Epic, Righteous Angels in America: Perestroika at Short North Stage Through July 2
Angels in America is probably the most important work of American theatre to premiere in my lifetime. It stabs at the heart of the complicated American condition in still-profound ways, 25 years after its debut. The first part, Millenium Approaches, is performed regularly, writer Tony Kushner calls it “a machine.” The second part, Perestroika, is harder to get a handle on. Millenium Approaches is diagnostic, it sets the world in motion and deals with the grimy reality of staying alive. Perestroika is a masterpiece of poetic vision. It takes the world apart to dissect why we, as humans, want to live. Short North Stage’s production directed by Edward Carignan and JJ Parkey, which opened last weekend, makes that complicated work live by not treating it with an ounce of preciousness.
In the wake of the first play’s visiting Prior (JJ Parkey) with the prophecy that work is to begin, Perestroika opens with “the oldest living Bokshevikstay” in shadow announcing we’re at the end of history. God abandoned earth with the San Francisco Earthquake, leaving baffled angels and a human race At its core, the play is about rupture. This section finds the characters rejecting the warnings of history and heaven. Staying in place is not an option.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “This is extremely abstract and metaphysical, Juan. If you would stick to the concrete, and put your discoveries in the form of entertaining anecdotes about your adventures with women, conversation with you would be easier to follow.” Carignan and Parkey’s direction takes that advice at an angle. The philosophical wildness takes center stage here with an intense, physical production. Everything the characters do is slick with sweat, the intense exertion of sex or fighting or a fever breaking, or often all three. Jonathan Sabo’s stripped-back set reinforces this as it suggests altars and pedestals and a cage match.
Parkey finds the fire and humor in Prior. As one of two direct conduits to Heaven here, he has to wrestle the angel twice. Once “wrestling” in his recounting of a wet dream to Belize (Marcus Davis) and once to get into heaven and give the weight of prophecy back. The back and forth between Davis and Prior around the wet dream is perfect comic timing, a prime example of how rage can be a routine’s fuel without being its anchor. Parkey finds a way to humanize Prior’s robing himself in black and dark glasses and deciding to wander like some cross between John the Revelator and Diogenes and makes that something clearly tolerated and teased by his friends. The simultaneous understanding he’s being a little ridiculous and utter seriousness with which he attacks his mission makes his arguing with the council of angels feel triumphant instead of overblown. And it makes his declaration, covered in sores, that he wants more life: “Motion is modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire,” exactly as heartbreaking as it should be.
Danny Turek’s Louis treats his desire to keep moving with far less introspection. Turek understands there’s no staying still and relaxing into some joy. In just a few scenes and broad strokes, his chemistry with James Sargent’s Joe Pitt makes you believe there’s a chance for some easier redemption and teases out the fault lines that inevitably blow that joy apart. Todd Covert’s Roy Cohn does a masterful job of shrinking inside himself, coming to understand his final impotence in the face of an echoing death rattle.
As good as Josie Merkle is throughout she’s volcanic as Ethel Rosenberg – with maybe the finest of Tristan Cupp’s puppets – to deliver the final blow that to Cohn. She brings the news that his identity as a lawyer has been stripped away and returns to deliver Kaddish through Louis. That final prayer of forgiveness, with an added “You son of a bitch,” shadows Davis’ Belize absconding with Cohn’s AZT stash. The metaphor of new life – or at least more time – rising out of Cohn’s corpse is staged to feel real. It feels funny and angry and avoids feeling corny and on the nose like other productions have given into.
Melissa Hall’s Harper is the pumping blood in this production of Perestroika. Simultaneously a less self-aware prophet than prior and a symbol of the collateral damage of not being true to yourself, she makes her character into a person we’re rooting for, never, ever pitying. When she finds Heaven as disappointing as Brooklyn, she finds the strength to finally leave Joe and see the real San Francisco. Here she has one of the finest speeches written for the American stage, envisioning souls rising into the sky and healing the ragged ozone, and if you can get through her delivery of it without crying then you’re stronger than I am.
This is a powerful work treated like it still matters because it does. At three and a half hours and full of talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall and metaphysics and the evolution of Communism, it demands something of its audience. But what it gives back hasn’t been even come close to on a Columbus stage yet this year.
Angels in America: Perestroika runs through July 2, including in repertory with part 1, Millenium Approaches. For tickets and show times, visit shortnorthstage.org.