Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Part Two: Perestroika
Tony Kushner

Francesca Faridany & Randy Harrison
1985.  Gay men are dying by the thousands while a president refuses to acknowledge their plight.  Some hospitals turn them away untreated; the rubber glove and facial mask industry is suddenly soaring; and people everywhere are afraid to shake hands, to hug, or even to go see those men with the telltale purple lesions.  By the end of 1991 -- the same year Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Part One, Millennium Approaches premieres at the tiny Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco – almost 180,000 cases of full-blown AIDS had been reported in the U.S.; and AIDS is the Number Two killer of men 25-44.  And as the much anticipated Millennium approaches with both widespread excitement and dread, the deaths continued to rise with AIDS being the Number One killer of all Americans by 1994. 

In 2018, the twice (for Parts One and Two) Best Play Tony winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes once again opens on both coasts, in New York and at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  Since its initial opening, contracting HIV is no longer a death trap leading to full-blown AIDS.  Further, the rights of LGBT have greatly expanded across the country and much of the globe, and same-sex couples are marrying and even having kids by the thousands.  But while we survived the Millennium, the clouds have once again darkened as individual states chip away at the LGBT rights won, as a new president’s administration threatens on almost every imaginable front and spouts lies as if truth, and as we hold our breaths to see if the 5-4 slim majority of the Supreme Court that has awarded many of LGBT rights will continue to hold that margin. 

Into this current, uncertain, and troubling atmosphere, Berkeley Repertory Company opens its production of Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in a production whose messages once again speak truths relevant to our current circumstances.  And, the production does so in ways magnificently stunning in every respect.  Visually, aurally, intellectually, emotionally – no matter the dimension – Tony Taccone directs an Angels that soars to the heavens and back, plunging us into the depths of a hell that plagued the plays’ years of 1985-1990 but leaving us with a message more relevant today than ever:  “We are not going away ... More life, the great work begins.”

One of the reasons Tony Kushner must have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Angels in America is that his massive, two works (each three-and-a-half-hours long) operate on so many different and complex levels of both the real and the fantastical while maintaining a seamless flow as the numerous acts and scenes relay their many interlocking stories and characters – all of which are accessible, immediate, and clear via his script.  Political debates, theological wanderings, and psychic moments of madness could be deadly for an audience, but Tony Kushner keeps us on the edge of our seats for hours with stories and their people that draw us in and do not us let go.  And all along the way, we laugh and laugh even when we should perhaps be crying because the playwright has peppered his script with the morbid but still funny humor that often exists side-by-side in our scenes of human tragedy.

Benjamin T. Ismail & Randy Harrison
Prior Walter is a thirty-year-old, New York gay man whose four-plus-year relationship with Louis Ironson in essence comes to an end when he reveals to Louis “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” on his arm – in other words, “lesion number one” of his AIDS.  Louis immediately freaks out and begins his exit, while still professing how much he loves Prior.  Their individual stories are one thread of many to be woven in this Angels quilt about to spread before us, and both Randy Harrison as Prior and Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis are exceptional in their individual portrayals.  Each will go through trials and agonies that will rip in different ways at our heart’s chords: Prior, as his body deteriorates in inhumanly cruel seizures both physical and mental; and Louis, as his increasing guilt for abandoning the one he loves will lead him too quickly to jump into another relationship with someone who is opposite of him in almost every thing he values.

Bethany Jillard
Parallel to their stories and soon-to-be linked both physically and metaphysically with each of them is that of Joe and Harper Pitt, a married couple who call each other “Buddy” and only kiss when they can do so quickly on the cheek.  Harper is hooked on Valium and is obsessed with things like the destruction of the ozone layer and a sense of “things collapsing” and “systems of defense giving way.”  She welcomes, or so she thinks, a man coming out of her couch who promises to whisk her away on vacation to Antarctica.  She describes her life as full of “maybes,” including her husband’s love for her.  Bethany Jillard is intensely wonderful as Harper with hands that clasp, grip, and frantically flit in such ways to speak their own discourse.  Her story will intercept in a dimension not known on this earth with that of Prior’s, with their becoming a kind of ethereal friends and mutual support system that cannot be easily defined in everyday terms.

Danny Bittstock & Bethany Jillard
Joe Pitt is a Mormon, Republican, and up-and-coming, federal-court lawyer who finds himself wandering Central Park in the dark of night, “observing.”  He prays for God “to crush me, break me up in to little pieces, and start all over again” because of an attraction to men he refuses to acknowledge or to give a name.  When he meets Louis sobbing in a courthouse bathroom, they start down a path that eventually leads them into the bedroom, even though Louis describes Joe as one of those “Reaganite, heartless, macho, asshole lawyers.”  Danny Binstock plays the good-looking Joe with All-American branded all over his demeanor and perfect hair.  The journey of his Joe will transform him through stages of being scared and helpless like a little boy to being hot and steamy as a desperate lover to being threatening to self and others in his outrage as a man unsure who he really is.

What Louis does not immediately know about Joe is that Joe’s mentor and hero is the man any liberal American at that time probably hated the most, Roy Cohn.  Roy’s story is another major thread of Angels, but there is nothing angelic about him or anything that he strives to do for self or his country.  Stephen Spinella, who won two Tonys for Best Actor for both parts of the original Broadway Angels, perhaps shines above all the stellar performances of this eight-person cast; but there is nothing sunny, good, or admirable about his Roy.  When he pronounces an “s,” there is a serpent-like hiss trailing the words he emits.  His raspy voice roars as he makes on multiple phone lines simultaneous deals with the devil in his own power plays.  When he is diagnosed with a disease that anyone else is calling AIDS but that he manhandles his doctor to calling liver cancer, his Roy joins in a deadly, downward spiral the thousands of other men around him he refuses to see or to help.  We watch a performance of torment and torture by Mr. Spinella that is shocking in its stark reality – all the time he splatters it with the hatred and callous humor of the real Roy Cohn.

