Celebrating 20 Years Of Atlantis Productions With Relevant And Stirring Theater: A Review Of 'Angels In America'
The Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s very first production in 1998 was Rent, and with Director Bobby Garcia at the helm, it has never looked back. Not many even realize that in 2012, when they opened that year’s season with a repeat of The Heights, creator Lin Manuel-Miranda flew in for the show—this before he wrote and staged Hamilton. Bringing to Manila the best that Broadway and the West End can offer is coupled by the drive to nurture and put a spotlight on Filipino talent; and you can’t ask for more from Bobby and Atlantis in terms of how they strive to achieve these missions.
That this 20th year’s season kicks off with Tony Kushner’s 10-time Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize for Drama awardee Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches is both blessing and no coincidence. Directed by Bobby Garcia, and set in 1980’s New York, this exploration of homosexuality and the AIDS virus is a timeless classic of contemporary times; and is especially relevant here in our own country. Sure, the number of HIV/AIDS afflicted in the total Filipino population is thankfully low, but the increase of reported cases from 2010 to 2016 is alarmingly high, and only plateaued over the last two years. DOH records show that there have been 61,152 HIV positive individuals recorded since 1984 (of which 57,235 are male).
Angels in America is structured as a multi-strand narrative with the story of two couples criss-crossing and intersecting at crucial points. There’s the gay couple of Prior Walter (Topper Fabregas) and Louis Ironson (Nelsito Gomez) on one side, and on the other, the married couple of Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Markki Stroem) and pill-popping wife Harper (Angeli Bayani). Straddling the life of Joe Pitt is real life figure and renowned lawyer/fixer Roy Cohn (Art Acuña), and we have Pinky Amador, Cherie Gil, and Andoy Ranoy rounding out the cast.
Composed of realistic vignettes, flights of fantasy, and hallucinatory happenings; the drama is a mind boggling journey into a particular time and place when AIDS wreaked havoc on the global gay community. As such, it’s a potent and timely reminder of the pain, trauma, gallows humor, compassion, and love that was created, particular to that era. Of how religion, politics (the Reagan Presidency), and the social fabric of the time, all played a role in how things played out.
Watching the drama unfold, while cognizant of how acquiring the rights entails sticking to the script/text to the letter, I ruminated on how some slight changes could make the drama more accessible, depending on in which country it’s being staged. The play opens with a rabbi talking lengthily, and that’s so New York. And when much was made of Joe’s Mormon faith, if quips and remarks referring to Mormons could have been replaced with Born Again, I wondered if that would make it work better with a Filipino audience.
The cast is an earnest, highly talented group of individuals; but if I had to single out my favorites, one would be Art Acuña and his Roy Cohn. Art creates a cadence, a staccato speech pattern, that allows him to ‘inhabit’ Cohn, and he’s impressively consistent throughout the play—no mean feat. And my other favorite would be Topper Fabregas. He literally ‘owns’ Prior, dishing out the ‘bon mots’ and sallies that work as the precious shafts of humor that pepper the drama, and relieve us of the tension and depressing nature of the subject matter, without foregoing levity. There’s a mastery with which these two attack their roles, and we perk up whenever either of the two take or share the spotlight.
Congratulations to Bobby and Atlantis, your two decades have been a godsend to the Philippine Theater landscape; and may this 20th birthday be an impetus to achieve even more.
Photos from @atlantistheatrical and @markkistroem