Best Plautus Plays Introduction

by Robert Z. Cortes 

A SHORT HISTORY


Almost two years ago, around the time the Plautus season took a one-year hiatus, I had thought of publishing the best Plautus plays of the first 5 years. The first idea that came to mind was a coffee table book of some sort – the kind with glossy pages and had lots of pictures. I really thought the creative works of the students who started what is arguably now some sort of tradition ought to be immortalized something like that. A good friend told me that the whole project would be too expensive and he was right. When I broached the idea to the school, I was told that there was no budget. I abandoned the project at that time with no specific solution or timeline in mind. Then the solution itself came up to me.

 

Convergence, the series of anthologies of creative literary works done by Southridge students, one of the many initiatives of Mann Rentoy of the Southridge Institutional Information Office: that was the solution. I was asked if I was willing to have the plays published; of course I said, “Yes!” immediately. The Greeks have a term for the “appointed time”, the “right time”, the “predestined time”, and this is Kairoς (kairos). I believe that the kairos of this anthology has come – in the same way as the kairos of the Plautus plays themselves came in school year 1999 – 2000.

 

 Like any kairos, the Plautus has its own “pre-history”. In school year 1998 – 1999, I had been teaching Cicero to juniors for already 4 years; we were studying his speech, the first oration against Catiline. That year, I was looking for ways to do justice to the exciting life of Cicero which was otherwise reduced to a yawn by a rather staid handout of his biography. I put the students into groups and told them to come up with any sort of presentation to capture the drama of ancient Rome and Cicero’s life.

 

For some reason, students chose different media. Two groups chose to do a radio play, another chose to do a video, and still another group or two chose to do a stage play. To my recollection, my students and I enjoyed all the presentations tremendously and this was how Latin came to be viewed in a friendlier way, that is, more exciting than it was previously known.

 

There was, however, one presentation that stood out both for its execution and the prospects it presented for the future. This was the stage play directed and written by Mihk Vergara, entitled “Mob Rule”. He took the life of Cicero from ancient Rome and brought it to present-day Italy plagued by the Italian Mafia. This is a pretty common enough theater technique, of course. However, this particular play made me realize that I might have struck “pedagogic gold”, not only for Latin, but also for Southridge student life itself. To my mind, this was classic serendipity, and this was how the Plautus plays were born.

 

I knew that the incoming batch of juniors (sophomores then at the time of “Mob Rule”) was generally acknowledged as a batch of actors, one being the grandson of one of Repertory Philippines’ grand dames, Joy Virata. I figured that if I required ALL the presentations to be stage plays and made it into some sort of competition, they would all gobble up the idea.

 

I was not disappointed. The five plays of the 1st Plautus season – all adaptations of the life of Cicero – were all successes in their own right. Since it was only a competition among the 3rd Year classes, I had not expected the quality and level of the plays that were presented. What I thought would be simple class plays were full blown productions which showcased the students talents in scriptwriting, directing, costume design, art and set design, music direction, and light design. I remember telling students to make sure the productions were not a joke (the usual run-of-the-mill production of amateurs who had very little adult input) and then giving “the look” for which I have been (maybe still am) “notorious”, but what I saw from one play to the next nothing short of floored me.

 

As with all firsts, the 1st Plautus season was not without its glitches. The most serious complaint about the plays was that the students were spending a lot of money on the costumes and sets; parents weren’t willing to spend such an amount of money. When I told students in the 2nd Plautus season that each person was not to spend more than Php 500 for the plays, one group got the bright idea of tapping what is now almost a staple in every Plautus play: sponsorship. So just when I thought the students were going to downgrade their plays, they even upped it through sheer creativity and more hard work.

 

By 2nd Plautus season, the pace, level, and standards of the Plautus plays were already well-established. The juniors of the previous year who were now seniors also joined the competition (they presented the life of Augustus). By the 3rd Plautus season, the sophomores were incorporated into the competition as they depicted the life of Julius Caesar, and in the 4th Plautus season, the freshmen became apprentices to the different classes which joined the competition so as to lend a hand to what were becoming more elaborate productions and also to begin to learn the ropes in preparation for their eventual participation in the Plautus the following year. The 5th Plautus season saw the format we generally see nowadays.

