PlayMakers Repertory Company’s epic two-part presentation of Angels in America, which prize-winning New York playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” is set in New York City, Salt Lake City, and Elsewhere in 1985-90, at the dawn of the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic during the second term of the Republication President Ronald W. Reagan and just after Vice President George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency as Reagan’s successor.
These eyebrow-raising plays are truly magnificent pieces of contemporary theater; and a luminous PRC cast and brilliant PlayMakers‘ guest director Brendon Fox and his unusually imaginative and resourceful creative team have nailed it (pun intended) on scenic designer Narelle Sissons’ splendid wood-paneled set, which is chock-full of secret compartments, surprises, and delights. Moreover, the production gets extra points for degree of difficulty.
Part One: Millennium Approaches (1985-86) and Part Two: Perestroika (1986-90) officially opened last Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., respectively; and both parts received well-deserved standing ovations, although the overstuffed Part One stretched nearly three hours in length (including one intermission) and the lean-and–+mean Part Two clocked in at three-and-a-half hours (including two intermissions).
Matt Carlson makes a most auspicious PlayMakers Repertory Company debut as Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS whom the titular Angel of America (played with panache by Kathryn Hunter-Williams) declares to be a prophet, much to the chagrin of Prior Walter. Jeff Meanza is a pistol as Walter’s cowardly boyfriend, neurotic gay Jewish office worker Louis Ironson, who abandons Prior in his moment of greatest need.
Christian Conn channels the angst as Joe Pitt, a deeply closeted gay Mormon and Republican law clerk who works for Angels in America super-villain Roy Cohn (passionately portrayed by PRC mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell), a deeply closeted, increasingly corrupt, and power-mad gay attorney with AIDS (which Cohn tells everyone is “liver cancer”). Cohn was former Republican U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s pit-bull at the U.S. Army-McCarthy Hearings in the 1950s, and throwing his weight around is still his primary means of exercise. Cornell is wonderfully wicked as the odious Cohn — in fact, he steals the show.
Marianne Miller adds a compelling characterization of Harper Pitt, an agoraphobic Mormon housewife whose Valium addiction induces hallucinations and worsens as her husband Joe’s inexplicable midnight rambles become more and more frequent. Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt, played with true grit by PRC regular Julie Fishell, is so horrified when Joe comes out to her during a drunken phone call that she moves to New York City in hopes that she can help Joe work out his problems and help Harper and Joe repair their broken marriage.
In addition to her plucky portrait of Hannah Pitt, Fishell becomes a Woman of a Thousand Faces as she creates sharply etched cameo portraits of Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz, who presides at the funeral of Louis Ironson’s paternal grandmother, Sarah; Roy Cohn’s doctor Henry; a Reagan Justice Department official Martin Heller, whom Cohn mercilessly bullies; and the ghost of convicted Russian spy Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed for stealing this nation’s atomic secrets and conveying them to the U.S.S.R. Fishell also garners laughs with a pithy portrait of the world’s oldest living Bolshevik Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, who inveighs against the American way of life at the beginning of Part 2: Perestroika.
In addition to her daunting duties as the Angel, Kathryn Hunter-Williams deftly doubles as Prior Walter’s nurse Emily; real estate agent Sister Ella Chapter, who sells Hannah Pitt’s house in Salt Lake City; and a Woman in the South Bronx. Avery Glymph is likewise excellent as Prior Walter’s ex-boyfriend the ex-drag queen and registered nurse Belize, who reluctantly becomes Roy Cohn’s caregiver and as Harper Pitt’s jive travel agent Mr. Lies.
Guest director Brendon Fox, who previously staged a warmly applauded production of Michael Hollinger’s classical-music backstage drama Opus for PlayMakers Rep in the Fall of 2009, once again works his theatrical magic with Angels in America. Fox and scenic designer Narelle Sissons, lighting designer Pat Collins, costume designer extraordinaire Jan Chambers, and sound designer/engineer Ryan J. Gastelum have mounted eye- and ear-pleasing presentations of Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika that PRC audiences will not soon forget. Moreover, the charismatic cast has created a host of truly unforgettable characters who, together, put a human face on the earliest victims of the AIDS plague and their loved ones and caretakers. Bravo!
