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The games people play

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By Jasmine Agnes T. Cruz

Theater
Children’s Plays for Adults (Si Maria Isabella at ang
Guryon ng mga Tala
and Games People Play)

Presented by Bit by Bit Company
Dec. 12, 13, 19 and 20
Power Mac Center Spotlight
at Circuit Makati, Sta. Ana, Manila

THE STARGAZER only had eyes for the stars, but Maria Isabella was determined to make him see her and the only way to do that was to build a giant kite that could take her to the stars.

Little boys and girls shed their innocence when the games that they engage in unleash their hidden desires.

These are the plots of the two plays in the twinbill production entitled Children’s Plays for Adults. Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala by Palanca Award-winning playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc is based on the short story “L’Aquilone du Estrellas” (“The Kite of Stars”) by fellow Palanca Award-winning writer Dean Francis Alfar. The second is Games People Play, a Palanca Award-winning play by Glenn Sevilla Mas. Produced by Bit by Bit Company, the two plays are directed by Ed Lacson, Jr.

WRITING A TRAGIC LOVE STORY
Maria Isabella has a long genesis. It began as Dean Alfar’s story “Kite of Stars,” the first story that Mr. Alfar — now known as the main proponent of speculative fiction in the country — sold to a magazine.




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First published in 2003 in Strange Horizons, a US-based magazine of speculative fiction, “Kite of Stars” received the honor of being included in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (17th edition), an anthology published by St. Martin’s Press that scours the world for stories and publishes the most stellar. “I couldn’t believe it,” he told BusinessWorld, recalling his reaction to an e-mail from St. Martin’s Press asking him for permission to reprint his story. “Of course, I said ‘yes’.” When it was published, it was sandwiched between speculative fiction greats such as Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin. Later on, Mr. Alfar turned it into a play, which won a Palanca, and it was included in his story collection with Anvil, The Kite of Stars and Other Stories.

“I’m big on stories of love and longing,” said Mr. Alfar. In Maria Isabella, the titular character wants to be loved by Lorenzo, a stargazer who walks through their village blindfolded as he reserves his eyesight only for his celestial friends. There is also the butcher boy who accompanies Maria Isabella on her quest to find the materials she needs to build the kite that can take her to the stars so that Lorenzo will finally see her. The boy develops feelings for Maria Isabella, but she does not reciprocate. “There are times when love can only know one direction,” said Mr. Alfar.

Maria Isabella is not just a love-sick heroine. For her creator, she is the embodiment of the Filipino’s determination. Through seemingly insurmountable challenges, Filipinos still try to find a way to get what they want. Though Maria Isabella’s quest begins as young love, as the years pass her quest means something else. “It doesn’t matter what starts the journey,” said Mr. Alfar. “What matters is the life lived.”

This poignant story so moved playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc that he wrote a blog entry praising it. This kicked off a series of pleasant messages between the two writers — who had never met before — which culminated in the playwright asking for permission to turn the story into a play, to which Mr. Alfar readily agreed. Aside from answering some questions that the play’s creative team had, Mr. Alfar has not been involved in the creation of the play. He watched it performed for the first time at the Virgin Labfest and said that it was as though he was experiencing the story for the first time. “I was reduced to tears,” he said. “My daughter, who was with me, said ‘Now you know what we’ve felt, dad. Now you know what you do to your readers.’”

PUPPETRY, LIGHTS, AND A CREATIVE VISION
The playwright took the English story, translated it to Filipino and created Maria Isabella. Mr. Deldoc kept Mr. Alfar’s intricate descriptions in his script, which are enriching on the page but might potentially bog down the story on stage. But this did not happen as he conceptualized these scenes as choreography-driven moments, and they are among the most entertaining and engaging parts of the play.

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The play’s director, Mr. Lacson, enlivened these scenes with papier-mâché puppets, shadow puppetry, and a play of lights, low-cost methods that still draw from the audience a sense of wonder. Working with a small budget for the play did not trouble him as he is used to thinking of creative ways to stage plays. As a college student he would cut up notebook pages to turn them into props, so it is easy for him to think of innovative ways to visualize a scene. “All of our props are things you can find in Quiapo,” he said in mixed English and Filipino.

Most of Mr. Lacson’s directorial training came while working in the Virgin Labfest, a festival of untried, unstaged, and unpublished plays. He began as a stage manager, but was unabashedly vocal about wanting to be a director. Mr. Lacson laughed as he remembered how bold he was back when he was so young and naive. “If I knew then what directing entailed, I would have never dared,” he told BusinessWorld. His penchant for telling people what he wanted came to good use when the festival launched its “fragments,” a series of scenes from plays that did not make the cut at the Labfest but which had one or two compelling scenes. The festival put Mr. Lacson in charge of staging these fragments. He then moved on to directing actual plays at the festival and other theater companies.

When Mr. Lacson read the script of Maria Isabella, he knew that he wanted to direct it. “It was easy for me to grasp,” he said. “I knew what to do with the play.” His inspiration was Philippine arts and crafts. The materials need not be smooth and polished as imperfections add character. However, in his quest to keep costs down, Mr. Lacson almost made a fatal mistake. He confessed that he initially wasn’t planning to show the giant kite. But when the playwright asked him about it during rehearsals, he realized that he’d be cheating the audience if the kite wasn’t shown. The next problem was how to make the kite “fly.” Realizing the theater ceiling was too low to be effective if the kite was literally hoisted up, he tried another strategy, which was an unexpected yet wondrous surprise.

DESIRES AND GAMES
A worthy companion to Maria Isabella is Games People Play, which reflects Mr. Lacson’s playful vision as he used cardboard boxes to create a church, a forest and a castle, a simple set that serves as a backdrop for the story of three friends Luna (Thea Yrastorza), Diego (JC Santos) and Julio (Abner Delina).

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The story was inspired by a quote from child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim: “The monster a child knows best and is most concerned with [is] the monster he feels or fears himself to be.” That quote was on Mr. Mas’ mind while taking his Masters in Fine Arts major in playwriting at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In the cold winter, he missed home, and so he began writing a short play called Games Young Boys Play, about two boys playing a “game” that is a little too adult. When a friend read it, he encouraged Mr. Mas to develop it into a full-length play, and the writer began thinking of other games he played as a child and explored their psychological implications.

Today he refuses to play games — they stress him out, he said. Like for a child, it’s as if winning the silly game feels like a matter of life or death. “In a game, there’s someone who wins and someone who loses,” he said in Filipino.

For his characters, the game isn’t as fun anymore as it becomes intertwined with secrets. Puberty — which has always fascinated Mr. Mas — is a time when a child discovers what is right and wrong and begins hiding what he or she is ashamed of. The writer explores this period in many of his plays. This stage of life defines an individual forever and can explain one’s irrationalities, including his own, he said. “When I write a play, I feel like I am getting to know myself.” This desire to know oneself comes from Mr. Mas’ fear of death. He said that when he dies he hopes that the last thing he’ll think of is that which will allow him to make sense of his entire life. “With that I’ll be able to peacefully let go,” he said.

For tickets, visit Bit By Bit Company’s Facebook page, and the Power Mac Center Spotlight at 0917-570-4359 or 0917-886-0816,or the TicketWorld Web site (www.ticketworld.com.ph).

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