Wednesday ∗ 19 Feb 2014

space for troubled youth: on Toilet The Musical

It was funny that before I could find where exactly Toilet The Musical was being staged in the Ateneo campus, I first had to happen upon the Rizal Mini Theater where Antigone The Musical was being staged. It made me want to try and get into the latter — for how fun that sounded after all! — but then again, Toilet was making a promise difficult to refuse: it’s an all-original Filipino musical. That it had Ejay Yatco at the helm might be exactly what kept me walking towards Toilet even as Antigone was calling. Yatco after all was musical director of the underrated success that was Sa Wakas (2013).

In Toilet, Yatco does not disappoint. Neither do writers Bym Buhain and Miyo Sta. Maria. Neither does the rest of Blue Rep.

via Ejay Yatco's soundcloud page.

Yes, this is about high school — fourth year high school in particular; and yes this is about love, as it is about the stereotypes that are at this point familiar. But also this telling was unique in its refusal to engage with the back stories of these kids, where none of it was as simple as having absentee or abusive parents, and all of it was about being stuck in this particular place and time, when the world is as small as one’s self-esteem, if not one’s notions of love.

The latter is in each of the individual stories here, yet one would be hard put to think this all shallow and superficial. Yes, there are the stereotypes of the slut in Therese Wilson (KC Kane) and the girl-next-door in Dianne Johnson (Bernice Reyes), the jock in Paul Robinson (Franco Chan) and the regular-joe-artist-wannabe in Joey Smith (Nel Gomez), the pseudo-conservative and ultra-religious in Lucille (Mica Fajardo) and the fat girl in Tiffany (Cassie Manalastas), the outcast in Gus (Lorenzo Mendoza). And yes, you can look at these characters as selfish teenagers, who are just needlessly worrying about unimportant things other than studying — so close to graduation at that! — but that would be missing a huge chunk of who these characters are, and what it is they’re doing here, in this particular space instead of elsewhere. And I mean both high school as context, and the toilet as space.

One only needed to listen to the songs to find that there are no shallow issues of teen angst here. In fact the first song “Just Wait A While” was wonderful because while it talked about the particular issues of each teenager, it also already established the crises that bound them together. This was not just about fitting-in, or suffering as stereotype; this was about the crises of identity for individuals who know the aspects of their selves that is lost to sustaining their public personas. It’s about working with and against these stereotypes, admitting to its truths, and critiquing it for its falsities.

Lorenzo Mendoza as Gus. photo via Blue Repertory.

“Just Wait A While” was a song that spoke of the need of breathe, to take heart, because this too shall pass. Except that of course it doesn’t quite pass, and not as quickly as the last two weeks of classes would. After all, once we validate the crises of these teenagers, then it also become clear that two weeks can be a very very long time. There is time to go up to the girl you like and be the friend she needs; time to fight with one’s boyfriend, or scheme against a stepsister; time to get pregnant; time to turn to bulimia; time to die.

And these are borne of the deep-seated issues that are in the songs these teenagers sing. It is intelligent and critical; it is about asking questions. This is also what allows for Toilet to be a level up to the run-of-the-mill high school musical: it dares engage in the task of asking questions. Say, when Lucille and Therese do their duet questioning faith and religion in “The Word Of The Lord,” or when Tiffany sings “Skinny Disney Princess,” or when Joey sings “Regular Joe.”

Even romance is put into question in songs that would otherwise be called love songs. “I Do” is the recurring song, where it is both about Tiffany’s unrequited love for Paul, as it is about Diane and Paul declaring their love for each other. “Don’t Fall In Love” is an anti-love song, where the crises in the friendship between Diane and Joey is rendered truthfully with nary malice.

KC Kane as Therese. photo via Blue Repertory.

By the time the first act ends with “Nobody Knows” the story and these songs had already rendered the stories of these teenagers complex, and there was a depth here that one rarely sees in the young musical (off the top of my head: Rep’s Camp Rock, PETA’s William). The ending is expected, and the individuals’ unraveling in the second act was as expected, too. But this doesn’t remove from the many surprises that was in Toilet, its complexity and depth included, which also had a lot to do with how it chose to keep things unresolved. Yes, there was nothing pretty about this story, and neither did it want or need to end pretty.

