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Every breath you take

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 05, 2023 5:00 am Updated Jun 05, 2023 10:26 am

There’s something about British playwright Duncan Macmillan that taps into modern angst and anxiety, yet presents it in an inclusive, outward-opening package that leaves audiences uplifted, instead of just moping about.

Neat trick. Since The Sandbox Collective first staged Every Brilliant Thing in 2019, and was preparing to pair it alongside Macmillan’s Lungs at Sandbox Fest in 2020, a lot has happened. Namely, a pandemic.

Now, they’re reviving both plays for Sandbox Fest 2023, a twin-bill package to be staged at Maybank Performing Arts Theater, BGC from June 17 to July 16.

Since both are single-act plays, Act One will feature Lungs, directed by Caisa Borromeo and starring Reb Atadero, Brian Sy, Sab Jose, and Justine Peña; Act Two will feature Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Jenny Jamora and starring Teresa Herrera, Kakki Teodoro, and Jon Santos (in a Tagalog version) as the leads.

Jenny Jamora, director of Every Brilliant Thing revival

Every Brilliant Thing is a story about a young woman coping with her mom’s suicidal depression by compiling a list of “brilliant” things in life, and through an hour of monologue, music, comedy, and improv (yes, involving lots of audience participation), it takes you through a journey from sadness to something more uplifting. That’s even more resonant now, post-pandemic, when mental health issues are so foregrounded.

Jon Santos will perform the monologue Every Brilliant Thing

“We’re all reading it now through the eyes of having gone through the pandemic,” says Jamora, “and the thing that stands out for me is that before, we may have been talking to just a few people in the audience who are going through mental health issues. But now we might be talking to a whole lot more people.” Reports show that, in the Philippines, some 400-plus young people died by suicide during the pandemic. “A lot of young people are always on the verge. And those things, we still don’t talk about. It’s still the same issue: people not talking about it. We don’t have enough psychiatrists, counselors. Sometimes the guidance counselors and schools are not trained enough.”

Terese Herrera

The Sandbox staging in 2019 sought to highlight the problem with a post-performance audience talk—along with information flashed onstage, with resources and numbers to contact for those who need mental health help.

Kakki Teodoro

Though it sounds like a downer, Every Brilliant Thing is the kind of play that resonates with young Filipinos: It shows how difficult things can be, but offers a ray of hope—some of it coming from self-reflective humor. “I think both plays are deceptively accessible plays,” says Jamora. “You’re listening to it, ‘Oh, yeah. I understand.’ There are a lot of funny moments, it’s comedic, but there’s a lot of depth.”

Lungs is also focused on the angst of young people, in this case, W and M, a hetero couple grappling with the possibility of bringing a baby into the world.

“All the considerations that I think a lot of couples are going through right now, like, ‘Why would I want to bring a kid into this world?’” mentions Jamora. “You know, climate change, wars, authoritarianism.” Future-of-the-planet-type things. Angst.

Double vision: Reb Atedero and Sab Jose alternate with Brian Sy and Justine Peña in Lungs, directed by Caisa Borromeo

“Back when Duncan wrote it, he said he sounded like a whiny, middle-class guy. But now, it seems that everybody has this kind of general anxiety everybody’s feeling. Where are we? Where are we headed? Like we’re kind of hurtling toward some sort of doom,” she adds.

Macmillan often roots his details in a particular era, but restaging Lungs, with its choppy delivery and Mamet-like interruptions, Sandbox head Toff de Venecia had to rethink its impact in a post-pandemic world. While before, the characters had to imagine the worst-possible scenario a child might be born into, three years later, we’ve all actually lived through it. Many of the characters’ deepest fears have materialized.

So a revived Lungs adds one more question to the pile of modern anxieties: What does it mean to stage a play with characters so fearful of a far-off future in our present time, now that those fears have come true? Tune in to the double-bill staging to find out.

Two-fer: Cast members of The Sand Collective’s Every Brilliant Thing and Lungs staging at press launch

The reboot comes about because, obviously, Sandbox Fest had to be shelved for three years. But the theater company still had the option to stage the material before licensing ran out. Jamora says Macmillan, via Zoom meetings, was very supportive of the reimagining.

“He’s a super kind guy, and so generous that he even offered help. He said, ‘If you discover anything during rehearsal, just tell me, just give me a call.’” Actually, Macmillan had already updated Lungs a bit for a streaming version during the pandemic starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith. “They tried to put in more things about the pandemic, but it really took people out; it was distracting,” notes Jamora.

One directive from De Venecia was to tweak some pop cultural references to appeal to a wider audience that now includes Gen Z. And one version of Every Brilliant Thing will be translated into Filipino, acted by Jon Santos, so some “tweaking” of Western details may be needed to fit a more local context.

Interestingly, there is one other Macmillan play out there that deals with young modern angst that Sandbox has yet to stage.

That would be 2015’s People, Places & Things: a “clear-eyed look at addiction” that follows an actress who goes into rehab after coming unhinged onstage.

Call it “Duncan’s Trilogy of Doom.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t take another pandemic for Sandbox to launch a three-act revival.

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Sandbox Fest 2023 will run at the Zobel de Ayala Recital Hall, 2/F Maybank Performing Arts Theater, 9th Avenue cor. 26th Street, BGC, Taguig City from June 17 to July 15, with a single price that includes both tickets. Contact Sandbox Collective at +63 917 1525560.