Diseases are caused by persevering bacteria and unflagging viruses, but epidemics are brought about by the consequences of human choices – be it deliberate or not. And what happens in an epidemic is what PETA’s UNDER MY SKIN thrives to share. In it are varying stories of characters living amidst widespread stigma and systematic discrimination.
Jonathan is diagnosed with HIV, and with an emotionally absent partner in Greg, he reaches out to Syd, his former lover, and his friend. It is now up to Syd how he’ll manage to juggle his love and for Jonathan, for Mario – his current boyfriend, and for himself.
Another case is that of young Dino, a non-stop DOTA player who generally depended on the kindness of gay men in his community to finance his gaming addiction, however at the expense of his body. Upon receiving his confirmation after an HIV test, Dino and his mother will journey together to recall the past, and to face a new life ahead.
Mary Rose, a mother of three, just found out that she has HIV and had transmitted the virus to her children. She learned that she acquired it from her husband who has been injecting drugs and has been engaging in risky behaviors.
And then we have a comedy-bar comedienne, a gay hairdresser, a bunch of (arguably) discreet gay men, who – in snippets – tell us their individual struggles as they wander through society’s fossilizing stigmas and discrimination.
Rody Vera’s material weaves all these intersecting tales while having Dr. Gemma Almonte at its center. Dr. Almonte is an infectious disease specialist and an advocate, and she guides us through Vera’s multi-charactered plot, narrating each journey – both tragic and redeeming.
And Vera’s text can be very unapologetic. Here, Vera thrives so wonderfully through its frankness. His discourse is straightforward, unambiguous and responsible. He sprinkles a few expletives here and there, but only when necessary, and only if it establishes character and society.
But what’s most striking is how Vera interconnects these stories the way wildfire epidemics marginalize communities and, ultimately, societies. UNDER MY SKIN creates this feeling of undeniable interconnectedness and fond interdependence. As to how diseases spread and how pandemics rise, Vera exhibits how cure and compassion can also make use of such source lines.
Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije’s design for the stage visualizes the seemingly invisible, yet ever-present. In its center is a dynamic symbol of what could be an infinite virus that kills, or that glory hole we strive for, or that moment of wishful ecstasy through gratified penetration. In its foreground are the flowing plasma of bodily fluids – delicious, delicate, dangerous. Gorgeously matched by Steven Tansiongco’s video projections, this production’s vision to teach and reach explodes so incredibly.
Yet how to sustain interest is Director Melvin Lee‘s arduous task. Here, Lee efficiently juggles the varying discourses on epidemics: the tales and the myths, the tragedies and redemptions, without underselling important facts and figures. What’s most interesting is how Lee carefully choreographs the usual sexual innuendos through physical agility – dismissing the unnecessary, blistering run-of-the-mill soft pornography, so common in materials such as these.
And it is through this agility does Lee depict those underlying dangers of unsafe and risky behaviors. Through arial silk, we see the symbolic shaky balance between love and betrayal, truth and lies and ultimately life and death. That, dear Jellicle Readers, is an example of theatrical triumph.
Roselyn Perez is a familiar face on stage, more so, that she portrayed Dr. Emma Brookner in The Necessary Theater’s production of A NORMAL HEART to great acclaim. But her Filipina Dr, Almonte is closer to home, and her nuances are quite familiar. She’s the matriarch of the characters around her, a loving mother and a formidable woman in the center of a plague.
Dudz Teraña breaks the solitude as the comedy bar comedienne. Here, Teraña exceeds presence and exhibits great control as he tells the story of his character, to much of the audience’s delight.
Eko Baquial balances heartbreak and compassion with utter fondness and endearment as Syd. Gio Gahol as the character Greg can be both adoring and repelling, while Mike Liwag’s Jonathan personifies the disease and the fear, as well as the self-pity it seeds into the human mind. And Gold Villar as Mary Rose projects the initial uncertainty of mother and her family’s future, now that a lifelong syndrome has struck her family and her home.
While UNDER MY SKIN is still, arguably, a political material, it still presents a critical issue that we need to hear and discuss. Vera’s material interestingly digs further in while examining the Filipino psyche during a plague. The material is very keen on enumerating actual symptoms and its effects, not just in the body, but also in the mind. It probes the temporary threats of the medicines, yet it highlights its promise for a better life. In it are more exact details on the journey of people living with HIV, as well as the people around them.
What this production clearly shows is how far we’ve come in terms of fighting HIV and AIDS, and what a beautiful story it is. However, our culture and preconceived judgments alter a promising denouement. Science has started a winning fight against the virus, but it can only do so much. Our Hearts, with its acceptance, compassion, and empathy, can lovingly go a very long way, most especially in places where Science cannot.