A little over a year ago, we were all in a rage over the potential curtailing of free speech, no thanks to a railroaded law.
This month, a play, albeit in a different setting and circumstance, brings to mind that very issue. Staged digitally by the Company of Actors in Streamlined Theater (CAST), “Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons” by Sam Steiner shows a couple navigating life together amid the imposition of the Hush Law—a law that limits speech to 140 words a day.
The two-hander play features Gabby Padilla as lawyer Bernadette and Nelsito Gomez as musician Oliver.
“Lemons” is non-linear in format, shuttling between the couple’s life before and during the law, as well as different stages of their relationship, from their unconventional meet-cute and through their relationship’s ups and downs.
“I just want all the stuff we say to each other to be stuff that we haven’t said a million times before,” Bernadette states. She talks passionately about how each relationship has its own language, something only the people in it would understand—almost like a prelude (or premonition) to how they would communicate after the passing of the Hush Law.
The Law then forces the two to contract and omit words, and even budget the 140 words they have per day. This results in frustration, bringing to light the challenges of getting to know people and nurturing relationships with little to no verbal communication. But it also shows their creativity in communicating beyond the spoken word.
One key moment in the play was the last few minutes before the Hush Law came into effect and Oliver and Bernadette had to let out everything they wanted to say before they would be forced to follow the 140-word limit. It left me thinking about how we use (and don’t use) words—that 140 words are far too little, but the current freedom we have with words is sometimes far too much, too.
Another important point in the play was Oliver’s argument against the Hush Law, saying it was undemocratic.
“It takes more words if you don’t have money,” he says. Also an activist, Oliver openly expresses his disdain for the then-pending Quietude Bill. He argues that the privileged and the rich could literally afford to use less words because they can show what they wanted to say or express their worth through material things. Nepotism, Oliver worried, would be the rule, because “no one can afford to do interviews.”
In fact, the moment Oliver and Bernadette witnessed the passing of the law reminded me too much of the passing of the Anti-Terror Law last year. Many of us were similarly glued to our screens, staring in disbelief at how they could’ve passed it so soon.
While the dystopian London of “Lemons” made no mention of why the Hush Law was put into place (we can’t be sure if it’s to “stop” terrorism, as is the case in the real-life Philippines), it remains chilling how both laws both attempted to limit people’s free speech.
Themes aside, what makes “Lemons” interesting is its format. This is one of the few plays produced and shown in quarantine that aren’t mere online streams of existing play/musical pro-shots. Around this time last year, we saw some digital theater experimentations through Virgin Labfest. University productions have also followed suit.
For “Lemons,” CAST, Theater Actors Guild, Stages Sessions, and Menez Media made use of both “stage” and film, in that it is a performance by the two actors in a bare black box “theater”/studio, filmed, and then presented through a split-screen setup. The result is almost as if you’re watching theater (the pre-show chimes during the show’s countdown adds to this effect, too), but not quite.
I personally appreciated the setup because the choice to keep it bare, really almost as if we were in the black box theater with them, really draws the focus to the compelling performances of Gomez and Padilla. And although the script was already tight as it is, originally pegged at an 80-minute run time, Gomez and Padilla deftly pack it into an hour-long show without making it feel rushed or lacking.
There’s definitely still a lot of room for local theater producers to play around with the digital format though. I’ve recently watched an online play from Singapore which utilized a mix of pre-recorded videos, screen recordings of chats and social media, desktop screens, and live performance via Zoom, and it was an immersive and partially interactive experience.
Meanwhile, most theater producers here have dealt with pre-recorded material (perhaps owing also to our perennial internet stability problems), so it would be interesting to see how else our writers, producers, and artists will explore the digital space as the new stage for “live” performances. Hopefully, it’s something we get to see more of soon.
“Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons” is available for viewing via Ticket2Me on July 24 and 31. Tickets are at P200. Each ticket gives access to the show for 24 hours.