We expect any play we watch to bring us to another place: to transport us, through time or space, to a different world; and when we do find that the world depicted in theater reminds us of our own, still we find that an aspect of it has been highlighted or distorted or charmed. Of course, the idea of realism in theater has never completely disappeared. Some may even cringe from the thought of this: What is the use of entertainment after all, if it cannot make us forget our own troubles?
But that is the surprise of the medium: to be able to show a recognizable world made fantastic because it calls by its name the monster that we dare not acknowledge, for fear of having to tame it ourselves.
Sa Kabiguan Hindi Kailanman Papayag
It takes some time to get used to the idea of a rap musical.
More so, when the premise, as it sets out, is difficult to understand. The play started this way: that he has talent cannot be denied Micko Laurente, who raps as Buchoy, even as he ate his words and it was more than halfway through that I began to understand what he was saying. But even in the chaos that was the ensemble of the first act, the play managed to interest, if only because the clash of costumes, the pandemonium onstage, takes the audience by surprise. Yet it is some time again before the situation becomes clear: Tisay (Angelina Kanapi), is outraged when she learns that her daughter Vicky (Thea Yrastorza) is with child, and that the father should be no less than Tabo (Nicco Manalo), taga-padyak ng pedicab, the reigning village idiot.
Ah, but worse! Tabo is convinced that he can care for the child—that, in fact, against all odds he and Vicky should wed, hope springs eternal, love is forever, even when Vicky’s mother wants to kill him, his little brother Buchoy reminds him, “Paano na ang aking pag-aaral?/Di ba sabi mo dahil first honor ako/Sagot mo pag-aaral ko hanggang kolehyo…” and Vicky claims that there is only one sure way to end the dilemma, still tabo insists. He will never forget his little brother, he can support a family—he could get a job at the municipal hall!
The municipal hall!, cries Vicky, and for what! To become a kleptomaniac?
And here, premise and foreshadowing briefly coincide. A kleptomaniac: one who steals from others, not out of any need but simply out of impulse, a psychological crisis. But it is not a condemnation of the disease itself, or even of the people outside theater who have been clinically diagnosed of this mania, that the play serves to criticize, as the confusion begins to clear.
As the narrative continues, the conflict is narrowed down; we are introduced to the vigilant best friend Ngongo, the devious pal Peklat (Ybes Bagadiong), the lecherous Kap Cris, (Akong Bongcaras). And here the set design provides a polish that proves the effectivity of simplicity: an earthquake takes the town, and suddenly the wooden planks, evoking memories of rusty yero and wooden shanties both, shake and fall down. The small town is devastated, and the faithful best friend perishes.
Lekat Na ‘Yang Tulungan
Now the real plot unravels. It is remarkable how easy it is to recognize an object that we tell ourselves is part of daily life: how a plastic bag held by a woman and handed to a ragged child onstage signifies without warning, instantaneously, two words: relief goods. What makes more sense than that? It all seems faintly familiar, like a dream we tell ourselves is as fantastic as cinema, as dramatized for most of us as a stage propped to the eaves and actors dressed for the part. We recognize the sheer clamor for it onstage and ogle, as though they were animals, while the survivors of the earthquake grab and tear and throw and pull, simply to receive one plastic bag.
And for what? Lumang damit, and goodness knows, these things having been shared on social media before reaching those who have every right to claim: “Mga putang ina nilang ipokrita/Magaling lang sa mga salita/Para malagay sa Facebook o Instagram/Sa buhay natin walang pakialam.” How then, can we demand gratitude for that? For what should be the simply human capacity to love?
If, by now, you ask yourself: Is the point then, of all this, to preach? To condemn all burgis? No, because it does more than that. It dares to ask the important questions that, in a society far removed from the destruction of an impoverished town—onstage and elsewhere—how dare we tell people of hope, when they have every right to tell you that they have none?
Squatter Tayo, Tandaan Mo!
But that is precisely what is remarkable in Tabo’s character. The play implicitly, again and again, asks, who is Tabo? It is, after all, easy to say: he is the uneducated, the naïve, the symbol of the masses!
But it is not the masses who are disillusioned. It is, after all, the beggar along the streets of Katipunan, the sampaguita-bearing children along EDSA, and the old crone dying underneath the MRT station, who know Jollibee as a luxury; who rejoice in one, two, maybe three passersby and the drop of their coins; who know that whoever wins the next election makes no difference because today, tomorrow, and as far ahead in the future as their emaciated bodies will take them there will only be the stark reality that they have nothing, they are nothing, and even when they die, they will remain nothing (Do you ever pause to wonder where their bodies go, the street-dwellers and taong grasa, when finally they relieve us of their presence, of our middle class guilt, and expire?)
For, after all, it is only the privileged who can tell the impoverished: get up on your feet! The Filipino spirit is stronger than disaster! More powerful than poverty! More resilient than pain. In the end Tabo’s insistence on hope is only so irritating because it is so frighteningly familiar, as only those traits that we possess can be, when we see them in somebody else.
But there is something to wonder at when a production can use language in a new light. Case in point: kleptomaniac. An exercise in language: Why, after all, are we able only to associate this term with those who have been diagnosed (and with uncalled-for distaste at that), but not with those in power? Why is it easier to call a spade a spade than to call kleptomaniacs those who live excessively, and with nary an excuse for it all?
Why is it so easy to say that Rizal wrote of that insidious social cancer, but so difficult for us to see that the impulse to allow foreign aid to come in where local government has failed suggests a kind of disease, a defect in logic all the more horrific because we are shameless about it?
That is the beauty and terror of the confrontation between Tabo and the Mayor (Brian Sy). In fact, it is so frightening because we can only imagine what it would be like to demand accountability and call a beast by its name—and to its face, no less!
And yet, what is the point of theater if not to bring out conflicting emotions in the audience? What is the use of it unless it allows us to praise it even as we can critique it and acknowledge its truths?
A Truth By Its Name
This, then, is true: I saw the rap musical on opening night, and the edges were rough. At crucial points verbal cues were missed, the sharpness of emotion dulled by misplaced pauses and voices attempting to keep up with the tempo. At some moments one has to wonder: is it simply because some chemistry lags where the rest of the cast, in smaller number, can be cohesive?
And this too, is true. I do not think Kleptomaniacs is the best rap musical ever. I have not even seen enough rap musicals for that. I do not think I can say that on that night I witnessed the best onstage acting I have ever seen, because again, I have not seen enough of that.
But to the extent that this play managed to turn our own vocabulary against us, to the extent that it makes us question whom we are really rooting for when we summon the idea of hope against every disaster, to the extent that it forces us to confront poverty as a reality instead of a play on words: this rap musical deserves to be seen, and its questions lived off the stage.
Kleptomaniacs, written by Layeta Bucoy and directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio, runs until 27th July at CCP’s Little Theater (also known as Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino). For tickets, kindly call Ticketworld at (632) 891-9999 or visit http://ticketworld.com.ph.