At its core, the annual Virgin Labfest (VLF) theater festival has remained more or less the same, even after 13 years. This isn’t to say that the project is resistant to growth; it’s been getting bigger every year, now a full-fledged spectacle at the CCP Little Theater. It’s a far cry from its humble beginnings in 2005 when it still carried the air of something akin to a workshop class. But VLF has remained committed, without much variation, to its initial mission: to showcase those endangered life forms known as one-act plays, and to do so without any restrictions—other than honesty. Thirteen years in, VLF hasn’t lost any of its trademark bite.
Alongside three returning plays and a set of staged readings are 12 new, never-before-staged acts selected from a total of 192 submissions. The new plays range from dramas teeming with social commentary to outrageous comedies not for the politically correct to more avant-garde fare that would never see the light of day anywhere else. Not that VLF plays normally aspire to appeal to the tastes of a mainstream audience—they are raw, ambitious, and don’t give a damn if they make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Take, for example, Set D of the current festival program: Adrian Ho’s Sincerity Bikers’ Club, Eliza Victoria’s Ang Bahay sa Gitna ng Kawalan, and Dingdong Novenario’s Nothing but Dreams. Ho’s drama has the audience listen to a group of people having a heated discussion about the tokhang phenomenon and the propagation of fear (a familiar conversation for many a Filipino). Victoria’s one-act horror story uses generous amounts of creepy costumes, projections, and unsettling noises to full effect. And Novenario’s race comedy is, in essence, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in a Filipino context, with brash racial humor in every line.These three plays alone can give you a pretty good idea of what the VLF spirit typically is: rebellious, urgent and single-minded in approach—but sometimes to a fault. As awe-inspiring as it can be to witness untainted passion onstage, there are times when the plays betray their being untested works. In Set D, each of the plays is so focused on the ideas they want to put across, that other aspects might be left a little lacking. Bahay sa Gitna ng Kawalan is arguably stronger as an intense audiovisual experience than as a straight story. Both Sincerity Bikers’ Club and Nothing but Dreams are more preoccupied with describing the current state of affairs in the Philippines instead of offering a certain solution.
But in the context of VLF, these perceived flaws aren’t damning. The fact is that one simply can’t watch just three of the 12 plays being presented; every play complements the others and contributes to an entire portrait of where we are today, and where theater is today. So if you want to be objective, yes, some of VLF’s plays aren’t always great. But the mission of VLF has always been about the act of creation above all. So long as there is enthusiasm for the festival, and a real desire for playwrights to create honest work, then the project is a success. You can accuse these plays of anything, but not of being insincere.
The genuine quality that VLF has retained over the years is especially striking now, with so much distrust and fear in the country. Instead of playing it safe, VLF only takes on more urgency, leading to not just new plays but a community of playwrights, directors, and actors amateur and professional who aren’t in it for money. It’s a festival that takes down those boundaries that probably shouldn’t even exist in the first place and celebrates the spirit of collaboration among artists—and we’re blessed to be able to witness the fruits of their labor.
Art by Darleen Sy
THE VIRGIN LABFEST RUNS UNTIL JULY 16 AT THE CULTURAL CENTER OF THE PHILIPPINES. PURCHASE TICKETS AT TICKETWORLD.COM.PH.