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Dazzling, Kaleidoscopic Heartbreak in Short North Stage’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Dazzling, Kaleidoscopic Heartbreak in Short North Stage’s Angels in America: Millennium ApproachesJosie Merkle as Hannah Pitt asks a puppet homeless woman for directions after arriving in New York City in the Short North Stage Production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Photo by Adam Zeek.
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Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is one of the great, singularly American plays. Since its premiere in the early 90s, this Pulitzer-winning play has taken myths – in the sense of lies and in stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world – screwball comedy, theories of democracy, and overflowing fistfuls of Brecht and thrown it all in an artfully sharpened blender. Short North Stage’s masterful production directed by Edward Carignan and JJ Parkey, of the first part, Millennium Approaches, opened Thursday.

An oversized puppet of a man in Central Park hooks up with Danny Turek as Louis Ironson in the Short North Stage Production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Photo by Adam Zeek.

Set early in Reagan’s second term as AIDS drilled further into mainstream consciousness, this tapestry follows nebbishy, terrified Louis Ironson (Danny Turek) struggling with his lover Prior Walter (JJ Parkey) getting sick. In far-off Brooklyn, a couple watches their marriage couple because of Harper Pitt’s (Melissa Hall) terror at the world, instability and pill habit, and her husband Joe Pitt’s struggle with his barely-sublimated homosexuality. Pitt’s under the wing of Roy Cohn (Todd Covert) who famously says, railing against his doctor, “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.” Belize (Marcus Davis) is Prior, and Louis friend but no Switzerland and nobody’s patsy. Josie Merkel, essential and terrific whenever she’s on stage, appears as Joe Pitt’s mother, Cohn’s doctor, and the rabbi who buries Louis’ grandmother, and Emily Golden appears as every character with less stage time.

That tight eight-person ensemble is augmented with puppets designed by Tristan Cupp of Zoot Theatre Company. The frozen faces of these puppets recall radical Yiddish puppet theatre and Chagall’s Russian theatrical work. Their sparing use is a jab in the audience’s collective eye as it reminds us of the monstrous horror and childlike wonder of the outside world. The use of the puppets doesn’t always work, the introductory scene with the rabbi in puppet form undercuts that dazzling speech about the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of devastation and death. But when it does, it’s like burning cataracts off your eyes – Louis’ looking for risky, rough trade feels even scarier and sadder with Turek’s heartbreaking performance in relief against a huge, leather-man puppet twice his size but somehow fragile and precarious.

One of the things this cast does best is handling rapid-fire shifts in tone and mood with alacrity and grace. Covert’s Roy Cohn taps into his performative aspects and an unflappable sense that ultimately the world will bend to his will like it always has. The play crashes the already larger than life menace of Cohn into characters fighting against a sense of powerlessness in striking ways. Carignan and Parkey’s direction emphasizes these connections by leaving characters on stage after their scenes, putting disparate settings in physical proximity. This reminds us that in New York the characters were never far apart, the great leveling mechanisms of the city and tragedy.

JJ Parkey as Prior Walter thrashes in a hospital bed after an AIDS-related attack in the Short North Stage Production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Photo by Adam Zeek.

The acting is superlative throughout. Melissa Hall’s mercurial Harper communicates enough self-possession and lucidity buried under her fragmented personality and implies everything she’s trying hard to numb with her pills. Hall’s delicate balancing act makes her flights of fancy genuinely thrilling and makes the play’s connecting infirmity to prophecy feel inevitable instead of hokey. Sargent plays up Joe Pitt’s extraversion in a way that sells what draws people as different as Louis, Cohn, and his wife to him better than I think I’ve ever seen in a production and makes his breakdowns feel like the final tumblers in a lock clicking into place. Belize is one of the great characters on the American stage, and Marcus Davis makes the most out of that extraordinary character who chooses joy in his life and is still riveting to watch. His scene with Turek’s Louis where Belize can’t get a word in edgewise until he delivers his fatal blows of truth is a masterful rope-a-dope.

Parkey’s Prior Walter always has much of this play on his shoulders and not just because it ends with an angel telling him he’s got work to do. His part has to be physically challenging without feeling showy and someone Biblically sacrificed by the play without feeling like a martyr. He soars here. His grounding makes snarling rage like “I will hate you forever” believable and righteous and knocks the fabulism, as when his dream overlaps with Harper’s hallucination though they’ve never met, out of the park. His chemistry with Turek amplifies the heartbreak at the core of this look at America.

Jonathan Sabo’s set design is gorgeous and straightforward, a handful of chairs at the front of the stage and a series of shifting screens with mirrors looking down: America as concealment and reflection and shifting, morphing shapes. The original score commissioned by Thomas Albert also adds to the effect with hints at Coplandesque Americana cracked by dissonance and layered melted into something striking but not obvious. As an end to the season, this Millennium Approaches got me very excited for Perestroika and ties a ribbon on a year of remarkable work. This is the kind of play you leave with your heart fuller than when you walked in wanting to argue about it for hours and this production more than does it justice.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs through July 2, including weekends in repertory with part 2, Perestroika. For show times, tickets, and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.

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