Tuesday, April 17, 2012

ANGELS IN AMERICA PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES • Stray Dog Theatre

"Prepare the way…" -- a supernatural admonition given to a young man in 1985, new to his first lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma, a devastating indication of the AIDS virus.  Meanwhile, a valium-addicted housewife calls on "Mr. Lies", her hallucinogen-induced travel agent, ready to take her wherever she needs to go, for an escape from her phobias and suspicions about her husband, Joe.  Across town, Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Communist spy in 1953, appears as a ghost to Roy Cohn, a right-wing closeted lawyer, chiefly responsible for putting the Rosenbergs in the chair.  He counts this among his major accomplishments.  He's also infected with AIDS.

The scope Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winning two-part epic, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes", is broad.  Incorporating the topics of AIDS, religion, death, politics, corruption, and then some, with a few supernatural visits thrown in, could seem over-whelming, if not for Kushner's ability to bring all of these subjects down to a common denominator.  A responsive chord that brings Reagan-Era philosophies and the hopeless devastation of the AIDS virus together under the ageless umbrella of an undeniable humanity.

Stray Dog Theatre's latest offering, Angels in America, in an already ambitious season, is very impressive under Gary Bell's magnificent direction, and will be presented with both parts -- Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika, in weekly repertory.  A rare treat.

Aaron Paul Gotzon (Louis Ironson) and Ben Watts (Prior Walter).
Photo credit: John Lamb
As wide as the landscape of this play is, it begins with an intimate introduction of two couples and their parallel unraveling.  Louis (Aaron Gotzon) is a Jewish word processor and fierce liberal, having a very hard time coping with his boyfriend Prior's (Ben Watts) first indications of AIDS.  Then we have a Mormon couple, Joe (Stephen Peirick) and Harper (Rachel Hanks).  Joe is a Republican law clerk, struggling with his sexual identity.  His ambitions for a higher position in the Justice Department are hindered by his wife Harper, a valium-addicted open wound, tangled in a marriage that's more platonic than anything else.  Louis and Joe meet at work and the "castaways", Prior and Harper, meet each other in a dream.  Well, Prior's fever dream and Harper's hallucination.

Rachel Hanks (Harper Pitt)
and Stephen Peirick (Joe Pitt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The performances of these four central characters were pretty strong across the board.  Ben Watts leads the pack as a superb Prior, full of the courage he doesn't know he has yet.  It took Gotzon's Louis a little longer to really settle in, but once he does, it's very rewarding.  Peirick's Joe Pitt makes you feel like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Hanks as his wife Harper evokes sympathy as one who seems to have only a tenuous at best grasp on her surroundings.

From these two couples, we meet the associated cast of characters.  David Wassilak is delicious as the caustic aforementioned Roy Cohn, the personification of Reagan-era greed.  Greg Fenner is wonderful as ex-drag queen, Belize, a registered nurse and Prior's best buddy, as well as "Mr. Lies".  Laura Kyro delivers a wonderful turn as the Rabbi in the beginning, and later as Hannah, Joe's mom, who sells her house in Utah to go to her son in NYC to look after him and his wife.  The excellent and versatile Sarajane Alverson plays Prior's nurse, a deranged woman in the Bronx, and gives us a glorious snippet of "The Angel of America" at the end.  Before it's all over, this cast of eight will inhabit multiple roles, a couple as many as five or six, often crossing gender lines, and if Part One is any indication, Part Two will also be stunning.

Great use is made of the space at Tower Grove Abbey, and the creative team brought it.  Justin Been's beautiful scenic design incorporating many locations, and his backdrop of various textures, along with his additional contributions of projection and sound design are pitch-perfect.  He must have an "S" on his chest or something.  Tyler Duenow's lighting design perfectly spotlights the action -- there are a few scenes back-and-forth between the couples where one is lit and the other couple remains fixed in tableaus in the shadows.  Love...  Alexandra Scibetta Quigley's costume design is also spot-on.

Rachel Hanks (Martin Heller), David Wassilak (Roy Cohn),
and Stephen Peirick (Joe Pitt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
I had only seen the HBO mini-series of this play and honestly, was a little nervous  about seeing the production as it was intended -- onstage.  Well, onstage is better.  Why?  Duh, visceral experiences!  This intimate presentation exemplifies my favorite thing about theatre -- it's in your face.  A completely engrossing experience.  Get your tickets now.  Seriously.  Again, the opportunity to see both parts of Angels in America is a rare treat NOT to be missed.  It's long, yes.  But more than worth the time and money.  Basically, if you love some theatre, and you let this play pass you by, well…  you're stupid.  Ha!  Just kidding.  Kinda…

Remember, performances begin at 7:30pm.


Ben Watts (Prior Walter) and Greg Fenner (Belize).
Photo credit: John Lamb
ANGELS IN AMERICA PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through May 12 | tickets: $18 - $20; two show season tickets: $33 - $37
Thursday – Saturday at 7:30pm.  This production will have no matinee performances.  Both parts presented in repertory.

Part One: Millennium Approaches
April 12 to 14, April 26 to 28, May 10 to 12.

Part Two: Perestroika
April 19 to 21, May 3 to 5, May 17 to 19.

Cast:
Ben Watts (Prior Walter/The Man in the Park), Aaron Gotzon (Louis Ironson/The Angel Australia/Sarah Ironson), Rachel Hanks (Harper Pitt/Martin Heller/The Angel Africa), Stephen Peirick (Joe Pitt/The Ghost of Prior I/The Eskimo/The Mormon Father/The Angel Europa), Laura Kyro (Hannah Pitt/Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz/Henry/Ethel Rosenberg/Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov/The Angel Asiatica), Greg Fenner (Belize/Mr. Lies/The Mormon Son, Caleb/The Angel Oceania), Sarajane Alverson (The Angel/Emily/Sister Ella Chapter/The Woman in the South Bronx/The Mormon Mother/The Mormon Son, Orrin) and David Wassilak (Roy Cohn/The Ghost of Prior II/The Angel Antarctica).

Creative:
Projection, scenic and sound design by Justin Been; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; dramaturg, Nikki Lott; stage manager, Justin Been.

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