 

Together with the standard of the plays came also the high standards we set for ourselves on the Plautus Awards Night. Each Plautus Awards Night is a “mini-Oscars” night which students always look forward to with excitement. There would be the usual video of snippets from every play that joined the competition followed by a whole show which, in terms of details, I guess, might only be found in Southridge. From best actor to best director, from best light design to best play, students always get a kick out of being called on stage, receive the Plautus (a trophy with a fleur-de-lis design especially made from trees grown in the Mountain Province), and grab the limelight for a few moments as they say, “First of all, I’d like to thank God…”.

 

Well, theater seems to run in Southridge gentlemen’s veins: enough at least to bring some of them back even after they’ve graduated to judge the next year’s competition. For this is one distinguishing mark of the Plautus: that the judges are themselves former winners of previous Plautus seasons (we call them Plautus Academy). Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In the first two Plautus seasons, I tapped alumni who I knew had some “affection” for theater. We’ve also invited a few teachers (non-Advisers) to beef up the panel of judges.

 

The Plautus plays used to be called “Latin Plays” simply because they were a project of the Latin classes I handled and, later on, of classes handled by other Latin teachers. Plautus, by the way, was ancient Rome’s best-known playwright. Some critics, however, saw – as I did – that except for some tangential connections, the plays had very little to do with Latin – the Latin language that is.

 

I was never really insecure about that fact. I saw clearly that the students loved it, and so did their parents. Through some weird but totally predictable fashion, through the Plautus, Latin had become less hateful, better respected – even loved – and that, for me, was enough. And many students did appreciate more the Roman figures of history we were studying. Moreover, I did have one very strong ulterior motive for seeing the Plautus plays through all its difficulties as a nascent tradition: to enrich the culture of theater in Southridge which, at the time of the Plautus’s inception, was at its ebb. The Plautus seasons have also become an opportunity for the alumni to come back to Southridge. Some of them have performed during the Plautus Awards Night. Some simply watch.

 

Two years ago, when Latin became only an elective in 3rd and 4th years (to the relief of many, to the consternation of some – indeed, Latin has been and will always be a “sign of contradiction” J), I thought it better to hand over the “tradition” to the English Department which accepted it very willingly and joyfully. It was then that we decided to drop the “Latin” part and name everything – the season, the plays, and the awards night – after the trophy’s name, Plautus.

 

We just launched the 7th Plautus season a few days back, a continuation of a new phase of Plautus that started last year: adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. However, my story ends here and I shall leave the rest to someone else who might tell the story better. Suffice it to say that perhaps, as long as Southridge wants to continue to nurture the natural talent of theater that is in our students, the Plautus plays will remain, maintain its tradition of excellence, and even improve in succeeding years.

 

 CAT’S EYES

 

Best Play, 1st Plautus Season (School Year 1999 – 2000): produced by Martin Gonzalez and the class of III – B

 

Other Awards received:

  1. Best Achievement in Direction: Noel Gamboa
  2. Best Script: Martin Gonzalez
  3. Best Performance of an Actor in a Lead Role: Noel Gamboa
  4. Best Performance of an Actor in a Supporting Role: Gino Ilustre

 

“Cat’s Eyes” will long be remembered as not only the very first “Best Play” of Plautus, but the shortest as well. I have long cited this play to succeeding classes as proof that good and effective plays don’t have to be long and filled with elaborate sets.

 

This play written by Martin Gonzalez lasted only 45 minutes. It was wise in that it did not attempt to span the whole of Cicero’s life but rather focused only on that very intense part of Cicero’s life: his close encounter with Catiline (hence, “Cat’s Eyes”). The play is searing in its seriousness and the language of the play waxes poetic.

 

The set was quite simple: aside from a simple stryopor set and horse humorously named Fulvia (named after Cicero’s spy, a mistress of one conspirator against the Republic), there was not much else on the stage. However, the dialogue, the stage, lights, and music were used to greatest advantage and what came out was a play with power and impact. The play of lights between Catiline and Cicero as they “monologued” on opposing parts of the stage is still etched in my memory. Gino Ilustre had a very short role which he maximized to his and the play’s greatest advantage, thus earning for himself an acting award. Noel Gamboa was unforgettable as the evil Catiline and his performance remains to be one of the most powerful to my memory.

