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Review: Angels In America

Friday 4th April 2014

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is a lot of things. It’s undoubtedly a modern classic, a monolith hanging over the contemporary canon. It’s an angry, young, sinewy play with points to make, which it intends to shout from the highest rooftop.

It is a period piece, still, as it was when initially performed in the early ‘90s. The play is set almost a decade before that, deeply entrenched in the dark twisted superego of Reaganic America. Self-labelled as a “gay fantasia on national themes”, it’s packed thick with love, loss, death, faith and politics. It is an Undertaking (complete with pretentious capitalisation), the whole thing being over seven hours long and certainly a challenge to any company working to stage it. The simple fact that director Shane Bosher’s production of it is with Silo at Q Theatre is worthy of commendation and attention.

Still of Angels in America
Angels in America

Andrew Malmo / Silo Theatre

While it’s a production of great achievement, more than worth your time and money, it’s far from flawless by any means. Knowing that it’s Bosher’s swan-song at Silo, after having run the company for 13 years, makes it easier to forgive the production for a lot more than you might other shows… because, y’know, Shane’s leaving and he wants to make a splash. Oh, and because it’s such an undertaking.

You have the option of seeing one or both of the two parts which make up the whole work. One is a serenely soap-operatic first part, named ‘Millennium Approaches’, and the second part is a more fiery, supernatural adventure named ‘Perestroika’. You can either seem them over two nights, as they alternate throughout the week, or opt to get through both in one weekend day. I went for the single-sitting marathon, but recommend splitting it over two nights.

We meet our core cast in the opening scene of ‘Millennium Approaches’: the acid-tongued Prior Walter, who is slowly falling to Aids; his neurotic boyfriend Louis Ironson; the stir-crazy Harper Pitt, a pill-popping Mormon; her closeted uptight husband Joe; and Joe’s boss Roy Cohn, a man so angry and right-wing that it seems to seep from his pores.

These characters are all written very deliberately by Kushner in a way that suggests he needed to pick up the pace. With a cast so clearly pacing themselves for the seven-plus hours of acting, scenes in ‘Millennium’ fizzle and are much more of a slog than you want it to be. The play is still great and a good time is still had, but you do feel almost every minute of the three-and-a-bit-hours’ running time.

As characters’ lives become more inextricably linked together in a series of messy emotional knots, the 90-minute break between parts one and two feels short after ‘Millennium’, and then you hear that ‘Perestroika’ is four hours and you wonder what you have gotten yourself in for. But such thoughts are in vain because everything kicks into gear in the much looser, more wild‘Perestroika’.

This sounds like I dont like it. But I do. It’s great. Its such an achievement; to finally get to hear Perestroika aloud is reason enough

‘Millennium Approaches’ ends with an angel that bursts through the ceiling; it sets the pace for ‘Perestroika’ to start and only climbs from there; you can tangibly feel the cast relax and start to have fun. The four hours, anticipated to be long, feel like two and you leave buzzing and alive.

The cast are, on the whole, exceptional. Gareth Reeves steals every single moment he’s on stage with as complexed, nuanced and (most importantly) funny a Prior Walter as we could ever hope for. Mia Blake and Alison Bruce also take top honours filling out many of the less showy roles, though Blake is also the perfect embodiment of the unimaginative and titular Angel, (perfect if you can ignore how much she struggles not to trip over some of her costumes), with as much, if not more, life and energy than the lead roles.

The design is beautiful but you can feel the constraints of time and scale on some of the theme. The score is repetitive, especially when doing the full marathon; at times it sounds like the default ringtones you immediately delete off your new phone. The beautiful reflective setpiece wall that dominates the space is used exceptionally well but forces the lighting to be entirely from the top or sides, resulting in whole scenes where you cannot really make out some of the casts’ faces.

This is a very frustrating experience for the audience; if it’s intentional as an effect I really question the intent behind it. You can feel the rush of putting the whole thing together. The transition from lights down to lights up uses a style that went out of fashion even before Angels’ first-ever production. As a viewer you can feel the pressure this show was made under – that said, sometimes that drove it up and sometimes it made it stall.

Still of Angels in America
Angels in America

Andrew Malmo / Silo Theatre

Angels is a messy play. A play of visera, blood and shit. In it, things are meant to leak and break; so that this production is so spotless is an odd choice – people will bleed, tear things up. Mess will happen, but then the lights will dim and stage managers or cast will come in and clean it up, it just doesn’t sit in the work well for me.

This sounds like I don’t like it. But I do. It’s great. Its such an achievement; to finally get to hear ‘Perestroika’ aloud (is this really its first NZ production?) is reason enough, honestly. They pulled it off, there may have been some stumbles along the way, but there is a lot in this production that I won’t be forgetting soon and neither will you.

Angels in America – A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
‘Part 1: Millennium Approaches’ and ‘Part 2: Perestroika’
Written by Tony Kushner, Directed by Shane Bosher
At Q Theatre until April 13

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

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