Photo by Don Kellogg

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Angels in America - Part One: Millennium Approaches

To be precise the full title of the play is Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes.  We tend to leave off that last part and I believe with the passage of time, that portion of the title holds an ever more important role in explaining the nature and purpose of the play.

The play is a 7 hour opus divided into two independent plays of equal length often performed in repertory.  Part I:  The Millennium Approaches takes place in 1986 New York City and introduces us to 3 overlapping story-lines - a young gay couple one of whom reveals he has AIDS; a tough as nails, un-stereotypically gay power-attorney diagnosed with AIDS; and a troubled Mormon couple recently relocated to New York City.  As Part I unfolds, it is revealed to us just how entangled these stories are about to become as the Millennium (both lower case m and capital M) approaches.

If the play were merely about these 3 plot-lines, this work would have been turned into a soap opera running on Lifetime Television every night at 9pm.  However, Tony Kushner's opus is contextually much deeper.  It thrusts the visceral socio-political thorns in America's side in 1986 to the forefront - specifically homosexuality, Ronald Reagan, AIDS, racism, conservatism, and the religious right and what it means to be an American in the context of history, religion, and modern day politics.  In some ways, the play is not about the actual characters themselves.  Again, the second part of the show's title:  A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is truly the point.  This play is a documentary of an era, a sermon, a call to action.  The use of fantasia serves only to enhance the message, provide a rich context, generate conversation and spark dialogue.

The choice of the very intimate setting of the Signature Theatre - Peter Norton Space was a brilliant staging decision.  With some assistance from panoramic video projections and a very vibrant sound and lighting system (Ken Travis and Ben Stanton) they are able to transport the audience to the multitude of locations with the seemingly simple rotation of the box-like sets (Mark Wendland) that were most definitely complex under the hood.  This leaves the power of the show to the spoken words and underlying concepts.  What about the cast, you ask - without a doubt it is simply top notch.  As customary with this work, the cast plays multiple characters - and often those choices of who plays which alternate character are, themselves, a clever social commentary all in themselves.  Kushner's opus fires on all cylinders and attacks on all fronts.

Christian Borle gives a tremendously emotional, and vibrant portrayal of Prior Walker.  In his New York debut, Zachary Quinto plays a superbly analytical, emotionally torn Louis Ironson.  Billy Porter, as Belize, shows us a defiantly gay and deeply loyal Belize.  Frank Wood quite possibly has surpassed all others, including Al Pacino in the HBO mini-series, in his portrayal of Roy Cohn - striking the perfect balance of anger, intellect, hypocrisy, and arrogance.