Gleaning lessons from School of Life (Mga Dulang Walang Pinag-aralan)

Our happiness as a nation is not of an insouciant kind. We are not afforded to experience this blithe and unconcerned happiness because the consequences can be devastating for reasons we all know by heart.

However, this does not mean we have already given up on happiness or humor altogether, in fact we are one of the happiest people in the world (that is, if we take humor and happiness as interchangeable). Despite the harsh living conditions that are at first glance incapable of supporting happiness, we can still make fun of the situation and ourselves. Something that most foreigners think is laughable if not ridiculous.

Without this adaptive mechanism, however, we would not be able to cope with the hardship of life in this country and we’d all end up lining up for a slot in the National Psychiatric Hospital, that is, if it exists at all.

Of course, we try to have a semblance of happiness in our lives giving rise to this distinctively Filipino way of redefining the phrase “pursuit for happiness”.

And this Filipino humor repeatedly manifests itself in the three plays that make up a set called School of Life in this year’s Virgin Labfest 5. It is the use of humor, in all its kinds, to drive a point or a commentary on the public school system, education, lifelong learning, and life that made this set truly a school of life.

Public School in the Philippines

Isang Mukha ng Pandaraya (by Oggie Arcenas, directed by Roli Inocencio)

The vision of the director for the play was well executed, and this is visible in the plays tight scenes and good timing. Considering that both the storyline and the theme of the play Isang Mukha ng Pandaraya are nothing new, the challenge of making the play feel fresh lies on the direction, and this successful attempt of its director Roli Inocencio is worth noting.

The carefully established contrast, a crucial element of the play, between the characters from the two sides, the counsels of the defense and prosecution and their clients, that the play requires is very distinct. Though in some cases one will have an uncomfortable feeling that he is watching a teleserye involving a cat fight between Judy Ann Santos and Gladys Reyes in the early 90s soap Mara Clara, except that the character of Isadora, the cheating summa cum laude, is not bitchy enough neither does she sound adequately intelligent for somebody graduating with the highest honor, although admittedly, she is more than scheming.

There are also aspects of the play, such as the distracting message alert tone of the chair of the Student Disciplinary Tribuna, that mock the university where the story of the play is based: the University of the Philippines, where a case involving students who committed cheating, a grave act in the University Code punishable with expulsion, but was downgraded to “misconduct”.

The play has too much negativity in it. Then again, if the realities it tries to imitate are negative in the first place, it is understandable therefore that pessimism can be sensed in all its parts. This sense of the negative foreshadows the conclusion the play chose or is forced to choose, an ending that the viewers already expect and anticipate because the prevailing realities of education in the Philippines dictates this kind of ending.

By trying to avoid sounding like delivering a sermon, the playwright gave in to the pressure of ending this play the way he ended it. An unwise decision, I believe; a decision that unburdens the writer to suggest a solution to the problem. A no-brainer conclusion that even the final implied act of Amor biting off the penis of the chair of the Students Disciplinary Tribunal did nothing to recover the depth the play has sunk.

Ang Huling Lektyur ni Misis Reyes (by Tim Dacanay, directed by Hazel Gutierrez)

It must have been a daunting challenge for the only character of this play, Misis Reyes, to do a monologue and to continuously amuse the audience the entire time she gives her last lecture before she resigns.

Her lecture on dissonance is impeccably clear and engaging. Her lessons on life interspersed between her Music class is more effective than any Values Education in high school or Philosophy courses I took in college. Her last lesson on sex, told without restraint but with full sensitivity on the issue, is better in driving the point than the all the sermons in the pulpit of the Church on the subject.

Misis Reyes becomes an animated character because of the personality the actor bestowed on her. In Misis Reyes I saw images of the countless, untiring teachers. I even saw in her the image of my mother who is also a teacher in the public high school where I graduated from.

These teachers at some point were idealists like anyone of us who also hoped to change the system and improve the way knowledge is taught and used. But like the imaginary sister principal, the system does not admit change as quickly as we would have wanted.

For some, the decision, although hard, is to give in to the system and give up the hope, but for Misis Reyes it is to become a better mother to her son, to give up for now, and to give her last lecture that defies rules, to be a rebel, if need be, all for the sake of her students who need to learn what they have to learn about their own bodies and sexuality.

This is a play I would love my mother to see and all my teachers who taught me the best lesson I’ve learned: going against the current.

MPC (Mababang Paaralan ng Caniogan) (by Job Pagsibingan, directed by [I could not remember her name but she was this very gorgeous lady who demolished that night my stereotype of a theater director] and mounted by the actors of Dulaang Sipat Lawin)

Everything in this play is meant to be funny and comical: the oversize props, the actors dressed in cute primary school uniforms, these same actors’ affected way of delivery of their lines, the teacher’s bright uniform and clownish make up, the unpredictably witty and satirical exchanges of lines, the situations, and its no-holds-barred parody of the truths about the public education system in the Philippines.

The effect of sensing truths is not static; it is dynamic, amorphous, myriad. Our reaction to them can also be varied depending on our own experience of them and how they are presented. Job Pagsibingan represented all these truths he knows in his play Mababang Paaralang ng Caniogan with utmost sensitivity and outright humor.

It dawned on me while watching the play that there are eerie similarities in the experience of all Filipinos who attended public schools anywhere in the country. The play is set in Bulacan, I studied in South Cotabato, but everything that the three students – Pelis, Didai, and Erwin – have gone through is exactly the same things my classmates and I experienced in Dole Cannery Central Elementary School in Polomolok.

I laughed almost to a point of hyperventilating because I saw myself in all the three characters; my teachers in the harsh but loving, dedicated but fatigued Miss Magnaye who, like all other public school teachers, has to resort to selling goods if only to make both ends meet; and my fear of the leaders in the chills-and-shudders-causing district supervisor who left indelible fears we all have on people of superior ranks.

The play has not introduced any new perspective on the failure of the country’s public school system. This has been repeatedly tackled in all other plays whose object is to shed light on the already glaringly corrupted system. This truth is not something that we can easily laugh about. But the methods the play uses to treat its conflicts, a blunt commentary on this already tired topic and that nostalgia-inducing scenes between the three students and with Miss Magnaye, make this play truly memorable.

****

At the end of the day (forgive my use of this cliché) a theater’s success does not depend on whether it has caused us to ask profound questions about society’s ill, man’s place in the world, life in general, or to cause us to intellectualize on the motivations of the characters.

If it touched baser human needs to laugh and to cry and inspired primitive emotions such as anger, fear, love, happiness in it viewers then it is already more than enough. That theater is aready successful.

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4 thoughts on “Gleaning lessons from School of Life (Mga Dulang Walang Pinag-aralan)”

    1. It was a pleasure watching your play, Tim. Congratulations to you too. And thanks for spending your time here in my humble blog.

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