THEATER REVIEW | Theatre Coup d’Etat’s “Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches” is divine


Right at the start of act three of Theatre Coup d’Etat‘s production of Angels In America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches, the energy changed, both onstage and in the audience. Things got genuinely exciting for me in a way they only do when good theater is kicking into high gear. I realized at that moment that this was going to be a production that got better every time they performed it. If the ensemble continued to push themselves, it was something that was going to grow. It’s good now. Parts of it are really, really good now. But this might actually have the potential to turn into something great.

(If that’s all you need to know, then go get some tickets and see the show [you really should]. If you want to know all the reasons why, as well as the things that bug me, read on.)

“It’s the fear of what comes after the doing that makes the doing hard. But you can almost always live with the consequences.”

Angels In America, either part of Tony Kushner’s epic two play saga, is a mountain. It’s an exciting script in the same way good Shakespeare can be exciting. It’s funny and smart and romantic and lyrical and profane and challenging in all the best senses of those words. For a theater company, it can also be more than a little overwhelming. You could sense that in the way Theatre Coup d’Etat’s first act played out. There was this feeling of the actors, even though they were fully engaged in the scene they were currently in, also looking ahead, looking up, seeing the mountain they had to climb.

“I’m not religious, but I like God, and God likes me.”

The shift in act three wasn’t so much reaching the top of the mountain as it was reaching the peak of that last big climb on a rollercoaster—seeing the plunge and rush ahead as you barrel toward the end of the ride. Every scene in that third act has a little bomb that goes off in the middle of it (or two, or three). Relationships turn inside out, characters’ conflicting agendas collide, reality itself—the past and the present, the natural and the supernatural—seems to come unglued. If the production can learn to funnel a little of that energy back through the first two acts of the play, they could have something special.

“History is about to crack wide open.”

Angels In America may be a sprawling epic, but it’s also an intensely intimate personal drama, with a playful sense of humor that keeps you from taking the whole thing too seriously, until it’s time to get serious. Against the larger backdrop of national politics and the spread of a deadly plague, two couples see their connections unravel, and a powerful man is laid low by the consequences of the many questionable choices he has made over the course of his life.

“Beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart.”

The misfortune of Prior (James Napoleon Stone) is not just that he contracted AIDS in the 1980s, when it was more of a death sentence than a manageable disease. His additional misfortune is that he’s partnered to Louis (Brandon Caviness), a man who is too smart for his own good, and who is all but useless in a crisis. Prior also has an Angel (Katherine Preble) circling the outside edges of his life and consciousness, getting ready to descend and change his life forever.

“He’s dying.  You just wish you were.”

The heterosexuals aren’t faring much better. Joe (Peter Beard) and Harper (Megan Dowd) had all the best intentions when they married. But Joe is increasingly unable to control his desire for other men. And Harper’s addiction to pills, feeding her fear of unseen threats, isn’t helping either of them.

“Skin burns, birds go blind, icebergs melt. The world’s coming to an end.”

Joe and Louis cross paths. Harper and Prior cross paths. To say things get complicated (and delightful) is an understatement.

Meanwhile, Joe’s mentor, the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn (Steven Flamm), is furiously trying to game the system so that his enemies don’t kill his career before AIDS kills his body. And Roy’s not above using Joe as a pawn to save himself.

“When you pray, what do you pray for?

The sense of American society being on the cusp of a major choice in the play is heightened and made more urgent in this production by the fact of our own presidential election year battles. The fact that one presidential candidate this year is a Mormon (like Joe and Harper) adds another layer of complexity to viewing this production. Thoughts of the debate over gay marriage in our state, and across the country, injecting the personal into the political are also inescapable as you watch. The production itself doesn’t draw any of these parallels directly, and it doesn’t have to. The audience can’t help but bring such considerations in with them. Every time I see the play, I see it differently because of the world outside the theater. The sense of something dire in crossing the threshold from the 20th into the 21st century is similar to the kind of suspense we find ourselves in these days as we make the slow, inexorable march to the first Tuesday in November—a set of decisions that will determine the direction of the rest of the world for the next four years, and perhaps beyond.

“The failure to measure up hits people very hard.”

The production isn’t perfect but it almost doesn’t have to be. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning script keeps proving itself impervious to even the strangest of choices. (For instance, I’m grateful this production came along in the Lowry Lab to help exorcise the memory of the Angels In America that came before it.) Every time I see a production, I’m just grateful for the chance to hear these words spoken by actors again. The fact that so many of the actors this time around are so good is an added bonus that makes it that much more fun.

The lynchpins of this production are Stone as Prior, Beard as Joe, Flamm as Roy Cohn, and Michael Terrell Brown as Prior’s best friend Belize. 

“My heart is pumping polluted blood.”

Stone throws himself quite literally into the role of Prior, fearless about throwing his body around if it helps get the point across. He also, like the rest of this foursome, revels in Kushner’s words. He might have had as much fun saying them as I did hearing them. 

“I need to be a part of that, I need something big to lift me up.”

Beard plays Joe so tightly controlled that even his posture is perfectly in check and ramrod straight, whether he’s sitting or standing. With a spring so tightly wound, you can’t help wondering when and how he’s going to snap. 

“There are so many laws.  Find one you can break.”

Flamm has played Cohn before, which makes this outing that much richer. Having Beard to play opposite as an acting partner in so many of his scenes ups his game still further. Sure Cohn is manipulative and evil, but just like Joe, you can’t help liking the guy. And just like the Devil, he gets a lot of the play’s best lines.

“Oh my, we *are* walking dangerous tonight.”

