Flying into ‘Angels in America’

Flying into ‘Angels in America’

We talk to the cast of the ‘Angels in America’ as they gear up to perform the most Tony Award-nominated play in Broadway history.

Photos by Gian Nicdao


Balls. They were called balls.” It’s an odd thing to hear without context, especially given where we were at that moment: inside a glass house, surrounded by well-to-do people in pearls and suits.

The word — which is both a part of the body, and an aspect of drag culture history — sure feels like something that can crack the glass, both in the house and society. And it was fitting — for 25 years ago, there was a play that did the exact same thing: shatter the glass ceiling of Broadway, American theater, and all those who’ve seen it for all the years to come. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, which opened on Broadway in 1993, was exactly that.

Set in 1980s New York during the Reagan era’s AIDS crisis, Angels is a two-part epic tackling topics ranging from religion to injustice through the eyes of people living with (or those closely living with people who have) AIDS. The play, which won 10 Tony Awards and holds the Broadway record for the most Tony nominations, also won a Pulitzer. Since then, Angels in America has enjoyed reincarnations over the years: it was turned into an HBO mini-series back in 2003 starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson, and it recently enjoyed an award-winning revival on the West End and Broadway stage, with a cast led by Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield.

This March, Angels in America makes its way back to Manila after its 1995 staging, directed with original staging director Bobby Garcia and performed by an exceptional new cast. Young STAR sat down with actors Topper Fabregas, Markki Stroem, and Nel Gomez who play Prior Walter, Joe Pitt, and Louis Ironson, respectively, as they prepare for this landmark play.



Young STAR: Hi guys! Tell us about your characters.

Nel Gomez: I play Louis Ironson and he in a relationship with Prior Walter, they’ve been together for four years now. He’s the kind of guy that when he thinks about something, he has to say it out loud. He goes from concept to concept quickly, and he talks an awful lot — like long passages of trying to unpack a certain idea, so I can understand why some of his friends find him infuriating.

Markki Stroem: I play the role of Joe Pitt. I’m a Mormon— a closeted gay Mormon. I have a wife. I’m a clerk of the same law firm as this guy. [motions to Nel] You know where that’s going. He doesn’t stand out, he’s not one that you’d see and would automatically like to speak to. He follows God, he’s a very godly individual, and that’s where the turmoil lies. I don’t want to give much away but that’s Joe Pitt.

Topper Fabregas: I play Prior Walter. He is a fabulous gay man living in New York City. He is a trust fund baby, dabbles in drag. He’s been with Louis for about four years. If Louis is all brain, Prior’s all heart — maybe a little bit too much. He’s a very emotional, very colorful individual.

Markki Stroem, Nel Gomez, and Topper Fabregas will be playing Joe Pitt, Louis Ironson, and Prior Walter respectively in Atlantis Theatrical’s 20th anniversary offering Angels in America

What was your preparation like?

Markki: I’ve been in theater for a while. Nine years! So this is my first straight play and I’m working extra hard cause I’m kind of scared that this particular play, which is such an epic piece, is something Bobby Garcia is throwing me to the deep end of and asking me to swim for the first time. That’s how it feels, to a certain extent. It pushes you to work harder, I guess, to really grasp what it is. It’s really funny, there are Mormons who live in the same condo as I. I’ve been watching documentaries and Latter Days which is about a gay Mormon as well. But I really wanna get a bigger insight into the religion in general, because this character lives in that world. He was born and raised in Utah, the center of it all, and in a way, he still lives there even if he’s already in New York. I wanna understand what his culture is, what’s his religious background, where he’s coming from essentially.

Marrki Stroem plays the role of Joe Pitt

Nel: I really tried to know more about the specific time as much as possible. My personal favorite one is talking about it with people who actually live with it now. I have a friend, his name is Wanggo Gallaga, and we got to talk about how he functions. All the documentaries give you the very macro perspective of what happened, but talking to someone so specific gives you the emotional aspect and that’s what Angels in America is. There’s another play called The Normal Heart which I think captures the macro level, the crisis of what happened, but Angels you don’t really hear about the bigger picture so much, it’s so personal. It’s about the relationships, the intricacies of it.


Topper: We did The Normal Heart a few years ago, so I’ve already done my research. Because Normal Heart was really written as — it was written before Angels — and it was written as a rallying cry because people didn’t know what was going on. I think Angel was written a little bit after and it feels like more of a homage, at least for me anyway, sort of honoring the people we lost along the way. I’m also watching Drag Race because I’m gonna do drag. *laughs* He has this colorful sort of quality and just looking at people who just kind of feels. How does this guy do it? I’m trying to figure it out.


