Review: Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Presenter: Black Swan State Theatre Company
By Rhys Tarling
Photo by Daniel James Grant
Although this Pulitzer Prize winning play is set in 1985, and had its premiere in 1991, the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of Angels in America is an unerring portrait of now; its characters are disjointed, fearful, and solipsistic. The ‘Angels’ part of Angels in America feels like it should be spoken with an ironic sneer; so far from grace are these lost souls. Angels in America has the kind of bone chilling urgency, baked into the DNA of its story that is made all the more potent by the passage of time.
For the uninitiated, Angels in America follows the lives of two seemingly different couples, Louis Ironson (Will O’Mahony) and Prior Walter (Adam Booth), and lawyer Joe Pitt (Stuart Halusz) and his wife Harper (Jo Morris).
Louis’ and Prior’s relationship is put under enormous strain because Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS. Joe Pitt is offered a career defining position in Washington by his gruff and powerful mentor Roy Cohn (John Stanton), but the move from New York to Washington proves to be a terrifying proposition for his delusional and Valium-addicted wife Harper.
Despondent and lonely, Louis and Joe’s paths cross and they strike an unlikely friendship that has the potential to develop into something more, as Joe struggles with his latent homosexuality. Meanwhile, their respective lovers suffer from hallucinations that speak to either a garden variety descent into madness or the divine and fiery touch of holy truth.
The truth and power operate in a myriad of complex ways in Angels in America. Roy Cohn, closeted and ardently right-wing lawyer is afflicted with AIDS from his numerous sexual encounters with men. This powerful man pathetically insists to his doctor of thirty years that it’s not AIDS, but cancer. After all, only homosexuals can catch AIDS. Well, who’s going to argue with a man who is so securely positioned within the corridors of power? If he says it’s cancer, it must be so. At least it is so within the bleak and callous America showcased here, one where the Reagan family only “talk to each other through their agents” and love is immediately traded wholesale for emotional safety.
And then there’s Prior Walter who, unlike Roy Cohn, is thoroughly lacking in any kind of power – he can’t even convince his lover to stay and he’s a gay man with AIDS in 80s America. Marginalised and abandoned, his gangly body contorts and writhes in unnatural ways as he’s made to see ghastly things. A mysterious angel attemps to communicate with him to tell Prior Walter a beautiful truth that may yet redeem a venal and casually cruel world. There’s a suggestion here that it is indeed the despised and disenfranchised who are the only ones worthy of saving us all. These magical sequences capture Tony Kushner’s wildest flights of fancy in ways that are nightmarish and magnificent. It’s exquisitely involving beyond articulation.
On a technical level the production showcases the times convincingly, right down to the chunky can of Coca-Cola, the sleek conservative suits, and a velour nightgown. The staging and lighting is immaculately done, granting the proceedings a feel that is either blindingly, thunderously operatic or claustrophobic and intimate, depending on the specific needs of the scene. Superb direction by Kate Cherry, here. In fact, superb work by everybody involved in this production, from the unseen technicians to the actors who hold our attention through this nearly 3 hour odyssey.
This production succeeds marvellously, despite the fact that the second act meanders a little in comparison to its cracking and snappy opening. Nevertheless, with its synthesis of biting humour, realism, fantasy, and a humanist heart that beats for both its villains and victims, Angels in America is a triumph that honours the legacy of one of the most important plays of the 20th century. Simply put, the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Angels in America is the look and sound of pros doing their jobs properly.
Angels in America is now showing at the Heath Ledger Theatre until June 19.
For tickets and information please go to the Black Swan State Theatre Company website.