The AIDS play of my generation was Rent. I saw the original cast on Broadway when I was 15 or 16 and felt a strong bond with the characters that weren’t much older than me. By that age, my peers and I had the fear of AIDS drilled into us over several years of sex education. It was still a death sentence then, but treatment was available and quality of life was improving. We knew the history of the disease, though. We knew how it exploded into the gay community, then spread to everyone else. We knew how many people died, and how horribly. We knew that no one was safe.
In 1985, the first AIDS play, As Is was staged in New York City. The AIDS epidemic is ravaging the city, particularly the gay community. As the disease spreads and people die, fear mounts. Diagnosis is a death sentence. Oblivious in the New York City suburbs, I was 3 years old.
Now I’m 33, and this is the 30th anniversary production of As Is. AIDS is still here, and the number of AIDS cases is rising. The fear isn’t so strong any more due to advances in medicine; it’s certainly not something on my radar like it was when I was a child. People are forgetting the disease’s history and the impact it had only a few decades ago because it’s now possible to lead a full life with medication and early diagnosis. That’s why staging As Is, a production that captures the desperation and rising panic of the generation first exposed to AIDS, is crucial. Though dated, it is a vital depiction of an era of social history that must be remembered, but does so with humour, humanity and a fantastic cast.
Centered around recent exes Rich (Steven Webb) and Saul (David Poyner) who initially meet to divide up their belongings, their world suddenly alters after Rich confesses he has “it.” The story becomes a detailed and intimate journey of a man struggling to come to terms with his illness, and his ex-boyfriend’s obsessive urge to care for him. Six other actors play a variety of characters associated with Rich and Saul’s life ranging from drug dealers, to family, to medical staff. Some of the best supporting characters include Natalie Burt as best friend Lily and older hospice worker Jane Lowe. Performances are excellently committed across the board, capturing the microcosmic struggle of a disease that has affected millions since it first appeared. The only performance issue is the over-egged accents. People from the New York City area haven’t spoken with accents that stereotypical for a long time, but this is not something a non-American is likely to notice.
Written by William M. Hoffman, the dialogue races through a gamut of emotions, evoking belly laughs one moment and tears the next. Without the regular levity, the script would be entirely too depressing, and proves the necessity of laughter when coping with personal trauma. Even though the humour is ever present, so is fear. The script walks a fine line that wavers between the two, and every other emotion associated with the devastation of an AIDS diagnosis. Particularly evocative scenes include Rich nihilistically on the pull in a nightclub shortly after learning of his condition, a support group of mostly gay men with the striking presence of a pregnant woman who’s husband infected her, and Rich’s first hospital stay with Saul devotedly by his side.
The costumes are distinctly early 1980s, and the simple, versatile set of lockers, chairs and pipes captures the industrial dinginess of New York City that is still present today. The design contrasts the script, a montage of fast-paced, overlapping scenes and a frantic depiction of fear and desperation that is sweeping the city.
Trafalgar Studios 2 is an intimate venue, perfect for the immensely personal journeys depicted in the play. The actors boldly interact with the audience, atypical of naturalism. This allows the audience to feel embedded in their world and reminds us that AIDS can affect all of us. Even though it is a lovely experience to see this play in a small venue, it definitely deserves larger audiences and would be able to fill a bigger stage.
As Is perfectly balances humour and seriousness to remind audiences that AIDS is still here and has the power to irrevocably alter lives, despite medical care. It accurately evokes a fearful time that I remember in flashes of news broadcasts, interviews and health classes. Stunning, fearless performances and a great script capture a unique moment in American history, but one that has left an indelible mark on global society. We are reminded that Rich’s “it” could still happen to any of us.
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