In Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, the fabric is tattered, but still beautiful

There are gaping holes in director Kim Collier’s production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, but it’s still worth seeing.

When you first encounter Ken MacKenzie’s set, it’s stunning. The walls of the Stanley Theatre segue into the set itself, in which a wide, shallow playing area that looks like it’s made of limestone, is backed by curving lines of massive Greek columns and steeply ascending steps. We’re probably in front of a courthouse—but it could also be a bank. That makes sense because Tony Kushner’s play takes place in New York City in 1985, during the height of the first wave of the AIDS epidemic in North America, and in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s reign as President of the United States; Millennium Approaches is concerned with justice and interpersonal responsibility, especially as those themes play out in capitalist America.

At the centre of the story, which is subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, sits Prior Walter, a thirty-year-old WASP who can trace his ancestry back to the Bayeux Tapestry, and who is experiencing rapidly escalating symptoms of AIDS. His lover Louis worries that he’s not up to what lies ahead; mostly what Louis carries from his Jewish heritage is a predilection for guilt.

Harper is a Valium-popping Mormon housewife and her husband Joe is a closeted homosexual. Joe is mentored by Roy Cohn, who is based on a real-life closeted homosexual, the corrupt lawyer who assisted Senator Eugene McCarthy in his Communist witch-hunt and played a pivotal in the execution of accused spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Millennium Approaches won—and deserved—every award in the book, including a Tony and a Pulitzer. Its genius is that it combines thematic ambition with startling intimacy and elements of the fantastical.

Collier’s big mistake is that she destroys much of the intimacy, often through the use of video. In one of the most touching scenes in the play—if it’s staged well—Prior and Harper turn up in one another’s visions/hallucinations. He thinks he has dementia. She knows darn well that she’s an addict. But they also experience something they call “the threshold of revelation”. When they stumble into the inner depths of each another’s consciousness, she can tell that he is sick. He blurts out, “Your husband’s a homo.” And she tells him that she can see a part of him that is untouched by disease. Given the shame and terror that Prior is experiencing, if that last line comes at you at the right angle, it can shatter you like glass. But Collier’s use of video for this and other fantasy sequences is not only disappointingly literal—it draws far too clear a boundary around “reality”—it’s also deadeningly mechanical. In this exchange, Harper and Prior train video cameras on one another and their images are projected, magnified to enormous dimensions, on the back wall of the set. What could be more intimate than a shared hallucination? What could be less intimate than two gigantic faces, faintly reproduced, not even looking at each another? In this scene, Harper and Prior eventually drop their cameras, but the damage has been done.

The set, which looks so good at first, contributes to the sense of alienation. It screams, “This script is important!”, but that commentary is unnecessary, and the actors often look lost in the architectural vastness.

There are casting and performance problems, too. Gabrielle Rose is flat-out bad as Joe’s Mormon mother Hannah and in a number of other roles. She overacts at every opportunity, growling, shredding her nasal voice, and popping her plosives. Playing Harper, Celine Stubel finds the meaning as she goes, which is admirable—but not enough. Harper is one of the great female roles of the English canon and Harper’s vulnerability is very close to the heart of this play; Stubel’s Harper is never nearly as raw or engaging as she needs to be.

Brian Markinson plays Cohn. Cohn is another gift of a role, but Markinson delivers a pedestrian performance, satisfying himself with making basic sense of the part, but squandering the opportunity it offers for virtuosity. Properly capitalized upon, Cohn’s eccentricity energizes Millennium Approaches; it’s part of the script’s conceptual extravagance.

Happily, other actors fare better. Damien Atkins inhabits Prior in this production. I bought every word and gesture and often found myself surprised and moved. There’s a scene in which Prior tears a strip off Louis for abandoning him, and a moment in which Prior reacts to his friend Belize’s reassurance that, whatever happens, Belize will be there with him. Thanks to Atkins’s skinlessness, both of these elements are heartbreaking.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff delivers a winningly playful, responsive Belize, and bonus: both Atkins’s Prior and Jackman-Torkoff’s Belize come across as credibly gay, unlike all of the other supposedly gay figures onstage.

Although I didn’t buy Ryan Biel’s Louis as a homo, I very much appreciated his quirky, accessible humanity—and that humanity, which he constructs from a combination of vulnerability and eccentricity, is an important gift. I also very much appreciated the honesty of Craig Erickson’s emotional struggles as Joe.

In the play’s closing moments, the set reasserts itself. I don’t want to give too much away but I will say that the crescendo involves a dizzying flow of fabric.

This Millennium Approaches is far from perfect. But it has its rewards. And it offers an opportunity to enjoy a truly great script.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES by Tony Kushner. Directed by Kim Collier. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, March 29. Continues until April 23.

For tickets, phone 604-687-1644, email boxoffice@artsclub.com or go to http://artsclub.com/tickets/

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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