Desaparesidos are victims of enforced disappearance—a tool used by a government to keep activists from sharing and standing up for their political opinions. Considering the gravitas of the term, it’s an apt title for Ateneo ENTABLADO’s newest production that’s set against the blood-stained backdrop of Martial Law.
Adapted from Lualhati Bautista’s novel of the same name, Desaparesidos follows guerilla force members Anna and Roy as they traverse the horrors and hardships that activists faced during Martial Law, and how it affected their lives decades after.
What I took as the intent of writer-director Guelan Varela-Luarca for the play was such: to open audiences’ eyes to how traumatizing the ruthless Martial Law years were to the families and individuals affected by it. Through the play’s immersive set design, powerful performances by the lead actors, and gut-wrenching subject matter, it succeeds in doing so by violently shaking you to your emotional core.
The entire production is put together to create a somber, despair-ridden atmosphere. You get a feeling that something terrible could happen at any time throughout the entire first act.
Through grotesque imagery, the play shocks the senses. Blood splatters onto audience members, screams fill the room, and when a soldier throws a man down, you wince as you hear the loud thud of his head slam against the ground. When a man is dragged off stage, you can hear his cries fade into the distance until they’re ceased by gunshot. What may be the play’s most horrific scene is of a woman procedurally interrogated, molested, stripped and gang-raped by soldiers. There’s no sugarcoating anything.
Along with this, audience members are seated on the floor, right beside the stage, which is covered with newspaper clippings with faces of missing people, front and center. The set-pieces, mainstay throughout the entire production, are imposing and diverse chain-linked fences—two of them swing to act as doors or gates, the other two are solid, immovable for their use as walls or structures to hang men and women on. Everything about the set works in keeping you engaged to the narrative and bringing you up close to the action on stage, and that’s to the credit of Mark Legaspi, the play’s stage designer.
Same goes for D Cortezano and RJ Deniega, Desaparesidos’ lights designer and technical director, respectively. The play’s lighting and sounds further accentuate its mood. Warm, yellow lights flood the set, punctuated by moments of deep, menacing red. Blackouts add a jump-scare element to the production that works surprisingly well to increase tension in the audience. Sound effects and music are used sparingly, with the occasional cricket noise cutting eerily through the ambient sounds of 80s Manila.
Performances by Brian Sy (Roy) and Delphine Buencamino (Anna) are top-notch. You can feel every bit of anger and anguish in them as they speak, shout, and scream. Sy is able to convey the strength and passion of a leader facing grim odds, while Buencamino shows the vulnerability and courage of a mother searching for her lost child. During the second act, set 20 years after Martial Law, it’s believable they’ve aged, and that what they had gone through had left them with deep, paralyzing scars. Here, both actors are able to nuance their performances; when they move, they seem wearier, and their words come out lacking their youthful vigor.
Naturally, the play has its own share of missteps. Aspects of the story need a little more time to develop, especially in the second act. A family drama—a tumultuous relationship between a daughter and her emotionally detached parents—is introduced, and could benefit from more time to build. By doing so, it would clearer establish how the effects of Martial Law last long past the first EDSA People Power Revolution. Also, a comical office scene midway through the second act feels very out of place. The ending, too, is abrupt. It perhaps doesn’t offer enough closure for the emotionally draining narrative, and leaves you with unanswered questions and unresolved plotlines, especially for the character Anna.
Regardless, Desaparesidos is a fantastic play that provides a gripping representation of the people that fought against Martial Law. You’ll be left tense, cringing, and speechless by its end, and that’s what the production wants you to feel. It wants to make sure all the images, emotions, and realizations you take from it are burned into your mind forever. It’s these kinds of stories that help us remember all the injustices that we as a country faced, and it’s through this that we’re driven to make sure we never go through them again.