Unlike the other works of Rody Vera, ‘Under My Skin’ foregoes the literary in exchange for the literal. Everything about ‘Under My Skin’ is in-your-face, explicit, and an assault on both your head and your heart. The urgency of the play’s message takes center stage in this piece that manages to chronicle authentic, true-to-life stories of people living with HIV (PLHIV) woven together by the character of Dr. Gemma Altamonte, who is also based on a real person.
With direction by Melvin Lee who cleverly utilizes projections to highlight the scientific nature of the play’s subject matter, the characters take their places on stage to deliver heart-wrenching testimonials of their experiences with HIV; from discovery to acceptance, from heartache to hope.
It hits like a sledgehammer, from the opening monologue by Dr. Gemma Altamonte, played by Cherry Pie Picache (with alternate Roselyn Perez) that details the timeline of HIV in the world and in our country and breaks down the science behind the virus. Then each character comes out to tell their story.
There’s Dino (Dylan Talon), a teen who discovers he’s positive after a bought of tuberculosis; Mary Rose (She Maala), who discovers she has infected her children with HIV as she was unaware of her condition; Jonathan (Migs Almendras with alternate Mike Liwag) and Greg (Gio Gahol with alternate Anthony Falcon), as a pair of lovers who have to deal with their relationship knowing that this virus has come between them; Sid (Eko Baquial), whose friends are newly diagnosed and must face the knowledge of his own ignorance; and a gay comedy club performer (Dudz Terana), who uses comedy as a defense mechanism to fight back against the dark realisation of being HIV reactive.
But even as the play hits hard in its confessional, direct-to-the-point structural convention, Melvin Lee and Rody Vera still manage to create lyricism and stagecraft to create moving and poignant moments to highlight the humanity in the scenes. A heated argument between Jonathan, Greg, and Sid becomes a flurry of a monologue and a back-and-forth at the same time creating an interesting dynamic between what is shared between others and what is kept hidden only to one’s self.
Even Dr. Gemma Altamonte stands by as characters monologue about their fears and the good doctor intrudes to give scientific facts and contextualizes the individual fear and translates it into a larger context; the bigger picture of what it means to the community and the country.
Lee even manages to elevate Jonathan and Greg’s first coupling into an erotic aerial dance as Sid gives a stirring monologue about the recklessness of spontaneous choices. No matter how careful one can be, one will always find themselves in a situation where doing the smart thing — being safe and using a condom — can be overridden by sexual impulses.
Even with the heightened drama of realisation that one is positive and then coupled with all the scientific explanation from Dr. Altamonte, ‘Under My Skin’ always manages to humanize each moment and amplify the urgency of this play’s message. There are great performances all around in the show that I caught, with a commanding Cherry Pie Picache anchoring the play and pulling it back away from relishing in the drama. Migs Almendras’ vulnerability shines through as much as Gio Gahol’s sheer stage presence commands attention. Eko Baquial’s Sid is a whirlwind of emotion but never gets swallowed by it that he gets overcome by it and delivers line after powerful line.
Standing out, though, is Dylan Talon as a teen who is crumbling with the weight of this realisation and Kitsi Pagaspas, who plays his mother (alternate with Lotlot Bustamante). Pagaspas is everything that is familiar with her portrayal of Dino’s mother — strong, caring, assertive, but also lost in the science and the love of her son. It’s a moving performance that is wonderfully nuanced.
As a person living with HIV, I saw immediately the reason why this play is what it is. It has the intensity and ferocity of ‘The Normal Heart.’ ‘Under My Skin’ is not trying to be polite or careful in its message. In the first ten minutes, the play details the danger we are all in when it comes to how fast HIV is spreading in our country, one of the few countries left in the world where the HIV rate is increasing (while everyone else has decreased their infection rate).
This is necessary theater with a singular goal to humanize its characters while spreading a very important warning and, through it all, manages to twist these stories into a message of hope. This is a play that must be seen. Its message absorbed. Its lesson learned.
'Under My Skin' is part of PETA's HIV and AIDS awareness campaign 'Acting on HIV'. 'Under My Skin' runs from February 7 to March 22, 2020 (Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays/Sundays at 3pm and 8pm), at PETA Theater Center, No.5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City.
- P1,800 – VIP
- P1,500 – ORCHESTRA Premium
- P1,000 – ORCHESTRA Regular
- P1,500 – BALCONY Premium
- P800 – BALCONY Regular
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