Angels in America:
Millennium Approaches + Perestroika

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_angelsinamerica1By Tony Kushner; Directed by Shane Bosher
Presented by Silo Theatre in collaboration with Q Theatre, Auckland | March 21-April 13

Angels in America is one of those shows that is put on a pedestal. It’s huge, it’s expensive, it is everything. As Silo Theatre’s copy correctly states, “It is all of the things.”

When Silo first announced that their programme would include Angels in America, there was nothing I anticipated more than sitting down for eight hours and taking it all in. Angels in America is one of the shows that made me want to write, and it’s the first play I read that made me believe in the uniquely transformative power of theatre. It is a play that is simultaneously about everything and about one thing; impossibly dense and yet incredibly direct and simple; unaccountably huge yet also heartbreakingly intimate. Again, it is all of the things.

This production has huge boots to fill, and not just for me. Easily the cornerstone of Silo’s programme this year, it is also the swansong for artistic director Shane Bosher and the first production in this town for two decades. The play means so much to so many people, not just because of the immense popular HBO mini-series, but because so many people know the play and have taken it so close to heart. I can’t imagine the pressure the company is under to deliver with this production, not only for how important this play is to so many people and evidently to the company itself, but for how huge it is.

One of the selling points of Angels in America is its size. Rarely performed in repertoire, it is really two plays that make up one enormous play. The first, Millennium Approaches, is three hours long, while the second, Perestroika, is closer to four. It is a play where the ridiculous happens—and I am not going to embarrass myself by giving Angels in America a plot summary—and where the hugely theatrical is meant to appear effortless. There’s a reason why the play hasn’t been produced until now, and it’s not because of the quality; it’s because of the sheer work required to put on what is essentially a seven-hour play.

Another one of the selling points, but perhaps one of the lesser-known ones, is that Angels in America is a comedy. It deals with AIDs, democracy in America, and the idea of America, but it is still a comedy. It is an immensely funny play, even though is tremendously affecting. Where the mini-series flattened out some of the comedy and the weirder edges of the material, especially with Perestroika, Silo’s production takes the funny and the weird and makes it fun. It’s a hell of a thing to manage the tone of this piece, but it’s carried off perfectly.

The toll this takes on the ensemble cast, an incredible group of eight of Auckland’s finest, is not felt. By the time the lights dim on Perestroika, there is no flagging of energy, even though they’ve been performing at full tilt since 2pm on a Sunday morning. This is especially impressive considering that many are required to perform several different characters, and the cast are also involved in moving, removing, and adding scenery to scenes they aren’t necessarily in. When they call it a marathon, it’s less of a marathon for the audience than one for the cast.

It’s hard to find a protagonist in Angels in America, such an ensemble it is, but I’ll start with Stephen Lovatt. He largely plays the historical, but not necessarily historically accurate Roy Cohn, a New York lawyer with tremendous clout who is initially presented to us as pure evil. The arc that Lovatt/Roy traverse over the play’s duration is tremendous, from a man in his prime with more power than he could have imagined, to a man who can barely hold himself up. To Lovatt’s immense credit, he also engenders sympathy in a character, who from the start is begging us to hate him. When all is taken from him—and it is, painfully and slowly—it is heart wrenching and difficult to watch. Lovatt also brings a frivolity to one of Prior Walter’s ancestors, a character too delightful to spoil the nature of, and handily steals those scenes away.

Gareth Reeves’s Prior Walter is probably the closest we have to a protagonist. It is his arc that opens and closes the play, but Reeves doesn’t use this role to showboat or grab the spotlight. Instead, he turns in a tremendously moving performance as Prior, who has recently been diagnosed with AIDs, that never asks for sympathy or for the audience to cry to him. He threads Prior’s bitter sense of humour into even his most vulnerable moments, and even when the play is at its heaviest, he never loses sight of who Prior is—a man so much more than his affliction.

As Prior Walter’s verbose and neurotic partner Louis, Dan Musgrove is an utter delight. He brings the forthrightness I’ve seen in his other performances to a character who is constantly laying himself on the table and vivisecting himself for everybody’s disapproval. In my previous experiences with this play, onstage and onscreen, Louis has been a character that I’ve felt only scorn for, but Musgrove imbues Louis’s actions with a profundity and an aching humanity that puts the audience in the character’s place immediately.

Allison Bruce and Mia Blake have difficult jobs in Angels in America. Both have some of the trickiest roles, Bruce has to open both parts with incredibly dense, funny and moving monologues by characters we never see again and Blake has to embody the titular character with a largesse, a gravitas, and a humour that shouldn’t be able to co-exist. Both also have the most characters to portray over both plays, and need to make each of these characters distinct from each other not for coherence’s sake, but for loyalty to the script.

Both of them succeed in the difficult tasks set for them. Bruce is a chameleonic actor, playing across gender, age, and race without missing a beat, and delivering not only completely different performances, but completely different registers with each character. Her Rabbi is so distinct from her Communist lecturer that it initially appears to be a different actor. She so convincingly transforms into a character that it made me want to see seven hours of Angels played entirely by Allison Bruce. Not only all this, but her presence in each scene gives it a weight—especially those with Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg—as well as the feeling that we’re not watching real life, but something realer than real life.

