Arts & Culture

Beautiful Strangers Is a Painful Reminder to Support Independent Theater

Pieces like Beautiful Strangers help audiences realize the talent of lesser-known playwrights and promising actors.
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Kilometers away from Metro Manila’s more popular theaters, in a small performance space tucked inside a Marikina café that’s open only occasionally, five actors perform one of the most emotionally powerful scripts to make its debut this month. Beautiful Strangers, staged by Ikarus Theater Collaborative and Storyboard Junkies, is a heart-wrenching piece on the interplay between identity and loneliness written by two-time Palanca Award-winning playwright Jay Crisostomo IV.

There’s a lot to unpack in Crisostomo’s script; aptly so, given that boxes are used as metaphors throughout the play and in the production. Characters are kept in boxes both literal and figurative, against a backdrop constructed of cardboard boxes and modular sets transformed by pieces taken from boxes, all within a cramped black box theater that forces you to encounter these people’s lives with uncomfortable intimacy.

Beautiful Strangers: "Love is just another box we force people in"

Love is just a box we force people in. So why do we even try? In this play, Elaine-- an employee Martin and Matin’s Land Development Incorporated-- is caught between loneliness and resentment. How does she deal with love and life? Step into the world of Beautiful Strangers this September! #BeautifulStrangersThePlay Click Attending: https://www.facebook.com/events/1564330653866577/ For ticket inquiries and reservations, please send a message to 0917.863.2364, or an e-mail to [email protected]

Posted by The Ikarus Theatre Collaborative on Thursday, August 16, 2018

Few pieces make such strong use of thematic geometry while managing to convey their message as well as Beautiful Strangers. One character, for example, muses on how we spend our lives being forced into boxes—into neatly packaged ideas of what others want us to be—and struggling against this existential violence, only for our bodies to be laid to rest in standardized coffins.

The script captures this in myriad ways, tackling ideas of sexual identity, familial obligation, and ableism through a cast of characters broken as much by expectations as they are by their own desires. Maria/Martin (Chai Miranda) is a woman denied her own gender by her father, Martin Sr. (Justin Ayran), who raises her as a boy so that “he” may become a proper scion of his land development empire. Goebbels (Ariez Cortez, who displays a fair amount of potential) is a widower living in an abandoned hotel, supported in secret by sympathetic working girl Elaine (Kristine Bernal). At the periphery of it all is Edmund (Crisostomo), an oft-abused simpleton whose poetic soul shines through in some of the play’s most poignant moments.

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Explorations into these characters and their lives are profoundly bleak (with a couple of scenes requiring trigger warnings), but they remain no less human, and no less relatable. It is painful to watch the events unfold, yet the play ultimately manages to be cathartic, releasing emotions rarely captured in such an eloquent manner.

It may require having to forgive a few gaffes, but the reward of experiencing such a well-crafted story is worth it.

It is unfortunate, then, that Beautiful Strangers is unable to overcome its own trappings.

While the material deserves a healthy amount of praise, it becomes abundantly clear during performances that the production is under-financed and under-rehearsed. Scene transitions are slow because of the lack of space and manpower, diminishing any emotional momentum built up by preceding dramas. Actors only had the weekends over two months to rehearse the material, resulting in delivery where the emotional intent behind certain lines was missed. Some characters, like Martin Sr., have otherwise-noteworthy performances robbed of nuance because they didn’t have the benefit of hands-on, focused direction. And therein lies the most crucial issue with Beautiful Strangers.

It is apparent that director Adelnica Amor Izon was making do with what she was given; many of her choices, it was explained during a talkback after the show, were the result of budget-related compromises. In other aspects, like a baffling script revision she inserted at the end of the play, Izon could have used a dramaturge the production couldn’t afford, if only to serve as a separate set of eyes advising against that particular decision. An associate director, on the other hand, would have told her to ignore her personal preferences in favor of choices that serve the material.

Opening weekend notes from Inquirer reviewer Arturo Hilado: '...the “darkness at noon” atmosphere conveyed by the...

Posted by The Ikarus Theatre Collaborative on Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Without the privilege of sponsorships and patrons to bankroll the production, the brilliant script suffers from mediocre staging. It is a stark reminder that in independent theatre, passion for the craft can only go so far, which is why scripts as ambitious as Crisostomo’s—with rapid scene changes, purposeful set transitions, and characters with an alarming level of complexity—are often left unstaged if they aren’t able to get proper funding. Lesser productions would simply do a disservice to the material.

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Pieces like Beautiful Strangers are the sort that necessitate watching, if only to help audiences realize the talent of lesser-known playwrights and promising actors, and to spur support for independent theatre. It may require having to forgive a few gaffes, but the reward of experiencing such a well-crafted story is worth it.

Perhaps, with the help of a growing audience, Beautiful Strangers may one day get the production it deserves.


“Beautiful Strangers” shows on every weekend of September 2018 at DITO: Bahay ng Sining in Marikina City. For ticket inquiries, call 0917 863 2364.

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Marco Sumayao
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