New York

AIDS Alive

Continental Insurance Atrium

To watch the People With AIDS Theater Workshop is to see two dramas unfolding, because AIDS Alive is all pretend and yet it isn’t. Each actor is a Person With AIDS (PWA) who signifies a Person With AIDS, who’s really caught in the circumstance he’s pretending to be caught in. For these performers we don’t suspend our disbelief; they are not Hamlets who walk away once the curtain falls. Knowing this creates the show’s drama and meaning.

This relentlessly upbeat revue skates along with the energy of Andy Hardy announcing,“Have we got a show for you.” AIDS Alive is old-fashioned story theater—breezy, rather ingenuous, the feather touch applied to “heavy” material—no one fighting to survive can afford misanthropy.

Performing during a lunch hour in the busy Continental Insurance Atrium near Wall Street, with a revolving-door exit on one side of the stage and a card-and-candy shop on the other, the five actors began by expressing relief that some spectators had arrived. They mocked the bigotry they face with self-mockery: (“We’re all such hams. We love doing the show. But it’s so embarrassing when there isn’t an audience.”) Usually performed by Tommy Lutz, Buddy Smith, Tony Torres, Niko Angelo, and Geoff Edholm, this is drama informed by offstage circumstance. The day I saw it, one cast member was in the hospital, another was dealing with Medicaid, and both understudies were sick. Artistic director Carter Inskeep and stage manager Charlie Catanese filled in, carrying scripts.

The stories in AIDS Alive are true (though not necessarily those of the actors) and, by now, all too familiar. This one loses his job. That one loses his family. But if the past is irretrievable, that isn’t always bad—another learns to love and to trust for the first time in his life. The emotional power inherent in personal testimony is its truth for the audience and the cathartic moment of telling for the performer. Early in the show, the PWAs (the term was invented to replace “AIDS victim”) tell us they act for self-empowerment: “Giving oneself goals, for survival. Taking command of one’s life, for survival.” And, of course, they want to educate us, to show us that the stereotype is what victimizes them, not their disease. They rail against this new mutant form of otherness which reduces them even more than a label such as “gay.” For any despised minority, the struggle is to embrace who you are while transcending the label. These men—who have all had AIDS for at least a year and a half—finish the show by announcing, individually, “I’m going to live.”

There’s certainly less poetry in the language than in the actors’ presence. But then, I know of only one great literary work about AIDS. It is the story of a family’s withdrawal and disdain for their son’s condition, the horrible stigma attached to it, their relief at his death, and the son’s own bewilderment at what could have happened to him and why why why. That work is Kafka’s Metamorphosis. This epidemic continues to alter perceptions of past and future, and to teach us about courage.

C. Carr