By Giselle P. Kasilag
Angels in America Part One: Millennium
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Bobby Garcia
Produced by Atlantis Theatrical
Ongoing until April 7
Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium,
RCBC Plaza, Makati City
WHEN THE Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group opened the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium for the initial offering of its 20th season production last Friday, it performed for what could be the most theatrically star-studded audience possible. There was Lea Salonga, Monique Wilson, Michael Williams, and the cast of Ang Huling El Bimbo in attendance to name a few. It was like being in a family reunion of kindred spirits bound by love for the theater.
It was to this formidable group of spectators that Angels in America opened to. As if the material was not challenging enough, the company also had to perform before a massively knowledgeable audience — many of whom have either seen the original production or have performed in one of the various versions of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece.
But director Bobby Garcia is no stranger to Angels in America. He directed its Philippine premiere in 1995. Twenty-four years later, he returned to the material with a different perspective, a fresh approach, and a capable cast that went on to stun and engage what could have been a very difficult audience.
Set in 1980s New York, the curtain opened to a funeral, and a promise of sooner-than-expected death. Prior Walter (Topper Fabregas) has AIDS and his lover, Louis Ironson (Nelsito Gomez) was not taking the news well.
Elsewhere, Joe Pitt (Markki Stroem), a deeply religious, low-level Department of Justice employee, is being offered a good position by the very politically well-connected Roy Cohn (Art Acuña). The catch? He has to move to Washington DC and Joe is not sure his pill-popping wife Harper (Angeli Bayani) can handle the change.
Harper deals with the news the only way she knows how: more pills to escape the burdens of reality and her loveless marriage. Joe is drifting further and further away. And during a hazy hallucination that is somehow invaded by Prior, she wonders out loud for the first time if her husband is gay.
Roy has problems of his own. A visit to the doctor (Cherie Gil) reveals that he had AIDS — a disease, he insists, he could not possibly have since it only affects homosexuals. Regardless of his sexual activities, he is not a homosexual and cannot possibly have AIDS. Instead, he declares, he has liver cancer.
Eventually, all their lives end up weaving into each other’s — five lives struggling to survive in an unforgiving city.
Multi-dimensional best describes the performances of the lead characters, particularly of Art Acuña, Topper Fabregas, and Markki Stroem. In the hands of less experienced actors, the roles would have been reduced to the stereotypical sleazy politician, ailing drag queen, and closetted gay man. But in the hands of Acuña, Fabregas, and Stroem, the nuances of the characters were gently coaxed and allowed to blossom.
Clearly, Acuña understood that Roy is not a simple influence-peddler. He is a very complex character — a man who understood what made powerful men tick, and how to use it to his advantage. That scene where he learned he had AIDS was a stunning example of a nuanced and explosive performance. He was clearly scum but the audience couldn’t help but ache for him and his situation.
Fabregas, on the other hand, offered a particularly realistic portrayal of a person who knew the end was near. The acceptance, the regret, the conflict between wanting to fight for life and simply making do with what time still remains, his Prior was handled with much maturity and grace. And those little touches such as the particular way that he rubbed his nose with the back of his hand made it clear that Prior was in the house and Fabregas had left the building.
Stroem was a revelation. It was a tentative beginning but he grew into the character — allowing the conflict of his identity crisis to reveal itself through the gentle stressing of certain phrases in conversations rather than forcing a mannerism or action. It was a very thoughtful performance that clearly illustrated how much he has grown as an actor.
The successful performances, however, were made possible by the support of the other actors. Gomez’ Louis, Bayani’s Harper, Andoy Ranay’s Belize, and the various roles that Cherie Gil and Pinky Amador took on all served to move everyone’s performances to the next level. It was easy to see that there was much generosity in this cast.
But the 2019 version of Atlantis’ Angels in America is the stunning piece of theater that it is because of the vision of Bobby Garcia. The beautiful set design, the sounds, the costume, and the foreboding that the lighting design brought all had a clear purpose in Garcia’s grand vision.
At its heart, Angels in America is about the challenges of relationships. A loveless marriage, a partner that is ill, or not having a relationship at all — these are issues that anyone of any gender, race, or religion has experienced at one point or another. There was a quietness to Garcia’s approach that heightened the intensity of the material. It was gentle, and kind, and very introspective. There were bells and whistles but used with much restraint, and only to move the story forward. Angels in America is a wonderful example of why theater (and the arts) is very necessary at any day and age.
Despite the length of the material, time simply flew and the audience was left wanting more. By the time the curtains dropped to announce that the second half was “To be continued…” the audience was willing to stay in their seats and demand that the story be completed that same night. Unfortunately, it will be a year before the story finishes. Atlantis will stage the second half next year which will likely mean another family reunion for theater stars.
Tickets are available at TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph).
By Giselle P. Kasilag