID-19. 

With natural yet emotionally intense dialogue, tension escalates through the siblings’ recollections of their days with Manang Doddy, revealing how important she was in their lives. Sam recalls the events that led up to Manang Doddy’s passing: the advent of the pandemic and the loss of her parents’ jobs led to their caretaker’s decision of returning to the former’s family, as Sam’s parents had financial troubles. But tragedy struck: Manang Doddy died of cardiac arrest due to COVID-19 after getting stranded at a transport terminal for over a week.

Sam blames herself, thinking that if only she had made Manang Doddy stay, she could have prevented their caretaker’s death. But, the play makes it clear that these events, in truth, were not Sam’s fault. All of them, including Manang Doddy, are victims of the country’s poor situation during the pandemic. Manang Doddy may seem to be yet another addition to the tally of COVID-19 deaths. However, the well-crafted narrative digs deeper, conveying that her death was more than just a number; rather, for the siblings, it meant the loss of a longtime companion.

Salamat, Patawad, at Paalam concludes with the title of the play itself, as the siblings thank Manang Doddy, ask her for forgiveness, and finally bid her their last farewells. With a sorrowful, yet painfully realistic narrative, the play highlights how life in the pandemic can so easily slip away.

No barriers

With a timeless narrative of love, acceptance, and hope, Sa Muling Pagsikat ng Araw portrays the stigma, discrimation, and fear that members of the LGBTQ+ community face in trying to live out who they are.  

When Maia’s younger brother Arjen dies in a road accident while driving under the influence, Maia, stellarly played by Mary Salceda, is overcome with grief and returns home—but experiences immense fear in doing so. Her family doesn’t know that she identifies as lesbian, thus escalating her anxiety. As she balances between grieving over her little brother and the fear of coming out, she turns to her friend Sev who adamantly reminds her that times are quickly changing. 

Interestingly, the plot distances itself from being a story set in the middle of a medical crisis and instead offers viewers to revisit a pandemic-free world. One plot point could have been changed to keep the play in line with Unmute’s pandemic-centered narratives; rather than having an accident while driving under the influence, perhaps death by violating quarantine measures would’ve made for a more chilling reveal. Maia’s inability to return home as she battles her all anxieties could have also made for a much stronger story. 

Regardless, Maia gets back up on her feet. Believing that tomorrow represents a brand new day for opportunities and change, Maia enthusiastically expresses her new found hope to her girlfriend Erin. Her decision is clear now; when Tita Malou calls her—the screen cuts to black, the music becomes somber, and Maia bravely says, “Tita, may sasabihin po ako sa inyo.”

(Tita, I have something to tell you.)  

Stand up, speak out

The final play brings us two years into the future, where young adult Miguel is about to register as a voter. As the story walks us through a day in Miguel’s life, complete with social media and pop culture references, Boboto na si Bunso emphasizes that one’s voice, no matter how small, must let itself be heard—especially in the upcoming elections.

Several election-related scenes are portrayed, including the entry of a certain Maria Malakas Angas, a candidate who promises everyone a free vaccine dosage if she were to win the elections. Still, Miguel remains unswayed, refusing to believe her empty promises. Heading to his online class, Miguel’s Zoom call starts running choppy as he finds two unknown voices talking to him through poetry. “Ikaw ang ikalabing-walong pag-asa,” they stress the importance of voting with each line. “Bunso, kailan ka tatayo?”

(You are the 18th hope. Young one, when will you stand?)

Though these scenes deliver a powerful message to viewers, the story falls short in pointing out the significance of these messages to the protagonist, as Miguel knew from the start that his vote was valuable, and he was able to see through Maria’s ulterior motives.

The play concludes with Miguel lighting two candles beside a photo of his mother in her uniform, abruptly revealing that she was actually a medical frontliner who passed away due to COVID-19. One last time, Miguel tells his mother that he is finally ready to be heard, and Boboto na si Bunso’s creative narrative comes to an end, reminding its viewers to value their voices and register for the upcoming elections.

Overcoming uncertainty

Through Unmute, HTG brought us four different stories, each tackling different prevalent social issues, albeit all under one umbrella: the burdened life of Filipinos amid these troubled times. Refusing to be silenced by the barriers of the pandemic, Unmute instead raises its voice, unmasking the realities that Filipinos now have no other choice but to face.

By Magz Chin

By Criscela Ysabelle Racelis

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