Angels in America: Loving A Gay Fantasia on National Themes One More Time.

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Amanda Lawrence. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Angels in America: “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.”

By Ross

I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was to have the opportunity to sit through another 7 1/2 hours of Angels in America last week.  I had seen the NTLive’s screening last summer at BAM’s Rose Theaters of this very production filmed when it was playing at the National Theatre in London, but now, because of the good grace of my blog, I was going to be able to sit in the glow of this magnificent production once again, but this time at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway, live, just as it should be seen.  And if anyone doesn’t already have tickets, I suggest you get up off your butts and get them now.  This is a once in a lifetime kind of production that will move you beyond anything that you’ve seen before, shattering your senses and tearing your heart to pieces.

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Denise Gough, Lee Pace, Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Is that a good enough reference? I have written quite an extensive review of the screening back last July, (click here to read it) and although I don’t want to repeat myself too much (warning, I will), I will say that what I wrote a lot about, especially at the beginning of the review, was my own particular viewing history of the play, and how other actors seem to haunt me as I take in a new production, whether I like it or not.  The HBO television spirits of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Mary Louise Parker, along with the stage ghosts of Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, (the spectacular) Marcia Gay Harden, and Jeffrey Wright watched over me last summer, poking around my mind, asking me to not forget them and their spectacular performances, but I must say that as I sat and watched this current production on Broadway, I had no bothersome memories tugging at me, beyond the occasional one from MLP.  Maybe that is because I saw this production before on screen which helped put the past to rest, or maybe the wondrous direction of Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse), has forced the past to leave me alone, and not intervene on second viewing.  What ever the reason, this current revival, sure to be nominated numerous times this coming award season, is as solidly majestic and complete as one could wish for, and that is quite the understatement, if you ask me. Words can barely describe its wonder.

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Lee Pace. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

The magnificent cast: Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Amanda Lawrence, James McArdle, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett are all reprising their roles from the National Theatre’s production, deepening and electrifying their performances with every breath they take.  The only change from London is in the very tall and handsome form of Lee Pace, taking over the part of the closeted Mormon, Joseph Pitt from the wonderful Russell Tovey (The View from the Bridge).  And he is folded into this tight cast most excellently, creating possibly even a stronger, angrier presence for the troubled gay man than before.  His performance, sure to be nominated, is on equal footing to the others, rising up to the challenge and making Joseph one of the more tragic souls that walk across the stage.  The other addition, one that I didn’t get an opportunity to see is Beth Malone, who has joining the cast as an alternative angel, sharing the role with Lawrence on specific performances, but not the one I saw.

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Lee Pace, Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Beyond those casting changes, the production has arrived pretty fully intact.  Ian MacNeil’s scenic design seems to have been adjusted quite well in order to fit the smaller and far less deep stage on Broadway.  From the screening, the National Theatre seemed vastly wider and deeper, giving the revolving tripod of set pieces plenty of space to create all those exciting environments for this cast to roam.  That depth worked incredibly well there, especially in Part 2 when the scenes of suffering started to layer on top of each other, forcing us to recognize their connective tissues even though the story lines and situations were far apart.  It didn’t work as well on this Broadway stage. The layers seemed too close for comfort but overall, the tightness didn’t hurt the formulations of these emotional bonds either.  They crowded around each other in a way that felt more intimate and frighteningly sad, creating a powerfully tight world for this epic tale to play out on. For me, the heart-breaking and powerful 7 1/2 hours flew by, carried on the energy and excitement of the audience and the intensity of the wings of an angel, and I was honored to be in its presence.

Listen to the world, to how fast it goes. That’s New York traffic, baby, that’s the sound of energy, the sound of time.

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Andrew Garfield. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches

Part One: Millennium Approaches is by far the most beautiful and far reaching introduction to a place and time representing the History of Gay America in the 1980’s. The opening monologue, a speech by an old Jewish rabbi, played effortlessly by Brown (National Theatre’s Husbands & Sons) mysteriously tells us all we need to know for the next 3 plus hours, and maybe for the entirety.  Not in terms of the old Jewish woman laying in the coffin, which it does, but about the world and people we are about to embrace.  It’s such a sly and wonderful piece of writing that sneaks into our collective soul, and sets us up on almost all levels for what is in store.  It’s about death, love, life, but it’s also about pain, suffering, guilt, and abandonment. One thing you can say about Kushner and his writing of Part One, is that there isn’t a moment of excess or a wasted scene that could be edited out.  Every word seems meaningful in this over three hour beginning.

