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New York 1981 | Manila 2015

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June 22, 2015 By: Bart Guingona It’s happening, at 22 cases a day in the Philippines. In his own words, the director and lead actor of The Normal Heart urges us to see, through this angry, inflammatory play, how we can apply the lessons New York learned in 1981 to respond positively to what is happening to us today.

In 1981 in New York, a mysterious disease was ravaging a very specific, very “specialized” demographic: gay men. It aggravated deep-seated feelings of hatred and festering bigotries against, and even within the ranks of its victims.The confusion, chaos, panic, and paranoia could have been a scenario from a B-grade disaster movie, except that the crisis was very real and very frightening. No cause for the fatal illness was yet known, no strategies for prevention, no cure remotely in sight.

One doctor understands that the disease is transmitted sexually. She recruits a writer with a reputation for abrasiveness to combat the epidemic in two ways. First, he noisily clamors, if almost singlehandedly, for action against City Hall and the Health Department; and then fights against his own community—the gay community– to convince its members to cease all sexual activity among themselves.

The story could have been a modern adaptation of Ibsen or Odets because it bears all the hallmarks of classic agitative theater.  It is also, apart from that, a poignant love story and a medical thriller. But Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart is anything but fiction.  It is an autobiographical account of its author’s lonely struggle to provoke his government into action and to save as many lives as possible even if it meant losing friends, alienating family, and making enemies along the way. It was staged to wide acclaim in 1985 and hailed an instant classic. Its revival in 2011 was showered with prizes and once more, wide acclaim. It hit the mainstream with a highly celebrated award-winning HBO adaptation starring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. London’s National Theater has also listed it as one of the 100 most important plays of the 20th Century.
HIV 6-22-15

Flash forward to 2015 Philippines. The rise in HIV cases is now officially the fastest in Asia and among the fastest in the world. The same indifference greets the victims and their supporters as it was in 1981 New York, because the disease is looked upon as a “fringe” disease that might affect only those living in society’s margins. Many ignorantly look upon it as a “gay disease,” God’s punishment upon homosexuals even if the vast majority of its worldwide victims, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, are heterosexual. Mainstream media, in a feeding frenzy, reports on the MERS CoV virus on a daily basis, almost always on the front pages when there isn’t a single case yet recorded in the country.  HIV, on the other hand, is now infecting us at a rate of 22 people a day and is still largely ignored.

Enter The Necessary Theater and the 2015 Philippine Production of Larry Kramer’s inflammatory The Normal Heart. While our staging will stick to the play’s original setting of New York City, we intend to treat the material as cautionary, something that might be instructive to us, something that might make us respond with some wisdom to our crisis, which mirrors New York in 1981.

People ask me why we are running for just a single weekend in July.  My facetious reply is, “Theater, like life, is fleeting, impermanent, precious. Catch it while you can!” But the serious answer is this:  This day and age, how do you get funding for something serious, issue-centric, angry; something that has no music and dancing; something that is meant to provoke your anger and tears? Thank God for Taal Vista Hotel and the few wonderful believers in what we do. Whether or not we sell out our seats, we believe what we do is necessary.

Personally, I’m really grateful to have been able to assemble a cast and artistic team that seem made in heaven. Roselyn Perez, whom I’ve directed several times in the past was my first and only choice to play the fiery, polio-stricken Dr. Emma Brookner; Topper Fabregas, in my opinion one of the most talented young actors today, plays Ned Weeks’ lover Felix Turner; TV and movie star TJ Trinidad as Bruce Niles fits the role to a T; Red Concepcion as Tommy Boatwright brings his intelligence and humor to the role that Jim Parsons did on Broadway; Nor Domingo, another actor I’m grateful to have on board despite his crazy schedule (he is also in the cast of Rak of Aegis, which is re-running almost simultaneously) plays Mickey Marcus; Richard Cunanan brings his characteristic intelligence to the role Ben Weeks; and Jef Flores, whom I last directed to brilliant results in Repertory’s 4000 Miles does double-duty work asCraig Donner/Hiram Keebler/Grady. Oh, and I play Ned Weeks and also direct the show—it’s what happens when you work on a string budget. Luckily I have a creative team as driven by the material as we are: Coco Anne and Baby Imperial design the sets, Don Taduran does graphic design, Mark Philipp Espina designs the video projections, Jethro Joaquin does sound design while Meliton Roxas does lighting design. Dodo Lim produces.

Our production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart makes its Philippine premiere with special arrangement from Samuel French Inc. Show dates are on July 3 at 8 p.m. with subsequent shows on July 4 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and July 5 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati.

Ticketworld, 02 891 9999, 63 917 537 8313. Facebook/The Necessary Theater and Twitter/ @AAITNT. #TheNormalHeartMNL


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