Notes on the 10th virgin labfest

This is my column today, July 13, 2014.

The 10th Virgin Labfest, the annual festival of “untested, unstaged”one-act plays officially ended the other weekend at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.  Unlike in the past, there seemed to have been very little publicity about this year’s festival.  Someone I know failed to watch any of the 12 new plays that comprised this year’s harvest precisely because there was hardly any mention of the festival in mainstream media; not that it affected ticket sales anyway. It was difficult to get tickets to the festival. In fact, we could only buy tickets for the second weekend when we trooped to the CCP when the festival opened.
So first things first: After a decade, perhaps it’s time for the organizers to think about how to expand the annual festival.  I understand that fostering an intimate community of supporters (I’ve been religiously supporting the annual festival for six years now and I can honestly say that I basically see the same familiar faces in the audience and even onstage year in and year out) is a  large part of what has made the Virgin Labfest a phenomenon but there are ways to open up the festival to a wider audience without necessarily sacrificing its integrity or deviating from its main spirit.
As it was, the limitations of Tanghalang Huseng Batute were painfully obvious this year– from the leaking pipes that dripped water onstage, the creaking seats and floors at the balcony section, the inadequate air-conditioning system, etc, etc. 
Once again, there were quite a number of times in the five consecutive nights that we religiously went to the CCP to watch all five sets of this year’s harvest when I felt a twinge of sadness that friends and students couldn’t catch another wonderful performance of a very insightful play just because it ran for only two weekends and a grand total of four performances, all of which were sold out.  But then again, I perfectly understand the risks involved in venturing beyond a formula that has already been proven to work. 
The annual labfest is primarily designed to be a venue for exploring new pathways in Philippine theater.  Thus, the selection is always a heady mixture of plays that try to tackle delicate facets of the human condition in various new ways. Out of the more than 160 entries submitted to the festival this year, 12 were chosen for production, three were chosen for staged readings, and snippets (officially referred to as fragments) of another four were performed in hallways during breaks.  Three plays from last year’s festival were revisited and comprised set E of this year’s offering.
As I have always insisted in the past, it is difficult to critique a festival that is driven mainly by good intentions, passion, and the overwhelming desire to break new grounds.  As in the past, all the productions deserved high marks and the best commendations for effort – they all tried to make do with the limitations in time and other resources.   Some of the materials in this year’s harvest were not quite there yet – the premise of two or three plays were promising but were not fully realized, in terms of plot, theme, and structure.  But still, watching Filipino actors try to flesh out the roles and situations was always worth it. 
Then again, the annual Virgin Labfest has always been best appreciated in gestalt form, like an Indian purse with intricate embroidery and bits and bits and pieces of beads and threads and tiny mirrors sewn into them.  We may find faults with each or some of the segments but the only way to appreciate them fully is to consider the whole experience - including how our own images are reflected in those tiny mirrors.
But some works will always stand out.  To my mind, this year’s gems were Eljay Deldoc’s Ang Goldfish ni Prof. Dimaandal, Liza Magtoto’s Anonymous, Raymund Reyes’s Ang Naghihingalo, and Ricardo Novenario’s Wendy Wants to be a Housewife.  These four plays were richly textured and layered; each of these four plays were successful in presenting onstage a seemingly simple situation that eventually exploded into a powerful exposition of psychological, social, cultural and even political issues that provoked, tickled, and disturbed the audience.
This early, we can’t wait for the 11th annual virgin labfest!


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