Cahoots Theatre, in association with b current Performing Arts, presents Hilot Means Healer at The Theatre Centre. Set in a rural garden on the outskirts of Manilla during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Jo SiMalaya Alcampo’s play blends brutal wartime reality with Philippine folklore in this tale of trauma and healing.
Alfredo (Aldrin Bundoc), a young man injured during the Philippine Resistance, stumbles into a garden at night and takes refuge at the base of a Balete tree. His sudden, mysterious intrusion awakens an angry spirit inside that tree. He is discovered by the garden’s owner, Manang Flor (Carolyn Fe). Deciding he poses no treat, she accepts him into her home to recover from his wound. His presence draws ire from the orphaned and pregnant teenager in Flor’s charge, the fiery Alma (Belinda Corpuz). As tensions mount and bonds are formed, their shared past and present become entwined.
Flor is a manghihilot—a healer. The present drama with Alma and Alfredo is juxtaposed with her youth. In flashbacks, we see her learn the ancient Filipino healing art and witness her fraught relationship with her mentor, Ligaya (Karen Ancheta).
These characters, haunted by the past, must wrestle with their trauma and guilt. It shapes their motivations and informs their complex relationships. Each has, in their own way, a similar choice—allow themselves to remain crippled by the burden of their history or use that experience to shape a healthy future.
Alcampo’s script has been in development for many years and it feels rich and dense. Though grounded by the weight of both immediate and ancestral trauma, there is a playfulness here that softens the story’s sharp edges. Though darkness lurks, there is humour to help both the characters and the audience process whatever guilt and grief is unearthed.
The performance are uniformly compelling. I was particularly invested in the combative dynamic between Corpuz and Bundoc as Alma and Alfredo. It is clear, even early on, that their mutual antagonism is a rough, warrior-like courtship. Though their scenes are played mostly for tension and comedy, they have some vulnerable moments later on that were, for me, the most moving in the play.
Some scenes, however, feel a little plodding. The abundant humour helps, but my mind would occasionally wander as I waited for the next emotional bomb or kernel of wisdom. Most theatre relies heavily upon well-crafted dialogue, but there are patches here that feel numbingly talky, especially when contrasted with the overtly fantastical elements.
Director Jasmine Chen’s staging is full of compelling textures, sounds and movement. The actors convey so much in their physicality, in the way they inhabit space individually and together. Particularly elegant are the shifts between past and present, which use Flor’s posture and positioning as a transitional focal point.
Jung-Hye Kim’s set provides simple, contrasting textures. Stone slabs give weight and solidity to the edges of the sunken playing area, which is carpeted in fabric and grit. Your focus is drawn to the far end where the huge Balete tree is represented, a mass of hanging branches that contain a supernatural potential that is both frightening and empowering.
This Balete tree is an important presence, not just for its imposing physical reality, but also the grand ideas it holds. As Flor teaches Alfredo about the plants in her charge, she shares with him the nature of the Balete tree, which branches out to neighbouring trees, parasitically stealing their nutrients and eventually overtaking them completely. As we discover Flor’s painful connection to the spirit in the tree, we begin to understand this thematic duality of destruction and survival.
Under Jareth Li’s expressive lighting, the characters and their environments shift seamlessly from earthy substance to ethereal grandeur, creating a bridge between the familiar and the mystical.
The production is made even richer and more persuasive by MaryCarl Guiao’s score, which she performs live on pre-colonial instruments—such as the kulintang: a set of vertically suspended gongs. Eerily, the percussive sound seems almost to come out from the hanging vegetation itself.
Though some of the plot details—particularly regarding Flor’s backstory with Ligaya—can be hard to track, Hilot Means Healer is full of resonant ideas that feel simultaneously timeless and urgent.