Canvass

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As a gay man who grew into adulthood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tony Kushner’s two-part theatrical masterpiece, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, was the definitive cultural marker for my generation of gay people. The play gave articulate voice, unequivocally and unapologetically, to our sense of self, our concerns, our contradictions, and our perspectives on government, history, and community- both ours and the broader social environment. I read it, I read articles and reviews about it, I saw the indelible HBO mini-series, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, but I’ve never seen a theatrical production. Since I moved to Chicago in 1998, there had been two significant productions in the city, both of which I missed:  David Cromer’s legendary, talked-about-in-hushed-tones version for The Journeymen in 1998 and Sean Graney’s take for The Hypocrites in 2006.  So I was really excited to see Charles Newell’s new revival for Court Theatre, which, notably, has Kushner’s support and participation, and it did not disappoint. Straightforwardly directed, electrifyingly acted, fluidly designed, Court’s Angels in America is 7  hours of gloriously compelling theater (3 hours for Part I: Millennium Approaches and 4 hours for Part II: Perestroika), with Kushner’s powerful, unforgettable writing, trafficking in both big, global themes, and personal, intimate tragedies, still undeniably relevant in a 21st century American socio-political-cultural milieu that is already an alarming echo of the play’s 1980s Reagan-era setting.

For those who have lived on a steady diet of reality TV and Bravo and who may not have seen the HBO film, Part I: Millennium Approaches introduces Kushner’s main characters, among them the fictional Prior Walter, a gay man diagnosed with AIDS and abandoned by his lover, Louis, in mid-1980s New York City; the real-life Roy Cohn, the much-feared and deeply-closeted Manhattan prosecutor who is in denial of his own AIDS diagnosis; and the fictional Joe Pitt, Roy’s protégée, an also-closeted Mormon lawyer, whose wife Harper is unhappily manic-depressive and happily medication-addicted. Oh, plus there’s the titular Angel who visits Prior with a literal bang at the end of the play.  Part II: Perestroika untangles, re-tangles, somewhat resolves, somewhat upends all the threads that Part I unveils.  Because of the nature of the writing, Part II: Perestroika is the more gut-wrenchingly dramatic of the two.  But no blog post can fairly and accurately recount Kushner’s writing: funny, intelligent, insightful, angry at some times, optimistic at others.  And it is unsurpassable, mythic, large-canvass writing which Newell beautifully highlights by staging the scenes seamlessly and fluidly, almost cinematically, not just on all parts and corners of the minimalist stage, but all around the audience as well.  Newell’s direction is confident and unfussy, which to this audience member is exactly what an already complexly-layered, metaphor-filled, stylistically-abundant play needs.  Unlike the Trib’s main gripe (in what can only be described as the Yelp version of theater reviews, in its, uhmm, substance), I don’t think Newell needs to stage the arrival of the Angel as if a tsunami has struck Hyde Park. Chris, it is fine as it is.

What I expected the Trib  and the other middling reviews this production received to have pointed out is how Kushner’s writing is still so potent for us today, when many people, gay and straight, have begun to engage in unprotected sex with a notion that this is ok; or how the character of Joe Pitt seems so apt in embodying the hypocrisy of the conservative tea-party-ers and their ilk who are currently irreparably damaging the social fabric of American society;  or how the contrast between Roy Cohn’s and Prior Walter’s healthcare situations is so resonant in the distressingly have and have-not divisions of our own current healthcare environment. No, the Reader for example, spent more time reporting on its intermission poll of how much of a “period piece” this whole play is. Really?  Well, my dear readers, hopefully after reading this post, you will go out and run to see this important and still-resonant production and decide for yourselves.

Run to Hyde Park to particularly see some of the best acting onstage in Chicago right now. Larry Yando is spectacular as Roy Cohn, erasing any memories of Al Pacino’s Emmy-winning performance: frightening and bombastic, acerbically wily yet melancholy and impressively defiant to the end.  It is a gargantuan performance that is truly one of the most impressive I’ve seen in recent Chicago theater (his first scene with the telephone is a marvel of verbal dexterity and focus). Rob Lindley’s Prior Walter is beautifully, thoughtfully layered – sad, frightened, perplexed by his Angel visions, he is also a Prior with an energetic will to hang on and prevail. Hollis Resnik’s multiple characters (a Rabbi, Ethel Rosenberg, Joe’s mother Hannah, the oldest living Bolshevik) are infused with the actor’s innate warmth and intelligence, and well-honed subtlety.  Resnik has a lot of big moments in the two plays, but she is most effective, I think, in her quiet final scene in Part I:  Millennium Approaches, when, through inflection and intentional body movement as she sells her house in Utah, she communicates Hannah’s ambivalence at confronting Joe’s confession about his sexual orientation, and her unacknowledged confusion with her own.  Heidi Kettenring as Harper, Eddie Bennett as Louis, Mary Beth Fisher as a very earth-bound and funny Angel and various characters, and Michael Pogue as Belize, Cohn’s nurse and Prior’s best friend, all give finely-crafted characterizations (although Pogue seems a little overwhelmed in Part I, but comes into his own in Part II).  But their roles are mammoth, attention-grabbing roles with universe-exploding scenes.  So, I think ultimately, for me, the MVP in this production is the graceful Geoff Packard whose Joe Pitt has the most restrained and most internalized characterization.  Packard is excellent and manages to impressively become a quiet anchor amidst all of Kushner’s fiery speeches, grand ambitions, and widescreen shots. Packard’s scenes with Bennett’s Louis and Kettenring’s Harper, meticulously forlorn, are the scenes that, for me, demonstrate without a doubt, Kushner’s contention that Angels in America, despite its epic reputation, is a “series of 71 intimate scenes.” It is an incredibly detailed performance (you can see Packard jingle the keys in his trouser pocket in a rhythm that reflects Pitt’s emotional state in the hospital visit scene with Cohn).

