As they say in the play “it must be the magic of theatre or something”. Indeed it must to bring audiences out to this revisiting of a classic queer work which is run over 2 nights and in one of the smallest venues in town. The hours fly by though, on seraph wings, as director Dino Dimitriadis chips off the period redundancies of ANGELS IN AMERICA without disturbing the density and flights of filmy fabric which bring the age of AIDS to the Old Fitz Theatre.
Premiering in 1991, ANGELS IN AMERICA by Tony Kushner is set in 1985 and hindsight is unkind to the America that was. Is? This production foregrounds current issues which still demand action and due attention paid. Gay men might be on PrEP but infections are rising, Israel and Palestine remain flashpoints, Perestroika somehow gave us Putin and a Republican is again in the White House. Plus, fridge fluorocarbons have less chlorine but denial is not slowing the warmth. Having experienced the nearly 7 hours of this production, I can say that the themes are still relevant but more importantly, the storytelling is exciting, intimate and conceptualised to entertain and engage. It’s an achievement all round.
Often expressed in two handed scenes and quite a few, only slightly interrupted, monologues, the play is never jagged in its telling of the intricate world and story of Joe, a Morman Republican lawyer with bent leanings; Harper his uncomprehending wreck of a wife; Lou, who is confronted by the realities of the physical, of illness, and his lover, Prior, who has “the troubles”; their friend, drag queen and nurse, Belize and his disclaiming patient, Macarthyite Roy Cohn. There’s Joe’s mother, assorted ghosts and visions and an Angel of America whose message is violently apocalyptic.
Joe is played by Gus Murray with a tender struggle towards truth. Murray stands his ground as a man who desperately wants to find strength in being ‘good’ yet he endows his character with such evident desires that goodness verges into an evil. A big physical presence, Murray compacts with individual moments as events reduce his sureness. His water cooler encounter with Lou has that knowable glue and longing of attraction that forces him to stay. He softens Joe through the play and Murray visibly loses bulk when Joe comes out to Harper. That relationship between Joe and Harper is beautifully directed, modulating toward kindness with their coldness and lack of connection, despite attempted reconciliations, obviously and heartbreakingly doomed.
Catherine Davies as Harper has a wonderful physicality in the role right from her first appearance where she is almost off the ground. Seated and leg swinging or with a foot curled under her or lying on the table, the off kilter lack of grounding is delicately expressed. She’s sketchy as hell, twitchy and jerky … and brave. Hers is the responsibility for much of the comic tone of the play and Davies’s achievement is to imbue the funny with the relatability of despondency. And the famous final monologue, still and close-up and chillingly replete with all the wisdom she has gained through the chaos, Davies negotiates with an amusement of sensibility imbued with soul deep pathos. Such a pleasure to enjoy acting of this quality merely a swoop away from your seat.
Prior (Ben Gerrard) is a conflicted, ambivalent and tortured character whose dignity rises and falls with his immediate wellness. Gerrard brings a strong empathy to Prior and his ability to show the strength of resilience is especially well created when he is betrayed or in confusion about his visions. As Lou, Timothy Wardell inhabits his character with a bed-rock compassion and self-reflection. Lou’s despair at his own weaknesses brings the audience into sympathetic alignment early and his technical command of the dialectic and speechifying is outstanding.
In a stunning performance, veteran Maggie Dence plays the Angel of America. Eschewing any reliance on gravitas, Dence and Dimitriadis have cultivated a richly compelling astringency through a rhythmic beauty: deep throated and impelled by menace. No puppetry accoutrement here, no outward costumery of theatrical trickery to make her angelness evident. In this incarnation there is merely a stillness of grasp and an immediacy of affect. Also brilliant is Jude Gibson in the several roles she takes on, none more so than a crushingly wry and wise Emma Goldman. Seeing elder women command the stage in this intimate venue is joyous.
Played as a man with an uncompromising self-loathing by Ashley Lyons, the Roy Cohn character is abrasive and defiant and Lyons balances him on a moxie knife edge which never devolves to villainy. The “not a homo” speech is aggressive and riddled straight-acting queer bashing and is horrible to watch and impossible to look away. In the two characters which are played by Joseph Althouse there is considerable skill in the outward style and inner mystery. The agent is stiff yet generous and Belize is lanky, limp, languorous often and on high vibration for an endearing mix of comic and rational generosity of spirit, especially in his many listening sequences.
The setting from designer Jeremy Allen combines with Dimitriadis’s focussed, unhurried direction of the well-rehearsed changes to provide an effortless elision for the audiences. Never jarring or flashy or attention-seeking, the many and disparate scenes on the black as wings set requires little from the watcher. The use of eyeline and freezes make the levelled and shared stage easy to accept and the use of set of stairs, rather than bench or simulated park, gives an added flexibility of relationship to the city. Essentially the moveable block feature allows for 4 levels and provides variety and relevance without fuss and, discreetly, the director has chosen specific moments to split the characters away from each other, a fracture which requires audience action and choice about where to look.
The audio from Ben Pierpoint serves greatly to alert and confront the audience in places, including the very disconcerting noise behind the first phone call and the light lyricism under the first discussion of KS. With Jewish fiddle and sombre piano the compositions support the text and intent but were, unfortunately, operated to be annoyingly loud and with unwanted distortion inside the mix, even in the purposely recorded voice, on the nights I saw the show. However, the design is flawless for emotion with the all-important Angel’s motif militarily cacophonic and calamitous and highly evocative. The lighting for that effect also has grace disturbed and darkened inside the blinding bright. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting palette is almost exclusively white… a white well used to merge scenes, darken deeds in corners or mute them in the light. Mood is smoothly and swiftly generated, thereby sharply heralding the abruptness of more shocking moments. There is also a clever ghosting effect, brilliantly negotiated by Jude Gibson and a superb choice of colour for the Antarctic sequences.
A major undertaking, ANGELS IN AMERICA from Apocalypse Theatre Company, is an achievement of scale, its majesty undiminished by attenuation of space. The production has a narrative which floats the watcher through the hours of its length by thematically confronting the mereness of storytelling. There is no diminishment in this finely placed and honed production which is worth every effort to get there, stay and return.
ANGELS IN AMERICA – Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika continues at Old Fitz Theatre until March 16.