I have a natural aversion to the literal and the prosaic in film and in theater. I don’t like being spoon-fed the theme of the narrative in the work. But there are ways to work around this general rule that I have, and one of them is to be completely and unabashedly committed to the delivery and to offer so much more than the message that the work has to give.
And PETA’s new musical, ‘Charot!’ directed by Maribel Legarda and written by J-Mee Katanyag and Michelle Ngu and music by Vince Lim does exactly that, and so very successfully. For almost two hours, with an intermission between its two acts, ‘Charot!’ is filled with rip-roaring comedy, catchy songs, and a clever narrative structure (complete with an interactive game that includes the audience in the storytelling), while still being upfront with its politically-charged message.
‘Charot!’ is set in a fictional country called P.I. (that’s meant to be a composite of our own country), whose citizens must vote in a referendum over a constitutional change for or against federalism, called Charter for Togetherness, or otherwise known as “CHAROT.”
From the shortened moniker alone of Charot!, the play is already showing off its wit as they have several songs and funny lines using the term for both the Charter of Togetherness and the modern gay slang wherein charot can mean “whatever.” It already informs you early on the play’s political leaning and its humour, and from the moment the play starts, we know exactly what we are getting.
The narrative is clever enough to push its eight characters of varied backgrounds into one space, as they rush to the voting precinct to cast their ballot for or against federalism. But this is PETA and they aren’t afraid to go straight to the heart of the matter. Their characters are composite themselves of everyday Filipinos -- there are characters who are selling their vote, there are characters who are in it because it’s trendy, the ones who are informed and educated, and those that are the exact opposite.
In creating this narrative, as our eight characters find themselves stuck in gridlock traffic atop a flyover, they have a chance to engage with one another and discuss their own reasons for their vote. It’s so contrived but it’s also a play that is very familiar to anyone who gets stuck in traffic and who suffer from the flash floods that plague our city and it becomes just right for this play and what it is trying to talk about.
It is so familiar, from the woke millennial boy (played by a refreshing CJ Navato) to his fame-obsessed millennial girlfriend (played with great abandon by Jean Vicente), to the pregnant and hard-pressed mother (a hilarious Kitsi Pagaspas) and a civic-minded policeman (with a solid performance from Roi Calilong). They even have an Ethel Booba composite played by the explosive and incredible Gold Villar-Lim and an unforgettable performance from Meann Espinosa in multiple roles, including a hilarious news reporter called Karen de Villa. Also in the remarkable cast are Jacky Yabut, Nobbs Portales, Lemuel Silvestre, and Icee Po.
There are times when it can get a little pedantic, especially an extended song number at the beginning of Act II were they actually talk about Federalism (but they examine both sides of the argument and then present their well-researched findings), but even the play acknowledges this in a joke, we all expected it from the set up. But we already had a hilarious first act, and one long song number in Act II is forgivable, because it manages to weave it into the stories of these characters that we’ve come to know and laugh with (and, let’s admit it, we laugh at them too).
Despite its politically charged literal approach to the subject matter, ‘Charot!’ still offers a narrative which we can wrestle with and characters that we can relate to. The actors do an amazing job of keeping the energy bouncing and the whole play vibrant and the songs are so catchy, including an opening set by the band Tagilo, who open the play with an illegal demonstration.
‘Charot!’ is a hilarious two hours in the theater with characters that look and act like people we actually know, and talking about something we encounter at least once every week. It is so unabashedly direct and uses it as a strength rather than a hindrance to the enjoyment of the play.
'CHAROT!' has 3pm and 8pm weekend shows, running until March 17 at The PETA Theater Center, No. 5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. For ticket purchase, call Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) at +632-725-6244 or book online via Ticketworld.