MANILA — In 1995, Bobby Garcia, then only 25 years old, directed the Philippine premiere of “Angels in America” at the Music Museum. It was an ambitious undertaking, presenting the full 7-hour opus by Tony Kushner with a star-studded cast that included Michael Williams, Bart Guingona, Paul Holme, and Joshua Spafford.
Nearly 25 years later, Garcia is bringing back “Angels in America” to kick off the 20th anniversary of his theater company Atlantis Productions (now Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). But this isn’t a mere nostalgic restaging. Garcia brings to this much-celebrated work a more mature sense of artistry, honed by decades of theatrical experience.
“It was a much more defiant production,” Garcia said of the 1995 staging in the program notes of “Angels in America,” which is on its second weekend at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City.
In 1995, Manila’s younger theater artists such as Garcia, Guingona, and Monique Wilson were at the forefront of an energetic, “alternative” English-language theater scene that proffered modern, edgier material to a growing audience looking for something more relevant. And nothing was grander and more provocative than “Angels in America,” a sprawling saga about AIDS in the conservative Ronald Reagan era.
It was indeed defiant, a landmark moment unlike anything local audiences had experienced before.
Much has changed since 1995. Today’s audiences now have many options in Manila’s lively, thriving theater scene, where a new generation of young artists have taken over this task of doing forward-thinking plays, led by Red Turnip Theater and The Sandbox Collective.
Even “Angels in America,” though regarded with well-deserved reverence, seems on the surface like a period piece as AIDS, while disturbingly on the rise in the Philippines, is no longer feared as a some sort of death sentence.
“This new production is kinder and tender. There is more forgiveness in this one,” Garcia said in program notes.
To start, it’s not the punishing 7-hour full version, where you watch the matinee, take an early dinner break, and return to the theater to finish it. Garcia wisely decided to present only the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” for now (the second part “Perestroika” is supposedly calendared for next year), even if today’s Netflix generation are used to binge-watching an entire season of their favorite series in one sitting.
He noted that this was how “Angels in America” was first presented in San Francisco back in 1991, with audiences waiting for the next year to see the conclusion.
As such, this new staging felt more intimate, allowing both the actors and the audience to ruminate on the play’s core message, which is really about love and life and how we are all interconnected in this world.
It is New York in the mid-’80s and drag queen Prior Walter (Topper Fabregas) tests positive for HIV, which scares away his lover, Louis Ironson (Nelsito Gomez) who, as the play progresses, falls for Joe Pitt (Markki Stroem), a co-worker at the Department of Justice and a closeted gay Mormon in a loveless marriage. Joe is offered a prime assignment in Washington DC by the powerful lawyer Roy Cohn (Art Acuna), but Joe isn’t sure how the move will affect his pill-popping wife Harper (Angeli Bayani).
The three-hour-plus “Millennium Approaches,” presented with two intermissions, basically only sets the stage for these five characters, but what a terrific introduction. Kushner blends history with fiction, and even adds a couple of hallucinations to create an intricate human tapestry of love and abandonment in the face of death.
Garcia, who has directed Atlantis’ most acclaimed musicals, gives “Angels in America” a similar sheen. Together with set designer Faust Peneyra, lighting designer Jonjon Villareal, costume designer Odelon Simpao, and projection designer GA Fallarme, they created a gorgeous but evocatively lonely New York filled with shadows, hidden secrets, and dark, empty spaces. In particular, Fallarme’s moody projections of black-and-white New York scenes loom large over the actors, like threatening rain clouds preceding a storm.
With its brisk pace and engaging drama, time simply zooms by such that some amped audience members felt they could still take on “Part 2” even if it was already past 11 p.m. Indeed, when the play closed with the words “To be continued” projected on the thin curtain that hides the set, the star-studded opening night audience didn’t know how to properly react.
Moreover, there was no curtain call to at least give the audience the satisfaction of showing their appreciation to the amazing actors responsible for bringing this prize-winning play to life.
Just like in 1995, Garcia once again assembled a stellar cast of heavy-hitters from theater and film. This is a truly an ensemble effort with everyone doing double-duty, taking on minor characters apart from their key role.
Case in point: “Angels in America” actually opens with a totally unrecognizable Cherie Gil as a rabbi at a funeral, one of her many roles in the play apart from her main character as Joe Pitt’s mother, Hannah.
Yet despite the crazy star-wattage on stage, there were definite standouts, with Fabregas and Acuna both delivering career-defining performances.
Fabregas, who earned positive reviews for playing an AIDS patient in The Necessary Theater’s “The Normal Heart,” provided the play’s emotional center with a touching performance that captures the conflicting emotions of a once-joyful individual left behind to bravely face the fight of his life alone. Fabregas even managed to inject humor in a remarkably nuanced portrayal that’s both sad and hopeful.
Acuna, playing a starkly different person with AIDS, was an acting force on stage, projecting a giant, intimidating presence befitting Cohn’s power-conscious bully. Yet amid the bluster and denials, Acuna allowed glimpses of vulnerability as Cohn defiantly battles to preserve his place in the political structure.
Gomez, who was terrific as conflicted artists in “My Name is Asher Lev” and “Angry Christ,” plays yet another confused young man. As a Jewish intellectual torn by guilt borne from his fear of seeing his partner die, Gomez managed to remain sympathetic. His long-winded political rant was a delicious highlight of the play, perfectly matched by the near-wordless reactions of Andoy Ranay as a sassy black nurse.
But perhaps the play’s biggest surprise was Stroem, who is making his straight play debut after starring in musicals. With his clean-cut boyish good looks, Stroem was perfectly cast as the closeted Mormon, struggling with his inner desires, his personal ambitions, and an unstable wife. He was ideally matched by a detached Bayani, who played Hannah as an increasingly mentally and emotionally disconnected individual looking for an escape.
As such, the open-ended conclusion of “Millennium Approaches” seemed apt as the characters seek redemption, or at least a sense of closure.
In the meantime, this one-half of a play will remind us why we love theater through its sheer perfection and the deep-seated passion that obviously went into its glorious creation.
“Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches” runs until April 7 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City.