A mother’s powdered pompadour fastened with a flower hairclip and her perfectly ironed and embellished butterfly sleeves as compared to her son with his thumb and index finger in the shape of an L and his bright yellow malong. Four ghosts recounting their stories with quickened breaths and heavy hearts to a stunned audience. A Pokemon master frustrated at this “martial law thingy” as he traverses Project 4 in search of legendary Pokemon. These three narratives came together onstage in Ladies Who Launch’s Never Again: Voices of Martial Law last October 15, 2016 in the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani theatre.
This set of plays was the first out of three with each set featuring three plays each. True to the production title, each of the nine plays touched on the Martial Law period in different ways and through different perspectives. The three for this set were Kanakan Balintagos’s Loyalist Redux, which explored the relationship of loyalist mother and activist son, Erika Estacio’s Duyan Ka ng Magiting, which featured four monologues from four different Martial Law victims, and Chris Martinez’s Thingy O Ang Pak na Pak Ganern na Ganern sa Pakikipagsapalaran ni Milenyo, D’Great Pokemon Hunter, which zeroed in on the millennial generation and their often incomplete perception of Martial Law.
Each director masterfully rendered what once were characters and dialogue on pages to spectacles onstage. The writer-director of Loyalist Redux, Balintagos, weaved his real life experience with his own mother into his play, unveiling a sincerity in the difficulties of the loyalist-activist relationship. Estacio also wrote and directed her Duyan Ka ng Magiting, paying tribute to the heroes the nation ought to remember. Finally, the dream team of director Dennis Marasigan and writer Martinez brought the often-metafictional delight of Thingy together in a clever and novel way, ending the night with a bang.
Every performer—whether seasoned or fresh-faced—did a phenomenal job of bringing their characters to life. Loyalist Redux showcased the wisdom of veteran actress Pinky Amador in her haughty but vulnerable role of loyalist mother fawning over “Madame” Imelda Marcos in contrast to the young Kalil Almonte who was full of tenacity in his movements and speech as the artistang aktibista (artist-activist).
The same could be said for Chic San Agustin, portraying the death of real-life Martial Law victim Lorena Barros as she heralded: “The new woman, the new Filipina, is first and foremost a militant!” in Estacio’s Duyan Ka ng Magiting. She was joined by Rence Aviles, Gino Ramirez, and Neil Tolentino who played activist Edgar Jopson, Kalinga leader Macli-ing Dulag, and then-governor of Antique Evelio Javier respectively.
Gabo Tolentino’s portrayal of Milenyo, the millennial Pokemon hunter whose thumbs are glued to his phone, was thoroughly entertaining even if he never utters a word thanks to the top-notch narration of Onyl Torres. Torres acted as the voice of the entire play as neither Tolentino nor Nicole Herrera—who almost effortlessly took on the difficult role of all the other characters—spoke. Torres’ ability to manipulate his voice to sound like a scratchy-throated adolescent Milenyo to Milenyo’s #TitasOfManila-esque mother, his gruff father, and even his forgetful lola is impressive as, at some point, it seems as if Milenyo is actually speaking.
The sets for all three were relatively bare—there were no more than four black and white boxes to use as different props. What contributed to the great pacing and the effectiveness of some of the stories was the use of wall projections. Loyalist Redux and Duyan Ka ng Magiting both made clever use of the projector and the blank walls behind the actors, superimposing the peace-sign-toting figure of Amador with photos of the Marcoses and etching out the names of the Duyan Ka ng Magiting characters with ease. Production Designer Ralph Lumbres and Lighting Designer Joseph Matheu effectively built the moods of the plays with their interplay of projections and light intensities. Matheu especially contributed to the playfulness of Martinez’s Thingy with its bare set and numerous props, filling what was an otherwise relatively empty stage with different colored lights that suited the energy of each scene.
Despite some kinks in the plays—at one point during Martinez’s Thingy, narrator Torres’ iPad stopped working and his apology to the audience was met with a laugh, even from Tolentino himself—they were all effective and drove the point home. There was some stumbling over lines, as well, but these mistakes were minor and forgettable in the face of the great success that the plays achieved. Some may argue that aspects of the plays were heavy-handed with regard to criticizing the Martial Law era but it is easily refuted with the fact that its straightforwardness is necessary in telling the audience “this is why it should never happen again.”
Each play operates on different levels of historical truth. Loyalist Redux doesn’t just feature the real arguments Balintagos and his mother had, it is also reflective of the complicated, even polarized relationships we all may have. The way that the son (Almonte) tries to convince the mother (Amador) of how her beloved madame was a perpetrator of countless atrocities is not unlike how many try to convince real acquaintances, friends, or even family members that what transpired was not for the betterment of the nation.
Duyan Ka ng Magiting is the most direct, its constant energy escalating as the accounts of the lives of victims are revisited or even made known to some for the first time. While it is an explosive burst of account after account in just a matter of minutes, the urgency is clearly felt and communicated. There are no frills to this play, only truth and the pain it brings with it.
What with Pokemon Go’s recent spike in popularity, the kids—or millennials—might have drawn their own parallels to the play, willingly or not. The cluelessness of Tolentino’s character in Thingy is representative of how the younger generation treads the dangerous path of forgetting the pain of a nation. It drives many of them to question their nonchalance towards the dark event in our past while it reinforces others to delve deeper, look closer, to understand—before it’s too late.
The storytelling was innovative and heartfelt—every visceral strand and narrative filled with passion, with rigor that comes from believing that a nation should never forget and let a dark past repeat itself—never again.
All shows for Never Again: Voices of Martial Law are currently sold out but they are accepting donations for either an extended run or for tours in schools. If you’d like to know more, you can visit their Facebook page here.
Editors’ Note: The previous version of this article misattributed the role of Nicole Herrera and has since been corrected.