Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Regeneration Theatre's AS IS, tranformative love during NYC's AIDS epidemic

William M. Hoffman's 1985 play AS IS, which won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and an Obie for Playwriting, uniquely personalized the AIDS crisis. Regeneration Theatre's revival movingly reminds us how acutely personal "political" can be.

Imagine what it would be like in our politicized time if members of an "outsider" group were getting sick and dying from an unknown virus?  Even this winter of 2018, no one is talking about the fact people are dying from flus not covered in shots--a strange and scary development. So what was it like in New York, when AIDS began sickening young gay men? Everyone knew or worked with someone. But no one openly talked  about it, until the "Gay Plague" grew to encompass so many people it could not be ignored. Intolerance grew with the public's fears.

Disclosing you had been diagnosed with HIV virus was akin to a leper ringing a bell. People did not literally bolt doors and throw rocks, but the stigma was huge. Sickness meant lost jobs and medical care, housing, and often family. The Calvinist streak in the American character justified discrimination,"Gays are perverts and deserve it." "They brought it on themselves." No one wanted to work or live with  a person with AIDS. Such attitudes were common, even when babies were born with HIV.

AS IS focuses less on the ostracism and political fight for medical treatment than extraordinary love and friendship amid the crisis. The main characters, Rich (Brian Alford) and Saul (Robert Maisonette) are at the end of a long-term relationship when AS IS opens. But when Saul learns Rich has the virus, he asks him to stay. Despite Rich's affair, Saul's committment is intact. Like any good marriage, behind the habit,  is humor, understanding and love. Rich's a charming idiosyncratic writer/poet. Saul, a funny photographer, earthy and direct. They had shared meals and comfortable sex, a Paul Cadmus painting and a circle of friends. Separately, Rich's illness had cost him his job and medical coverage. With savings spent on medical bills and no rent, Saul, the practical mainstay, would make life work. 

Why had they ever separated?   A real strength of Regeneration's production is how it recreates the post Stonewall world of quick pick-ups, ephemeral romance and gritty sex. Adventurous, exploratory, ecstatic, or perverse, AS IS shows how a group that came of age hiding "forbidden" sexual longings, went wild in the open gay bars, clubs, trysting places--where freedom was an aphrodisiac. Pat (Rick Calvo), Barney (Mario Claudio), and Chet (Daniel Colon), in clever staging, make these temptations human and palpable.

For Saul and Rich, this freedom is not regretted but fond memories of youth and erotic discovery mostly over once they found each other. Rich's dalliance and Saul's pain disappear in the daily crisis they manage--sometimes well or not. Saul's emotional strength is heroic, yet as Rich's disease progresses,  he also succumbs to desperation. Then something transformative occurs beyond the "Acceptance phase" mirrored in their support group. There's a kind of grace in these men.

Though the world seemed against AIDS victims, AS IS shows how people helped each other, lovers, friends and complete strangers. There's the AIDS hotline where Pat and Barney, patiently answer frightened callers and talk of changed lives. Volunteers were crucial in the crisis, as they are in AS IS.
The play is framed by a Hospice Worker played by the luminous Jenne Vath, who goes from would-be saint to atheist angry at God. Hers is a fierce and brilliant mercy.

Also notable is Colin Chapin, as a hapless but sincere brother and Aury Krebs' compassionate friend. Sara Minisquero did affecting character work, as a silent business partner in a hard trade bar and a voluble wife infected with AIDS along with her unborn child.

The director of this play, Marcus Gualberto, made this material fresh in a time, where health care, as a human right is questioned, along with compassion for the sick. In AS IS human dignity is a reality worthy of respect.  A triumph of this play is to make the lives well-lived the significant story. Having experienced this time myself, as the friend who served as family, I was greatly moved by the kindness and accuracy of this production.

(Below Brian Alford and Sara Minisquero)B


Friday, February 2, 2018

Imperfect Love, a serious comedy, basis of 1998 film Illuminata, perfect for 2018's sea change of real vs. fake

Imperfect Love by Brandon Cole was the basis of Illuminata, a 1998 film he cowrote with John Turtorro and, in an unusual quirk of fate, the play first made into a film is now at the Connelly Theater in New York (thru February 18th.). I found it unexpectedly timely for 2018, though it first appears a period piece.

We currently ride a wave of social and technological change, where the old verities, values and attitudes have suddenly become suspect, called to question, even irrelevant.  In Imperfect Love, the 19th century verities about love, the roles of men and women, class and status were celebrated in a mythic theater driven by tumultuous passion and poetry. As Imperfect Love begins, the old plays have lost ground to the  new nordic realism of Ibsen and Strindberg. Plays of the mind, psychologically driven, are replacing the "elevated"emotion of the Italians.

This clever play surfs the wave, shifting from mythic reality to our modern psychological age. Imperfect Love opens with the "set" pieces of the era, the prima donna Eleonora Della Rosa, (modelled on Eleanora Duse), her long-term lover, poet/playwright Gabrielle Torrisi (based on D'Annunzio and played by Rodrigo LoPresti)), a commanding leading man and two contrasting clowns--one a provocative firebrand, the other a sensitive devoted to the leading lady. All play against a sumptuously painted mural of a theater in Rome.

What opens as a comedy from a different time evolves another dimension. The "gods" of this set-up are the offstage producers with the power to open or close the play. The dilemma is the playwright and actress' long term affair and the play he's written for her. The complicated actress played with high tragicomedy by Cristina Spina, is her own mythic creation. Actress, woman, lover, she supposedly seeks a life of emotional/spiritual resonance from art, yet she's also an ambitious careerist. Her drives are the fulcrum of the play.

Yet they are in comic concert with Gabriele Torrisi's tortured playwright, full of position and found wanting by all--personally and professionally. Genius or has-been, faithful lover or betrayer (with no less than the mythic Sara Bernhardt)? Rosetti, Byron might understand the function of his lines, stepping stones for his lady's emotions, as he interprets their divine passion.

Reality and confusion are choreographed by the two clowns. Are these buffoons writing Rosa's lines, filling-in for the playwright, or not? You're never sure. The play is everything and their family, but also their bread and butter, And is Rosa, like any worthwhile muse, actually giving (not just inspiring) her lover the lines? This may be a last stand for the mythic theater of love, but  the buffoons put us in existential Beckett country with their hilarious machinations.

Is the show being cancelled? Have the ciritcs killed it, is the playwright no good, about to run off to Paris? Will Rosa dump all for Ibsen? Do the owners exist? On the cusp of a sea-change, all are revealed as careerists with real ambitions, ruthlessness in a world of Imperfect Love. The clown Marco is played by Ed Malone and Beppo, by David O'Hara. They are incidentals completely pertinent in our world of Fake vs Real News. Smart of Michael Di Jiacomo, director to delineate the boundaries.  My congrats to Brandon Cole for this play making it to the stage at this time.