After watching "AIDS/US," you leave the Skylight Theatre on a high. This compilation of testimony about AIDS, performed by victims and their loved ones, generates a remarkable surge of positive energy.
Is this appropriate for a show about a dreaded scourge? Ah, but "AIDS/US" is about "us," the writer-performers, more than it is about AIDS. Its subtitle is "Portraits in Personal Courage," not "Details of Personal Suffering."
It's therapy, yes, designed to raise spirits and even to heal, if the spirit has anything to do with healing. The optimism occasionally seems excessive. Although several of these people admit they've tried to commit suicide, they're coping so well now that we don't really feel the terror. One even claims that "AIDS is a wonderful gift for us all," because of its character-building. Such a gift we can live without.
Still, this bravura has theatrical worth--we're moved by the audacity of the attitudes. "AIDS/US" is theater as well as therapy. Even for an audience that knows of AIDS only secondhand, the show is a powerhouse.
The fact is that AIDS is the most dramatic of diseases. It swept into America like a storm that won't go away. In this country, at least, it has primarily affected an already persecuted population, yet it has spread elsewhere. Because it's usually transmitted through sex, it can turn an act of love into something terrible. Many of its victims are wracked by guilt as well as pain; at the very least, they ask themselves questions that don't occur to the victims of most illnesses.
In short, the plight of AIDS patients is a natural for the theater. The creators of "AIDS/US"--compiler Michael Katz and director Michael Kearns--have utilized its stageworthiness well, addressing all of the angles mentioned above and then some.
Their cast is a panorama of fascinating faces. The patients include a mother of two, a scrawny and engaging fellow who used to be on "Little House on the Prairie," a 52-year-old bisexual, a black drag queen, a young man who looks like an all-American swimmer, a bearded former flight attendant. Then there's the formerly in-the-closet attorney whose AIDS diagnosis has been revised to ARC (AIDS-related complex).
Also on stage are loved ones: the grandmotherly mother of one of the above, the widow of an AIDS victim and her 19-year-old daughter, the male lover of one of the dead, a therapist who works with AIDS patients. Almost in a class by herself is Melrose Sprague, an overweight former health club employee who knew 27 of the dead and raised $17,170 to fight AIDS by losing 35 pounds, after soliciting pledges from her friends for each pound she could lose.
No one speaks more than a few sentences at a time. This keeps the eye moving, as do a series of slide-projected snapshots from these peoples' lives and several musical interludes.
No doubt the splintered structure of the script is also helpful for those on stage with no acting experience. They carry scripts, but seldom refer to them. Occasionally it sounds as if someone's reciting, but it never sounds as if anyone is reading someone else's words. This is the genuine article.
Performances are Sundays at noon at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., (213) 874-3678. Half the proceeds go to nonprofit AIDS-related organizations.