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Healthy Humor: a second wave of AIDS plays


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"Jeffrey had a voracious self-pity . . . the kind that's usually reserved for home owners whove lost their belongings in mud slides." Hit with AIDS, Jeffrey refused to "go gentle into that good night." Instead he sent telegrams to Congress: "I'm dying to have an antidote." His final wish was to have his ashes -- what he called his "fairy dust" -- sprinkled over his favorite bar on New Year's Eve.

Based on one of the 20,000 frontline combatants in the war against AIDS, Jeffrey is a character from "Spice Queen," a scene in Unfinished Business, one of two plays currently running in Chicago that are part of a second wave of AIDS dramas -- work that affirms life in the face of death. Earlier efforts, such as The Normal Heart (playing at Next Theatre) and the television drama An Early Frost, emphasized the shock to an individual or a community that accompanied the onslaught of the new disease and the subsequent struggle with dying. Unfinished Business, a collaborative revue launched in 1984 as The AIDS Show by San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros and opening tonight at Bailiwick Repertory, attempts a much wider range, focusing on coping rather than dying. It presents over a score of different stories of lovers, friends, and families, all unapologetically real and dealing with a premature mortality.

"Fag Hag" is about a young woman's terror at taking her AIDS-stricken friend to the doctor and the friend's courage in consoling her -- so well he can spare no pity for himself. In "Ricky," a snotty young aerobics teacher airs his disgust at always hearing people talk about safe sex, which is to him a plot to spoil his sex life: "It's only the older leather crowd that gets it -- and who cares about them anyway?" In "Mama's Boy" a midwestern mother discovers her son is gay while watching a panel discussion on public television, then visits him in San Francisco after he develops AIDS.

Unfinished Business puts death in perspective with a sense of humor. In a spoof of To Tell the Truth contestants guess who on a panel has AIDS (about as reliable a strategy as the antigen test itself), a lesbian is hilariously flustered when she's mistaken for a transsexual. Further comic relief comes in two running sketches: one about the sometimes hilarious coping mechanisms of Murray (Arnold Beckoff's telephone confidant in Torch Song Trilogy, who here gradually becomes a born-again monogamist) and the other a string of gay New Year's Eve parties that starts off with the merrymakers deriding safe sex ("I like to get drunk, smoke grass, and sleep with strangers. Call me old fashioned, but that's what I like!") and ends with an infected former reveler longing for the days when people were bitchy rather than solicitous. It ends with the cast singing "Not a Day Goes By," the Sondheim ballad from Merrily We Along, which the composer donated royalty-free to this show.

That spirit pervades this production. Everyone connected with it -- the two directors, designers, administrators, crew, and 14 cast members -- has refused compensation in order to create what will amount to a six-week benefit: all box office proceeds will go toward AIDS services.

In explaining this unprecedented generosity, Arnold Aprill, who directed with Sheila Wurmser, describes the play and production as two labors of love, "a validation of desire and of the necessity of humor to make accessible to audiences their own private fears and regrets; the play puts people who live with AIDS back into the context of humanity -- they're not isolates, these others, they're us." To Aprill the homophobic panic engendered by this pandemic is fueled by people's own unacknowledged fear of death, something the AIDS crisis hardly invented. The resultant anxiety is displaced onto AIDS sufferers (gays, drug addicts, even children) in a classic case of "blame the victim" or, at its worst, kicking the dying when they're down. Wurmser points out that she hopes Unfinished Business will prevent people from thinking the crisis won't touch them.

AIDS has extended beyond the medical realm and spawned some wrenching moral issues. Jeff Hagedorn has written his third play on the subject, this one, High Risk Romance, examines the conflict between the supposed safety of a society versus the civil rights of people who may have the virus. Hagedorn's One premiered in Chicago and was the first American play about AIDS, and his Layman's Guide to Safe Sex, which anticipated Harvey Fierstein's Safe Sex, continues at Sheffield's. High Risk Romance looks laughingly at the alleged confidentiality of AIDS testing. The play details how a gay group (an actor, a lawyer, a politically correct lesbian, a valley boy, and a computer nerd) create a network of false identities so they can take the AIDS test and prevent the FBI from taking action against them if they test positive. As Hagedorn sees it, not only can't the test guarantee accuracy, its errors could become grounds for mass detentions: "a very fallible test meant to tell you how long you may live could be used to quarantine you for the rest of your life." That lack of security ironically undermines the test's effectiveness as public health policy -- by discouraging those who are most likely to be infected and contagious from taking it. But, quite apart from the issues, Hagedorn also says he wrote High Risk Romance as "just an old-fashioned screwball comedy and a love story that just happens to be between two men."

Resolutely refusing to weigh themselves down with panic peddling or easy indignation, both plays instead take very seriously George M. Cohan's advice to "always leave them laughing when you say goodbye."

Produced by Zebra Crossing Theatre and directed by Marlene Zuccaro, High Risk Romance continues 8 PM Thursday through Saturday through May 23 at Uptown Center Hull House, 4520 N. Beacon. Tickets are $8 and can be reserved at 769-5199. Playing at another Hull House (3212 N. Broadway), Unfinished Business runs at 8 PM Thursday through Saturday and 7 PM Sunday through May 31. The $12 tickets will benefit the AIDS Foundation of Chicago; call 883-1090.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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