Arts & Culture

Angels in America Teaches Us the Importance of Defiance

There’s far more to "Angels in America" than its tackling of gay and AIDS-related issues.
IMAGE COURTESY OF ATLANTIS
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When Angels in America debuted on Broadway in 1993, the United States was still dealing with the effects of the AIDS crisis of the mid-'80s. The LGBT community, just a few years prior, had faced fear and persecution from a citizenry that used the epidemic as a justification for inequality. Some of that prejudice continued to linger in the '90s, so much so that Angels' 1996 run in Charlotte, North Carolina was nearly cancelled due to protests over its frank, uncensored portrayal of gay issues.

The play opened in a decade where it was needed most. It opened discussions not just about homosexuality and AIDS, but the many socio-political issues that surrounded them, and how they all seemed to conspire to make life a living hell for individuals who simply wanted to live. The Reagan administration made a joke of “the gay plague,” fueling prejudice against gay men, living with HIV or otherwise.

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Though it may not have been solely responsible for how America started growing out of its hatred, there was no denying that the show played an important role in fostering a more tolerable environment. But that was nearly three decades ago, and an ocean apart from where we are now. What, then, is the relevance of Atlantis Theatrical’s Manila run of Angels in America, Part One to its intended audience?

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On the surface, the Philippines of 2019 doesn’t appear to be as far from 1993 as we imagine. From 2007 to 2017, cases of HIV increased by a whopping 3,147 percent, making the nation one of the few that actually saw a rise in these numbers. Though outwardly supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community, this is still a country that saw brutal murders of transgender persons. Statements from politicians implying that gay people are “worse than animals” still made national headlines in the last five years.

That alone should warrant a viewing of the play, but there’s far more to Angels in America than its tackling of gay and AIDS-related issues. It is, instead, a lens through which audiences are reminded of the necessity of struggling against the odds, no matter how insurmountable they may be.


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The central image of Angels in America—that of an angel crashing through the ceiling to speak to a bed-ridden Prior Walter (Topper Fabregas)—came from a dream writer Tony Kushner once had about a friend who had died from complications due to AIDS. In the play, another character, the closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Markki Stroem), speaks of his own dream: that of the story of Jacob wrestling an angel.

In the dream, Joe finds himself in the role of Jacob, wrestling with an otherworldly being in an unfair battle. “The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back,” he says. “So how could anyone human win? What kind of a fight is that? It's not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God's. But you can't not lose.”


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In the biblical account, Jacob understands that to win this battle is impossible, but he refuses to relent. When the angel realizes that Jacob’s resolve is unbreakable, he places a finger on the man’s hip, snapping it out of joint. He tells the injured Jacob that he has proven himself, and that he can finally let go. Defiantly, Jacob tells the angel that he wouldn’t; not until he received a blessing. The angel blesses him, and Jacob limps away to join his family, broken yet triumphant.

Though it’s played up to be the root of Joe’s sexual awakening as a gay man, it’s clear that the angel also represents the unjust reality he must wrestle with: the pressure to deny his sexual identity because of his faith.

Fabregas, through a descent from flamboyance to desolation, plays out Prior’s own struggle—that he is slowly deteriorating from AIDS—masterfully. The shift from drama queen in his first scene to just plain drama is staggering; heart-wrenching and wildly entertaining all at once, the transition in his demeanor incredibly well-paced and brimming with nuance. By the end of the play, it’s impossible not to root for this man who, broken down by sickness and abandonment, continues to fight for the life that once made him the life of the play. Through comedy and through heartbreak, Fabregas shines as the play’s emotional core.

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Opposite Fabregas is Nelsito Gomez as Louis Ironson, Prior’s inquisitive Jewish partner with radical leanings. While Prior scraps for survival, Louis wrestles with the guilt of wanting to leave him. To Louis, AIDS is a death sentence, and prolonging their relationship would only serve to prolong the agony for both of them. Gomez comes off as a student of the character, deftly displaying an understanding of Louis’ emotions in every line; his chemistry with Fabregas is a delight, and so the undercurrent of emotional betrayal in each of Louis’ interactions with Prior becomes just that more devastating. Gomez stands out in two scenes for vastly different reasons: for a long-winded monologue wherein he uses intellectual masturbation to escape the inevitability of discussing Prior’s condition with a common friend; and for a single line in a scene where Louis punishes himself for living.


