Through March 24|
ANGELS IN AMERICA: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:Part One: Millennium Approaches/Shea’s Smith Theatre/Second Generation Theatre
By Augustine Warner
Today, doctors and workers in the AIDS field will tell you it’s a chronic disease, that there is medicine available for the infected to lead relatively normal lives.
When Tony Kushner wrote the two halves of “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” nearly a third of a century ago, that wasn’t true.
Instead it was a death sentence, with the Kaposi’s Sarcoma blotches a sign of what was going on, if the fatal pneumonia didn’t make it clear.
Medical treatment changes, new drugs and education programs began to bring the plague under control.
“Part One: Millennium Approaches” is getting a striking performance from Second Generation Theatre in the Shea’s Smith Theatre.
Director Greg Natale and set designer Primo Thomas make effective use of a theatre space which isn’t ideal.
What space is better? Shea’s? Kleinhans? UB Center for the Arts? Kavinoky? Lancaster Opera House?
The key to any production of Kushner’s show is the right cast and Natale has that cast.
The three keys are David Oliver’s Roy M. Cohn, Ben Michael Moran’s Prior Walter and Steve Copps’ Joseph Pitt.
There are also a lot of smaller parts and a lot of multiple casting to tell the tale of the sleazy power broker Roy Cohn, the death throes of Prior Walter and the conflicted, self-loathing Mormon lawyer Pitt.
Cohn is one of the great roles in theater, evil in a great suit, a man of power and no conscience who spent decades attacking American democracy from the inside of the power structure.
But, Cohn had a secret, in this play…two.
He’s gay, not unusual in politics but here, he’s also in late-stage AIDS and not anxious to have it known, to the point he admits dying.
However, he tells people he’s dying of liver cancer, an acceptable way to die.
Even as he battles with death, Cohn is still out trying to turn people to the dark side.
Here, it’s Pitt, sexually conflicted with a mentally ill wife, Harper (Kristin Bentley), who wants to combine his Mormon religious values and truly sleazy politics.
Only his disturbed wife’s objections keep him from taking Cohn’s offer of a high job in the Reagan Justice Department, with true allegiance to Cohn.
At night, Pitt prowls gay pickup areas in Manhattan and torments himself with the gap between his desires and his religion.
A man from an ancient bloodline, he’s dying and he knows it and it’s a bad and slow death, filled with hallucinations,
He has also seen his partner, Louis Ironson (Anthony J. Grande), walk away, scared by the disease and death.
Now, that we have gotten through major plots, there are also minor plots, lots of them.
Director Natale has a strong cast of multiple role players for those other plots, Jacob Albarella, Dudney Joseph Jr., Kristin Tripp Kelley and Mary McMahon.
The significant problem with the show dates back to Kushner, who has filled the show with scenes and the needed scene changes.
Natale has clearly rehearsed his cast to do the changes but it takes time.
The performance lasted about three-and-a-half hours, perhaps a half-hour of that for the scene changes.
Stay with it because this is such a strong production of a legendary play.
“Angels in America” shows the maturity and the depth of the local theater community, even with all of the other shows on other stages.
SGT and Natale tie it all together.
Think of this show as pulling a Halloween costume off America and finding another costume underneath, forcing all of us to look at the world around us by looking inside.
AIDS wasn’t just a plague, it was an excuse for hatred of gays based on a retrovirus, blind hatred.
This hasn’t gone away.
This play lets us look inside ourselves and our national psyche and, in these times, that’s important.
Whether it’s for Kushner’s views, your politics, your sexual identity or just great theater, move “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Part 1 Millennium Approaches” to the top of your ticket list.
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