Oct 8, 2015

[Theater] The Normal Heart (The Necessary Theatre)

I continue to make a conscious effort to include theater in our weekend activity calendar given how much time is invested in the gaming side of our lives together. There's nothing wrong with gaming in itself nor with gaming on a regular basis. However I do want to make sure that we continue to enjoy a diverse enough range of experiences together and that should obviously include our theater dates.

We missed out on the first run of The Normal Heart due to scheduling conflicts and the brevity of the run. This repeat staging was a modest blessing in this regard since it gave us another chance to see the show, although I will note that once again the show has been limited to a rather short run as well. Bummer.

The show in itself is quite powerful and it speaks volumes of the quality of the source material. There's a very powerful story here and the group of actors brought together for this production certainly did their best to bring the message home.

Synopsis: The Normal Heart is a dramatic play by Larry Kramer and is considered to be largely autobiographical in nature. Last year HBO aired a movie adaptation of the play featuring a number of notable stars. This staging was put up by Actor's Actors, Inc. through The Necessary Theatre and ran at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City from October 2 to 11, 2015.

The play is set in the early 1980's when the HIV epidemic was still a unknown virus predominantly affecting the gay male populations of various cities. No one knew what was going on or what was killing these men. But at the same time the fact that it was affecting homosexuals made it a controversial subject and something that most medical authorities and politicians avoided for fear of backlash of a sort. One doctor, Dr. Emma Brookner (Roselyn Perez) has been doing her best to understand this disease and provide what treatment or support she can to those afflicted. She encounters Ned Weeks (Bart Guingona), a Jewish-American gay writer and activist and reaches out to him to help rally the community and get the word out about this virus. He initially balks at the idea, but as the severity and scale of the epidemic really hits home, he eventually works on creating an organization.

The biggest controversy is what Dr. Brookner recommends - that Ned and his group advocate abstinence in order to eliminate another possible vector of the disease. It's a touchy subject as the previous wave of gay activism was rather focused on sexual freedom. But Ned's a fighter and has no qualms about speaking his mind in order to fight for what he believes in - even when the rest of his organization is reluctant to rock the boat so much. Thus we follow the struggles of the group to figure out its agenda, determine how to work with Ned and his flair for controversy and Ned's own personal exploration of potentially finding someone to love - a New York Times writer named Felix Turner (Topper Fabregas).

The production was staged with a rather minimalist perspective in mind, which certainly did well to lend greater focus on the actors themselves. Rather creative use of video projections on two white pillars (scaffolding towers covered in cloth, I assume) did make for some interesting scenes, especially given how the columns wouldn't always be directly facing the audience. And while I was somewhat distracted by how often they had to move the columns and their decision to almost make complete turns with every adjustment, it did a lot to paint the scene and make us feel like we were in a highly urban area like New York.

A lot of the play inevitably centers on Bart Guingona's performance, which wasn't necessarily bad but it had a lot of quirks and certainly an opportunity for improvement. He had a weird way of pretty much just shouting his lies while standing at attention that made it feel like he was just talking at everyone (including fellow actors or just us as members of the audience) and wasn't really engaged in any true conversations. And despite this being a second run, he was clearly fumbling with his lies on the day we watched and that was rather disappointing. No matter how good an actor you are, your performance suffers when you can't remember your next line.

I rather loved Roselyn Perez's performance as Dr. Emma Brookner. We had recently seen her in Red Turnip's 33 Variations and it was nice to see her in such a key role. The fact that she had to act while being in a wheelchair did not seem to jar her and she certainly commanded the stage anytime she had something to say. Major points for the practice that must have gone into her wheelchair use given how deftly she manipulated the chair in order to meet were required blocking or stage positioning.

This is also one of the few plays in a while when I can sincerely say that I really enjoyed Topper Fabregas' performance. His past efforts at comedy were starting to feel a little redundant as he would generally act in almost exactly the same way across different roles. This time around things shifted just enough to make his portrayal as Felix all the more powerful and quite central to the flow of the narrative towards the end. Relating to or at least empathizing with Felix was important to the show achieving its goals and he certainly got a few folks crying during our performance schedule.

The rest of the cast also delivered some pretty solid performances. I'm sure a lot of people enjoyed how warm Red Concepcion's Tommy was and Richard Cunanan's Ben was quite the conflicted figure. Nor Domingo's Mickey was clearly a man with a lot of heart but also in a difficult position in life while TJ Trinidad as Bruce was open to helping but highly protective of his career as well.

On the whole, The Normal Heart remains to be a powerful play and one whose message about the need to fight for what is important in life remains as true as ever. I can only hope that the play helps push forward other HIV awareness efforts in the country as there are far too many parallels between 1980's New York and modern day Metro Manila as far as HIV and AIDS is concerned. Thus the play gets  a strong 4 moments of Ned shooting off with his mouth again out of a possible 5.

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