By Maria Jovita Zarate
Under My Skin
Written by Rody Vera
Directed by Melvin Lee
A production of the Philippine Educational
Theater Association (PETA)
Feb. 7 to March 22
PETA Theatre Center
IT’S a pas de deux on air. Two men attracted to each other climb up a silky white cloth mounted on the proscenium’s battens, and they slide and slither until they reach the heights of libidinal pleasures. Lust evolved to love but the commitments that were forged soon teeter on a precipice as they battle the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV now lodged in their bodies.
The scene described above could have been one of the most artistically executed in PETA’s latest offering, Under my Skin, directed by Melvin Lee and written by Rody Vera.
The rest of the play oscillates between teaching moments and melodramatic episodes.
One of the many routes by which to appreciate Under my Skin is to trace the narrative traditions from where the lineaments of its form and content spring from, much like how the sea in its infinite expanse emanate from rivers and streams.
Under My Skin straddles two narrative traditions in Philippine literary production — the didactic and the melodramatic.
The first is about dispensing knowledge and information with the goal of shifting mindsets, spurring behavioral changes or moving audiences to collective action. In the more extreme forms of political theater, the didactic impulse is the fulcrum from where the material pivots, as it seeks to expound on the ills of society to incite the citizens to resist authority.
Melodrama, on the other hand, is about playing on human emotion and the nuances of its expressions. It panders to spectator vulnerabilities to the human conditions that unfold before their eyes, and are mostly grounded on suffering and anguish.
In the hands of a lesser playwright, Under My Skin could have tumbled off-kilter because of its propensity to convey information through what seemed like an enhanced powerpoint presentations and TED talks style of lectures, as well as with lovers’ drama and the histrionics of low T-cell counts splayed throughout the two and a half hour presentation.
But it did not. Under my Skin makes a good case why didactism and melodrama is not always boring and tedious. In fact, it seems to illustrate how such dramatic styles can be leveraged as forms of cultural intervention in pursuit of public interests.
Rody Vera deploys his skill with the precision of an alchemist throwing in the philospher’s stone that makes the didactic gleam, and melodramatic pulsate with the hope for human redemption.
The play starts with a female narrator unpacking data about the exponential increase of HIV infections in the Philippines even if our ASEAN counterparts have successfully abated its spread. Human stories take over, the most prominent of which is a gay couple’s predicament as they discover both of them have tested positive with the virus, and one of them fending off the ferocious onslaught of opportunistic infections. The tenuous partnership is shored up by another gay couple who keeps them on a steady keel.
We learn that the narrator played by teleserye regular Cherry Pie Picache is Dr. Almonte, in charge of receiving patients who have contracted the virus. Her goal is singular — to keep the HIV positive status from progressing to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency disorder syndrome, a condition that is deemed fatal.
In the didactic tradition, information in massive amounts is freely dispensed, exhortation is the default tone, and the premise of the material is predicated on the urgency of a situation. In PETA’s Under My Skin, the information conveyed — the facts, the medical management, the list of retroviral drugs, the precautions, and the compliance required from HIV positive individuals — are handed down by the authority figure of Dr. Almonte whose skill set includes the compassion to see the person behind the patient, the past and present life alongside with the disease.
The men-having-sex-with-men (MSM) community is well represented quite disproportionately as against heterosexual persons. Such over representation can be misconstrued as discriminatory profiling of a sectoral demographic. But then again, the numbers speak much about the epicenter of the epidemic, and makes reason enough to call on the public health institutions where to train their focus.
Much of our education on formal theater is hinged on rallying behind formalist aesthetics but what Under My Skin teaches us is that the politics of the body looms larger than the poetics of theater.
For indeed, the scourge that is the HIV strains the physical body that has been a site of so much power contestations — from institutions that control the body, as well as norms and structural inequities that exclude segments of society from receiving adequate health information and medical attention. The Catholic Church’s position against the use of contraceptives and its gatekeeping functions on sex education has contributed much to our ignorance on HIV and how it spreads.
Vera and Lee are well aware of the artistic elements and the synergies that must govern the piece as they set it to life in a proscenium. What they have actually done is a precise calibration, almost to the level of science, of how theater’s poetics can subsume itself in the more overarching goal of spreading awareness about HIV, and making a cultural intervention as an entire nation confronts the scourge of being ranked as the country with the fastest growing number of HIV cases in the world.
Performances are ongoing until March 22 (Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 and 8 p.m.) at the PETA Theater Center, No. 5 Eymard Drive, Brgy. Kristong Hari, New Manila, Quezon City. For tickets, contact PETA at firstname.lastname@example.org, or TicketWorld at www.ticketworld.com.ph and 8891-9999.