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James McArdle, Andrew Garfield. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Andrew Garfield (Mike Nichols’ Death of a Salesman) as Prior gives us 1980’s camp artfully masking the frightened young boy beneath. I have heard from many younger gay men that this ‘girlish’ portrayal feels insulting, but I disagree.  This front was something quite commonly donned, as an armor and a shield against all that would want to harm.  It’s a powerful statement against oppressive forces, and one that feels as authentic and real as any. Garfield leads us through the dark and heaviness of this play with the power and grace of the true star that he is, giving us an unforgettable portrayal that is as deep and meaningful as it is funny and smart. James McArdle (Chichester Festival Theatre’s Platonov) as his guilt-ridden boyfriend, Louis is epically perfect in his word play, hiding quite simply behind the intellectual waterfall of words and ideas. His defensiveness doesn’t in the end do the job he thought it would in protecting him, as most beautifully pointed out by Belize, archly portrayed by the wonderful Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (National Theatre’s The History Boys) but it does distract him just enough for him to see just how far he is from being engaged with the world around him.

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James McArdle, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Stewart-Jarrett gets one of the only rousing applause-filled entrances in this play, which is a wonder and a gift.  He’s brilliant at every turn of phrase, but I was surprised by his welcome. The crowd got it right to applaud, he is justly deserving of praise. Lee Pace, who was memorable in Broadway’s The Normal Heart, for which he won a Drama Desk Award, is absolutely sublime as Joe. The battle that plays out inside his head ricochets throughout the theatre and into our hearts. It has an added edge of brutal rage that I thought was most intense, disturbing, and threatening all at the same time. Pace’s size gives Joe a physical presence that is slightly more frightening at moments, but also makes him seem more pathetic in his misery.

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Denise Gough, Nathan-Stewart Jarrett. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Denise Gough (National Theatre’s People, Places, & Things) as Joe’s tortured and torturing wife, Harper tackles maybe one of the hardest parts in this complex play and triumphs against all odds (Marcia Gay Harden and Mary Louise Parker must be giving her virtual standing ovations nightly). Her dementia is thoughtful and profound, leading us through her fear and distrust with a intelligence and bravery that is awe inspiring. Once again, I was surprised by the scene when Harper and Prior connect for the first time. Something about these two coming together is by far the most electric and emotionally engaging tie in the play, making tears flow down my face almost instantly. The thin hair of connective tissue between these two holds this piece together in the same way that their revelations sink deep inside, destroying and freeing themselves all within the same breath. The fragile and intimate way they can see inside the other and know their pain is what creates the added weight and meaning to the whole.

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Susan Brown. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

Amanda Lawrence and Susan Brown have the joy and the difficulty of playing numerous roles spanning from a nurse, a Mormon neighbor, a male doctor, Joe’s mother, a homeless woman, Ethel Rosenberg, to a Rabbi and an angel. Gough also has the opportunity to showcase her skills playing a smarmy male friend of Roy Cohn. All with an ease that makes it look effortless. Nathan Lane (Broadway’s The Front Page), as the closeted Roy Cohn is the biggest and strongest surprise of the evening.  The comedian that has charmed us all and made us laugh in shows like The Producers has proven once again that to be a brilliant and true comedian, one must almost also be a deeply smart and intense actor. His Roy Cohn is as layered and fiery as one could hope for, funny but devastating, cruel but desperate for connection. It’s a magnificent performance and one I’m sure will not be forgotten when the award nominations are announced later this month. He, and the others bring the humor to the front without distancing themselves from the pain and suffering that surrounds.

I want the voice, it’s wonderful. It’s all that’s keeping me alive.

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Nathan Lane, Susan Brown. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.
Kushner spoke often about Angels in America‘s need to be seen as artificial in a theatrical manner, with all strings and artifice showing itself. And in that stance, the National Theatre’s grand and intimate production succeeds gloriously.  The set by MacNeil (National’s Machinal), with a repeat of the expert lighting by Paule Constable (Broadway’s Wolf Hall) and perfect costuming by Nicky Gillibrand (National’s The Seagull) expands and highlights all aspects of this play (choreography and movement by Robby Graham, music by Adrian Sutton, sound by Ian Dickinson).  It effortlessly transitions and blends from one moment to another, emotionally and visually. The intimacy is palpable, especially in the intricate revolves. It pulls us in to the tremendously engaging story of the AIDS crisis in America, a conservative Reagan administration doing nothing to help these strange and wonderful New Yorkers who are grappling with life and death, love and sex, and most importantly of all, heaven and the hell we can create for ourselves on earth.
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Beth Malone. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

 

Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika

Greetings, Prophet. The Great Work Begins. The Messenger Has Arrived.

One of the striking things about Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika is just how epic and large Kushner’s stroke is as he paints his canvas. He opens this second half with the oldest living Russian Bolshevik (Brown) giving a speech about revolution, passion, and theory. It’s captivating in its word play painting a deep psychological meaning about living life and moving forward. Not just for Russians, or persons with AIDS but for humanity as a whole. He spins words and ideas that are sometimes overwhelming in the moment but are never without passion and heavy meaning on the bigger canvas. Hanging on to these ideas as the next four hours progress through heaven and earth, only add to their power and brilliance.  Kushner shapes our mind, preparing us for what is to follow, unconsciously, and brilliantly, because the work really has begun for these souls.

