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Angels in America on tour

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It was a relatively small but appreciative group of St. Louis theatregoers who braved the first major winter storm of the season to show up at the Fox Theatre Tuesday night (January 2nd) for the first part of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America , entitled Millennium Approaches . They were rewarded with three hours and twenty minutes of some of the most intelligent and compelling dramatic and comedic writing to grace the American stage in decades.

Kushner calls Angels a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and while that’s basically accurate, it makes this massive work sound more limited and specific than it really is. A friend of mine calls it “opera without music”, which is also accurate as far as it goes. Mostly, it’s a sweeping, unapologetically theatrical examination of some of the most basic of human ideas: love, death, loyalty, commitment, community and lots of other things that are usually capitalized when we discuss them. It’s an epic tale told, as the best epics are, through the lives of a collection of flawed and fascinating characters.

While the story line of Millennium Approaches is far too complex to summarize here in any detail, the essence of it concerns two couples – one gay and one straight – trying to cope with the disintegration of their relationships and the painful self-examination that comes with it. Their lives and even their dreams intertwine in bizarre ways, not only among themselves but with historical figures such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg as well. And, of course, with an angel. The play weaves all this together with a collection of brilliant set pieces, monologues, and comic and dramatic confrontations that make their points forcefully and without a single spare word. Kushner’s writing is tight, sharp, and wonderfully literate in a way that I thought had simply died out in the American theatre.

Of course, the best script in the world is still dependent on a good cast to perform it, and this touring company doesn’t disappoint. The eight actors assume a variety of roles and do it so convincingly that they seem to be a cast of dozens. The showcase parts here are those of Roy Cohn and Prior Walter – both dying of AIDS and raging against disloyalty. In a bravura performance, Jonathan Hadary captures Cohn’s excesses without ever making him seem ridiculous. Ditto for Todd Weeks’ Prior Walter. The amount of sheer emotional energy these roles require must take quite a toll from an actor.

There’s also terrific work here from Rick Holmes and Sarah Underwood as the straight couple, Joe and Harper Pitt, Douglas Harmsen as the frightened and self-loathing Louis, and Reg Flowers as the flamboyant Belize and the slinky Mr. Lies, the hallucinogenic travel agent. Carolyn Swift and Pamela Burrell round out this impressive cast in a variety of roles, some of them crossing gender lines.

Aside from the final moments – which are, in the words of one of the characters, “very Spielberg” – Millennium is surprisingly simple from a technical standpoint. Scenes are suggested with a minimum of props and scenery and change rapidly, accompanied by some very effective original music by Michael Ward and striking lighting by Brian MacDevitt. With some minor alterations, this is a show that could very well be mounted by small theatre groups around the country, and probably will when rights are available. It is, in short, exactly the sort of thing that helps to breathe life into the theatre.

A robbery attempt left me hospitalized for three days and therefore unable to review the second half of Angels in America (Perestroika) but my correspondents tell me that it’s no less impressive than the first half, albeit a bit more technically demanding. If you get a chance to see this tour of Angels in your town, by all means do so. You won’t regret it.

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