Markki: Watch Pose.


[READ: Shows and films that portray and explore the amazing world of drag culture]

Nel Gomez is Louis Ironson for Angels of America

These characters you play, they’re so conflicted. How do you figure them out? How do you get to the heart of these characters?


Nel: You have the words. Tony Kushner laid out this world, it’s all in there. You find it within the rhythm of the words, even just how the words fall together, and you’re like oh okay I get it. I wasn’t in that era but [Tony] captures the human experience so well that you just know.


Markki: There are some scripts that you study and you really need to get something out of it and make it beautiful on stage, because the writing isn’t as profound as how Tony Kushner does it. I’ve been working on it and I’ve been living this life of this religious Mormon individual — I completely understand that. I used to sing songs in church, I was in Fatima, Portugal for six weeks to live with my Aunt, who was a nun. I felt so constrained. And to imagine that in the ‘80s and as this gay Mormon, how did this person survive? He thought he would go to hell for everything that he does, there’s so much at stake for him. He’s also trying to cling to this father figure who isn’t necessarily the best father figure to cling to — if there’s an angel in America, this guy was the devil essentially. I guess that’s where my character is coming from.


Nel: In terms of the headspace, it’s in the middle of this huge crisis when the world was changing — but it’s so personal. In the midst of all this, at least for me, is this love story: about how the disease affects relationships. I already told my girlfriend that a lot of what I’ll pull out for this show is probably stuff that we’ve gone through as a couple. You think it’s this big thing, but I think we’re really drawing a lot from very personal things.



Topper Fabregas plays Prior Walter

So it’s been two decades since Angels was first staged — and it’s so surreal how it’s still so relevant. How does it feel working on something so topical for this day and age?

Nel: It’s amazing. The world is a sad pendulum I believe. It’s like you’re either extreme left or extreme right. You get all this democracy with Obama and everything, and all of a sudden you have this completely conservative, capitalist society with Donald Trump. It’s awful. It’s like the world never learns from its mistakes. The problems in the ‘80s, in Angels in America, are repeating themselves. You really just want to go out there and say hey, let’s do something.

Markki: It really is cyclical. You have this cycle of conservatives and then the more liberal ones. I guess that’s where the battle comes into place, and it’s one of those pieces. They say that in times of turmoil, especially in the government, that’s when the art comes out. To paint a picture for the world. Also, HIV prevention is a huge thing. I personally get my tests once a month. It’s important to always get yourself checked. The problem with the Philippines, a lot are not informed. I heard someone say, you know I don’t want to get tested because what if I die, or no one’s going to hire me ever again. You can live a good life, still. No matter how hard or scary it is, it’s important. And that’s why I think this play resonates with the world, back in the 80s and now: because now you can actually survive.

Topper: There’s a huge stigma about gay sex, about HIV. People don’t want to get tested because of it, and we’re in a conservative sort of country, and that eases up if we slowly take that stigma away. Hopefully we’ll start to prevent it, to be more informed, because people won’t be ashamed about who they love and how they love.

Nel: The reason why I think this play is necessary because we’re a super not confrontational culture. Filipinos are not confrontational. In this play, everyone puts their argument on the plate. So you really see these discussions. I love it when a play can do that because it encourages the audiences to have these conversations. I think most of us just clam up and say we don’t know anything.


What will the Manila staging of Angels in America give to its audiences?

Markki: It’s gonna be interesting, it’s gonna be enlightening. As opposed to New York or London where everything is much more open, here we’ll be imparting a lot of knowledge. Not just to the LGBT community, but to everyone who watches. I’m very excited to tell this story.


Topper: For me, and I say this with complete confidence cause I’ve seen stuff abroad and here, ours have so much more passion and much more heart. It’s because of Filipino filter — we wear our hearts on our sleeves. I have a feeling that this will be a more emotional take on it because that’s really how we are.


Nel: It’s trusting the audience with something a little harder, a little bit more complex. It’s always pushing the envelope forward. And three, I hope people leave kinder, more aware of their humanity and of each other. My biggest takeaway from this play is that we need each other talaga. There’s me, there’s you, and there’s us.


Topper: Balls. (laughs)

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches will run at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati from March 22 – April 7, 2019. Tickets available at

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