 

 Dei DREAM

 

Best Play, 2nd Plautus Season (School Year 2000 – 2001): produced by Martin Gonzalez and the class of IV – B

 

Other Awards received:

  1. Best Achievement in Direction: LA Lopez
  2. Best Script: Martin Gonzalez with LA Lopez and Paulo Lozano
  3. Best Performance of an Actor in a Supporting Role: Macky Santiago
  4. Best Achievement in Art Direction and Set Design: Noel Gamboa
  5. Best Achievement in Light Design and Execution: Moby de Jesus
  6. Best Achievement in Music Design and Sound Production: Angelo Reyes
  7. Best Achievement in Dance Choreography: Martin Gonzalez and LA Lopez

 

What do you get when you merge students coming from the previous year’s “Best Play” and the previous year’s crowd favorite (the epic-long “Cicero’s Speeches, Shindigs, and Style” inspired by Austin Powers)? Why, Dei Dream, of course!

 

Martin Gonzalez wrote this play after having brainstormed with his classmates, LA Lopez, Paulo Lozano, and several more, in coffee shops, classmates’ houses, and his own. It’s quite unlike his previous script in length but all the same, the play was very effective. The play was grand, funny in many parts, and serious in a few others. This play will forever be etched in my memory as the only play that never had a “lights off” from beginning to end. To achieve this amazing feat, the class maximized the use of the entire auditorium, using the upper balconies to stage the dialogue between the opposing forces of the god of Olympus or the floor area in front of the stage, while the curtains closed on stage for a change of sets.

 

Speaking of Olympus, I forgot to tell you why this play was entitled called Dei Dream. It’s a pun made from the Latin word for “god”, that is, “deus”. Literally, “Dei Dream” would be “dream of a god”, which is the script’s way of telling us that Augustus’s life was one big, dreamy pseudo-reality into which the gods of Olympus extended their fights and fancies, punches and parties. You won’t like this play if you’re extremely serious and would never have such a serious thing as human freedom trivialized in such a frivolous manner. Otherwise, you can just “Blame It On the Boogie”.

 

This play had one particular scene that might arguably be my favorite in terms of sheer genius in direction and execution. How do you create the impression of gods FLOATING around Mount Olympus for an opening scene? Why, simple! Just flush the whole auditorium with fog a few minutes before the auditorium opens (fog machine at no cost, thanks to sponsors), wait for the fog to settle, and then, when the audience have been seated, get the gods to come from the back of the auditorium towards the front on roller blades. Kudos to LA Lopez and his set of creative assistants. If you can think of something as ingenious as that, then Dei Dream has just found a rival in my list. As of now, that scene stands alone.

 


THE NEGRO ALBUM

 

Best Play, 3rd Plautus Season (School Year 2001 - 2002): produced by Nicolo Villonco, Jon-T Vergara, and the class of IV – B

 

Other Awards received:

  1. Best Script: Jon-T Vergara
  2. Best Performance of an Actor in a Lead Role: Allan Lalisan
  3. Best Achievement in Art Direction and Set Design: Eman Saldaña
  4. Best Achievement in Light Design and Execution: Abo Sibayan
  5. Best Achievement in Music Design and Sound Production: Rap Sioson
  6. Best Achievement in Costume Design: Eric Tan
  7. Best Achievement in Dance Choreography: Eivind Prieto, Jed Bellon, Nicolas Reyes, Nix Villonco, and Gabbby Reyes

 

Only Latin students can possibly appreciate the “irony” present in this play’s title. For “Negro” comes from a Latin word that means “black” while “Album” comes from another Latin word that means “white”. The final version of the play begins with a younger generation of black people looking through some picture albums of their ancestors and the story unfolds. The story, however, does not focus on the usual “black vs. white” theme but rather on the theme of “violence vs. reason”. There are definitely “white people” in this play, and they certainly oppressors. There’s even a dance sequence of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”. However, the point is not that the blacks were oppressed by the whites; rather it is that the blacks could not put their act together due to ideological conflict. It seemed therefore that all the whites had to do was to foster this conflict and the oppressed would remain oppressed.

