Thursday, 30 March 2017

Angels in America has demonic messages
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Trigger warning / safe space alert
Due to the sensitive nature of the commentary of the show being reviewed -- thanks to its contents and current events -- not all who proceed are likely to be comfortable about what they read re: the USA politics involved related to this script.
(P.S. In case you missed it, the above "warning" was meant 100% in jest.) 

A heavenly Messenger spooks three generations of the Prior Walter family in Angels in America.  Photo: David Cooper
From the footlights : First staged in 1992-1993, Tony Kushner's Angels In America : A Gay Fantasia on National Themes comprises two 3-hour halves. "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika". "Millennium" is currently on display,  ACT will present the second half "Perestroika" with the same cast this Fall. 

Angels was written to explore the extent to which gay men were still mostly-closeted and denied public acceptance in mid-80's America. To expose how not only reluctant but openly resistant the Reagan White House was to the HIV / AIDs crisis infecting America's cities. And to display the hypocrisy of a society in which some of the loudest voices condemned the gay community : J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, and Roy M. Cohn, legal hitman for Sen. Joe McCarthy during his 1950's Communist witch hunt. Cohn & Hoover were themselves homosexuals who refused to exit their closets and expose themselves. Because absolute power corrupts absolutely. And their fear was forfeiting that power. So for them America's repressed sexual culture was just fine. 

Now 25 years old, the script takes on new prominence in an America that thanks to angry aging white men & angry aging white women who think they will Make America Great Again by going back to the values express & implicit in the Hoover / Cohn epoch. By expanding the U.S. war machine, by actively eliminating climate change mitigation, by ensuring that the 1%-ers who command the bulk of the nation's wealth get fatter and richer at the expense of the country's poor & enfeebled & disenfranchised. The feminist expression "The personal is political" was never more pertinent than here and now.

 How it's all put together : Parallel stories intersect throughout Angels. Gay lovers who when one contracts AIDS his partner deserts him in his hour of need. A married Republican Mormon yet to come out watches his wife hallucinate from the Valium she takes to soften the blow of their failed union. Roy Cohn's power in the innermost legal circles of DC's beltline such that he could manipulate the US judiciary to ensure Ethel Rosenberg's execution alongside her husband Julius for treason, in her case largely speculative. But in the end Cohn cannot escape the avenging angel who eventually catches up with him.

Conceptually, the "well" gay lover Louis (Ryan Beil) suggests in his Act 3 soliloquy that what Kushner really is driving at is the central challenge to each human being set out so compellingly by Gautama Buddha 2 1/2 millennia ago : "It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell." 

And when it comes to angels, America is nothing if not paradox. Start with Emma Lazarus's 1883 poem written to inspire fund-raising for the Statue of Liberty, the angel overseeing New York Harbor  : "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I light my lamp beside the golden door." In 2017, alas, more a solid steel door than gold. Ban Muslims. Deport aliens. Build walls. 

But more gently one must also consider how at the end of the nearly genocidal American Civil War 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln declared graciously & hopefully : "We are not enemies, but friends... The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Will such angels again manifest themselves or remain aslumber as they seem to be now?

In Tony Kushner's script there is no charming archangel like the one portrayed by John Travolta in the film Michael. And if social policy in America was seen as bad theatre being acted out in real life pre-Millennium, pre-9/11, pre-Trump, one can only imagine what a Kushner Fantasia On National Themes might look like if re-scripted 25 years hence.

What the show brings to the stage : The old quote "If God is good he is not God, if God is God he is not good" seems to be the leitmotif in Angels. People make life choices, and no God rescues them. The only essence in humans is what they act out, what to do. One hand holds entropy as god : all things decline and die. On the other there's the hopeful view of the black nurse drag queen Belize (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) that a world of "softness, compliance, forgiveness and grace" is possible. 

Aside from its daunting 190-minute length (including two intermissions), Angels (Part I) is a rich, rewarding display of theatric inventiveness & excellence. The classic Greek amphitheatre with its fly gallery gossamer scrims by Ken MacKenzie was superb. Clearly it was designed to reflect the universality and historic relevance of classic themes like plague and corruption and human frailty as Director Kim Collier points out in her program notes.

Video Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis employs hand-held videocams shot up on the back curtain to terrific effect. His efforts were aided and abetted by effective lighting and great sound moods. 

Acting pin-spots : To this viewer, the two most powerful actors in the piece were Damien Atkins as 34th generation Prior Walter whose Karposi Syndrome welts and blood defecations drove away his lover of 4 1/2 years Louis Ironson played by Ryan Beil. Absolutely a perfect match : Atkins was plaintive displaying his fears and sadness and rage over how his 30-year-old body was attacking him. Beil as the rationalizing ironic "Sid the Yid" boyfriend, as he calls his character, was also superb. Their Act 2 final scene is reason alone to go see this show for its poignance and pain and pathos, as well as Mr. Beil's Act 3 soliloquy about there being "no ghosts, no angels in America, only politics".

As Belize, Mr. Jackman-Torkoff turned in an endearing and whimsical and playful performance each scene he did. The fated Mormon couple of Celine Stubel as the Valium-junked-up hallucinating wife Harper and Craig Erickson as her tormented gay husband Joe joined company in the noted Act 2 final scene. Their simultaneous counterpoint with Prior and Louis was stunningly blocked and choreographed. I escaped to the lobby in tears.

Kudos to Director Kim Collier for her keen & discerning eye in casting this show. Utterly embracing and often breathtaking performances by all.

Who gonna like : On our way home my wife and I recalled the fears and paranoias that had society so edgy and anxious in the mid-80's when HIV / AIDS hit our society so dramatically, unexpectedly, confusingly. How LGBTQ folk were often shunned by people who previously might suggest over a beer that stale condescending apology "Some of my best friends are gay...". 

Angels in America : Millennium Approaches demonstrates three things primarily. What a devastation AIDS was back in the day : a whole generation of people lost from its ravages. How much "our better angels" have grown wings in the years since so the stigmas once attached to LGBTQ are largely gone in polite society. And, finally, how the current politics -- S. of 49 particularly, but elsewhere worldwide as well -- remind us how fragile and delicate the wings of angels can be. 

Particulars :  Written by Tony Kushner. At The Arts Club Stanley Theatre.  From March 23 through April 23.  Length : Three actsRun-time 185 minutes, including two intermissions. Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning ACBO @ 604.67.1644.  

Production team :  Director Kim Collier. Set Designer Ken MacKenzie.  Costume Designer Nancy Bryant.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Original Music & Sound Designers Torquil Campbell and Alessandro Juliani.  Video Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis.  Assistant Director Cameron Mackenzie.  Assistant Costume Designer Jessica Oostergo.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager Peter Jotkus.  Apprentice Stage Manager Geoff Jones.

Performers :  Lois Anderson (The Angel; Emily; Sister Ella Chapter; Woman in the South Bronx).  Damien Atkins (Prior Walter; The Man in the Park).  Ryan Beil (Louis Ironson).  Craig Erickson (Joseph Porter Pitt; Prior 1; The Eskimo).  Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (Belize; Mr. Lies).  Brian Markinson (Roy M. Cohn; Prior 2).  Gabrielle Rose (Hannah Porter Pitt; Rabbi Isadore Chemelwitz; Henry; Ethel Rosenberg).  Celine Stubel (Harper Amity Pitt; Martin Heller).


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