Recently, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” again ignited conversations on fatness and body issues, but for all the wrong reasons, precisely because the film offers little to no nuance about the lived experiences of plus-size people, and instead creates a dehumanizing spectacle out of it (see Roxane Gay on the film). It is so demeaning and devoid of dignity that, after sobering up from the viewing experience, one will simply be prompted to look for better portrayal elsewhere.
Fortunately, Dulaang UP’s “Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba” pulls at the same thematic thread but, unlike “The Whale,” has a lot more thought and grace put into it. It is one with far better directorial decisions and sober understanding of the human experience, one that doesn’t frame fatness as a death sentence or a monster always meant to be defeated, one that actually cares for its subject.
Based on the 2006 short story by Dean Francis Alfar and adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and Maynard Manansala, “Rosang Taba” tells the story of the titular character (Kiki Baento), a servant in a wealthy Spanish mansion owned by the governor-general (Jojo Cayabyab) and his wife Senora Andreia (Skyzx Labastilla). During a party in the mansion, Rosang Taba challenges Senor Pietrado (Victor Sy), the Ispancialo braggart and young commander of the Spanish military, to a foot race, due to the latter’s animosity towards colonized Filipinos.
Dramaturgs Anril Tiatco, Jonas Gabriel Garcia, and Nikka de Torres have reimagined Alfar’s version by narrating the story through the eyes of Rosang Taba’s great-great-great grandchildren, staking the material’s timelessness. But this production, co-directed by José Estrella, Issa Manalo Lopez, and Mark Daniel Dalacat, knows better than to simply uproot the context of its source. Instead, “Rosang Taba” interrogates the place and function of its material by situating it under today’s zeitgeist that we squarely contend with.
The show does this by not solely fixating on its protagonist’s fatness and treating it with shortsighted insight. If anything, it de-weaponizes this notion of fatness by tethering its critique to larger structures that breed internalized fatphobia, confine women to gendered expectations, and inform how history and power dynamics factor into these forms of violence.
“Rosang Taba” never asks us to root for the lead character out of sheer pity, because we know that she is far more than what Senor Pietrado—and, to some extent, her own people—think of her. Because the play itself commits to this message with much care and conviction. Senora Andreia says it best: “Tataya ako sa dehado (I’ll bet on the underdog).”
Yet despite the gravitas and scale of its commentary, “Rosang Taba” doesn’t revel in this tricky domain. In fact, it doesn’t come off as a loaded piece, even as it unpacks layers of issues adjacent to its central preoccupation. One can attribute this to how the show relentlessly discovers incredible ways to inject humor, especially in moments where one doesn’t expect it: gestures mimicking signature TikTok dance moves; references to Lady Gaga and Rihanna; Labastilla sustaining the R sound; and the use of “budots”—all of which provide the staging the energy befitting its 80-minute runtime.
But one with a discerning eye would also notice how well “Rosang Taba” exploits its space. Dalacat’s use of the unelevated, theater-in-the-round stage, for one, allows the audience to engage with the show better, as though providing them the opportunity to become part of the story’s meaning-making. More broadly, it lends the show a more immersive experience, especially given its critique on social inequity. If handled mistakenly, this artistic decision could have been a huge lapse, considering how small the cast is, thus subjecting the actors and, by extension, the entire play, to more scrutiny. But “Rosang Taba” averts this problem through the precision of Chips Beltran’s choreography, as demonstrated by the actors’ blockings and awareness of the space they operate in.
The show’s success also leans into how Barbie Tan-Tiongco and Mykee Ababon take advantage of their lighting design not only to set the tone and transport the audience across time, but also to use it as a means of comedy. This is best displayed in a scene towards the play’s end: When Rosang Taba and Senor Pietrado are trying to overtake each other during the race, rendered through slow motion acting, a single light acts as their path, and as the moment becomes more intense and the actors now more sweaty, strobing lights envelop them in the silliest and most unhinged of ways.
Members of the core cast, small as it is, also come up with solid work, knowing how to deploy their arsenals wisely, although it can be argued that the sound and music by Angel Dayao and Jack Alvero could use some incubation to elevate the musical numbers, because there aren’t many that truly leave a mark.
Heart and soul
Still, Baento’s Rosang Taba brims with heart and soul, expertly articulating how her character’s dignity and truth would never waver, no matter what life and circumstances throw at her, no matter the imbalances of power. Sy, meanwhile, makes for a charming villain. His Senor Pietrado evokes a particular arrogance that only a true and macho-feudal man, who has the physical meat but never the mental capacity to comprehend his own vanity, could pull off.
But the show comes much more alive because of Labastilla, who acquits herself well as Senora Andreia, commanding the character with such inner strength and confidence. And even as she doubles as Rosa Mia, one of the three narrators, she manages to steal the scene, without overdoing it, armed by her humor and clever antics, all while maintaining her presence of mind, especially at times when her fellow actors seem to struggle recalling a line. It is in these moments that one appreciates Labastilla’s artistic genius and dedication to her craft.
Compact and subversive, “Rosang Taba” extracts the rotting bone that larger and greedy institutions continue to bury: how our colonial history, no matter how we refute it, still warps our consciousness as a nation; how women remain to endure routine violence, despite claims of progress within the community; and how violence itself can also emanate from the most benign of forms.
But beyond this, “Rosang Taba” understands that the only way to repulse these long-held beliefs is to forge a new route. So when the titular character races against these insidious forces, we make way for her.
“Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba” runs until April 2 at the UP Theater Main Hall Stage, Diliman, Quezon City.