All over the world, the trend for HIV transmission rates has, thankfully, been going down. That is, in almost every country except one: the Philippines. Since the very first case recorded here in 1984 until 2019, there have been 70,754 confirmed cases of HIV and 3,584 deaths. The numbers still keep rising, with epidemiologists all over the country expecting 100,000 cases to come by 2021. It’s with these statistics in mind that the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) has decided to close their 52nd season with Rody Vera’s Under My Skin.
[related: 11 Basic Things You Can Educate Yourself About HIV]
Based on real-life stories, the play stars Dr. Gemma Almonte, played by Cherry Pie Picache and Roselyn Perez, a researcher and doctor in charge of research on HIV. Picache’s performance is a knockout in this: equal parts exasperated with her patients and determined to help, she manages to play the part of a doctor at the head of a crisis incredibly well. A perfect demonstration of this is one scene where she describes the treatment and medicine prescribed to a patient of hers, rattling off all sorts of jargon and obscure terms in a way that would leave one convinced that she actually went to med school. +4
More than playing a doctor, however, Picache's own portrayal of the person wearing the lab coat is deserving of praise. In a scene toward the end, where she walks in on a group of former patients exercising together and discussing how they’ve helped each other through the years, Picache only does two things: watch them, and smile. And what a smile! With the way she beams at them, so tender, so filled with love and pride, be ready to feel your heart melt, then realize what’s really being fought for in this battle against HIV. +5
Under My Skin is still, at its core, a story about an illness, and the people who live with it. The characters here, (a gay couple and their friends who have all just found out that they’re positive, a teenage boy and his mother, a couple who have passed it onto their kids, and a parlor employee discriminated at work), are all based on real people. The actors playing them step up to the challenge, and their work shines through. Every single one of them plays their roles with every ounce of respect and sensitivity that they demand. +3
The diversity of these characters and all the different circumstances they deal with deserves plenty of praise as well. After all, this isn’t a disease that only affects one kind of person, but it can happen to any one of us in a moment of risky behavior, and Rody Vera demonstrates that very well by writing this diversity into the play. +3
Its stage design is also something that audiences should pay attention to. It might seem a little too minimalistic with just a plain white backdrop with a circular entrance in the middle, but with the show’s effective use of light design, projection mapping, and a few key pieces of furniture and props, the stage convincingly turns into a clinic, comedy bar, nightclub, salon, and everywhere else the scenes in it call for. +3
Perhaps one of the most praiseworthy aspects of Under My Skin is the attention to detail and realism depicted here, especially through Rody Vera’s research. The use of medical terms and the actual names of medicines, the side effects they give, and even the ways that they’re administered are an effective demonstration of this, but also show in detail what it is the HIV-positive live and deal with in their daily lives. Some scenes as well make sure to show what kinds of legal rights they have, such as the free medicine the DOH provides, or their right to keep their statuses confidential, but these scenes also show the limitations of these laws and where our government can improve on. +5
With all of these, a line toward the end perhaps expresses this play’s successes the best: “Kung umabot na tayo sa crisis point ng HIV, sana mas malakas ang ating compassion. (If we reach the crisis point of HIV, let’s hope that our compassion by then will be stronger.)”, and that’s where it succeeds the most. This is a play that attempts to create the right kind of compassion and understanding for the people in it, one informed by the circumstances of their positions, aiming ultimately to make its audience more aware, more informed, and from that, more compassionate.
To quote the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” We then award 23 points to Under My Skin, for not only holding up this mirror, but also smashing it, and helping build the new society we all want: an empathetic and compassionate one, understanding and caring for every single one of us living in it.
ALSO READ: Love Actually: JC Intal And Bianca Gonzalez Keeping The Spark Alive 9 Years—And Counting!
Photos courtesy of PETA, Jojit Lorenzo, and Jaypee Maristaza