In her forays into theater, film and TV, Cherie Gil has mesmerized audiences with her performance as the legendary diva Maria Callas in “Master Class,” stood toe-to-toe with theater stalwarts as the bitchy Baroness in “The Sound of Music,” and deteriorated with dignity as the impoverished heiress in “Arbol de Fuego.”
While she treasures these roles, Gil says it is her stint in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches”—where she plays four supposedly supporting parts—that is the “most meaningful, most grueling work that I’ve done as an actor.”
That says a lot, considering the thespian’s career has spanned 30 years in various media.
In this Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group production at Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, Gil opens the play as an orthodox Jewish rabbi, then pops up in several scenes as a medical doctor and a convicted American spy.
Her fourth and most prominent role is that of Hannah Pitt, a mother who discovers that her successful and much-respected son is actually gay and suffering from AIDS.
Gil says that the play, directed by Bobby Garcia, is “demanding, fast-paced, and keeps you on your toes. You have to keep on holding on to your nerves as you exit your scene and before you go back onstage. ‘Angels’ is about ‘the human plague that has affected us all in this world, and it goes beyond the AIDS crisis.
“Yet, I feel overwhelmed by Kushner’s words, there’s something in them that reminds you to love, and also makes you want to be a better person.”
The Atlantis production fills Gil’s self-imposed quota of one play a year, on top of the TV series and movies she does.
One criterion for her doing a role is that the characters she plays have to be “people I can relate to.”
Hannah is something this mother of two can identify with. Daughter Bianca is pursuing acting in New York, son Raphael is in his sophomore year in Spain, studying to be a diplomat or for UN-related work.
“I know this woman,” she says of Hannah. “She dropped everything in Utah and goes to wherever her son is in New York. That also created moments of truth in me. I have asked myself if I should also throw in my towel and follow my kids. I can’t wait to visit them—we are a tight family, and I have withdrawals.
“Hannah is the most human of all those I’ve played, she’s most like me. I can’t just mask my vulnerability,” says Gil.
Hannah and other stage characters Gil has played give her a break from the elegant-but-deadly contravida roles that have made her a fixture in teleserye.
The lady admits that these parts, popular with the public, compose her “money shots.” They also make her a legend of sorts among the younger TV actresses she interacts with.
“They ask me not to fake the sampal or my slapping them,” she says with a tone of incredulity in her voice. “They’re weird—it’s like an honor to them.”
Then, half in jest, she says slyly, “May equity pala ang sampal ko. Maybe I’ll start asking them to lessen the sampal—or charge [the production] for every sampal para they just don’t keep making me do them.”
There was a time Gil was at the receiving end of such physical blow—an ashtray was thrown at her by director Fritz Ynfante.
More than 30 years ago, Gil was Mary Magdalene to Boy Camara’s Jesus in Ynfante’s version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“Natapunan na rin ako ng ashtray ni Fritz,” she says, recalling the rehearsals with the intense director.
Gil’s roots in theater go back to childhood, before the big and small screens. She was hooked after watching her mom, acclaimed character actress Rosemarie Gil, perform in Peta plays directed by Lino Brocka.
She debuted as an actress at 16 with Adul de Leon’s “Sundered Self,” in Bulwagang Pilipino. Later she would do the rounds of dinner theater with Jonas Sebastian.
Two things compel her to keep going back to the art, despite her extremely busy schedule.
The first is the camaraderie she enjoys with the theater community.
“You experience that noble connection in theater,” Gil muses. “There is no backbiting. There’s just a lot of positive energy and unconditional acceptance. Maybe because we are kindred spirits with our own topak [idiosyncrasies] and we have to be generous with each other.”
She believes that connection extends to the audience, and it’s a high or a fulfillment that cannot be obtained from anywhere else, artistically speaking. “There is a human connection every night you go onstage,” she says. “Every night is a different audience, and you feel that vibration. How wonderful it is that you can come to them regardless of the demographics, and get the play’s message out.”
Once she feels that almost mystical link, it’s almost like a liberation—“I’m not Cherie Gil, the artista or the contravida—but I’m one with you.”
Repeating Hannah in the sequel, “Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika,” should Atlantis decide to mount it, is something she can look forward to.
“If ‘Millennium Approaches’ was like getting a master’s degree in acting, ‘Perestroika’ would be earning a doctorate,” Gil chuckles.
“All I say is, this journey into theater has been extraordinary.” —CONTRIBUTED
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City, until April 7. Click on ticketworld.com.ph.