I was sorry to see that Brown didn’t get to double up in the role of Mr. Lies as well as Belize. (Sidebar: I’ve gone on at length elsewhere about the ways Kushner is specific in his use of doubling roles and screwing with notions of gender. Though this production expanded the number of the cast with better results, it still felt unnecessary and like an opportunity missed.) Still, watching Brown as Belize, I can see why you might choose to be careful in deploying him. Even with the limited stage time for the character of Belize in Part 1 (vs. Part 2 where he’s front and center), Brown is in serious danger of stealing the show right out from under the rest of the cast. Brown’s scene sparring with Prior’s erstwhile husband Louis was one of the reasons act three took flight, and shows off why that scene is still one of the best two person scenes in the modern English canon. Brown’s so good, he makes me want to write scenes for him myself.

“I’m the enemy. That’s easy. That doesn’t change.”

The rest of the cast offer able support. While I liked Megan Dowd as Harper, it’s a bitch of a part to play (no pun intended). Harper is incredibly important to the larger story, but it’s easy to get trapped in her needy psychosis and end up playing the same beats over and over again. Harper’s different shades and colors are harder to find on the page, and require a lot more digging than some of the other characters. Seeing Dowd also play Roy Cohn’s Justice Department crony Martin Heller helped me realize how adept a performer she can be. Over the course of the run, that skill and variety will doubtless make its way back to Harper.

“You’re old enough to understand that your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it.”

Meri Golden’s Ethel Rosenberg is a wonderful creation, a perfect foil for the defiant Roy Cohn at the end of the play. Golden’s turn as Joe’s mother Hannah could use a little more flintiness and a little less sturm and drang. One of the joys of watching Hannah in action is that she has no tolerance for anyone’s bullshit, including her own.

“I think if you touched me your hand might fall off or something. Worse things have happened to people who have touched me.”

Brandon Caviness has a wonderful and thankless task. He gets to to say all those brilliant, maddening words that come out of Louis’ mouth, and then has to suffer the indignity of people like me in the audience wondering, “What the heck do people like Prior and Joe see in Louis?  Why do they put up with him?  Why do they pursue him and miss him?  The guy’s infuriating.” I love listening to Louis. Louis as a romantic lead character frequently baffles me.

“It’s the price of rootlessness.”

Alec Barniskis’ playful demeanor as one of Prior’s ghostly ancestors was one of the things that first kicked act three into high gear and was a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It was partly such a surprise because Barniskis’ turn as Harper’s imaginary friend Mr. Lies was a virtual cypher. The blankness of Mr. Lies’ professionalism must be a conscious choice by the production, but it doesn’t give poor Harper much to play off of, or the talented Barniskis enough room to play his strengths.

“Your wife chose.  A week from today, she’ll be back.   SHE knows how to get what SHE wants.  Maybe I ought to send *her* to Washington.”

The production, as I said, is still growing.  One adjustment that needs tweaking sooner rather than later is volume. Yes, you’re in a smaller black box space. That is not, however, permission to swallow the ends of your sentences or get all breathy when you’re saying something dramatic and meaningful. I’m not saying you should shout. But you need to fill the space. The play doesn’t work if your lines are a secret. Speak up. The director and stage manager will tell you to tone it down if you go overboard. Right now, certain members of the ensemble aren’t even close. Particularly if you are beginning or ending an act or the entire play, something more is being required of you. Don’t be shy. The playwright put your character there for a reason. And since it’s a gay fantasia on national themes, I’ll throw in a musical theater reference. Sing out, Louise!

“She carried the old world on her back.”

Also, I know this is my own personal hobby horse, but scene shifts are the enemy of momentum for a play. If there’s a way you can just glide out of one scene into the next, you should do it. A scene break in a script is not an indication that you are required to dim the lights, play a song and move some furniture. Kushner is constantly putting two scenes together onstage at the same time. He’s giving you permission to take that to its logical extreme. If a character ends one scene by saying, “By all means, talk to you wife” and the very next thing that happens is the wife is talking, you are free to just let her walk right out onstage and start talking. Your audience doesn’t need a break. They want to hear her start talking. 

If the first scene of the play is playing out in a completely different part of the theater than the second scene, you can have the second scene all set up and ready to go. 

If two characters in a split scene have each just been abandoned by the person they love, and there’s only one short scene left before the act is over, those two abandoned people can be left on stage for us to see in the background, while the last scene plays in the foreground. This is particularly true if the point of the short scene is that the mother of one of the abandoned characters is selling her home to go to the aid of her child. Look, there’s the child she’s talking about. The other abandoned character has just said “I wish I was dead.” The first line of the last scene of the act which follows is, “Look at that view! A view of heaven.” Lights shift, women walk out, right in between the two abandoned boys and stand down center talking about the heavenly view. Come on. Kushner’s begging you to let the words flow. Let ’em flow.

“The world will wipe its dirty hands all over you.”

(And maybe if you stop moving the furniture, you can spend some time figuring out how to make that hallucination of a flaming book appear to Prior during his medical appointment in act three and really set the end of the play on fire.  Yes, we missed it.)

“Don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…”

Theatre Coup d’Etat will be digging into this script for a while. After the current Lowry Lab run concludes in St. Paul on August 4th, Angels In America, Part 1: Millenium Approaches will cross the river and do another two week run at In The Heart of the Beast from August 16th through 25th, 2012. I’m tempted to check out the end of the Minneapolis run and see where this production ends up. This is also a company I want to see do Angels, Part 2—which is not something I say about every theater that tries its hand at Angels, Part 1. Just the thought of Michael Terrell Brown’s Belize as the nurse sparring with the impossible hospital patient that would be Steven Flamm’s Roy Cohn has me wishing it was happening immediately. Theatre Coup d’Etat could do it. But I should probably let them catch their breath after this one first. Regardless of what they do next, after seeing this, I’m in.

Very Highly Recommended

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