Angels in America was a sensation when it debuted in 1991, quickly becoming the talk of the town for its tackling of the AIDS crisis, but from the beginning it was clear that the play’s real strength was not as a timely elegy or protest (which it also was), but as a timeless and complex study of humans in mortal crisis and the universal experiences that come to the fore in extremis. Unlikely connections are made in the play, but the layered and parallel storytelling braids them rather than displaying them as pastiche. The humor is humane, situational and rooted in fully realized personalities; it is not cynical or at the expense of people who might be sitting in the audience, even if one sees parts of oneself reflected in the complex but small cast of characters.
Those characters come with unique challenges for the performers, and the play’s breathless pacing ups the ante; there is hardly a moment of silence in the three-hour runtime of Part 1, with rapid-fire dialog regularly becoming rage and hysteria. Despite its density of action and the minimal sets, the play is ripe for many interpretations and a lot can go wrong. If the actors aren’t up to the challenge, the show becomes a grind for the audience. If the set is too clunky or cramped, the flow of action is broken, and so is the spell the play is trying to cast.
But artistic director at Intiman, Andrew Russell, knew this well going in. (He has worked with Kushner directly before.) Russell has helped lead the once ailing Intiman back into the spotlight with many strong productions over the last few years, some of which would have been considered too risky by other outfits. The stakes were high with this production of Angels in America, but already it is clear that Russell and the many talented artists involved were up to the challenge.
The Opening Night
[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he mezzanine at the Cornish Playhouse on opening night was packed with established and emerging artists, theatre lovers and advocates, politicos and researchers. Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Research Centers are leading the charge globally for a vaccine against HIV that could one day all but eradicate the virus. Fred Hutchinson is a presenting partner of the Angels festival at Intiman and a cohort of dedicated researchers were present on opening night, including Michael Van Der Ven, Jim Kublin and Ken Stuart, who founded Seattle BioMed and was just recently awarded the Pioneer of Global Health Award by the Washington Global Health Alliance. Fred Hutchinson’s Director of Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, Julie McElrath spoke to the crowd about the work being done and the passionate hopes behind it that also led to the performance at hand. Indeed, it was a perfect marriage of arts and sciences that one sees too infrequently.
The connection between healthcare and Intiman extends to current board president, Cynthia Huffman, who is also a trustee for Seattle Children’s Hospital. Mayor Ed Murray also attended with husband Michael Shiosaki, director of planning and development for Seattle parks and Recreation. Andrew Russell and Huffman called Murray to speak briefly to the crowd, and Murray used the opportunity to acknowledge the many ghosts in the room, honoring in particular Cal Anderson, the late friend and colleague of Murray and Washington state’s first openly gay legislator, who passed of AIDS-related illness in 1995.
It was a stylish crowd, with executive director of ACT Theatre Carlo Scandiuzzi looking ever the gentleman in a light summer suit, which stood out among the darker cocktail dresses and prim black ensembles worn by young artists, like Juan Franco, Joshua Taylor and Garek Jon Druss. Artist and stylist Anna Telcs looked great in a striped dress and styled the best dressed of the night, dancer Matt Drews and Andrew Russell himself. Telcs selected their ensembles at downtown, upscale boutique Baby & Company, fitting Drews’ graceful physique in a cashmere tunic sweater by Isabel Beneto, an Essemplare cotto pant and Marsell lace up boot. She gave Russell an executive edge that still had color and flair with a Mauro Grifoni suit over an Aglini Shirt and laceless oxford shoes by Marsell.
[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]peaking of clothes…in a production like Angels (whose story takes place in 1985) on a minimal and abstracted set where people are always coming and going, a character and an era must come through immediately with the silent exposition only proper costuming can provide. Costume designer Mark Mitchell nails it. It’s “Morning in America” for closeted conservatives Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn, decked out in silhouettes that fitted, flared and gapped in that unmistakable 80s power suit way. It’s “Mourning in America” for the gay, bohemian intellectuals Prior and Louis, who are introduced to the audience as they return, laughing about their awkward experience at a funeral for Louis’ grandmother; they are wrapped in chunky wool sweaters, which give one a sense of time and place and provide suspense as Prior slowly unrobes to reveal the Kaposi’s Sarcoma indicating that he has HIV and it is progressing. Meanwhile, the estranged, pill-addled Harper Pitt spends her days swathed in a pale, flimsy gown and robe that looks and feels as washed-out as her grip on reality. When in a shared hallucination she and Pryor meet, that flimsy gown is transformed into something more flowing yet fitted, glittering and invested with power.