This could only do justice to the individual stories of these characters, and point to the fact that this was not just about high school kids being selfish or self-centered, and certainly it wasn’t merely about love. In fact, given its lack of resolution, Toilet also highlighted how it is entirely possible that the issues we have in high school become our lifelong issues — if we live long enough to tell the tale of course.

Which is to say that what resonates for this older theater viewer in Toilet is the fact that youth and being a teenager, stereotypes and parental expectations included, can be about entrapment. One hears this from that first song, and through to “Nobody Knows,” to “The Darkness I Find,” to “Take Me To The Sky”; these are teenagers who are far more intelligent than the labels, and who know in fact to refuse these, but do not know how. Or are disallowed from refusing it completely, where the sterotypes are not so much the issue, as it is the context that cradles these, where the preoccupation is in the roles these teenagers should play as students and their parents’ children, which ultimately forgets that they are people.

Bernice Reyes as Diane. photo via Blue Repertory.

And this is why Toilet The Musical is valuable really. Watching it was one of the few times I regretted not teaching freshman English in Ateneo, because it would’ve been great to discuss this production in a class filled with kids of the same age. Which points to the one major failing of this production as well, over and above a set that I agree did not quite work at drawing the line between what is public and private: it was set in some un-named and un-defined space in the US (New Jersey we heard at some point).

Now this assertion of setting was not something the story needed, though there is always something strange about a text set in Manila when it is in straight English. And yet for Toilet, Manila would have worked — given as well a cast that was not using any one accent, and an English that is as diverse as the English we hear in this country. In fact, Toilet could’ve been in some hoity toity Manila school, with rich students who worry not about money, but are in crises nevertheless.

Otherwise Toilet The Musical was quite enjoyable, a feat for such a young cast as well. The girls certainly outdid the boys here, where Kane’s Therese did not miss a bit of swagger throughout the production, doing the crisis of being called slut with nary uncertainty, and Reyes’s Dianne was sweet without being saccharine, the girl-next-door redefined into an intelligent and strong-willed girl who can be honest about her feelings. But certainly the ones who excited me as far as their futures in theater is concerned were Manalastas (as Tiffany) and Mendoza (as Gus).

Cassie Manalastas as Tiffany. photo via Blue Repertory.

The latter did the outcast — the one who is perennially out-of-the-loop and necessarily silenced — so well that it was easy to see how the denouement turned out to be all his. And as Mendoza sang of of darkness and freedom, his time to speak became about surrender and hope, one that was believable given his silence all throughout, and given a voice that would break and be confident equally, as the songs demanded. His eyes were always clearly confused, his confession necessarily his undoing.

Manalastas’s Tiffany is also one you will feel for, because her crisis is real and her need for acceptance is just too familiar. But also Manalastas’s voice, her stance, the confusion in her eyes, all of it worked at highlighting Tiffany’s instability, without making it all pitiful. When she sings “Skinny Disney Princess” it is the intelligence and the rebellious streak of this character that shines through, as it is her frailty and her pain. When she surrenders, only the heartless would be judgemental.

For these two and the rest of this cast, for the beautifully written and composed music, for the opportunity to discuss this story with your teenage kids or your students, Toilet The Musical is not only worth watching. It is also ultimately valuable.

Toilet The Musical runs until March 1 at the Gonzaga Exhibit Hall in Ateneo de Manila University Quezon City. They have 8PM shows for February 19 to 22, with a 3PM matinee at 3PM on the 22nd; 8PM shows for February 25 to 28 and March 1, with a 3PM matinee on March 1. Contact Poppy Merilleno 0917 878 2239 for more information. Go to Ejay Yatco’s soundcloud for some of the musical’s soundtrack.

Posted in: arts and culture, edukasyon, entablado, kultura, middle class, review, teatro

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