One amazing thing about Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America is that somehow the playwright has been able to create a colossal experience, tackling so many ideas that could easily lose us with overreaching, but doesn't.
And it's very funny.
The Rogue Theatre has embraced Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches, with great respect, and what results is a production that smashes gently and clamors quietly into and around us.
And although Kushner reckons with an enormous catalog of ideas, there's a simplicity about it. It's both epic and intimate.
Kushner has set his play in New York in the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic, in 1986. To those unfamiliar with the entrance of AIDS into our history, this aspect of Kushner's story may seem overwrought. But in '91, when Kushner's play was first produced, the mangled world of gay men, their fear and the shame of their wasted bodies leading to inevitable death was still raw. This "plague" affected lovers, friends and families in a most physically ugly and gut-wrenching way. President Reagan and his Republican "morality" was slow to respond while thousands of young men died. And into this mess loomed the coming of a new millennium. What was in store? Could we allow this devastation to coax us into a new world?
This is not merely a play about AIDS. In the handful of characters Kushner creates we see an array of association and connection across what we often perceive as boundaries. Joe (Ryan Parker Knox) is the closeted Mormon lawyer bound by his beliefs and repressed homosexuality. He works for Jewish powerbroker Roy Cohn (Joseph McGrath)—an actual person fictionalized here—who is dying of AIDS, but insists he is not a homosexual but merely a powerful man who sometimes sleeps with men. Cohn wants to send loyal Joe to Washington to be another insider working for Cohn in unethical ways, which of course compounds Joe's conflict. Louis (Brian Hendricks), upon learning that his lover Prior (Christopher Johnson) has AIDS, leaves him because he just can't deal with the stink of disease. Lou tries to justify his cowardice in intellectual prattle with his black drag queen friend, Belize (Sterling Boyns), who will have none of it. Lou works in the same building as Joe and they become intertwined, and Joe's wife, Harper (Holly Griffith), is horribly unhappy and relies on Valium to escape her misery, which she knows arises from Joe's pain and confusion. Harper's dreams intersect with Prior's visions as his dementia progresses, his world expanding to include dead ancestors and heavenly beings.
History, power, religion, politics, race, disease, marriage, homosexuality, spirituality—oh, and Ethel Rosenberg—all in one play? Even the idea of attempting such a thing would be laughable to good playwrights, but Kushner is gifted with a skill that allows him to distill, to discover and to deliver a marvel of a vision.
The folks at Rogue do a really good job with this difficult piece. Company member Matt Bowdren, whose acting skills have been featured for several years at Rogue, directed this version, pulling together the vast reach of its parts into a clear and singular product. Assisted by the efforts of many fine performers, his vision melds fluidly with Kushner's, and the epic tale we see here, echoes the simple and the complex stirrings of Kushner's creation.
Several actors play a number of roles, but those of Cohn, Joe and Louis are each played by single actors. Knox's Joe is perfection, showing us a good man split and sickened by his presence in a world that challenges both his righteousness and a deeper knowledge of who he is. McGrath's Cohn is good, but a much lighter Cohn than many actors have given us, and I think we miss the outrageousness of his loud, proud and flagrant embrace of the essence of evil. Louis is a character we are inclined to dislike because of his abandonment of Prior, and for his attempt to reason his way out of his failing. It's a very challenging role, and although Hendricks' approach to carrying its burden is a good effort, it lacks an intensity that can deliver the balance necessary to walk the tightrope of personal guilt and an insistence of the lack of it.
Kushner anoints a full-blown AIDS-afflicted gay man as the prophet leading us into the future. Johnson's Prior is the real deal. He is a sweet and sour, scared but hardly victimized embodiment of birth and death ricocheting around and within a hurt but proud mess of a man. About par for a prophet. And because AIDS is perceived as a gay plague, closet doors become useless, and what spills out is death and anger and pride. And that will change the world.
This is a play that's bigger than actors, and all the often-complicated devices that help tell a story theatrically. Generally, our experience in the theater involves a showcase of fine acting that transforms the playwright's words and themes into a story for us. Here it seems that that Kushner's story requires that the actors submit to his play. The result becomes not so much a display of fine acting, but the actors' humility in the presence of Kushner's vision. As a consequence, this huge story is irresistible.
One thing that the Rogue's production has that no other has had is the music of Jake Sorgen. It's really impossible to imagine that this story could be as well told here without his efforts. His music composed and played live for this show is reflection, a call to action, soothing and igniting as it gives Kushner's mighty work a way to unfold in a singular way.
The second part of Kushner's play, Perestroika, will be presented in a reading Sunday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m.