Tony Kushner’s prescient vision on view in Court’s ‘Angels in America’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org April 15, 2012 6:10PM
Larry Yando as Roy Cohn and Geoff Packard as Joseph Porter Pitt in "Angels in America" at Court Theatre.
◆ Parts 1 and 2 in rotating repertory through June 3
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Updated: May 17, 2012 8:02AM
Two decades after it came crashing into our theatrical consciousness, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” — his monumental two-part, seven-hour, compulsively cerebral and wildly hallucinatory meditation on the 20th century’s final dance of death — has arrived on the stage of Court Theatre in an electrifying production directed by Charles Newell.
Does this sprawling work that riffed so deeply and specifically on a group of damaged people snaking their way through each other’s dreams and realities in a very particular moment in history sustain its initial impact? That is really the wrong question to ask. Instead, try this one: Isn’t there something eerily prescient about Kushner’s meditation on politics, law, faith, justice, love, betrayal, revenge, homosexuality, AIDS, the extremes of the American experiment, the fall of the Soviet Union, the meaning of progress, the nature of the cosmos, the poisoning of the environment, the ferocity of the survival instinct and yes, even Mormonism?
True, Kushner failed to predict the old stubborness of the “new Russia.” And he missed the advent of global terror and Islamic fundamentalism (though he subsequently served as a chilling harbinger of all that in “Homebody/Kabul,” written shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks).
But “Angels” remains a potent requiem for a century that began with an extraordinary wave of immigration to this country (the opening scene of “Part One: Millennium Approaches” is the funeral for the Russian-Jewish grandmother of one of the characters) and ended with what appeared to be the dismantling of a sclerotic socialist system (“Part Two: Perestroika” begins with the oldest living Bolshevik tottering on the brink of what he calls our new “sour little age”). And of course the last two decades of the century also involved a plague, for which there was no cure, that attacked gay men in large numbers.
At the center of “Angels,” set in New York in 1985, are the oddly interlocking fates of two radically different gay men with AIDS. One, Prior Walter (Rob Lindley), is 30 years old and an occasional drag queen, whose roots stretch back to medieval England and the Mayflower. His secular Jewish boyfriend, Louis Ironson (Eddie Bennett), brainy and underachieving, is unable to deal with the mess of Prior’s disease, and abandons him at the very moment he is needed most. His former lover, Belize (Michael Pogue), a black drag queen and registered nurse, steps in to help.
The other gay man is Roy Cohn (Larry Yando), a historical figure (or “footnote” as he describes himself). One of the more odious ultra-conversative opportunists from the McCarthy period through the age of Reagan, he saw to it that Ethel Rosenberg was put to death as a spy, and he remained a ferociously closeted homosexual to his dying day.
As it happens, Cohn has taken under his wing Joe Pitt (Geoff Packard), a prim, proper, boyishly handsome Mormon now working in New York as the clerk for a judge. Joe is married to a fellow Mormon, Harper (Heidi Kettenring), a pill-popping woman on the verge of a breakdown from loneliness and neglect, who only gradually comes to understand her husband no longer can remain in the closet. When Joe finally reveals his sexuality to his fiercely stoical mother, Hannah (Hollis Resnik), she quickly leaves Salt Lake City for New York and ends up caring for her daughter-in-law, and befriending Prior. Eventually all the characters move through each other’s dreams, nightmares, drug-induced fantasies and 3-D diorama visions, as well as their real lives, while Prior wrestles with an enigmatic angel (Mary Beth Fisher) who tells him he is a prophet.
Newell’s impeccable gift for bringing clarity, balance, truthfulness, humor and genuine intimacy to everything he touches is in evidence throughout this marathon work. And he deploys his cast of eight actors to brilliant effect on John Culbert’s gridlike black box of a set, starkly lit by Keith Parham.
Yando, gaunt, galvanic, lip-smackingly demonic and altogether riveting, steals the show as Cohn, the maniacal, angry octopus of a man who clearly serves as Kushner’s version of Iago, and for whom he even reserves some pity.
Lindley’s Prior grows visibly stronger even as his body wastes away. Kettenring is on fire as Harper, with a remarkable mix of black humor, utter desolation and rebirth. Resnik expertly captures Hannah’s complexity and plays several other gender-flipping roles, most notably the immovable ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Pogue, a silver-tongued magician of an actor, nails every note as Belize. Packard’s ambivalence is ever-palpable. And Fisher, though undermined by clumsy rigging in a theater with no fly space, makes the most of the Angel’s mystical oratory.
Part Two ends at least five different times. And Kushner’s politics can grow wearisome, even if his world view is vast. But like the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry he refers to — that 230-foot long embroidered cloth that captures the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England — it is a formidable chronicle of a tumultuous time.