Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Royale Fatale

Back in 2000 a Japanese film entitled Battle Royale stirred controversy, thanks to its queasy premise. A busload of Japanese high school students is gassed and kidnapped by the government. Placed in a remote island, they wake up to find out that each one had been fitted with a remote-controlled collar around their necks. They are instructed to kill each other until only one is left. The collars serve as a form of control—they can be activated to kill the wearer.

I guess the movie’s premise intrigued the theater group Sipat Lawin Ensemble enough such that they, in collaboration with Australian playwrights David Finnigan, Jordan Prosser, Sam Burns-Warr, and Georgie McAuley, have now come up with Battalia Royale. In their press release they describe the production as “a live-action game and a loose adaptation of Koushun Takami’s 2001 novel” (which is the basis of the movie). What’s more, the production is billed as highly interactive, with no fourth wall. Not only is this interactivity seen in the staging of the production, but it also goes all the way online. Each of the 40+ characters has their own Facebook accounts, and upon checking some of them, I discover that the accounts have a decent set of entries (although strangely, the account of “Victor Vicente” has entries from others but not a single one from him). In today’s world of Internet tie-ups like The Blair Witch Project, television’s Lost, and The 39 Clues series of books, it seems logical that someone will do a theater-and-online synergy.

I must admit I was titillated by the whole effort of the production, so last night when I went to the CCP ramp area to watch Battalia Royale with Londonboy, I was excited and intrigued as to how they will pull it off.

The stage is the whole CCP ramp, with certain spots designated as acting areas. There are no clearly delineated seating areas, and while there are no fixed seats, several monoblock chairs are available for use of audience members who may not be able to stand for the whole duration of the play (people are encouraged to sit on the floor). A couple of actors dressed in military uniforms function as ushers, directing the attention and movement of the crowd so that we can follow the action of the play.

Bodjie Pascua plays Fraser Salamon, the class teacher and game master. Fraser sets up for the audience the premise of the plot, and with a dramatic shooting of the school nurse, pushes the action forward. In his intro, he states that while there is no fourth wall, the view is only one-way—the audience can see the characters, but the characters cannot see the audience.

How is the production interactive? The audience can participate in the game by purchasing class cards. Each card has a name and photo of a student; if that particular character ends up the winner of the game for that night, the audience member who has that character’s card also wins. (I’m not exactly sure what the audience prize actually is; in Fraser’s spiel, he says the winner gets a chopped head of a pig and displays what is obviously a prop head.) In another scene, Fraser invites the audience to vote if a particular student gets shot or not. We voted to save the audience, but Fraser shoots him dead just the same.

Another interesting gimmick: the penultimate scenes are done simultaneously. Before that, Fraser announces to the audience that they can now choose which scene they want to watch. Because the acting areas are close to one another, Londonboy and I (like some others) chose to jump from one scene to the next. More characters are killed, until three are left. Then the action moves to the center, where the final scene—and the solo winner—is revealed. I’m sure they change the ending—and the winner—every night, so that people like Londonboy and I cannot give any spoilers for the audience’s card game.

All in all, Battalia Royale is a royal effort in setting-up and staging. It is also a royal effort to watch. The innovative staging cannot replace the need for clarity of communication. The acting areas are mostly floor-level, so if you’re unlucky enough to be at the back of the crowd, you cannot see or hear what’s happening. Because of the outdoor staging, the noise of the Roxas Boulevard traffic and the flashing images of the Jumbotron screen located in front of the CCP add to the distraction. It doesn’t help that the actors do not have individual lapel microphones to aid them. In this kind of production, one would need actors with a bullhorn for a voice. (Or get those Greek choruses; I mean, the Greek amphitheaters never had sound systems in the past.) Even Teresa Barozzo’s music and Radioactive Sago Project’s ironic tracks become a liability when one’s too far from the actors or the actors do not project their voices loud enough.

It didn’t help that the production was plagued by prop malfunctions (several actors had their collars snap in two in mid-scene; one’s collar fell on the floor without him noticing it) and costume malfunctions (a girl was supposed to draw her knife swiftly from her blouse pocket and stab another character; instead, her hand got tangled in the pocket opening, which made for an awkward several seconds of delay).

Maybe this new way of staging works for the younger generation. Londonboy and I noticed that the younger audiences were the ones who were reacting the most to the action. We actually saw a young guy cover his mouth in horror as a character slit another character’s throat; later on, his hands travelled from his mouth to the side of his head, in a gesture of, “OMG, I can’t believe she did that!” Disturbingly, they applaud loudest whenever one of the students is killed. Maybe it’s the video game culture of the younger generation; they know they’re just watching a show, but part of the fun is seeing how the characters are killed off. The premise of the play also allowed for the student characters to rant, from youthful angsts to tirades against the government; the latter always gets an approving shout-out from fellow students in the audience.

But for me and Londonboy, we had a lot of “I’m tuning out” moments throughout the play. It didn’t help that there were a lot of cute guys in the audience, which added to our viewing ADHD.

Sometime towards the last third of the play, I stepped inside the CCP’s Main Lobby to use the bathroom. Once inside, I saw several of the already “dead” characters huddled quietly in one corner, patiently waiting for their next cue. “Where do broken characters go?” I sang to myself as I stepped into the bathroom.

It was the younger members of the audience who were in rapt attention for most parts and reacted the most. Meanwhile all the malfunctions and the distractions kept me from being sucked into the scenes. Maybe that’s the difference between the older audiences versus the younger ones. I prefer that the production would make me lose myself in it; in last night’s production, the young ones seem willing to lose themselves into the action. It is what they do whenever they enter a video game, especially a multi-player game. They are not just viewers, but participants as well.

In Battalia Royale, they as viewers actively invested in the make-believe as much as the actors. I guess that’s what audience interactivity means these days.


Boy Shiatsu said...

parang gusto ko panoorin.

joelmcvie said...

@BOY SHIATSU: Go watch! Hanggang tonight (Thurs evening) lang ito.

Victor Saudad said...

oh...i missed it.

Boy Shiatsu said...

ouch... hanggang kagabi lang pala. huhuhuhu...

Boy Shiatsu said...

checking their facebook accounts now. Sebastian Kiriyama is pogi ha! hee hee!

joelmcvie said...


"Battalia Royale" will have 3 more shows in an abandoned school in Cubao on March 9, 10 and 11. Tickets are at Php350 and they will only accommodate 150 people per show.

The response is enormous, and the shows are selling out quickly. So reserve your tickets now! Send a PM to the Sipat Lawin Ensemble Facebook account or text 0917-500-8753.

Gregg said...

Wow... the last time I watched an interactive play was more than two decades ago pa in Los Angeles, CA. The play was Tamara. Me and my friend kept following the cute actor as he undresses and takes a shower. The play was done in a mansion and the audience get to choose which character to follow. During the break, everyone shares what happened with the characters they followed, piece the story together...