The very concept of adapting Mike de Leon’s ‘Batch 81’ into a play is sheer genius. Considering the continued heat on fraternities and their hazing practices, a revisit of the Mike de Leon work is more than just a novel idea. I recently got to see the movie again and saw so many new things in the 1982 movie about the seductive lure of fraternities into a hive-mind community. Set against the backdrop of Martial Law, ‘Batch 81’ dissects the dismantling of the individual in these cult-like proceedings of violence and humiliation.
Tanghalan Ateneo has the unenviable task of expounding on this through a theatrical medium and the adaptation of Guelan Varelan-Luarca, ‘Alpha Kappa Omega’ makes interesting choices, like transplanting the story into contemporary times and situating the play in an unnamed university not unlike Ateneo (rather than the film version’s University of the Philippines. However, the play struggles to find its footing amidst the stylised violence and drawing out of the stories of each of its characters.
Like the movie, ‘Alpha Kappa Omega’ is the story of Sid Lucero and a few other college students (and one professor) who join a fraternity. Throughout the play, they undergo brutal hazing practices that leaves bruises and scars on their body and tear away at their dignity in school.
They all have their reasons for joining the frat but the biggest hurdle the play struggles with is finding a congruence between the pledges’ reasons with the severity of the hazing practices and the benefits that they are supposed to gain from enduring the violence and the ridicule. Of these three important narrative elements — the reasons, the hazing, and the benefits — it is only the hazing aspect that is largely dramatized while the other two were mentioned, but we never actually get to see it play out.
This disconnect creates a hurdle for us to understand the motivations behind why these characters would permit such degradations to be inflicted on them.
‘Alpha Kappa Omega’ attempts to dig into the lives of its characters. From Sid Lucero, who is filled with an unexplained rage, to his roommate, Arnie Enriquez, who is a scholar and only joined because Sid asked him to; then there’s Ronnie Roxas Jr., who is the son of one of the fraternity brothers, and then there’s Pacoy Ledesma, who is portrayed as a scrawny loser and uses the fraternity to gain some level of clout and masculinity. There’s Ding Magtibay, the kid from the province, whose reason for joining escapes completely, and then there’s the 46-year old professor, Santi Santillan, who joins because life at home has become stagnant and relations with his wife has deteriorated.
These reasons are all mentioned but never actually played out. The play runs over two hours and instead of peering into these reasons and finding meaning within them, the play highlights the ordeal of becoming a member of the frat and further complications that happen because of their joining.
This is the other struggle of the play — the depiction of violence, sex, and drugs. The play utilizes highly stylised methods to portray the paddling and the brawl that erupts when Sid and Arnie collide with members of another fraternity. Guelan Varela-Luarca opts to choreograph the paddling and the violence in a dance. In the performance I saw, the punches and kicks don’t really connect and there is a lot of stomping on the wooden floor to create the sound of brutal force. For this play that shows the stripping away of one’s dignity, I needed to see pain.
It was noisy and frenetic but it never registers as pain. It never registers as danger. Even when the play escalates into a frat war and the players are all throwing themselves at each other and we see blood pouring out of their mouths and clothes, I never once felt that anybody was in any real danger. The dancing and the lack of any real physical contact suppresses the shock of the senselessness of it.
For such powerful themes, the play could not afford to be sanitized. These risque acts that transpire on stage needed to be edgy and dangerous. I know it’s a college production but this material needed to show brutal violence, nudity, and a frightening depiction of the effects of drugs (as this is an important plot point in the play’s narrative).
And by transposing this narrative into modern times, there are elements on the presentation of fraternities that do not connect with reality. It’s brazen and indiscrete in its display of fraternity activities when, in this day and age, wouldn’t it be hidden because it’s so taboo? In the 80s, the fraternities could get away with it. They couldn’t get away with the things that they did in the play in this day and age. Everyone is on their phones, but this is a world where social media is not an active participant in this college student’s lives — and when you think of the lives that they are leading, it should somehow play a factor in the narrative.
‘Alpha Kappa Omega’ is a fantastic concept, there’s no question about that. The set design by Monica Sebial is inspired and Guelan Valera-Luerca exploits every inch of it in brilliant ways and even the music and sound design of Xander Soriano creates the necessary tension to make this as disturbing as possible, which is a good thing. But the play needs to dig harder and deeper into these characters and this narrative to give us a sense of understanding as to why one would endure so much degradation just to feel whole.
There is a line at the end of the play, when a co-teacher admonishes Santi Santillan actually says the lines “I read somewhere” and then follows with (and I’m paraphrasing), “that a person would subject themselves to this sort of violence with a group to create a sense of belonging.” I had wished the play had dramatized this effect more than have a character say it so blatantly at the end.
'Alpha Kappa Omega' is now running at the Rizal Mini Theater, Ateneo de Manila University. Shows are scheduled at 7:30pm from March 26-30, April 2-6, and 9-13, and 2:30pm matinees on March 30, April 6, and 13. You may reserve tickets through this link: tinyurl.com/AlphaKappaOmegaTA