The AIDS of Innocents | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The AIDS of Innocents 

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PATIENT A

Elmore Pond Players

at Cafe Voltaire

PUSHIN' UP ROSES

Nomenil

at Cafe Voltaire

I hated Kimberly Bergalis. Her 15 minutes of infamy came in 1991 when the discovery that her dentist had infected her with HIV turned her into the poster child for the Hysterical Overreaction Society. Of course Bergalis and I never met, so in truth I hated only the tiny part of her that the popular media allowed me to see. I hated her for stating in her congressional testimony that she "did nothing wrong," as though all the junkies and fags dead before her had. I hated the media's frenzy to immortalize her three sentences of testimony, which pleaded for draconian public health regulations. And I hated her for making me wonder, if only for a moment, if such measures might indeed be needed.

It should come as no surprise that I hate Lee Blessing's sanctimonious portrayal of Bergalis's life, Patient A, commissioned by the Bergalis family (kiss artistic integrity good-bye). It came as quite a surprise to me, however, just how much I enjoyed the Elmore Pond Players' production of this play. They've made a self-indulgent piece of dramatic inertia engaging.

Blessing's play, already five years behind the times when it premiered in 1993, attempts to "delve further into the great mystery of AIDS," as New York Newsday claimed (maybe the Bergalis family commissioned the review as well). But the play simply pays lip service to the larger issues the epidemic raises: the media's beatification of "innocent victims" such as Ryan White, Arthur Ashe, and Bergalis and its virtual disregard for tens of thousands of "untouchables" who suffered similar fates; the need for sound public health policy in the face of hysteria; the second epidemic of hatred and intolerance that follows in the medical plague's wake. Mostly Patient A is yet another public forum for polishing Kimberly Bergalis's halo.

Most of the play is a monologue, Bergalis telling her life story as artlessly as a People magazine article and maintaining heroic strength while even her father sobs on her shoulder. Blessing attempts to add a counterpoint to her story by creating the nebulous and dramatically inconsistent character of Matthew, a "composite of the thousands of gay men who have suffered in the AIDS epidemic," as the back of the published script condescendingly puts it. At best Matthew interjects occasional politically correct sound bites that punch holes in Bergalis's self-absorption. At worst he seems decorative, used to "vary the presentation," in Blessing's words. As a result, it is always Bergalis who matters. Blessing participates in the very kind of unfair media play he hopes to condemn.

Actually, there is one person who matters more than Bergalis: Blessing himself, who puts himself in his play in the character of Lee, the playwright. Throughout the evening this embarrassingly confessional character quotes statistics and comes up with pithy metaphors in an attempt to find "a resonance" (apparently a global plague is not resonant enough on its own). Lee's intellectual approach is intended to demonstrate that he is not personally involved in the epidemic. But during the play he becomes more and more personally involved and emotionally vulnerable, repeatedly expressing his feelings of guilt and inadequacy--and becoming the only character to change in any way.

Lee also recites endless passages from Andrew Marvell's 17th-century ode "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn," in which a young maiden contemplates suicide after the death of her pet fawn since, as Lee says, "she can't survive in a world that has murdered innocence." Despite his repeated assurances that the innocent fawn does not represent Kimberly, the poem's central placement makes such a distasteful comparison unavoidable.

Miraculously, the Elmore Pond players imbue this highly problematic script with genuine warmth. Under Sarah Moore's meticulous direction, actors Wendy Branchfield, Greg Howd, and Johnny Molson give dignified, thoughtful performances. Instead of wrenching tragic emotions from the text, they speak softly and deliver simple truths. Clearly they did their emotional homework, for their performances are fully committed and carefully nuanced. They understand that with material as volatile as this, honesty is more effective than hysterics. While occasionally the actors balk at some of the script's more extreme emotional displays, their eloquence and dignity add a grace to Blessing's play that it doesn't deserve.

Perhaps it's impossible for me to maintain any objectivity about this play since I've been involved in the fight against AIDS for years both as an artist and as a professional in the AIDS service community. I have enormous respect for many of Blessing's other plays about troubling current events. But Patient A feels like a personal insult. Blessing presents the arguments that my colleagues and I have long been making as if he thought them up himself. A simple survey of ACT UP's fliers over the last five years provides more intellectual rigor. AIDS is tragic. And one playwright's attempt to publicly absolve himself of guilt in the face of this tragedy is utterly inconsequential.

Pushin' Up Roses, an hour-long irreverence by a new group called Nomenil, displays a healthy disregard for anything that takes itself too seriously, including the theater. Playwrights Courtney Evans and Allen Conkle and a crew of spirited actors prance giddily through this campy slugfest against conventional family values.

Spearheaded by the dynamic performances of Evans as the lesbian thrasher guitar hero Rose and Jackie Katzman as the hellaciously funny demonic temptress Urchin, the six-person ensemble approaches its material with reckless abandon. Scenes proceed at a breakneck pace. Blocking is entirely up for grabs. Big production numbers appear out of nowhere, including an absurdly overdone "Chin Up, Billy," sung by dancing women bearing the brand names of food products to a taciturn young loser trapped in a grocery store. Pushin' Up Roses spills in all directions at once like an early John Waters film, thumbing its nose at everything from institutionalized heterosexuality to theatrical unity.

Occasionally it gets predictable, especially in its more emotional moments; Rose's painful confession that her father never told her he loved her, for example, is right out of a TV movie of the week and sorely out of place in this otherwise highly imaginative play. But if Nomenil can find a way to stay true to its idiosyncratic vision, maybe its next work will fulfill the exciting potential of this debut offering.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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