These major storylines are just a glimpse of the landscape of tales that Tony Kushner provides in this epic of a history that was still playing out its horrible course even as he wrote it.  Many other characters – some historical, some of this world, and many of another dimension way out of this world – come and go in small-set scenes that stream on and off stage beautifully and gracefully as part the scenic design of Takeshi Kata.  Most of the leads thus far mentioned take on additional roles such as Prior’s ancestors, a hunky Eskimo, and a leathered-up guy in the Park looking for sex. 

Carmen Roman & Stephen Spinella
Carmen Roman is hauntingly perfect as the stone-faced Ethel Rosenberg who -- with just the slightest smirk and always laser-efficient staring eyes -- becomes the frequent bedside companion of the dying Roy Cohn who ensured through his bullying pressures on a judge that she would die in an electric chair in 1953.  Along with taking on other roles from an elder Rabbi to the oldest living Bolshevik, Ms. Roman is equally stony and sans smiles as the exasperated mother of Joe, Hannah Pitt, who becomes interlocked with Prior’s story and blossoms there into a mother figure we all come to love.

Caldwell Tidicue & Stephen Spinella
Caldwell Tidicue -- better known to many as Bob the Drag Queen via RuPaul’s Drag Race – plays Mr. Lies, a fur-coated, nothing-short-of-fabulous travel agent who shows up in Harper’s dreams to whisk her away from her troubled reality.  He is also Belize, the not-taking-any-of-your-crap nurse of Roy Cohn.  As friend of Prior’s, Belize is a mixture of big heart, loyalty, and (still) not-going-to-take-any-of-your-crap.  Mr. Tadicue’s Belize is larger than life with an attitude of “just dare me” while always down-to-earth in advice and truth-telling.  And in the end, his Belize is the real heart of Tony Kushner’s story.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre production is Broadway Plus in all its creative aspects.  Besides the aforementioned wonders of Takeshi Kata’s scenic design which include brilliantly lit pieces that literally dance across the stage, the projections of Alexander V. Nichols cover the massive walls and backstage with forests, cities, bridges, neighborhoods, and all sorts of subtly changing designs and colors that are a show unto themselves.  The lighting design of Jennifer Schriever is as magnificent as any I personally have seen in a long time, with scenes’ shadows often offering on the walls behind them a mesmerizing, second rendering of the characters before us and with other shadows, lighted paths, and soaring beams filling the air with a storyline all their own.  The large Roda Theatre literally shakes at times with the earthquake power of the sound design by Jake Rodriguez and Bray Poor; and at other times, the effects are subtle background signals of worlds real and maybe not so real.  Montana Blanco’s costumes bring us face-to-face with the bizarre, the beautiful, the bombastic, and the bloody parts of these interlocking, complex stories and their characters.  And all is somehow magically and masterfully held together by a director (Tony Taccone) who -- as he has shown in past Berkeley Rep productions -- clearly knows how to take Tony Kushner plays and milk the hell out of the script to produce world-class theatre.

Francesca Faridany & Randy Harrison
Given the title as well as the iconic posters and pictures that have been associated with Angels in America since Day One, of course there is once missing character not yet mentioned:  The Angel.  Francisca Faridany and Lisa Ramirez alternate the demanding role flying in suddenly from above, with Ms. Faridany playing The Angel for Part One and Part Two on opening day.  Part One ends with her crashing through Prior’s ceiling to declare him as The Prophet, giving him a task in Part Two that he will struggle in his fevered bed to sort out the truth and the reality of what he must do.  As the Angel, Ms. Faridany is both heavenly in appearance and attitude but also with a streak of human wit and flaw running through her.  Ms. Faridany also assumes a number of other roles, including a homeless woman in the Bronx who predicts amidst ranting hallucinations to a bewildered Hannah Pitt, “In the next century, I think we will all be insane.”

Hers is only one of many dire warnings of the approaching millennium that populate Tony Kushner’s script.  Ethel Rosenberg tells Roy, “History is about to crack open. Millennium approaches.”  Harper sees many signs of “the world coming to an end” while even the Oldest Bolshevik warns, “The greatest question before us here, are we really doomed?”  Louis voices to Joe what many even today (long past the Millennium) may be thinking, “You’re scared.  So am I.  Everybody is in the land of the free.”  And Prior says aloud what most must have thought during those darkest years of the AIDS epidemic when Tony Kushner penned these now-classic plays: “Maybe the virus is the prophecy.” 

But Harper herself provides the playwright’s over-riding message of optimism and hope that so many in 1991 at the play’s opening must have had trouble seeing:
“Nothing’s lost forever.  In this world, there is a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead."

And it is that message of Harper’s along with Prior’s final blessing to us all of “More Life, the Great Work Begins” that certainly makes this incredibly powerful Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as timely in 2018 as it was in 1991 and 1992 in the national themes that these Two Parts once again expose and expound.

Rating: 5 E “MUST-SEE”

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika continues both in alternating days and in “marathon days” through July 22, 2018 on the Roda Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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