Much has been said about how you get AIDS and, one hopes, much will be written about how you cure it. But relatively little has been said about how you live with it. And that's the premise and the promise of "A Dance Against Darkness: Living With AIDS."
At d.c. space, it's an original play-with-music assembled by the D.C. Cabaret troupe from interviews with Washington AIDS patients and their relatives, lovers, friends and volunteer "buddies." The no-frills staging, alternating sketches and songs, makes for an uneven, sometimes awkward, but undeniably affecting evening.
Sadness, fear and rage are inescapable elements of any work concerned with AIDS, and "Darkness" has its share of the darker emotions. But without offering a panacea for pain, the writers and performers have elected to emphasize strength, hopefulness and generosity in their work. The best moments of "Darkness" remind us that AIDS patients, too, have their good days; that they are still to be cherished; and that there are people who care and aren't afraid to pitch in.
At the play's core is one of the "alterna- tive families" that form to support victims when family blood doesn't prove thick enough to handle the shock of an AIDS announcement. The slender narrative is centered on David, a young man who, rejected by his parents, enters a group house for AIDS patients. With uneasy politeness, David throws his lot in with an assortment of sketchily generic characters: a junkie, a streetwalker, a vindictive mother and Mike, his assigned buddy. Some hostilities flare at support group meetings, but hope arrives from the most unlikely sources: In "Find Me a Miracle," David sings about a well-meaning aunt who combs the supermarket tabloids for news of "miracle cures."
The play's creators have taken pains to avoid false optimism or canonizing AIDS victims and volunteers. The patients are often difficult, and the relatives and buddies aren't angels either. A song like "Who Will Help?" tells how AIDS also consumes the lives of the healthy, and it voices perhaps the most agonizing question for people who help: "Why can't I keep him alive?"
But "Darkness" is dimmed somewhat by its right-minded eagerness to encompass many aspects of the AIDS story. When songs and monologues stray too far from the core -- there are numbers about the origins of the AIDS virus, the plight of AIDS babies, the frustration of medical personnel watching young people die -- the result is undeveloped characters and too many issues addressed with too little depth.
The more successful of these sidelights include a monologue in which a Potomac housewife speaks of sheltering her dying brother ("One day AIDS was just a special on network television, and the next day it was in my home") and "Safe Sex Blues," a burlesque vamp that culminates with the company tossing condoms into the audience.
It's a valuable effort, but "Darkness" shouldn't be oversold as theater. At its best, it's a modestly accomplished revue; at its patchiest, it feels like a group therapy improvisation. Director Roberta Gasbarre is adept at accommodating expressive movement in close quarters and her staging borrows a bit from the adolescence montage in "A Chorus Line." Though Gasbarre can't maneuver past all the sticky patches in the script, she has encouraged honest, small-scale performances.
Most of the seven performers ably handle multiple roles. The singing, particularly in ensemble, is stirring, and the acting is earnest without becoming cloying, but the cast has some competition from the low-level din at d.c. space, which also functions as a restaurant and bar. Serge Seiden is particularly good as David, embodying vulnerability and resilience as a singer and actor. Paula Burns, who wrote two songs for the show, is a strong singer, but might be cautioned to curb her facial expressions in such close company. Pianist George Fulginiti-Shakar provides spare rhythmic support and sings a bit, too.
Most of the music was composed by Roy Barber, who displays a gift for setting unlikely source material to uncomplicated melodies. The book and lyrics, by Bari Biern, are commendably direct and free of cliche', though several songs settle for the easy rhyme. Barber and Biern have come up with one strikingly memorable song in "I Wish You Had Known Him Then." Crystallizing the evening's emotions and concerns, it works as a universal expression of loss, and deserves a life after the show closes.
So "A Dance Against Darkness" is perhaps best approached as a work in progress -- and a challenge. The troupe is putting its money where its mouth is, donating a portion of all ticket sales to the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
And as a testimony and tribute to the more than 700 people in the Washington area who have died of AIDS, this small show is likely to move anyone who has been touched in some way by the disease, or who may be. And that includes all of us.
A Dance Against Darkness: Living With AIDS, book and lyrics by Bari Biern, music and vocal arrangements by Roy Barber. Directed by Roberta Gasbarre; lighting, Michael Henderson. With Ezra Anderson, Fred Anzevino, Paula Burns, Alma Crawford, George Fulginiti-Shakar, Petrina Huston, Serge Seiden. At d.c. space through Aug. 30.