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Louis continues his self-destruction by engaging in an affair with Joe Pitt, his co-worker played by Markki Stroem. Stroem is entertainingly—and effectively—withdrawn as Joe, whose religious beliefs have him forcing himself into the closet and building an artificially heterosexual life for himself. As his faith in both God and his profession begins to crumble, Stroem allows a naïve sort of vulnerability to leak out, and it plays off nicely with Gomez’s pained defiance. It should also be noted that Stroem shows excellent comedic potential in his turn as a medieval spirit; future directors would be wise to capitalize on this.


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In sharp contrast to both Prior and Joe, Art Acuña’s Roy Cohn is a tidal wave of rage, bitterness, and denial. A lawyer whose Machiavellian approach has led him to becoming an influential figure in Washington, he faces the demolishing of his legacy as a scandal threatens his disbarment. His diagnosis with AIDS—contracted through sex with men—not only serves as another pair of secrets to hide, but as a time limit to salvaging his career. It is this desperation that drives him to act as a utilitarian father figure to Joe, and Acuña’s lashing out when denied is terrifying for its accuracy.


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Rounding out the lead cast is Angeli Bayani as Harper Pitt, Joe’s wife. Harper suffers from severe agoraphobia and anxiety, and eventually falls into drug addiction as a result of Joe’s emotional distance. Bayani is absolutely charming in the role, and thrives in scenes where Harper’s hallucinations take whimsical turns. The manner in which she blabbers about matters far larger than herself during panic attacks could very well be used as supplementary material for psychology courses. More than the accuracy of her portrayal, however, it’s Bayani’s ability to simultaneously elicit laughs and concern from the audience that make her an inspired choice for the role.


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The play gives a talented supporting cast an ample amount of things to do, as actors are assigned multiple roles to highlight the fluidity of both gender and stances, as well as to serve as metaphors for the inner workings of each character’s psyche. Cherie Gil does much of the heavy lifting in this regard, playing four roles: Hannah Pitt (Joe’s mother), Rabbi Chemelwitz, Doctor Henry, and Ethel Rosenberg. Among the four roles, it’s her turn as the Rabbi that is most surprising, as it takes more than a few squints to recognize her behind the makeup and Jewish-Russian accent.


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Pinky Amador is omnipresent throughout the play as the Angel, but only appears onstage in the final scene, giving us little to appreciate until Part Two is inevitably staged. She is, however, a knee-slapper with her comedic performances as the sassy Nurse Emily and a deranged homeless woman.


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Andoy Ranay is lovable as Mr. Lies, Harper’s favorite hallucination, but struggles to maintain a consistent accent as the black drag queen, Belize. In fact, if it weren’t for a line that explicitly said Belize was black, Ranay would easily be mistaken as Latino or White. Despite the distracting accent work, Ranay’s delivery is on point, and his nonverbal reacting to a monologue by Gomez is one of the show’s brightest spots, in terms of performances.


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Along with Bobby Garcia’s flawless directorial choices—particularly, where he has actors position themselves against the light, serving as somber, almost confrontational silhouettes as the pieces for the next scene are put into place—Faust Peneyra’s set design does tremendous work in creating a world that is both sober and surreal.

A disjointed hodgepodge of desks and lamps serve as the main set pieces, a fantastical sight grounded by woody textures and gritty lighting. When paired with the lighting, costume, and projection work by Jonjon Villareal, Odelon Simpao, and GA Fallarme (respectively), there is a real sense of magic hiding underneath the veil of Kushner’s New York.

Perhaps the main concern around Atlantis’ Angels in America is the fact that only Part One is being staged, with Part Two unlikely to be run within 2019, given the theater company’s slate of projects. Not many audiences are accustomed to cliffhangers in theater, and Part One gives them an outstanding one to work with. That the story is, in essence, incomplete runs the risk of it being misunderstood—one audience member, in fact, was heard to take it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of being gay.

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While it is true that life as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community does bring with it a unique set of challenges, that is not the point of Angels in America, which is to continue to stand in the face of these issues; to keep fighting no matter how many times the world, its people, and your own body try to break you; and to walk away scarred and limping, knowing that in your defiance against the impossible, you have won. We all have our angels to wrestle with; what is important is that we never give up.

It is a lesson learned with real pain, real deaths, and real relationships. This is the reality for the LGBTQIA+ community, and of people living with HIV. Though not everyone belongs to these demographics, it is a message that is no less relevant to all.

Part One ends with Kushner’s dream: the Angel, making her grand appearance, crashing through the ceiling over Prior’s would-be deathbed. In reality, the angel came to take Kushner’s friend to Heaven, to mercifully end his fight with AIDS.

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In Angels in America, however, the scene closes with words that rebel against the idea of an inevitable end: “To be continued.”

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is running from March 22 to April 7, 2019 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati City. Tickets are available through Ticketworld.

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Marco Sumayao
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