Every now and then, you will come across a musical that demands attention even as you feel like looking away — one that skims across the repulsive nature of (earning a) living and the twisted wonders of falling in love. Care Divas is such a musical.
The premise is there in the title (mind the font). This is a story of friends who are caregivers by day, drag queens by night. Prepare for unapologetic flamboyance and vulgarity. Expect that the intensity of laughter is commensurate with the pain.
Wiping a geriatric’s ass — a stranger’s at that — to make ends meet and send care in the form of money to people whom you’d rather be with is insane. Imagine being in a room that reeks of urine and other smells that, while not completely alien, aren’t altogether pleasant. This is not to bring down the elderly, but the point is it takes either desperation or genuine altruism to be at their service.
Care Divas outlines this kind of life (at least in the beginning). Each caregiver is shown dealing with their wards, changing their clothes, bathing them, reminding them not to defecate on the floor. The gory images are left to the imagination, making it all the more potent.
It also highlights OFW woes. That constant fear of losing your job and being deported. Kyla (Gio Gahol) goes from employer to employer and, when he couldn’t anymore find the next master, gets caught as an illegal migrant worker. Gahol, who is both charming and laugh-out-loud funny as Kyla, delivers a heart-rending number while escaping authorities. He’s the clear star of Act One.
Something interesting happens during the second act. The musical decides to be a love story. Chelsea (Melvin Lee) — the warmest, most level-headed among the care divas — meets a sketchy guy named Faraj (Jef Flores).
Before I continue, I would like to borrow writer Liza Magtoto’s notes as a personal disclaimer: “Hindi ako overseas worker, wala akong masyadong alam sa Israel, at hindi ako bading.” Care Divas is supposedly set against an intifada backdrop — something that would go right over my head had I not read the souvenir program. The atmosphere — for which we must factor in set design, music, language and the actors’ indecipherable accents — is still very Metro Manila, and very much safe. The alienation (for being foreigners and gay) isn’t as palpable as the libretto may have intended.
Back to Chelsea and Faraj. Their entanglement escalates from cute to serious in a matter of maybe two, three scenes. Faraj seals his love for Chelsea with a kiss. The audience’ reaction (which is as fun to listen to as anything being said or sung onstage) goes from shocked to kilig to scandalized. It tells us that on the one hand, we’re suckers for romance; and on the other, that we’re still uncomfortable with same-sex displays of affection. Whatever gauge of homosexuality tolerance I’m missing from the stage, I’m getting it from the audience section.
If there’s anything that makes me uncomfortable — in a bad way, it’s the sudden disappearance of its major (read: round) characters. We don’t get to hear back from Kyla. And Chelsea… One of her (his? — I’d say her) friends quips that it’s pretty exciting if Faraj turns out to be a suicide bomber. Guess what, he’s not; but Chelsea, in running after Faraj who is running away from the police, becomes a casualty of suicide bombing (how convenient the timing of the explosion). If that’s an attempt at tragedy, the results are feeble. She’s earned our trust (hats off to Lee) and for that she deserves a heroic exit, something directly influenced by her actions.
The worst part is that her death also signals the end of the story. Whatever problems the care divas have — individually or as a group — are set aside. Instead we get a flash forward wherein the friends catch up on each other’s lives by way of voice over. They’re fine. And we just have to accept that.
The cast comes out on stage in the most ridiculous (in a good way) costumes. You want drag? Here’s your fucking drag, they seem to say in the grand finale with the help of a mean bubble machine.
Bubbles. Quite the metaphor for Care Divas — the cheeriness, how they invite you to step outside your comfort zone, the dreaming and scheming. Above all, transience. It’s raining bubbles inside the PETA Theater. As if they’re telling me to relax, it’s just a musical. Don’t try to wrap your head around this. Life is short. Be good, have fun. Before it goes pop.
* * *
Care Divas is written by Liza Magtoto, with music and lyrics by Vincent de Jesus, and directed by Maribel Legarda. The show runs until March 19 (from Tuesday to Sunday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.) at the PETA Theater Center. Contact Leloi Arcete at 0917-576-5400 for guesting inquiries and ticket reservations.