James Ryan Gobuty
Let’s be frank. Angels in America is arguably the most successful play of modern times. Angels is one of those shows that tapped perfectly into the zeitgeist, and continues to reveal new layers of its depth as its production history grows. Though many people (myself included) have probably binge watched the HBO special, there is something exhilarating and fresh about having the opportunity to watch both parts of this epic on stage in one day.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is the two-part epic masterpiece of world renowned playwright and director Tony Kushner. The play takes place in the heart of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, exploring the anguish and heartbreak that affected victims, lovers, friends, and family. Don’t be fooled though, Angels is much more than just an “AIDS play”. Angels examines the way race, class, gender, religion, and yes, sexual orientation, intersect and struggle within the American tapestry in Reagan’s USA.
Soulpepper Theatre premiered their production of Angels in America last year with great success. In the wake of World Pride coming to Toronto, Soulpepper has brought this poignant and entertaining show back to the stage as their contribution to the city’s festivities.
Part I: Millennium Approaches
The first part of Angels introduces us to the central characters: Prior (Damien Atkins), the lovable sassy protagonist of the piece who discovers he has AIDS; Louis (Gregory Prest), Prior’s lover and over-thinker par excellence; Belize (Troy Adams), Prior’s best friend who works as a nurse and is the general moral conscious of the piece; Joe (Mike Ross), a Mormon law clerk struggling with his job, religion and sexuality; Harper Pitt (Michelle Monteith), Joe’s wife who has “emotional problems” and an addiction to Valium; Hannah Pitt (Nancy Palk), Joe’s stern mother from Salt Lake City; and Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros), a character based on the historical Roy Cohn who was instrumental during McCarthyism, and responsible for the execution of the Rosenbergs.
The cast is superb; with each of the actors taking on multiple parts or doubling throughout the show, it takes an incredible amount of focus and talent on the part of the actors (and the wardrobe team) to make these transitions authentically and seamlessly. Damien Atkins deserves special praise for his outstanding performance as Prior, maintaining the character’s inner strength while highlighting the turmoil his life has been put through since contracting AIDS.
Director Albert Schultz demonstrates his prowess and keen eye in this piece, maintaining the spirit of Kushner’s script in his production of the play. In a nod to the great political playwright Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner notes in the introduction to the play that “it’s OK if the wires show”, that the play be allowed to be experienced as an “illusion”, and that doing so will allow the message to be more powerful. Schultz commits himself to this project with his own unique vision, most notable in the first part, in the way that scenes overlap and actually invade each other. Though this overlap effect is common in the production history of this show, Schultz makes use of it masterfully and sometimes shockingly to increase the power of the play. The most memorable of these moments is in Scene 4 when Louis’ awkward sex scene with a “trick” from the park ends up taking place under the table of Joe and Roy’s conversation in an expensive restaurant. This scene, and scenes like it, theatricalize the interconnectedness of the narratives, showing how seemingly different worlds — Gay, Straight, rich, poor, Black, and White— are all struggling in modern America.
Set and costume designer Lorenzo Savoini must be given his due credit for the incredible production value of this show. The set is a huge façade, flanking the stage with three huge walls littered with doors and windows. The set facilitates the aforementioned overlap effect, because it allows the stage space to be used in a myriad of ways. Savoini’s design has its own unique take on letting the wires show, in that the walls stage right and left also rotate completely, allowing for clever entrances and exits, but also reinforcing the anti-realist aesthetic of Kushner’s script. Of course, the titular Angel (Raquel Duffy) is the costume highlight of Part One, and with her white dress and splendid metallic wings, this climactic moment at the end of Part One does not disappoint.
The “curtain call” (though there is no curtain to speak of in this production) of the first part is brilliant, with each of the actors opening one of the many doorways, and standing beneath it staring straight out to the audience. Not only does this moment implicate the audience, but also foreshadows how the direction and stage design will evolve in the second part of this epic.
Part II: Perestroika
The second part of Angels starts much like the first, with an old man (played by a woman) explaining the stagnation of the world in the modern era. This speech by “the last surviving Bolshevik” takes place in front of a giant red sheet, which, once torn down, returns the audience to exactly the moment the first part ended on: another clever trick up Albert Schultz’s sleeve.
If the first part of the play showed the unwinding of the world, Part Two shows a world in disarray. Lorenzo Savoini’s multifaceted set is now in chaos, with the rotating walls left swung open, and all the doors ajar. The set reflects the devastation of the world of the play by exposing even more “wires”, showing that in the wake of the crisis the characters have to face, there is nowhere to hide.
Raquel Duffy gets her chance to shine in the role of The Angel in Part II. She embodies the magisterial, yet lustful, Angel perfectly, demonstrating both the character’s awesome power and ultimate impotence. Nancy Palk also delivers a wonderful performance shifting between the cold, yet caring, Hannah to the haunting spectre of Ethel Rosenberg, demonstrating her irrefutable acting chops. If for nothing else, it’s worth it to see this veteran actor writhe on stage in an angel induced orgasm.
Part II is more “out of this world” than Part I, wherein Prior has to embrace his role as a prophet and fix the human race. The play isn’t a fairy tale though, even if it is a “gay fantasia”, and things do not end in a miraculous happy ending for all. What the play does offer is hope that life can go on, and that our role as human beings is to move this world forever forward, to progress to be something greater than we previously were.
Angels in America is highly acclaimed for a reason; it’s a fantastic play, and the Soulpepper production is out of this world. If you find your schedule wide open one day, I implore you to go see these shows in the “marathon” style, where you see both shows in one day. It’s a luxury that the original audience of Angels didn’t have and it really shows how the two parts combine to create one epic-play. Of course, you also have the option of seeing each production on different days. And if you saw it last year, see it again if possible. This time around, the show is even tighter and more effective.
Angels in America is playing until July 12 at the Young Center for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in Toronto’s historic Distillery District as part of the World Pride 2014 celebrations. Tickets can be purchased online at www.soulpepper.ca, by phone at 416-866-8666, or in person at the box office.
photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann (2013)