In the first half, Blake is largely tasked with playing comic relief roles, roles she could do in her sleep, but she is present and her comic timing is unparalleled. Her scene as Sister Ella with Bruce’s Hannah Pitt is a bit of a wash on the page, but onstage with these actors it becomes a comic highlight. However, where Blake truly succeeds is where she plays the Angel.

img_angelsinamerica2The Angel is a monumental task for an actor, at least in my view. An actor has to carry across the majesty and inhumanity of a being that is not human and has no humanity in them. From her entrance—one of the best moments in theatre I’ve ever seen—Blake’s Angel is an immense presence. Blake is a fairly small woman, but suddenly she fills the entire stage. Where she truly stuns is in the last act, in her last words to Prior Walter: the words of a being who truly cannot understand humanity and who pities it.

As Belize, the character who famously has all the best lines, Jarod Rawiri has some massive shoes to fill. In a play full of big characters, his ex-ex-drag queen has to be the biggest. In the first half, Rawiri doesn’t come off as strongly as expected—his Belize fades to the back where it should be jumping off the stage—but Rawiri brings it home in the second act with line readings and a physicality that projects as entirely theatrical but also entirely authentic in a way that only Belize is.

Matt Minto is an interesting, if not entirely successful, presence as Joe Pitt. A curious fit for the role, Minto doesn’t so much as resemble the emotionally repressed Mormon that is Joe, than he does a closeted rugby player, and the actor never gets past his miscasting. Minto never puts up a decent fight for his scenes, and when sharing a scene with characters like Roy Cohn and Hannah Pitt, he submits when he could shine. However, Joe is an inherently likeable—and pitiable—character, and when Minto gets it right, it’s a pleasure to watch the character develop and slowly emerge from his faith-encrusted closet.

To round things off, Chelsie Preston Crayford is a pitch-perfect Harper. In a role that must invite first year drama school tics like a Shakespearean monologue invites shouting, Preston Crayford plays Harper with a clarity and directness that is incredibly pleasant to watch. Harper’s flights of fancy are grounded in the mind of a real woman, and her fantasies are less hallucinations than they are bandages of a seriously broken mind.

Credit has to be given to the entire cast for not only their stamina, but for how present they are in all their scenes. We are never lost in the play; we know where we are in the story and where the characters are compared to the last scene. This seems like a incredibly basic thing to praise, but with a play that is this long with this many realities and fantasies carrying out, it’s a pleasure to never have to take time out of the narrative to figure out where it actually is.

As a swansong for artistic director Shane Bosher, this is an unqualified success. It’s a symbol of his brave programming and intelligent direction. The stage is kept simple, as is the staging, so we can let these complex ideas wash over us, and as acknowledged above, we are never lost at any moment. The spectacle—and there is so much spectacle—comes off without feeling like cheap, or in this case, expensive theatre magic. It is worked organically into the play.

Not every decision is successful, however. The constant transitions between scenes—mostly with actors moving the set around, occasionally jarring with stage managers in their place—sometimes halts the pace of the play dead in its tracks, and in the fifth act of six, the transitions felt longer than any of the scenes did. It doesn’t kill the play, not even close, but it’s enough of a flaw to take me out of it more often than not. It’s easy to see why the decision was made—the mess in this play would accumulate like dust in an abandoned house—but it is carried out less cleanly than possibly intended.

Rachael Walker’s set is a minimalistic beauty, with the seemingly marble black boxes at the back of the stage resembling an American monolith. It also allows for moments of surprising stage magic that kept me jumping well into the sixth hour. Elizabeth Whiting’s costume are, as always, utter genius, whether it’s the two Angels costumes which wouldn’t look amiss on a red carpet, to Ethel Rosenberg’s instantly iconic Grey Lady look. Sean Lynch’s lighting design is beautiful yet unobtrusive, yet when it takes centre stage like at the end of Millennium Approaches, or during a late-breaking scene with Roy and Belize involving IV drips, it takes the breath away. Leon Radojvovic’s score sometimes verges on schmaltzy—it does not help that it is often used as a transition—but when it is used to underscore a scene, it is gorgeous.

Although Angels in America is essentially one play, it is two parts. It can be seen one night after the other, but my personal recommendation is to marathon it. It’s the only way to sink into this world, and I can’t imagine having to wait a whole 24 hours after the end of Millennium Approaches to see what happens in Perestroika. The play goes by surprisingly quickly and I could have sat through it without intervals. It’s the quickest eight hours you’ll experience. I can say without a doubt that this is the most memorable theatrical experience I’ve had in years—not just for the quality of the production, which is without compare, but for the pleasures of discussing and debating it with friends during the intervals. If for nothing else, see it in one sitting for this reason.

Angels in America feels like a metaphor for Silo’s progression as a company and where it currently sits in the national theatre scene. It is a courageous piece and says something that nobody else has said since. It is worthy of tremendous respect.

Silo is a brave company producing work that nobody else in this country is producing. I am sad to see Shane leave, but excited to see where this company goes next, and what it introduces audience to—not just plays, but experiences.

More life. More Silo.