Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Angels in America Part I and II

Raquel Duffy and Damien Atkins

The Gay Fantasia takes flight at Soulpepper
Epic theatre that delivers on its promises
by Christian Baines
(photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)
It’s 1985, and Prior, a young gay man afflicted with AIDS has just begun to show visible symptoms. His lover Louis must decide if that ordeal is more than he’s prepared to face. Meanwhile, up-and-coming Mormon legal clerk Joe is caught between his deeply unhappy pill-popping wife Harper, his sociopathic conservative attorney mentor Roy Cohn, his distraught, yet no-nonsense mother Hannah, and the lure of other men’s beds. All while Prior is receiving strange visitations from an angel, calling upon him to stop humanity’s perpetual and seeming destructive march towards progress and change.
All told over two plays, running a total of just over six hours, and it changed the way theatregoers and theatre makers thought about gay stories, AIDS stories and depictions of America forever. What kind of a mind produces such a work? Tony Kushner, who subtitled his phenomenal play “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”. Applied to any other work, it might seem pretentious. Here, it seems an only fair description.

Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk
Angels has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few years, including a revival Off-Broadway, a recent sold-out season in Sydney, and more than one Canadian mounting. Its scope reaches well beyond anything else in the Soulpepper canon this season, and to be blunt, this production, directed by Albert Schultz is probably the best thing to be seen on Toronto stages this year so far – and quite possibly, period.
Schultz is clearly determined to give his production the same sense of fates interwoven that is evident throughout Kushner’s play. The tendency of seemingly unrelated plot elements to move in and out of each other for instance, can seem a little distracting at first. But these alien elements serve to foreshadow important plot and character developments as well. Schultz also gets incredible mileage from Lorenzo Savoini’s superb set design. There’s much to be said for the simple achievement of leaving a bed centre stage for the play’s entirety without it ever feeling intrusive Indeed, if all your cast is doubling, why not your set pieces?  
On that note, Schultz could hardly ask for a cast more worthy of the material. Damien Atkins walks the fine line between camp, desperation, humour and groundedness that instantly charms us into sharing Prior’s journey as patient, pleading lover, and reluctant prophet. As Louis, Gregory Prest maintains a certain manic intensity that keeps alive a character that can – just occasionally – feel a bit buried under the neuroticism of a stereotypical Jewish New Yorker. Mike Ross is a standout as Joe. The love he feels for various characters throughout the play (whatever form that may take) is entirely palpable, making it all the more heartbreaking when the character isn’t able to fully realize any of those loves, and all the more disturbing when he finally snaps over it. Michelle Monteith is an undeniably wispy Harper, and occasionally comes across as a touch young in the part. That said, she’s no less effective for it, commanding the stage with confidence in her encroaching madness, particularly as Harper begins to confront Joe over his attempts to infantilize her.
Troy Adams plays Belize – the pivotal ‘come-back-to-earth-mon-cher’ voice in this world of celestial, neurotic, medical, religious and political dramas. Adams spills his insightful and comedic light across the stage whenever he appears – particularly in one scene that sees him put down an inadvertently racist rant from Louis with trademark elegance. Adams also nails the character’s femininity. Like Atkins, he hits precisely the right balance between camp and charming, and watching the two bounce off one another is an absolute treat. Likewise, Diego Matamoros as Roy Cohn – a performance that finds the necessary humour in this character to elevate him above mere villain status – and Nancy Palk’s Ethel Rosenberg. Yes, Palk is great as Joe’s mother Hannah as well, but it’s her moments as the ghostly Ethel that really delight, as she takes silent revenge upon the man who sent her to execution.
The reverence so many hold for Angels in America has resulted (among other things) in a dearth of opportunities to see it. Sheer scale aside, no theatre company wants to risk mounting it poorly. Such is the esteem it holds. When we talk about theatre as an event, and talk about its potential to change lives and the way we view ourselves, this is the kind of show to which we’re referring. Soulpepper’s Angels is a rare opportunity to see a truly first class production of this seminal work. 
Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika run in repertory at Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 14 September 28.

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