Theatre Review: Warehouse Theatre’s Masterful Angels in America is a Bracing Act of Love
Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes hit American theatre with an explosion when the first part premiered in 1991 and both parts together opened on Broadway in 1993. Warehouse Theatre’s new production of the first part, Millenium Approaches, directed by Kristofer Green, is a reminder of the potency of this work as messy and controlled, as concrete and abstract, as raw and painful and righteous as America itself. It’s also a reminder of live theatre’s potential to act as an instrument of love and empathy.
The gorgeous audacity of this production is made clear from the very outset. Opening with a raw-wood coffin and a prayer shawl the production lingers on this image for minutes before anything happens in a more traditional sense. An aging rabbi (an astonishing Susan Gellman) delivers a remarkable service eulogising a woman who brought the old world with her on her back, a bullwark against modernity but mostly against forgetting. Pronouncing with a chuckle and a sigh, “She was the last of the Mohicans, this one was.” That severing of ties with the past sets the tone for this sweeping tale of a world coming apart in 1985 with old systems breaking down and AIDS burning through communities and sets up a production that earns every inch of its long but not excessive running time (three and a half hours with two intermissions at the performance I saw).
Andrew Trimmer’s Prior Walter is the kind of warm and engaging person a play of this scope and abstraction needs to be the audience’s guide but Trimmer never lets him be a cipher. There’s not only blood pumping through his veins, there are teeth and there’s righteous, justified anger when systems – even as big as love – break down around him and let him fall. Camille Bullock’s heartbreaking take on Harper Pitt sums up the terror of the age in as good a performance of that role as I’ve ever seen. Harper’s gripped by a fear of people and life, also let down by one system after another from her church to her marriage to pharmacology; barely holding it together and not getting credit for trying as hard as she is. Brent Alan Burlington takes Roy Cohn, the showiest and most exciting character on the play, and tears into it with all the gusto you’d hope for. He represents a long-standing rot, an America bent to whims without consideration for people being trampled underfoot, and, as in his virtuoso monologue to his doctor, sums up how the rules don’t apply to some of us. It’s an explosive, virtuosic performance that leavens the sleaze with enough charm and sincerity to send it over the top.
Cody Shope’s Louis Ironson and Mike Writtenberry’s Joe Pitt carry the symbolic burden of reflecting the audience’s banal dark tendencies. We watch them try – and fail – to do right and be good as they know it and, like most of us do, fail in ways that hurt other people and themselves. Watching Shope’s Louis crack under the strain of trying to care for a dying Prior and both his tragic interaction with a hustler (also played by Trimmer) and his sad camaraderie with Belize is pitched just low enough it never beats the audience over the head. Writtenberry’s Joe might be the most pitiable character in the movie, unable to reconcile his homosexuality with his Mormon faith to the point of being furious with his fragile wife for not giving him credit for what he presents to the outside world and working for a reactionary judge, even writing his opinions, that directly hurt people like Joe accepting this as the way the world works. His submlimated S&M father and son relationship with Cohn is fascinating and played beautifully. One hopes the second part gets produced so the audience could see these actors stretch out in the roles.
Kevin Tate and Susan Gellman exemplify the pleasure of the fascinating way the play uses doubling of actors. Tate’s characters, the drag queen nurse Belize and Harper’s travel agent from heaven hallucination, both represent the hope of escape, a funny, charming beacon. Gellman is the bringing back to reality, sometimes a witty voice of reason and experience (the rabbi in the opening sequence, Roy Cohn’s doctor), sometimes a reminder of the sins of the past (Ethel Rosenberg) and sometimes the rest of the world, people with no interest in empathy or understanding (Joe’s mother). Kait Marie Descutner’s more of a utility player but she’s vital and riveting.
Kristofer Green’s direction is spot on. Across an appropriately minimal set of screens (also designed by Green) with evocative lighting by Derryck Menard, he plays with overlapping scenes like a model showing layers all the way down, letting moments echo off one another but in a way that’s not showy or patronizing. In keeping with the Brechtian spirit of the original, he uses the knowledge that this is a play and the intentionally low budget artifice in order to get the audience at ease and sell the mix of elevated, symbolic language and raw humanity. This is one of the best things I’ve seen in a theatre so far this year and a must-see for anyone with the patience for a long, overstuffed masterpiece of the end of the 20th century – a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much work is still left.
Angels in America: Millenium Approaches runs through June 26th with performances at 8:00pm Friday and Saturday and 3:00pm Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit warehousetheatre.org