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James McArdle. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

I have heard from a number of theatre goers that Part Two should be edited down well beyond its plus four hour length. They say the story could and would still be told with a good 30 minutes at least cut, and I agree with that point if story-telling is all we are here for. But like great works of Shakespeare and others, the piece would lose a great deal of its magic with each subtraction of text. Ever word and utterance feels important somehow, and I truly believe they are, in a way that is unconscious or unfathomable. Maybe not in the moment, but when it is all said and done, the piece carries the weight well. The canvas is brilliant to behold long after the last stroke is applied. And I wouldn’t want to lose one phrase for the sake of a few minutes here and there.

 “The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter. Ice in the pipes. But in the summer…it’s a sight to see, and I want to be around to see it. I plan to be, I hope to be.
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Andrew Garfield, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.
The lead actors are as magnificent as they are in Part One. Not surprisingly, they dig deeper into our souls with each overlapping scene and interaction. Garfield’s Prior becomes much more than a victim of AIDS but a prophet and brave forger for life and love. His surprising entanglement and deepening connection to Gough’s Harper makes my heart ache every moment these two souls see into each other’s pain, but the truly spectacular connection is the one Prior has with Brown’s Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother. Hannah finds herself lost and adrift in Manhattan, with no connection to her son or daughter-in-law. She has been abandoned by them just like Prior has by Louis, making it one of the most touching bonds formed in the whole nine hours of Angels. At first it is one helping the other out of an emergency need, but in the end, their comradory is equal and needed by both. Watching Hannah open up to the magical possibilities of the world and beyond is magnificent to witness, both in terms of the piece as a whole and an actor truly inhabiting a role in its entirety. It triggers so much deep emotional connections to the maternal other, that at moments I found it hard to take in.
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Susan Brown. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.
That being said, a lot of the real magic of the second half lies in the hands of the two women who feel like supporting roles in Part One. Brown is not only magnificent and perfect as the Mormon mother breaking the stereotypical mold, but is equally mesmerizing as the Bolshevik and as Ethel Rosenberg watching over the hellaciously fantastic Lane in his death bed. Amanda Lawrence (Young Vic’s Government Inspector) also carries a ton of the weight of this colorful canvas on her magical wings.  As the angel that descends from the heavens, the actress, with a fantastically assist from the team of players that manipulate the winged creature (puppetry designers: Nick Barnes, Finn Caldwell; puppetry director and movement: Finn Caldwell; illusions: Chris Fisher; aerial direction: Gwen Hales; fight director: Kate Waters) create something together that is stupendously theatrical and out-of-this-world.  It’s beauty and it’s resplendent majesty resonates beyond the dramatics, especially when taken to the extremes with in the heavenly scene up above. It hits us deep, much deeper than one might expect.
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Denise Gough, Andrew Garfield. National Theatre. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
There is that beautiful moment when Prior leaves Heaven for the real world, choosing life over freedom from suffering, climbing down into his hospital bed. It’s inexplicably emotional, resonating down into our animalistic urges for survival. The assist he gets from the black shapes that slid and move us from one world to the other is profoundly magical and clever and the perfection of the theatrical design is breathtaking in Prior’s Heavenly ascendancy and even more so in his descent. The humor and care that is found upon his return makes the heart break with an even more real and powerful intensity, far greater because of his heavenly voyage and personal choice, and our knowledge of its weight.
This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and will struggle on with the living and we are not going away.
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Nathan Lane, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.
Heaven it seems, in Angels in America, is something far more than what is described in the text.  The Shakespearean quality of the dialogue echoes around the theatre, adding a dynamic that connects Prior with the omnipresence of all, and to our spirit.  His desire to live, even with all the pain and suffering that he will have to endure, pulls on our collective heart. It’s the desire to live over all else, even when given a chance to end his suffering and remain in heaven. Just like many other moments in this wondrous conclusion, an overwhelming desire to live and connect, even if that connection will bring pain, is the choice that is held onto.  Harper’s beautiful monologue as she flies off through the sky in search of meaning, speaks, once again, to the collective.  The dead will rise, and join hands in a hopeful act of saving others, so in the end, it is really just about creating something more meaningful and beautiful than what and how life is initially seen. Gloriousness can be found, even at the end of a person’s life, and at the end of this lovely heart-wrenching story.
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James McArdle, Susan Brown, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Andrew Garfield. Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

(Still) A Gay Fantasia on National Themes both Past and Present

We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.

Maybe it doesn’t feel as true as it did when I first heard those words thirty years ago. The world, at least in this America, feels less safe or less progressive as it did even 2 years ago. I thought this nation was heading somewhere better, but in these dark times, we have to believe, I guess, in the bigger picture of civilization.  We need to look beyond what we are stuck with now, just like these complex characters had to do back then.

We can’t stand still. We will #Resist and move forward. With all our might.

Bye now, you are fabulous each and every one and I bless you. More life, the great work begins.

 

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2 thoughts on “Angels in America: Loving A Gay Fantasia on National Themes One More Time.

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