WARNING: If it were a motion picture, this robust rendition of Angels in America would be Rated R (no one under 17 admitted without a parent or guardian), because of four nude scenes (two male full frontals, one male bare butt, and one topless female), sexual situations, violence, and language. The nudity and language that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s professional-theater-in-residence puts on stage during Angels in America probably has the late U.S. Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-NC) spinning in his grave.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 9th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awards 3 of 5 stars to Part One and 4.5 of 5 stars to Part Two): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/playmakers-belatedly-pulls-out-the-stops-on-angels-in-america/Content?oid=2015802 and Feb. 2nd blog by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2011/02/02/angels-in-america-can-you-gag-an-audience; Feb. 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/02/08/974691/playmakers-does-right-by-angels.html, Feb. 6th OrangeChat blog by Mark Schultz: http://blogs.newsobserver.com/orangechat/playmakers-angels-in-america-actors-tour-de-force, and Jan. 23rd preview by Dave Hart: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/01/23/935933/angels-brings-fierce-intellect.html; Feb. 7th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel review by Colin Warren-Hicks: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/02/playmakers_angels_in_america_a_mustsee and Feb. 2nd preview by Katelyn Trela: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/01/playmakers_repertory_company_presents_the_controversial_angels_in_america; and Jan. 27th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/11151086/article-At-the-moment-of-crisis?instance=main_article (Note: You must register first to read this article). (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 30th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/01/prc-presents-both-parts-of-angels-in-america/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 and 18, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, 2 p.m. Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22, 2 p.m. Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m. March 2, and 2 p.m. March 5; and ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART TWO: PERESTROIKA, at 2 p.m. Feb. 13, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 and 17, 2 p.m. Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23-26, 2 p.m. Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m. March 1 and 3-5, and 2 p.m. March 6 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
TICKETS: $10-$35, except $45 Opening Night show and reception of Feb. 5th and PART 1 ticket buyers get a 25 percent discount on PART 2 tickets.
BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.
PRC BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: Four 12 ft.-by-12 ft. panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, including two early pieces in memory of Roy Cohn, will be displayed in the PlayMakers lobby throughout the run of ANGELS IN AMERICA (for details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/event.aspx?id=8959d79b-547f-4cdb-9de4-eae21f9a405d).
NOTE 2: “The Prologue Series,” created by PlayMakers and the Chapel Hill Library, will present pre-show conversations with a member of the PlayMakers creative team at the library at 12 noon on Feb. 12th (PART 1) and Feb. 19th (PART 2).
NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe and sign-language interpret the 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22nd performance of PART 1 and the 7:30 p.m. March 1st performance of PART 2.
NOTE 4: On Feb. 27th and March 3rd, there will be FREE post-performance discussions with representatives of the show’s creative team, including designers, production staff, and/or actors.
NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://www.ldf.org/home/) and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/) will sponsor “Mindplay: A 50-minute Hour,” a FREE psychoanalytic discussion led by William Meyer, MSW, after the 7:30 p.m. March 5th and 2 p.m. March 6th performances.
Angels in America: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_in_America:_A_Gay_Fantasia_on_National_Themes (Wikipedia).
Part One: Millennium Approaches: http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=1596 (Internet Broadway Database).
Part Two: Perestroika: http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=1597 (Internet Broadway Database).
Angels in America (2003 HBO mini-series): http://www.hbo.com/movies/angels-in-america (official website) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318997/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Playwright: http://www.barclayagency.com/kushner.html (Steven Barclay Agency), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Kushner (Wikipedia), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=8918 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Kushner (Internet Movie Database).
Brendon Fox: http://www.foxdirector.com/ (official website).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review,a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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