From June 18 to 24, the Harlequin Theatre Guild (HTG) launched their annual DuLa Salle (DLS) production, Retablo: Dambana ng Masang Filipino, via AnimoSpace and Ticket2Me. Emblazoning the work of playwrights from The Writer’s Bloc, the project bore fruit into a five-play, three-set ensemble that told the story of everyday Filipinos.
Retablo’s theme is predicated on the modern reinterpretation of Filipino visual art; to HTG, it is in these works that many find guidance in traversing life’s journeys. By dreaming up intricate plays loosely based on a variety of native paintings and sculptures, the production diligently preserved and upheld the rich Filipino history of the arts. With sharp allegories as its silhouette, the production’s roster of heroes each finds their antagonists in structures of hegemony.
Layers of the self
Set A started with Dingdong Novenario’s Jamboree, a collection of accounts on the different ways of handling grief. Directed by Bryll Carilla and Aira Romero, the film began with a gay man who faces the death of his loved ones and tries to conceal his sorrows in the way he hid his sexuality. It is followed by a religious woman who grieves at the loss of her friend during Martial Law. The third installment showed two strangers forming a friendship while confiding in each other about their losses during the pandemic. The film then concluded with a narrative about the tragic accident behind the 11th World Scout Jamboree Memorial Rotonda.
“Kapag oras mo na, oras mo na,” was a phrase persistently repeated at the end of the play. This sent the message that one never had and never will have any control over their fate as death is something people are just forced to deal with. While the film fell short of conveying the tragedy that the memorial was created for, Jamboree dissected the various coping mechanisms of people in response to a loss. More often than not, these actions are a turning point that leaves a lasting impression on oneself.
(If it’s the end of your time, then it will be your end.)
In the next film, AB Coronel’s Tweeter portrayed the perils of letting social media dictate one’s life. Directors Prince Beating and Nicole Moquerio integrated surrealism with comedy by portraying the characters as unnerving yet demonstrative graphics. Inspired by Elmer Borlongan’s Hibi, the story followed a social media influencer named Yvonne, who transformed into a bird. Distressed, she found herself conversing with her sister and the objects she highlights in her accounts: her plant, which lacks good supervision, and a leche flan, who has a strong desire to be eaten.
In these conversations, the character came to realize how most of her actions were not true representations of herself. As Yvonne grasped more of her identity, she slowly turned back into a human. Through this lighthearted film, the audience saw the outcome of letting the Internet lord over them. Giving up control while relenting on what social media dictates and the illusions it brings will lead to losing oneself. Tweeter discerned that people should cease the repression it brings; unlocking the cage of the Internet and letting oneself free off of social media may just lead to self-actualization.
Promises of life
“Salamat kay Imelda!”
(Thank you, Imelda!)
But should we really be thankful for her if she delivers false promises? The residents of Brgy. Quatro seems to think so. Still, directors Alethea Tolentino and Tricia Villafuerte challenged that notion in bringing Andrew Bonifacio Clete’s May Ginto!!! to life. Inspired by Vincent Manansala’s Pila sa Bigas, the musical comedy centered around five women and their quest to find the elusive gold hidden somewhere inside Imelda’s mansion. However, there is one thing that’s blocking them from moving forward: the promise of gold is just a hearsay.
One of the reasons why this play is one of DLS‘ stronger entries was its intelligent use of Marcosian allegories to move the story forward. Throughout the play, the audience never saw Imelda, similar to how Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. failed to appear in debates and interviews at the height of Halalan 2022. This coerced viewers to believe that whatever the characters say about her is true, just as how the Marcos clan utilized fake news to persuade millions to their side.
Aside from its references to the Marcos family, it critiqued how the Philippine government fails to put its citizens first in times of adversity. These women were tired of waiting for the country to solve its problems—so they took matters into their own hands. Tolentino and Villafuerte’s masterful production reminded audiences how people are willing to go the extra mile just to put food on the table, especially if there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow.
Finishing off Set B was Jayson Alcazar and Zion Lim’s Lunas, based on Carlos Francisco’s painting, Progress of Medicine in the Philippines. Penned by Ian Jay Formacion, it told the story of Claire and Aaron, a couple who tries to have a child of their own. This is certainly one of the more daring plays featured throughout the entire lineup. It’s a drama; it’s not trying to be comedic, overtly political, or otherworldly just to get its points across.
While the plot is heart-wrenching, it’s the chemistry between Alcazar’s Aaron and Mary Rose De Leon’s Claire that stole the show. The rollercoaster of emotions the pair went through was enough to make audiences empathize with their feelings. But baby or no baby, Aaron and Claire represent the eternal love a couple possesses. They may bicker and have their disagreements, but with proper communication and understanding, they can take on this harsh world together.
The show must go on
Retablo closed with the blithe story of Mandaluyong, which documented the plight of the tight-knit theater society Mandaluyong Repertory while producing a play about the city’s history. Written by Dingdong Novenario and directed by Juan Castillo and Angelica Aquino, Mandaluyong draws its inspiration from Dambana ng Alaala: Alay sa mga Dakilang Anak ng Mandaluyong, a sculpture honoring the city’s pro-independence revolutionaries.
With only a few minutes before the curtain falls, the Repertory’s micromanaging director frantically tries to organize his amateurish, scrupling cast in position. As they go on to portray their city during the precolonial, Spanish, and contemporary periods, a hasty yet humorous performance ensues.
Mandaluyong differentiated itself from Retablo’s heavier content through its savvy usage of situation comedy. The play eagerly captured the eccentric dynamics of a community theater guild, with larger-than-life wisecracks and lighthearted bickering. Be that as it may, the chemistry among the cast was tangibly felt by viewers. As the Repertory performers took their final bow, it became clear that no amount of low-budget props or improvised lines can take away the joys of theater.
Yet, Mandaluyong does not satisfy itself in trivial slapstick; though laced with a quick-witted script and a colorful set of characters, the production’s essence reflects the very heart of Filipino theater. Mandaluyong was a self-actualizing narrative of the struggle meeting all Philippine thespians alike: the battle for the love of theater, art, and country, even when all circumstances shout otherwise.
In the grand scheme of things, the face of Philippine art does not begin and end in a single work; rather, it is built on a patchwork of ideas, stories, and concepts from antiquity. All local art is of the same kin, being birthed by masterpieces from decades past. With this guiding its vision, Retablo indeed hit the bullseye in executing its goal to honor the local arts that came before it. Wrapping five multifaceted stories into one integrated whole, Retablo truly encapsulates what it means to stand on the shoulders of giants.