Review: “Angels In America,” People Sittin’ Around Doin’ Theater—Four stars

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by Matthew A. Everett | 5/20/09 •

“But love is very hard. And it goes bad for you if you violate the hard law of love.”

Reasons you should see “Angels In America

(again, or for the first time)

single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of five bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.

First and foremost, it’s one of my all-time top 10 favorite scripts. Reading, just reading “Angels In America, part 1: Millennium Approaches” renewed my faith in the power of language, and the power of theater. That’s a couple of years before I ever saw a production. Now I go anytime I hear of a production, just to be reminded.

Like good Shakespeare, “Angels” is practically indestructible. You put these words in the hands of good actors and it is incredibly hard to screw up. So, just on principle, go see it just to see what modern theater can do.

The other reason to see it is for some really fine performances – primary among them Joshua Boertje as Joseph Pitt, Robert Gardner as Roy M. Cohn, Jack C. Kloppenborg as Prior Walter, Mason Mahoney as Belize, and Matthew Vire as Louis Ironson. The rest of the ensemble also does good work but the five listed above are doing most of the heavy lifting for the production. Get any of them, in any combination, together in a scene, as both characters and actors, and the world comes into focus and the show takes off.

Those two things are enough to make it worth the ticket price so if you don’t need to know anything else to make up your mind, just skip to the end and get the info on how to order your tickets.

Angels In America” is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and deals with the later years of the Reagan era in American political and social life, which were also the horror years of the AIDS epidemic we now take for granted. The script explores this time by focusing on the disintegration of two couples – two married Mormons, and two gay men – living in New York City. Joe Pitt (Boertje), chief clerk at the Federal Court of Appeals, is losing control of his marriage due to his wife Harper (Marie Williams)’s addiction to pills, and Joe’s own secret desires. Prior Walter (Kloppenborg)’s recent AIDS diagnosis, at a time there wasn’t any effective treatment, much less a cure, has his skittish partner Louis Ironson (Vire) looking for the nearest exit.

Meanwhile, the world’s most famous homophobic gay anti-Semitic Jew, master lawyer and manipulator Roy Cohn (Gardner) has had unfortunate medical news of his own. Roy plots to get Joe a job in the Justice Department in D.C. so his young protégé can act as his protector in the halls of power, where the vultures are circling. Throw in Prior’s flamboyant ex-lover Belize (Mahoney), Joe’s steely Mormon mother Hannah (Miriam Monasch), and an Angel (Lindsey Johnson), and shake. The chance meetings and head-on collisions of this collection of characters have far-reaching consequences.

Reasons I Was Scratching My Head

The friend who attended the production with me was an “Angels” virgin – never read it, never seen it on stage, never saw the movie. So he became a very useful test subject for whether the production was making its points or not. After all, I’m familiar with the script, the story and the characters. I knew where it was going. Due to also having seen and read Part 2 multiple times, I even knew places all the characters and story were headed that my friend still doesn’t. My friend could approach the play and production with truly fresh eyes.

He loved it. He was captivated. He laughed a lot. But he also said something which I thought I was telling. He found himself listening intently to the words and connecting intellectually, but not as much emotionally. The individual performances were good, but the relationships between some of the characters, the chemistry, seemed off. So it was hard to plug in his heart as easily as he did his head. While I didn’t have the same issue much of the time, my familiarity with the text and characters may be filling in a lot of the blanks my friend found it easier to see. It didn’t spoil the experience for him, but the disconnect was there.

My first red flag was the cast size. I was sitting there telling my friend what a brilliant example of double-casting Kushner’s script was, and then realized that instead of eight actors, we had ten. Kushner’s choice of who to double-cast as what wasn’t strictly a nod to economics. The doubling is thematic, and thus incredibly important. The things the characters say, the stands they take, are either reinforced by the doubling, or shown off by the characters’ opposing views. Also, there is the issue of playing across gender. Gender and expectations around gender roles and sexuality are a huge beast this play is hunting. So you don’t screw with that. You screw with that, you screw with the play. You screw with the play, you undermine its impact. It was built a certain way for a reason. The best thing you can do is just set it up, as designed, set it loose, and get out of its way. The play will do most of your work for you. The play will tell you what it needs. That’s a large part of why it’s such a great script.

