Tuesday, April 24, 2012

ANGELS IN AMERICA PART TWO: PERESTROIKA • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog's repertory cycle of Angels in America culminates with Part Two: Perestroika, and it continues to impress.  The themes introduced in Part One: Millennium Approaches (you can read about that here) are plumbed even more deeply as the paths of Tony Kushner's cast of characters continue to cross, in the most remarkable ways, providing the connective tissue that makes this play a challenging but incredibly rewarding journey -- for the actors (whom I have the highest respect for), as well as the audience.

When we left off, Prior Walter (again, an amazing Ben Watts), suffering from AIDS and abandoned by his boyfriend Louis Ironson (Aaron Gotzon), is visited by the vision of his fever dreams -- the powerful and splendid Angel of America (a compelling Sarajane Alverson), who tells him that he must "prepare the way", for soon, "the great work begins".  This is where we pick up.

This Angel doesn't come with good tidings.  She comes with a prophecy for Prior, whether he wants it or not, and a plea for humanity to "stop moving".  In an arresting scene spiked with humor, The Angel explains how the migratory tendency of human beings drove God from heaven (on April 18, 1906 -- the date of the devastating San Francisco earthquake), leaving the Council (of Angels) powerless and alone.  Angels can't create -- they can only observe, and The Angel of America's mission is to get Prior, and everyone else on her part of the planet, to be still.  To halt progress.  So hopefully for heaven's sake at least, God will return.  Prior tries to make the argument that humans aren't rocks, so for us, migration and change are innate.  <-- Major theme going on right there.  Movement and progression are inevitable for the earthbound.  How we steer it though, is a decision heftily laid on us alone, cause it seems that God has left the building.

Sarajane Alverson (The Angel) and Ben Watts (Prior Walter).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Meanwhile, our "anti-hero", the famous attorney Roy Cohn (David Wassilak), is in a hospital bed, also ravaged by AIDS, although he sits on a dragon's hoard of AZT -- an early, VERY hard-to-get drug that seems promising in the treatment of the AIDS virus.  Along with facing disbarment on the grounds of unethical and unprofessional conduct, Cohn also faces his own spectral visits from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Laura Kyro).  Cohn had Ethel and her husband executed for Communist activities in the 50's -- the first execution of civilians for espionage in United States history, and Ethel's hatred for him hasn't diminished over the years one bit.  She's on a death watch, and checks in with Cohn every now and then to give him updates on the disbarment committee hearings to let him know whether or not he'll die as he wants to -- as a lawyer.  Belize (Greg Fenner), is Prior's best buddy.  He's a gay ex-drag queen, and has a similar hatred for Cohn and all he stands for, but as his nurse, he's forced to deal with him.  And care for him.

David Wassilak (Roy Cohn) and Stephen Peirick (Joe Pitt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Glimpses of the exceptional performances introduced in Part One are full blown now as more characters step into the foreground, starting with David Wassilak as the venomous Roy Cohn.  He really shines in Part Two, spewing out Cohn's rapid-fire malice while managing to evoke a little humor and sympathy.  Really fun to watch him.  Greg Fenner is again great as Belize, giving him a sarcastic but warm quality of wisdom capable of forgiveness, even for the people he despises.  Laura Kyro sets the stage as Rabbi Chemelwitz in Part One, and she provides the introduction again here, as Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the oldest living Bolshevik, both to great effect.  But she's outstanding in her portrayals of Ethel Rosenberg and Joe Pitt's mother, Hannah, who flies to her son's side when he reveals his homosexuality to her.  Hannah crosses paths with Prior, and these two seemingly polar opposites strike up a friendship of sorts -- honest and compassionate.  "Polars" have a way of meeting up in this play, and the power and gravity of Angels in America seem to lie in the resulting lessons of these encounters that come to a head in Perestroika.  There's a stunning scene where Ethel assists Louis in delivering the Kaddish (a Jewish Prayer for the Dead) to Cohn.  Similar to Belize, Ethel proves capable of sincere forgiveness -- emphasizing a point Belize makes -- forgiveness is maybe where love and justice finally meet. <-- Major theme again.

Sarajane Alverson (The Angel) and Ben Watts (Prior Walter).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Speaking of justice, conservative law clerk, Joe Pitt (Stephen Peirick), has taken up with Prior's very liberal ex, Louis.  Again, strange bedfellows, although their stories are parallel.  They have both abandoned their partners, and Prior and  Harper (the abandoned ones) have a couple more less-than-lucent meetings of their own, one of them being in the Mormon Visitor Center's Diorama Room, where the trek to the "promised land" of Utah is displayed with 3D dummies.  Great scene.  These two, whom I think of as the "castaways", have arguably the biggest arc during the play, although most everyone seems to come full-cirlce to some degree.  Prior finds a strength he didn't know he had, and Harper (Rachel Hanks) finds the courage to move on with optimism.  Perhaps without her delusional travel agent, "Mr. Lies".

The creative team also continue their notable turns and contribute admirably, along with the sure-handed direction of Gary Bell.

This is a play that I can now gladly say, "I've seen it onstage".  Again, it's not to be missed.  This is also one of the hardest things I've ever had to write about.  Why?  Because it's intimidating as fuck, that's why.  But I have the highest admiration for the cast and crew for their obvious commitment, and this is truly a production that has miraculous experiences in store.  See it.  You won't be sorry.


ANGELS IN AMERICA PART TWO: PERESTROIKA

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through May 19 | 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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