It’s not a perfect play or production.  Part I: Millennium Approaches drags in some stretches of its three hour length.  The heaven scenes in Part II: Perestroika come off awkwardly staged. Keith Parham’s overall lighting design is terrific, seamlessly blending natural and stylized, but the lighting effects during the Angel’s arrival are jarring. I’m not a big fan of the hug-it-out ending which comes off as a whimper after the firecracker grandiosity of the past seven hours. But it is a play that still demands to be seen, not just by gay people, not just by people who love theater, but also by people who are genuinely concerned with today’s world.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is essential viewing. The Court production is a significant revival, in my opinion. Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika run in repertory until June 3 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue.  Check the Court website for the days when you catch both parts, which should be an exhilarating, though time-intensive, experience!

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4 Responses to “Canvass”

  1. Esther Says:

    I’m so thrilled you finally got to see Angels in America onstage.

    I saw the production at the Signature Theatre in New York last April and it was one of the most unforgettable theatre experiences I’ve had. Like you, I’d read the play and seen the HBO version but watching it unfold right in front of me was like 7 1/2 hours of theatre bliss.

    I certainly understand its importance for gay men and I don’t want to lessen that. But maybe because I’m Jewish, I was struck by how Jewish it seemed. Every character is wrestling with something – with AIDS or mental illness or coming out. There was also a great deal of humor in the production I saw.

    But most of all, I was swept away by the language. Some of the dialogue is so lyrical, it’s like poetry. It’s also a deeply spiritual play. Kushner could have written a very grim work but he didn’t. It’s tremendously life-affirming.

    Well, I could talk about it forever, which I guess is the sign of a great work.

    And I wish I could have seen David Cromer’s version. That must have been interesting!

  2. francis Says:

    Thanks Esther! I was planning to see Signature’s production last year, but couldn’t fit it into my NYC work trip schedule.

    You are right, what is one of the most wonderful things about Kushner’s writing is that it careens through themes, both big and small; Jewish, gay, political; tragi-comic and snark. Yet of all of it makes sense and come together. That’s what’s terrific about this play.

    And I am really impressed by this Court production, which Kushner has participated in…Newell just gives the room to the play and a really exceptional acting ensemble.

  3. Henry Says:

    I saw Angels when it premiered on Broadway. I saw the Hypocrites production. I have the DVD of the HBO film. And now Court’s. From the Broadway production, i was gripped by the significance of Angels on all levels. I was disappointed with the production itself, being a very traditional staging. I was in awe of Marcia Gay Harden. For me, she is still the best Harper. She can play CRAZY like no other. Most of all, it introduced me to Mr Kushner, and i’ve since seen Homebody/Kabul, The Illusion, Caroline or change, and the Intelligent Homo… He is such an important playwright and as Esther said, the dialogue is poetry. I was glad that i saw a number of productions from smaller theaters. The Hypocrites version was, honestly, not that interesting. The only thing i can remember was Kurt Ehrmann playing Mr Cohn like a bully.

    With this new production at Court, i appreciate that certain things were shown in a new light. I thought the stage design was powerful. Larry Yando is now neck to neck with Al Pacino as the best Roy Cohns ever. I appreciate how the Angel is somehow portrayed as more human. People expect angels to be perfect, like you would with the Elves on Lord of the Rings. But the message here is they are really dumb and beautiful creatures. So Ms Fisher’s comic turn was welcoming. I see the meddling opinions about whether this revival is relevant at this point. YES. The rise yet again of HIV infection, the 99% vs 1%, all these are so resonant. But most of all, the language, the words, resonate that most. Great theater is great theater. Be it 10 years later, or 100 years late.

  4. francis Says:

    Thanks Henry! Very well put. That’s why I am quite disappointed that two major reviews, the Tribune and the Reader, chose to not talk about how the play, like all great works of art, still talk to us today in a powerful, jumpstarting manner, and instead focus on petty gripes.

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