Ion extends ‘The Normal Heart’ through Dec. 23Online Only, Section 4A, Entertainment News, Bottom Highlights Wednesday, December 14th, 2016
The first case was discovered in five gay men in Los Angeles in June of ‘81. By July of ‘81 26 cases had been reported in both Los Angeles and New York.
By now, we all know the name of the disease. It’s AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Today more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV.
In 1985 Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart premiered Off-Broadway. It was revived in Los Angeles and London and again Off-Broadway in 2004 and made its Broadway debut in 2011.
The play is loosely based on Kramer’s fight to make people aware of the AIDS epidemic in its early stages as many gay men become infected and die of a deadly unnamed disease.
Kramer’s award winning play can now be seen at the ion Theatre on the corner of Fifth and Pennsylvania. Choosing out of the box, invigorating and explosive works is nothing new to the ion Theatre.
The intimate 49-seat house has housed many shows that have left naysayers speechless. Shows like Grey Gardens, In The Heat of the Night and Gypsy have all graced the ion stage with great success and this production of The Normal Heart achieves the same success.
Artistic Co-Directors Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris co-direct and star in this production and have collaborated with many local organizations as well.
Given ion’s aggressive and bold past seasons, one might wonder why they have chosen to produce The Normal Heart now.
“It’s a terrific piece of theatre,” Paris said. “It has endured as a modern ‘passion play’ since it premiered in 1985. Its message remains an important one. HIV/AIDS continues as a health crisis worldwide, and we want to especially reach young people, knowing that they are bereft of the educational/preventative piece inherited by earlier generations (like mine).”
It’s also a show that both Ragoza and Paris have loved for many years.
“We have long-admired the play,” Paris shared. “Decades for me, personally – really, ever since I saw the original production in New York (and just happened to have the occasion to wait on Larry Kramer and his then director Michael Lindsay-Hogg at a restaurant in the Village where the play was produced by Joesph Papp at The Public Theater-which just developed Hamilton). When we decided to program the play for ion’s 11th Season, I encouraged Claudio Raygoza to consider taking on the role of [Ned] Weeks, knowing his tremendous potential and range as an actor.”
Many people may only be familiar with the 2014 HBO film version of the play that starred Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Matt Bomer. Paris gives the film version kudos for getting the message across but in the end feels that the stage version is definitely more potent.
“The movie is in many ways effective,” Paris said. “A lot of good performances, but also a little Hollywood-ized, which I suppose it has to be. The play is powerfully visceral and has a kind of immediacy. Claudio and I like to do bold and uncompromising work – even “take no prisoners” in our choices. We feel theater has an obligation to provoke the audience into feeling and thinking and afterwards exploring the experience through conversations and in other ways. We don’t cater to the audience as ‘entertainers’.”
Paris and Ragoza have also partnered with many San Diego LGBT and AIDS organizations, giving this production many reasons that will literally tug at your heartstrings.
“We are using the production to collaborate with service organizations in San Diego,” Paris added. “Service agencies and health providers such as Christie’s Place, Mama’s Kitchen, The San Diego LGBT Community Center and the UCSD Anti-Viral Research Center/Lead the Way, have launched an initiative to position the production as a forum to heighten awareness and deepen education of HIV/AIDS. Partners will provide audiences with information on their services and lead post- show discussions at select performances.”
It’s obvious The Normal Heart was quite relevant in the ‘80s, but will it have the impact today that it did back then? Paris feels strongly although times have changed the show is just as important today as it was then.
“I think the main thing that might make producing the show today different from producing it in1985 is Claudio and my aspiration to find new ways to tell the story,” Paris said. “I think we’ve accomplished that through some unconventional choices in the directing. We definitely feel that awareness has changed, perhaps diminished over the years, for a variety of reasons – the advancement of drugs and treatment for one. I was in my 20s when I lost my brother to AIDS and I had friends and acquaintances die. My doctor and I had continuing conversations about testing, the latest research and findings, and safe-sex practices. I don’t think young people have that context anymore – I mean the education part – which is scary. There’s a lot of ambivalence. HIV/AIDS is still a monster with catastrophic impact on the individual and in the community. Indeed, in the world.”
ion has assembled a cast of ion and San Diego favorites along with some new faces. Raygoza takes on the role of Ned Weeks and Paris plays a few roles throughout the show. Rounding out the cast is ion Founding Member and Associate Artistic Director Kim Strassburger, Daren Scott, Stuart Calhoun, Joel Miller, Alexander Guzman and making their ion debuts are Fred Hunting, Michael Lundy and Joel Miller.
Paris and Raygoza both feel this cast of actors more than accomplishes the shows needs and is one of the most dedicated group of actors they have both worked with.
“This is one of the most committed and unified ensembles we’ve ever worked with,” Paris admitted. “They understand and deeply embrace what we’re doing. They take ownership – as actors, collaborators and change agents. We hope we can share the play with lots and lots of people!”
Paris also commented about what it was like sharing the directing responsibility with husband, and ion co-artistic director Raygoza.
“We know each other’s styles intimately,” Paris said. “[We] share the same techniques working with actors and in storytelling, and aren’t afraid to challenge one another.”
It’s Paris’ wish that audiences both new and old will take what they see in this production and realize that there is still a lot of work to be done to end the AIDS epidemic.
“We hope they will be moved and compelled to act,” Paris said. “To somehow make a difference in the battle to eliminate the disease.”
The Normal Heart runs through December 23. Wed at 7 p.m., Thurs and Fri at 8 p.m., Sat at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
ion Theatre, 33704 Sixth Ave. in San Diego. For tickets call 619 600-5020 or visit iontheatre.com
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