Sunday, March 1, 2020

Under My Skin (PETA)

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Dr. Gemma Almonte (Roselyn Perez) appears onstage, breaks the fourth wall, and begins lecturing the crowd about the human immunodeficiency virus. The spotlight then shifts to a group of patients from different walks of life waiting for their HIV test results. Syd (Eko Baquial) accompanies his sick friend Jonathan (Miguel Almendras) to the doctor as he suffers from what seems like pneumonia that came out of nowhere. When he finds out that he’s HIV+, he faces the dilemma on how to tell his boyfriend Greg (Anthony Falcon) that he might have it, too. Crossdressing parlorista (Duds Teraña) takes his friend to a clinic and also decides to get tested on a whim, finding out that his friend is negative but he is not. Sex worker Mary Rose (She Maala) is diagnosed positive but isn’t at all surprised. Teenager Louie (Miko Esquivel) also tests positive, much to the bewilderment of his loudmouth mother Aling Loida (Kitsi Pagaspas), who is about to discover a secret crime committed against her son. Different people, same virus, one fight against an epidemic without a cure.

Slow clap. Under My Skin feels like an HIV flyer overflowing with information about the virus that the ordinary Juan de la Cruz is too socially-constrained to be curious about. Unlike Angels in America which tackles the epidemic at its onset in the 90’s, this Filipino production is tailor-made to discuss the current situation in the Philippines humanizing it and making it personal through stories told from sectors of society that are involved in it: from the doctors to the allies all the way to the infected patients themselves. What you get is a well-rounded advocacy play that is as educational as it is enlightening.

HIV is still a taboo topic in the Philippines, and that very stigma is the reason why it remains an epidemic up to this day, despite the country being well-equipped enough to handle it in terms of diagnosis and treatment. We can fill an entire thesis on behavioral studies as to why this persists to be the case, given the unique factors involved in the issue as far as the country is concerned. That’s why it’s always beneficial for the cause when a material like this comes along, for the mere reason that it conveys the message and the lesson via a medium made palatable to a clueless audience.

Instead of statistics, you have characters based on real people to brief you about their respective stories: the homosexual couple in an open relationship; the wife who passes the virus to her offspring after getting it from her junkie husband; the prostitute whose profession makes infection a matter of when instead of if; the molested teenager afraid to seek justice because of societal stigma; the infectious disease expert who has seen it all; etc. As human beings, we understand phenomena better when explained through relatable anecdotes from members of our race. Under My Skin gives those arbitrary numbers a readily familiar human face.

In terms of production, kudos has to be given to the writer because you can see how well-researched his material is, from the description of the progress of the virus all the way to the manifestation in different stages. Jonathan, for example, is going through IRIS, the immune system’s primary response to initial antiretroviral therapy. The terminally ill patient on a wheelchair at Dr. Almonte’s office has visible Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which is an indication of AIDS in its late stages. If you are an HIV awareness advocate, you will surely admire that keen attention to detail, because you realize that this play is not just riding on a socially-relevant cause to draw in a crowd.

The production design is also worth praising. The way those walls become impromptu info boards is very useful in sharing important facts and figures for such a complicated topic. As for other aspects, a sex scene between two guys is presented through an artsy and gravity-defying trapeze performance, opting for a subdued cirque du soleil number and highlighting sensuality through motion instead of what could’ve been shock-and-awe vulgarity for the oblivious. PETA hit a home run with this one. Under My Skin should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand the HIV epidemic better from a Filipino standpoint.

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