 

This play took the conflict of Augustus and Mark Anthony entirely outside the ambit of anything Roman – the milieu was the American South back in the days of slavery – and of its usual historical theme of mere power struggle. There are obviously layers of meaning here that transcend the conflict between Augustus (represented in this play by August) and Mark Anthony (Anthony), something which makes for something interesting in this play that, frankly, was for me both surprising and refreshing. For this, the winning script written by JonT Vergara takes first credit.

 

The fact that this play bagged almost all the major awards left many people stunned – including the winners themselves. “The Negro Album” was not the crowd’s favorite, although its dance sequences were. Nevertheless, those who looked more closely saw the almost impeccable use of music and sound, the very convincing props and costumes, the intensely dramatic use of lights, the subtle acting of Allan Lalisan and the hilarious performances of the background actors. Anyway, for the unconvinced, that year was a year of upsets.

 

In the Oscars, a week or so after, they gave the best actor trophy to Denzel Washington, the best actress trophy to Halle Berry, an honorary award to Sidney Poitier – black actors all! Funny how sometimes Hollywood apes the Plautus.

 

VIDEO

 

Best Play, 4th Plautus Season (School Year 2002 - 2003): produced by Nico Pinga, Paolo Bengson, and the class of IV – B

 

Other Awards received:

  1. Best Achievement in Direction: Eric John Paredes and Leo Quesada
  2. Best Script: Eric John  Paredes
  3. Best Performance of an Actor in a Lead Role: Javi Coromina and Leo Quesada
  4. Best Achievement in Art Direction and Set Design: Leo Quesada
  5. Best Achievement in Light Design and Execution: Mark Bantegui
  6. Best Achievement in Music Design and Sound Production: Ronald Macapagal and Nico Pinga

 

Boosted by the class’s brilliant performance the previous year in “The Serpent’s Tongue”, the Plautus’s first ever “Breakthrough Play” (awarded to first time participants in the competition), the class of IV-B launched what was to be, in my opinion, the most theatrically ambitious and most artistically daring play in the history of Plautus.

 

Imagine the life of Rome’s most glorious emperor told in blacks and whites, with impressive ramps covered with newspaper, with Roman pillars printed on tarps, with masks. Accompany that with music from the very start of the play and sustain the music without stoppage all the way to the very last scene, with each and every musical piece appropriate to each scene. Slowly let in the lights handled with consummate artistry. Lastly, throw in several of the most intelligent lines ever written for Southridge theater and spoken by every single actor (mostly quite impressive) in almost very convincing “Tony Blair” English. That is ‘Video. In this play, EJ Paredes and Leo Quesada, the team which, together with their class, brought “The Serpent’s Tongue” to a smashing success the previous year and earlier the following year (it was restaged), outdid themselves.

 

I was never held at the edge of my seat before in any Plautus play nor have I ever been again so far. I was in this play. I have to admit, this play is in a league of its own.

 

SHADES OF GRAY

 

Best Play, 5th Plautus Season (School Year 2003 – 2004): produced by Miggy de la Cruz, Chris Olivares, Paolo Jimeno, and the class of IV – A

 

Other Awards received:

  1. Best Achievement in Art Direction and Set Design: Monty Militar and Gigo de Guzman
  2. Best Ensemble Acting of Background Performers

 

The 5th Plautus Season was a very exciting year for all the participants: of 7 plays that participated, 6 plays received at least 1 award, with no play receiving more than 4 awards. This had never happened in any of the previous Plautus seasons. When the dust settled, however, it was another Senior class that won; in fact, the only Senior class that participated.

 

“Shades of Gray” did something new by bringing to the stage a fantasized (after)life of an otherwise not-so-famous Roman emperor, Galba. If only for such derring-do this play already deserved to win. However, what nailed it for this play was the grand scale production of its set – a very convincing rendition of hell – coupled with the convincing and funny performances of its background actors. Moreover, for this particular season, this play, written by Amado de Jesus, captured best the noble ideals, depth, and seriousness of purpose that characterize Plautus Best Plays. With “Shades of Gray”, the “Latin” phase of the Plautus came to a fitting close.