The delirious, free and imaginative inner life of Harper opposed to the dreary and paranoid “real world” in which she stays locked in the apartment day-in, day-out is just one of many dichotomies explored in Angels. Everyone is between worlds, either leading two lives or at the cusp of this life and the next. The arrogant and corrupt Roy Cohn is both, and actor Charles Leggett deserves special praise among the extremely talented cast for his absolutely masterful performance. He makes it look so easy: the snarling condescension that just barely serves as a veneer for his perpetual terror at losing the power he sees as the most important thing in life. When he speaks of the father-son dynamics with past mentors and protégé Joe Pitt, it is charged not just with a predatory sexual energy but a genuine longing for connection and love that he has discarded on the path to “greatness.” Leggett also nails his portrayal of one of Prior’s ancestors, an aristocrat of le Grand Siècle, and Mitchell is again to be praised for the perfect period costuming of that baroque splendor and the ragged, medieval serf-wear worn by Ty Boice.
Boice as Joe Pitt was perfect as the golden boy who has struggled his entire life to “kill” his homosexuality and has done well professionally even as his personal relations become more poisonous and perilous. Second only to Roy Cohn in unlikability, the acerbic and abstracted Louis Ironson is played on point by Quinn Franzen. (When the night’s one slip occurred—a hot dog malfunction, almost too perfect—Franzen and Boice did not miss a beat, and those who didn’t know better might have sworn it was all part of the plan.)
Alex Highsmith as Harper and Adam Standley as Prior Walter have the most melodramatic parts, and Highsmith in particular was playing to the back of the room, but neither were doing schtick. It would be easy to reduce all of the characters to caricatures of raw emotion, recognizable but detached from something more tangibly human. The real matter of the play is not the events and biographies and idiosyncrasies, but the connections between people that allow us to better understand the universal experience of mortality and decline, abandonment and estrangement, love and friendship, duty and loyalty. The means of facing these things are peculiar to each character: Some are more philosophical, some more pragmatic, some more dramatic, some more cynical, and most everyone is living in some form of denial.
The one person not living in denial is Belize, played by Timothy McCuen Piggee. With less capable acting and direction, Belize can become a pejorative, token role. (Harper, too, as a matter of fact.) Even in well-meaning hands, it is possible for Belize to be reduced to the trope of “the wise person of color, forged by the crucible of oppression”—who is implicitly there to serve white people with that hard-won wisdom. In the right hands, Belize is his own person, is in fact the only truly honest character in the play, true to what he feels he is here to do: to show love, to care for and to heal others. That is Belize’s true nature, and Piggee displayed it with quiet certainty.
Part 1 was a definite success, and Part 2 promises to be a triumphant end. Actors Anne Allgood and Marya Sea Kaminski skillfully played many small roles, shapeshifting as capably as the set itself, which was designed by Jennifer Zeyl. In part 2, Allgood and Kaminski are bound to shine with more stage time as Hannah Pitt and The Angel respectively.
The Angels Project
[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he Angels in America performances are the foundation for Intiman’s broader theatre festival, The Angels Project, which includes several free events in September. On September 8 and 15, Intiman will present Tiny Kushner, which are five recent, short works by the playwright. In a unique method that brings together a diverse group of performers and directors, Andrew Russell assembled a talent pool of more than 25 young artists to direct and act these plays.
It will be a unique collaboration for the directors in particular. I spoke to one, Carl Lawrence, whose background in more experimental performance theatre (working with Saint Genet and Robert Wilson, for instance) will no doubt inform his interpretation of Kushner’s “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy,” a play in which Laura Bush reads Dostoevsky to the heavenly spirits of children killed in the Iraq invasion. The actors include Elizabeth Rathbone as Laura Bush, Maya Sugarman as the angel, and Yadira Duarte narrating. They will be memorable nights and donations will be accepted to support Intiman Theatre’s Festival Intern Program.
Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical The Normal Heart famously deals with the first years of AIDS in America, 1981 through 1984, through the eyes of activist Ned Weeks. Intiman will host the cast of Strawshop’s critically acclaimed production from spring of this year for a reunion reading on Tuesday, September 16. Suggested donations for this event support Fred Hutchinson’s HIV research unit. For theatre lovers and for those who appreciate the cause behind these plays, these are events not to be missed.
Part 2, Angels in America: Perestroika premiers on Friday, August 5. Part 1 returns to the stage the following night. Marathon days with consecutive stagings of Parts 1 and 2 take place on September 6, 7, 13, 20 and 21 (closing night). Get the full programming schedule on Intiman’s web site.