This is not to take anything away from the two actors who had a place on the cast list essentially created for them out of thin air – Amber Appel as Prior’s nurse Emily; and Larry Evans as Roy Cohn’s doctor Henry, Roy’s political compatriot Martin Heller, and the ghost of a 17th century ancestor of Prior’s also named Prior Walter, who shows up to help herald the coming of the Angel. Both these actors added to the ensemble do a fine job, in particular Evans, who has been handed three roles meant to be played by three other very different members of the cast. So let’s use that as an example.

Roy’s doctor Henry is actually supposed to be played by the actress playing Hannah, Joe’s mother. Hannah serves as a sharp slap across the face for anyone in this two part epic needing a reality check. This is the same function Roy’s doctor serves when, despite all manner of threats from Roy, he delivers the news that Roy has AIDS. The actress playing Hannah also plays the role of the Rabbi who is supposed to open the play, presiding over the funeral of Louis’ grandmother, someone else Louis abandoned, presaging his coming abandonment of Prior. When Louis goes to the Rabbi for absolution, the Rabbi instead offers him the hard truth of his situation. As doctor and Rabbi, the actress playing Hannah is also book-ending the first act by playing cross-gender roles. Again at the end of the play, the actress playing Hannah takes on another role, that of the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, sent again to Roy to hammer home the reality of his deteriorating health.

Martin Heller, Roy’s well-connected friend inside the Justice Department in Washington, is also supposed to be played cross-gender, this time by the actress playing Joe’s wife, Harper. So in the scene where Martin meets with Roy to help pressure Joe into accepting a job in D.C., the actress playing Joe’s wife is urging Joe to leave his wife. Just as Joe’s wife will also later turn around and tell Joe he should leave her and go to D.C. Roy’s doctor and political contact are thus both men being played by women – both of whom elsewhere have strong connections to Joe as mother and wife. And Roy’s young protégé Joe has desires similar to many women, for other men.

The doubling left intact by this production just reinforces how smart and thematic those decisions are. When Harper escapes in her fantasies to Antarctica, the Eskimo who appears is played by the same actor playing Joe. Even in her fantasies, she can’t escape her bond to her husband. When Louis goes out to the park, cruising for sex, the man he meets is played by the same actor playing Prior. So even in betraying his lover, his lover is always present.

The actor playing Belize also plays Mr. Lies, the fantasy travel agent through whom Harper plots her imaginary escape from reality. Just as Mr. Lies serves as Harper’s guide to an alternate reality, Belize serves as Prior’s grounding influence and support when angels and strange voices begin appearing to Prior. And who meets up in the world of fantasy and dreams? Harper and Prior – both charges of the same actor playing two different caretakers.

The actress playing the Angel also plays a real estate agent and friend of Hannah’s who urges her to stay put in the holy land of Utah, home of the Mormon faith. The same actress also plays a homeless woman Hannah meets right after arriving in New York, who then points Hannah to the Mormon Visitors Center, another reminder of the faith and home she left behind. That same actress should also be playing the Nurse, telling Prior to stay put, the way Hannah’s friend told her, and the way the Angel wants to freeze things the way they are, or used to be, rather than move forward. Just as the Nurse works to heal Prior in Part 1, the Angel ultimately blesses and heals Prior in Part 2.

If you stare at the play long enough, it all folds in on itself. That’s deliberate. The trick in producing the play is to take the time to stare at it long enough – to unlock its secrets rather than impose some additional structure of your own on top of it which doesn’t serve the story. The decisions made for this production which I find most baffling are always the ones which seem to fly directly in the face of the script as it was written, the production doing its own thing in spite of the script.

The most egregious bit of gerrymandering after the issue of doubling characters is the inexplicable presence of “extras” in so many of the scenes. And not just the background of scenes. In several instances, these additional people were right on top of the characters who were actually supposed to be the real focus of the scene. If you’re not onstage reinforcing the action, directing attention toward the intended central characters, then you’re just distracting from them. This happened with maddening frequency. The “extras” were never intentionally upstaging their fellow cast members. But unintentionally they couldn’t help it. BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THERE. (Sorry to “shout.” But that bugged me.)

