MANILA, Philippines – Before Ang Paglilitis Kay Mang Serapio starts, a cast member addresses the audience with a few reminders, though the gravity of his voice and his facial expression makes them sound more like warnings than general guidelines.
One of the last things he says: grab the plastic sheets under the seats, because it’s going to get pretty damn bloody.
What may have been a pre-show courtesy to the audience turned out to set the tone for the play – that is: grim, with a creeping sense of something being not quite right.
This particular staging celebrates the 50th anniversary of Paul Dumol’s 1968 masterpiece. It is directed by Palanca Award-winning playwright Juan Ekis, and is a collaboration between theater groups the Theatre Titas and Duende Theater.
Interestingly enough, it’s staged at The Ruins in the heart of Makati’s fast-gentrifying hipster neighborhood, Poblacion. It may sound like a gimmick to stage a play in the same place that at one point hosted drunken Independence Day revelers and impassioned football fans – and in fact, Paglilitis is the first play to be staged at the venue.
But the derelict building – whose run-down interiors is normally highlighted as a novelty to party-goers – could not have been a more perfect setting for a play about the violent trial of a man accused of a crime. Even more, the venue itself is just a few steps away from Kalayaan Avenue’s decades-old grit and grime that no amount of shiny new watering holes and their beautiful patrons can scrub away. The location adds another layer to the telling of a story about social and systemic injustice.
Inside, the stage is set in the center of the room as chalk graffiti covers the crumbling walls. The entire area is tightly packed, and even the audience must be ready to sit shoulder to shoulder with each other.
“We wanted to create the feeling of suffocation,” Juan Ekis told Rappler. “Masikip, and kung mapapansin niyo, yung audience ganun din, pagpasok nila, parang nasasakal sila (It’s crowded, and if you’ll notice, with the audience, it also feels that way, that as soon as they enter, they feel like they’re choking).”
The play grabs you by the neck right from the start as it introduces the unwashed street urchins that make up the Federasyon, the somewhat dystopian society at the center of the play.
Before long, two interrogators begin the trial as the defendant is brought – or more accurately, thrown – in to the center of the courtroom, of which the audience is part.
Mang Serapio is a pitiful sight the moment we meet him: floss-haired, dirtier than the rest of them, and with a look of slow-burning fear that never leaves his eyes.
Soon, the trial begins, and the brutality doesn’t once falter. It makes the scene difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away from.
Throughout the play, Mang Serapio’s punishment, and the hope that he may be shown mercy, are constantly dangled before his – and the audience’s – eyes, so that even if the dialogue and the action rises and falls, the play never drags.
True to the play’s Brechtian nature, the actors would often break the fourth wall, not only speaking to the audience members, but involving them particularly where there is a choice to show Mang Serapio some mercy, or at the very least to let him speak.
Ultimately, there is nothing anyone in the audience can do – the course of events has already been predetermined, and it's the two interrogators and the Federasyon's barong-clad leader who decides Mang Serapio's fate.
The play’s relevance, the gravity of its message is also never out of sight, and it’s as much a credit to the direction as it is to the actors’ – in particular Lian Renz Silverio’s booming voice as Unang Tagapagtanong (the lead interrogator), and Jacques Borlaza’s shivering manner as Mang Serapio.
Towards the end, the play circles back to the warning the audience was given before the play began. One of the characters signals the audience to bring up the plastic sheets – “madugo po ito (this is bloody),” he says, amping the suspense up as Mang Serapio is cornered by the members of the Federasyon on stage.
The final bloody act isn’t shown – but when the crazed executioner holds up a bloody organ, there is no doubt that it’s been accomplished. In an act of gratuitous violence, he gives the removed organ a squeeze, finally delivering the blood spatter the audience was warned of (promised?).
To be fair, it isn’t a Tarantino-esque dramatic spray of blood, nor a full-on Battalia Royale shower. But one realizes it doesn’t matter how much blood there is, so much as the fact that there is blood – and that it hits even the onlookers who had no hand in how things turned out.
Juan Ekis said that the ultra-violence is something he wanted to highlight in this particular staging of the play.
“There have been a lot of different versions of the play. It’s probably the most staged Filipino play in the past 50 years. We tried to maintain its being Brechtian, but at the same time, ultra-realistic.”
He also says that he included some subtle elements from the literary classic Dante’s Inferno, as something of a homage to the playwright, who teaches Dante at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and has a PhD in medieval literature.
“Some of the beggars represented the seven deadly sins, so may mga ganung elements na makikita mo sa costume (there are those elements that you’ll see in their costume) or probably the way they move,” he said.
“I felt that for the 50th, magandang pagsamahin yung mga ideas ni Dante atsaka ni Paul Dumol (it would be nice to combine the ideas of Dante and Paul Dumol) and to show how they reflect today’s reality.”
Dumol said that they aim to highlight the relevance of the play’s message, 50 years on.
“Wala kaming pinatay dito (we didn’t kill anyone here), but we wanted to show the gore, and how human life is disregarded in this syndicate, how it’s still being done, how life is being disregarded in today’s times,” he said.
“We wanted to show na hindi pinapahalagahan ang buhay, at medyo walang hope sa ganitong pamayanan (how life is no longer valued, and how there i almost no hope in this kind of society).”
Ang Paglilitis Kay Mang Serapio by the Theatre Titas and Duende Theater runs every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from September 7 to 16 at the Ruins in Poblacion, Makati. Tickets are at P800 if reserved online, and P900 for walk-ins. For more information, visit the Theater Titas Facebook page. – Rappler.com