PETA's 52nd Season Ender Offering "Under My Skin" Calls For End of Stigma Against Persons Living with HIV
As part of its Acting on HIV campaign launched in the latter end of 2019, the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) caps off its 52nd performance season with a play to educate the youth about HIV-AIDS and to diminish the stigma for Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV).
"It is not a death sentence anymore," said Cherry Pie Picache who plays the lead character Dr. Gemma Almonte, alternately played by Roselyn Perez. "That is what captured me when Melvin Lee, the director, approached me for this production. That is what motivated me to join Under My Skin and use theatre as an artistic tool to propagate the truths behind this condition," she continued.
Written by Rody Vera, Under My Skin revolves around the pivotal moments in the lives of several PLHIV—how they found out that they were "reactive" and how they coped emotionally, socially, and physically. Sans the characters' backstories, it is an informative lecture by Dr. Almonte that begins with the statistical data of PLHIV in the country, the history of HIV which can be traced back to what was then known as Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease in the 1980s. Throughout the play they explain how it is transmitted, what it does to one's body, the symptoms, and how it develops into AIDS, other complications if untreated, and worse, how it can lead to death. Indeed it was complex storytelling. Regardless, Vera risked it and thematically divided the backstories into parts, wrapping it altogether in a beautiful virtuoso of emotions—from misery to felicity.
Melvin Lee's realist approach drew out the authenticity of each of the characters. Equally impressive were the video projections by Steven Tansiongco, music by Migs Cortes, and sound design by Teresa Barrozo, that aided the play in its ability to deliver its message across to the audience. However, the crowd pleaser for the audiences was perhaps Lee's surrealist inputs in key scenes. In an attempt to be cathartic he succeeds in simply, showing the beauty underneath the grim. Kudos to Ian Torqueza's lighting design and the breathtaking choreography in an important scene by Nicole Primero and Bubbles Deriada from Airdance.
Depicting the realities, triumphs, and struggles of PLHIV, Under My Skin not only educates but also rallies on behalf of the various stakeholders of the campaign. It calls us to talk more about HIV-AIDS and altogether find ways to prevent the spread of it, attain a healthier and safer lifestyle, and be more compassionate towards one another regardless of class, gender, and profession.
"The stories are more numerous than what could ever be written in a piece. At the same time, I felt that focusing on one story could only make this too personal and insulated from the greater context of all the other stories present themselves," Vera said. "Each statistic in the spiked increased rate of HIV cases in the country is a story that needs to be heard. And the stories begin to multiply at the fastest rate one could ever imagine. It puts the hope of saving one's life in perspective to a more frightening epidemic that has begun to get out of control."
The cast, under the guidance of dramaturg Eric Dela Cruz, portrayed various kinds of PLHIV with much preparation and research. Easiest to commend is Dudz Teraña whose stellar portrayal of two different characters was captivating and heart-rending. Meanwhile the ensemble trio who alternately portrayed Syd (Eko Baquial), Jonathan (Miguel Almendras/Mike Liwag), and Greg (Gio Gahol/Anthony Falcon) was a fascinating dynamic relationship rich in suppressed thoughts and words waiting to explode. But perhaps the most underrated performance was that of Mico Esquivel and Bene Manaois who alternately portrayed Louie. Besides that the character hits close to home, it provides a fresh new perspective on the transmission of HIV, not to mention his effective portrayal of a marriage ravaged by the virus, and worse, by the stain it leaves on one's reputation.
Vera's messages in Under My Skin disguises in the stories of lives you thought you already know, in the information on the virus or disease you half-believed as truth and hoax, and then it creeps into your mind, under your skin, jolting you from your indifference, urging you to do something.
"PETA believes that by using the arts as a medium, Under My Skin and other advocacy-oriented activities can become an effective platform for probing, conversations, and a coming-together of various HIV experts and advocates," PETA Executive Director Beng Santos-Cabangon said. Hence, the audiences are invited to participate in an intimate talk every after each performance. "It is through this safe space that we aim to humanise the HIV issue that has long become taboo in our society."
Under My Skin is also supported by UNAIDS and UNILAB. Moreover, esteemed HIV advocacy organisations The Red Whistle and Love Yourself supports the production with their own contribution to the Acting on HIV campaign happening outside the theatre.
"This play is not like the ones I have directed before," Lee said. "This is one production that is quite personal to me because of the pressing and alarming issue of HIV. Yes, personal, because I have loved ones, dear friends that are living with the virus. These precious individuals are not just part of the numbers, they are real people with whom I had the pleasure of heartfelt conversations over cooked meals, or warm hugs... Let our art be a bastion to stop any form of discrimination and stigmatisation. Let our art embrace and give comfort and strength to our dear friends, loved ones, who are battling the virus."
PETA's Under My Skin runs until March 22. For tickets and showbuying enquiries, please contact PETA at email@example.com, +632.725.6244 or TicketWorld at www.ticketworld.com.ph
- Photography Jaypee Maristaza and Jojit Lorenzo