Roy and Joe are alone in their corner of the bar. That’s why they can speak so openly to one another. The script does not say, “Roy and Joe are surrounded by people reading newspapers. Ignoring them.” Louis and Joe are alone on their own bench, in their own little world, eating hot dogs. That’s why they can begin to flirt. The script does not say, “Louis and Joe are sitting six inches away from the actress playing Joe’s wife and the actor playing Louis’ friend Belize, both reading newspapers. Ignoring them.” This happens again and again and again.

I get the newspaper fixation. Really, I do. The entire set is covered in newspaper. Replicas of signature bits of America’s skyline – the Twin Towers, the Golden Gate bridge, Minneapolis’ AT&T tower, the Space Needle – are all built out of and covered in newspaper. It’s cute when a newspaper is turned inside out and becomes the shimmering holy book in Prior’s vision. It’s clever when the rustling of newspapers at the end heralds the coming of the Angel because it sounds like wings flapping. I get it. But a couple of clever bits don’t justify knee-capping the rest of the text.

Plus, the notion of extras is muddied because of the way the costumes are used. The signifier for someone being part of the nameless ensemble is, they’re wearing their black trench coat over their other costume. The problem with this is that multiple characters wear their coats at different times as if they were their characters, wearing trench coats. So the production sets up its own convention, and then breaks it. Repeatedly. To the point that the trench coats don’t mean anything anymore.

I’m going to give tech a pass, particularly lighting design and stage management, because they were apparently having massive technical problems the night I attended which caused them to hold the opening of the house until close to curtain time. Weird transitions, malfunctioning lighting instruments, with all that going on I can’t be sure what was intentional and what was accidental. The fact that the actors kept it all moving despite the unpredictable illumination is to be commended. That’s when you know you’ve got a good ensemble with “the show must go on” attitude about them.

Finally, could I please implore director Cherie Anderson to trust that the playwright, who developed this play over the course of many years, and won a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for it, might just know what he was doing when he decided to start the play the way he did. Yes, I understand that it may seem weird that we begin an epic with a speech by a minor character, portrayed cross-gender by an actress playing an old Jewish Rabbi, instead of one of the many major players in the story. However, that doesn’t mean you should orchestrate an alternative opening image of Prior, standing high atop a platform staring out at the audience as they enter, then surrounded by the trench coat clad ensemble before the play begins. Because the play isn’t about Prior. It’s about all of them. It’s about the larger society, made up of all these smaller representative individual stories. Which is what the Rabbi is saying.

Just as Part 2 answers the challenge put forth in that play’s opening speech, Part 1 is a response to the Rabbi stating that “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist.” Roy makes the journey from being powerful to being powerless, kicking and screaming the whole way to oblivion. Harper makes the journey from reality to fantasy and ultimately back again, to freedom. Prior journeys into his illness, to heaven and back, and out the other side as a survivor of the 20th century’s great plague. Joe’s nightly walks in the park help him break the bonds of duty and expectation and remake himself as a new man. Louis runs away from things and people he can’t handle, but ends up not really leaving them after all. And Hannah, like the grandmother the Rabbi is eulogizing in the beginning, makes a journey across great distance for the sake of her child – to help her son and daughter-in-law as their marriage comes undone and their worlds come apart. There are many other examples, but this is a play about great voyages. It is a play about all of them, and all of us.

But this is supposed to be a review, not a doctoral dissertation, so I’ll stop. Despite its flaws, any production of “Angels In America” is like pizza or sex. Even when it’s not the best pizza you’ve ever had, or the best sex you ever had, it’s still pizza, it’s still sex. This is still a production of “Angels In America,” and that’s always a good thing. It’s still a great play with really good performances, so it remains…

Highly Recommended.

People Sittin’ Around Doin’ Theater’s production of “Angels In America, part 1: Millennium Approaches” runs through May 24, 2009 at the Lowry Lab (not the other Lowry theater with “Tony & Tina’s Wedding,” though it’s just around the corner in the same block, so be careful) – 350 St. Peter Street in St. Paul. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14, $12 for students/seniors/Fringe button, $10 each for groups of 10 or more. Pay what you can performance on May 24 ($7 recommended donation). Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com. More information at www.psadt.com

Matthew A. Everett is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.

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