‘Angels in America – Part 1 Millennium approaches’ is an exceptional adult drama, written by Manhattan born Tony Kushner, it explores the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Kushner, who is one of America’s most admired playwrights, wrote this richly devised play when he was barely 30, just before he ‘came out’.
‘Part One’ of the play caused ructions and the ire of morality groups when it was released, yet it went on to win every major award, including a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for Best Play.
This wonderful mammoth, 3-hour drama can be seen at the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre, Northbridge nightly at 7.30 until Sunday 19th June.
The stage is devoid of the normal flats and scenery, instead the sides of the stage have walls of lamp rigs – spots, floods, the full range; there are about 70 lamps on each side of the stage arranged at a dozen different levels.
The whole ‘ceiling’ of the stage comprised dozens of opaque Perspex panels, lit from above. The set and costume designer, Christina Smith, has selected numerous superb props, which completely satisfy the audience, giving a full mental picture of the venue, wealth etc.
The back wall consisted of black drapes that blended into infinity. They subtly opened and closed, allowing props and cast to enter. The numerous props / furniture entered silently and smoothly on travelling floor belts. Stage manager Peter Sutherland and his assistant, Claudia Blagaich certainly had to work for their crust in this show.
The work of the company’s mechanist, Nathan Fry, is often taken for granted, but here the directors and designer have created moving furniture, fly wire harness, the incredible wrath of God, inclement weather, a descending coffin and a spectacular final scene that left the audience speechless. Superb work.
On this occasion, it was good to see the major stage teamsters being invited to join the actors for the curtain call.
This synopsis of the story is more informative than usual, and for some, may contain too many spoilers; however, for others it may help them follow the unusual storyline.
It is 1985 in New York City, and we are at the funeral of Louis’s grandmother, with the aged Rabbi Chemelwitz (Toni Scanlan) blundering his way through a vale. After the service, ‘word processor’ Louis Ironson (Will O’Mahony), a neurotic lover, meets Prior Walter (Adam Booth) his partner of four years. Prior tells Louis that he has contracted AIDS. After months of caring for Prior, unable to cope, Louis deserts his friend in his final hours of need.
Louis then embarks upon a relationship with the apparently ‘straight’ Mormon lawyer, Joe Pitt (Stuart Halusz) who, due to his latent homosexuality, has been having difficulty living with his wife, Harper. Agoraphobic ‘Buddy’ Harper (Jo Morris) is a Valium-addict, who fanaticises her way out of her misery, by planning holidays with imaginary travel agent, Mr. Lies (Kenneth Ransom).
True-life, brutal, right-wing solicitor, Roy Cohn (John Stanton) – who is gay, but despises other gays – offers Joe a senior post in the Washington Justice Department.
We next see Prior desperately sick in bed. In a dream the daunting Angel of America (Felicity McKay) with a divine presence, has descended from Heaven and nominates Prior to become a prophet and spread the message. He declines the offer, but poor Prior could not start to contemplate the suffering in store for him. Prior turns to his best friend, dependable, ex-drag queen, Belize (Kenneth Ransom) for support. Prior tells Belize how he hears an Angel’s voice saying that she is coming for him – the angel’s help turns out to be an AIDS cure, and Prior goes to a hospice under the care of compassionate nurse Emily (Felicity McKay).
In one fantasy episode, Harriet is informed by Prior that Joe is a closeted homosexual and, in a touching performance, she challenges her husband on the topic. Now exposed, Joe and Louis become closer, and one night whilst drunk, Joe phones his mother, Hannah Pitt (Toni Scanlan) to inform her he is Gay. His mother panics, and wants to move to New York to help guide Joe back onto the straight and narrow. She puts her house up for sale with real estate agent, Ella Chapter (Felicity McKay).
On visiting his GP, Dr Henry (Toni Scanlan), Roy finds he too has AIDS – but in denial calls it ‘liver cancer’. After high pressure from Cohn and his pathetic senior assistant, Martin Heller (Jo Morris), Joe decides to turn down Cohn’s job offer. Furious, Cohn calls Joe a wimp and goes on to say how he achieved his exalted position, even boasting how he executed Ethel Rosenberg (Toni Scanlan) for Treason as part of by McCarthy regime.
As he becomes stronger, Prior’s ancestors from 17 generations earlier, appear at his bedside. They are a medieval farmer (Stuart Halusz) and a refined, seventeenth-century Londoner (John Stanton), both of whom died of the plague. They are enlisted to prepare for the advent of the ‘Angel of America’.
Directed by two award winners, Kate Cherry and her assistant Joe Lui, this complex story required all of their skills to stop the tale from becoming bogged down, and to ensure it retained the audience’s attention throughout; this duo were magnificent.
The movement director, Lisa Scott Murphy, ensured that the numerous entrances and exits flowed perfectly. Dialect coach, Luzita Fereday thankfully had the cast all speaking with the same understated New York accent.
The storyline has aged a little, but the depth of emotion demanded and the exemplary delivery by this top notch, highly experienced troupe guaranteed a freshness. The cast had the challenging task of involving the audience in their tension, fear and stress for three hours, but by giving each actor a number of characters to play, including women playing males, it kept their performances alive. The script has several very funny sections that again lifted the show from the grim topic, retained the pace and allowed light relief.
Often in Gay plays, the cast feel obliged to caricature the characters, thankfully this cast were subtle, and even the overtly gay Belize had just the correct amount of limp wrist.
Assistant director Joe Lui, renowned for his chromatic use, has worked well with lighting designer Matt Scott to produce a remarkable visual experience from the vast lighting rigs.
Sound designer and composer, Ash Gibson Greig, was at his very best; with a backing ranging from subtle creepy, dirge-like strings to a bouncy Beatles’ tune. There were several unusual sound effects required, and these too were inspirational and dramatic.
The show had a couple of scenes that were daring even by today’s standard, but when the play was first staged, the audience’s reaction was one of horror and repulsion.
This thought-provoking show was not demoralising, but worked at every level of performance, direction and teching. A memorable, remarkable production that makes one hope ‘Part Two’ will be staged in the near future.