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EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes of ‘Angels in America’ starring Cherie Gil, Markki Stroem, Angeli Bayani and more

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Cherie Gil returns to the stage as Mormon mother Hannah Pitt, as well as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Dr. Henry and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg in the Atlantis production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America Part 1: Millennium Approaches.” Photo by JL JAVIER.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s an understatement to say that Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America” is a challenging play to stage. Broken into two three-act parts “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” it’s a harrowing, emotional look at the AIDS crisis in New York City in the mid-‘80s, the Reagan administration’s erasure of the crisis that exacerbated it and questions of status, religion and race that defined the era. These are questions that we’re still asking today, in a world where HIV/AIDS remains to be a serious problem in and out of the LGBTQ+ community.

Since its first staging, the landmark play has won 10 Tony Awards, including two awards for Best Play and one for Best Revival of a Play. Recently, Andrew Garfield won a trophy for Best Actor in a Play and Nathan Lane won Best Supporting Actor for their turns in the 2018 revival. The 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation directed by Mike Nichols gave the material a new audience and won a total of seven Emmys and five Golden Globes, including Best Miniseries, Best Actor for Al Pacino and Best Actress for Meryl Streep at both awards ceremonies.

The play is a goldmine for any actor cast in even the smallest part. It’s a handful of interlocking storylines of people living in the city told with flourishes of fantasy. The play lives with one foot in reality and the other in the characters’ dreams, where they encounter ghosts, angels and imaginary friends. Each actor plays at least two and at most four characters, changing in and out of wigs and costumes every few minutes.

The Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group staging of “Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches” is director Bobby Garcia’s second time to produce the play, the first time being an epic seven-hour staging of both parts back in 1995. Garcia gives the play a fresh eye 24 years later. “I look at [the play] now as people finding life in the face of death. This time around it’s about how we live even if our hearts are torn up into pieces,” Garcia says in his notes in the program. They plan to stage the second part by next year.

"Angels in America" is a goldmine for any actor cast in even the smallest part. It’s a handful of interlocking storylines of people living in the city told with flourishes of fantasy. Photo by JL JAVIER

The play is grounded by rich performances from its eight-person cast: Art Acuña, Pinky Amador, Angeli Bayani, Topper Fabregas, Cherie Gil, Nelsito Gomez, Andoy Ranay and Markki Stroem. All of them explain unique challenges in staging the play.

“I get to play the comic and the tragic, sometimes both in the same breath,” says Fabregas who plays Prior Walter. “He uses his humor as a weapon but also has such an open heart. Prior is such a physically demanding role. It uses up all parts of myself. This is the Holy Grail for any actor and I never forget how lucky I am to playing this part.”

To prepare for his role as Louis Ironson, a gay Jewish man heavily invested in the politics of the time, Gomez says he watched documentaries on the era, particularly on the AIDS crisis. “I watched a documentary on Reagan as well, just trying to comprehend the time and place they lived in... I wanted to make sure I could grasp political concepts fast.”

Acuña, who plays ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn, adds that it helped to draw on the energy of the city in the ‘80s. “The sound and vibe of the ‘80s we're different — lighter yet riskier. The environment of NYC, having lived there, is familiar,” he says. “I read stuff about lawyers, specifically the type Roy Cohn is all about, and their varied philosophies about the law and its complexities.”

“For me, I was dialect coaching most of the actors. We had a voice workshop for theatre and some accent work, to delineate the multiple characters we were playing,” says Amador who plays the Angel, among several other roles. She adds that the play is more relevant now than ever because it reflects “the way we take tribalism or our sense of ‘belonging’ to an extreme, making it ‘us against them,’ ‘you against me.’ There is so much separation today in society even more than when AIDS just started.”

Atlantis gave CNN Philippines Life a rare look inside the actors’ preparation right before a performance of the play.

Angeli Bayani makes a striking turn as Mormon housewife Harper Pitt and slimy government worker Martin Heller in the Atlantis production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America Part 1: Millennium Approaches.” Photo by JL JAVIER.

Art Acuña plays ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn and the ghost of Prior 2 in the Atlantis production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America Part 1: Millennium Approaches.” Photo by JL JAVIER.

Cherie Gil's roles in the play have been portrayed by actresses such as Meryl Streep in the HBO miniseries and Denise Gough in the 2017 UK staging. Photo by JL JAVIER

Markki Stroem continues his streak of strong theater performances as young lawyer Joe Pitt, Prior 1 and the Eskimo in the Atlantis production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America Part 1: Millennium Approaches.” Photo by JL JAVIER.

Nelsito Gomez takes on the role of Louis Ironson, a young gay Jewish man whose partner is diagnosed with AIDS in the Atlantis production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America Part 1: Millennium Approaches.” Photo by JL JAVIER.

“Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches” runs until April 7 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza. Tickets are available via ticketworld.com.ph.