By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Theater Review
Manila Biennale Performance Night
Feb. 22, Casa Manila, Intramuros, Manila

AS ARTS MONTH this February was winding down, the first Manila Biennale Performance Night on Feb. 22 at the Casa Manila Teatrillo in Intramuros seamlessly segued into an anticipation of Women’s Month this March.

“I missed work for this,” breathlessly declared a 30-something female BPO customer service drone who had come alone, all the way from Sta. Rosa, Laguna. Her brief immersions in Philippine art were bright respites from the grey hours of call center drudgery. She barely arrived in time to purchase a pass for the opening performance by the West Coast-based art collective known as M.O.B. (Mail Order Brides) consisting of Rianne “Immaculata” Estrada, Jenifer “Baby” Wofford and Eliza “Neneng” Barrios. Unfortunately, Ms. Barrios was indisposed that evening but the two remaining femmes formidablé more than made up for her absence. Unlike our Filipina BPO worker trained to project a perpetual smile even over the phone, these two delivered their lines in dry terror teacher or ominous prison matron tones, through stiffly turned down raging red lips which seemed to suck the air out of the room. Imagine talking vagina dentatas. Another twist was that their office flunkeys were submissive males in corporate attire.

This was the Philippine premiere of Manananggoogle: Divide/Conquer, a send-up of corporate culture with the vision of “Opportunism for everyone.” It started with the audience being herded through two gender-segregated sections, cordoned off by thick red ropes held by students, as young as Grade 6. The kids, who all live around Intramuros, were dressed in flimsy mock hazmat suits and totally silent. They were themselves uncertain of what was going on, but dutifully held on to the ropes as instructed by “Ate” (big sister), the Manila Biennale (MNLBNL) staffer who had recruited them.

The audience remained standing as they were bombarded with a quick succession of flashing lights, disturbing images of raw meat, guts, the iconic image of the actor Malcom McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with his eyes painfully propped open with pins, and a rope like the one dividing the audience — all against a dissonant soundtrack of grating engine noises, fingernails scraping against a blackboard, unnervingly piercing mechanical squeaks or high pitched electronic humming. Three women including a tiny girl were then randomly selected from the audience to demonstrate unlikely stances of female power. Afterwards, a cohort of males contorted their bodies into poses of male subjugation, as unlikely denizens of the “glass basement.”

There followed photo opportunities in another room. An excited man in cargo shorts fervently gushed that this brief experience of the gender order turned upside down had been unexpectedly liberating and reverently requested “groufies” with the two M.O.B.sters. Meanwhile, the stage was set for the most recent iteration of Carlos Celdran’s Livin’ la Vida Imelda which has been performed in various guises, including an early version in a local art gallery with a sort of Greek chorus, since 2012. That was the year Mr. Celdran turned 40. Yes, he is a Marcos martial law baby, born in 1972, who has spent much of the last half of his adult life thoughtfully examining how the quintessential Steel Butterfly has shaped our nation’s destiny and transformed the landscape of the reclaimed Manila Bay where he conducts one of his tours. In Japanese sign language, the word for “Filipina” is mimed with the butterfly sleeves of her signature terno. She represents us.

Next year the Imeldific turns 90 with nary a wrinkle on her apple cheeks, and a creaseless neck that is preternaturally supple and tight. She is still a player on the Philippine political scene, this time as the representative of Ilocos Norte’s 2nd district, taking over a seat kept warm for the last three terms by her eldest daughter Imee, who is currently the governor of Ilocos Norte. Mr. Celdran gleefully repeats juicy tidbits about Governor Marcos’s paternity, the late president Marcos’ artificially enhanced abs, his alleged genital insecurities which led to the Dovie Beams debacle, and the Imeldific’s career as a beauty pageant title holder. These are just smidgens from an unwholesomely delectable smorgasbord of hilariously tawdry apocryphal anecdotes, highlights in Mr. Celdran’s coming of age under a dictatorship. He alternates between dishing and pensive musing on how we got to where we are as a nation, and where do we go from here.

Particularly enlightening was the Imeldific’s wont to refer to herself in the third person during a brief encounter she had with Celdran. This was when she launched an in-your-face costume jewelry line based on her own fabulous collection. It was the first and only time Mr. Celdran and Mrs. Marcos had ever met and spoken. Mrs. Marcos explained that the magnificent Coconut Palace was her way of showing Filipino peasants who lived in tumble-down huts with coconut trunk posts and palm frond thatch roofs, what they could do to upgrade their homes — given millions of pesos in construction and interior decoration funds, and the services of a top flight architect like Bobby Manosa, that is.

Perhaps it is her willful denial of the existence of a reality apart from her own Imeldific version of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” which makes Imelda R. Marcos so fascinating even on the world scene. Mr. Celdran sentimentally attributes the global phenomenon of Imeldophilia to her Cinderella-like life story. But like Imelda, Cinderella was always la hija de buena familia (daughter of a good family). The unscrupulous and overweeningly ambitious Claire Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards may be closer to the Imeldific than any Disney princess.

The evening ended with a performance by Raquel de Loyola, a member of the all-female Kasibulan. Black and white archival photos of Intramuros’ devastation during World War II were projected on the bare stone wall, while unseen female voices sang Abelardo’s “Nasaan Ka Irog.” The invisible overlapping voices gave the eerie effect of unfathomable grief over haunting loss. Before our American overlords bombed it to perdition, the Manila of the old Intramuros had been among the loveliest cities in the Far East. This first MNLBNL was a poignant remembrance of what had been and a brave declaration of what we might become. Our past is prologue.