BWW Review: UNDER MY SKIN is Armed With Substantial Information About HIV
"Early detection, a clean lifestyle, and safe sex are the best ways to fight the disease. After watching Under My Skin, one certainly walks out of the PETA Theater Center armed with substantial information about HIV and AIDS. By that measure, this play certainly has accomplished its mission."
Manila. Philippines - The Philippine Theater Educational Association's (PETA) 52nd season-ender is unlike the more popular stage plays (e.g., The Normal Heart or Angels in America), which also talk about HIV and AIDS. Categorized by its creators as a "drama anthology," Under My Skin is a one-act play that weaves through several stories based on the experiences of real-life Filipino individuals living with HIV. At the onset, the main agenda of the play is to educate its audience with correct and updated information about HIV and AIDS in the Philippines.
The weaver of these stories is a character named Dr. Gemma Almonte, an epidemiologist, played by Cherry Pie Picache. The way writer Rody Vera builds Picache's role is somewhat similar to the Narrator in Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods. Although the character of Dr. Almonte sometimes gets into the action happening between the other characters, her main task is to speak directly to the audience about all there is to know about the disease, ranging from names of prescription drugs to how a virus thrives into our body.
With an accomplished actor such as Picache (alternating with Picache in this role is another formidable theater actor, Roselyn Perez), we sense the urge to contemplate whether or not this role maximizes her range as an actor. But, on the other hand, casting a respected actor to play the part of the doctor is a sound decision. This production, after all, an explicit HIV awareness campaign masquerading as a play.
The meatier roles are those of the patients that were under the care of Dr. Almonte. Three of them - Jonathan, Dino, and Mary Rose - are given the most attention by Vera for their respective stories represent the varying scenarios by which HIV can be transmitted. (There are a slew of other characters introduced by the playwright, but some of them are referred to only by what they do or how they look: bortas, a comedy bar singer, a hooker, a parlorista).
Jonathan (Miguel Almendras) is a young adult, currently in a relationship with Greg (Gio Gahol). Jonathan and Greg's case is the one that discusses the MSM (men having sex with men) lifestyle, the most commonly-recorded cause of HIV transmission in the Philippines. More importantly, their narrative also shows how some sexually-active men are not that well-informed about the risks of their chosen lifestyle.
In the case of these men, having a health crisis leads them to a series of overly-emotional and sometimes irrational decisions. Adding to the tension in the hospital room is the presence of Jonathan's ex-boyfriend, Syd (Eko Baquial), and Syd's current boyfriend, Mario (Jarred Jaicten). In the play, these four men are placed in an awkward situation, which often heightens the confrontations. Unfortunately, the context is kept somewhat limited and unclear, so this part of the storytelling hardly keeps audiences invested.
[Ed's note: Spoilers ahead]
The second main subject in the story, Dino (Dylan Talon), is a frail young boy who is addicted to video games and enjoys the company of gays in their neighborhood. Unlike the previous set of characters, Dino's character is developed more effectively even just by listening to his banters with his mother, Aling Loida (Kitsi Pagaspas). Talon also gives a deeply sensitive portrayal of a teenager who is trying to reconcile his choice of friends, given his current situation. When Dino eventually admitted to his verbally-abusive mother that he was physically abused by one of his most trusted buddies, Aling Loida's character suddenly got stumped. Without a word, she then embraces her son and consoles him just as a loving mother should.
Possibly the most disturbing story among all that is presented in the play is that of Mary Rose (She Maala), a married woman with three children. Her story refutes the notion that only promiscuous gay men can be infected with HIV. Not only is Mary Rose an HIV carrier, but she also realizes that she has passed on the infection to her children. The culprit, this time, was an infected needle used by his husband during one of his lousy night-outs with a friend.
Amidst all the knowledge of medical jargon and up-to-date health statistics, this play also becomes a timely reminder of the strong sense of community among Filipino families and friends, as well as the indomitable spirit of people currently living with HIV. As Dr. Almonte's character never fails to emphasize, hysteria and excessive emotional outbursts do no good.
Early detection, a clean lifestyle, and safe sex are the best ways to fight the disease. After watching Under My Skin, one certainly walks out of the PETA Theater Center armed with substantial information about HIV and AIDS. By that measure, this play certainly has accomplished its mission.
Directed by Melvin Lee, Under My Skin is also presented by The Red Whistle and LoveYourselfPH, in partnership with UNAIDS and Unilab.
The play runs until 22 March 2020 at the PETA Theater Center in New Manila, Quezon City.
Photos: Erickson Dela Cruz