Saturday, September 06, 2014

Intiman is all in with Angels in America

Adam Standley and Timothy McCuen Piggee in Angels (Chris Bennion)
(as printed in Seattle Gay News)

ANGELS IN AMERICA (Parts 1 and 2)
Intiman Theatre
Through September 21, 2014

Some people consider Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner one of the great plays of the 20th Century. Some consider it one of the great plays about Gay characters ever. 

This is a sprawling play, spanning six plus hours, generally done in two parts (Part 1, Millenium Approaches and Part 2, Perestroika), that delves deeply into philosophical ideas of the meaning of life, love and whether angels are real, and that encapsulates the 1980s in the time of AIDS and Gay rights clashing and clanging for attention. 

Part of its genius is that it's incredibly funny; at the very same moments it's terribly tragic. The kind of laugh-and-cry-at-the-same-time moments where the characters themselves are reacting or where the audience finds relief in the humor while recognizing the pain. 

There are three basic intersecting stories: a heterosexual couple, Joe and Harper, who are falling apart due to Harper's deepening mental health crisis and Joe's refusal to admit he's Gay; Louis and Prior, who are falling apart due to Prior's descent into the illness of AIDS and Louis' inability to handle sickness; Roy Cohn, the famous or infamous lawyer of the Republican Right, who falls ill with AIDS and refuses to acknowledge the disease and instead publicizes his illness as 'liver cancer.' The intersections start with Joe refusing a position in Justice (the U.S. Department of Justice) offered him by Roy Cohn, and then finding himself drawn to Louis, as Louis abandons Prior. 

There is also a metaphysical and fantastical element where some of these characters find themselves in dreams with each other, even without actually meeting in real life. Prior dreams that he is being prepared for a visitation by an angel and is told he is a prophet. Other people see the angel when they are not dreaming or experience waking fantasies - so it's not all contained in dreams. 

Twenty years ago, the Intiman Theatre produced the play and Artistic Director Andrew Russell decided to direct both pieces in this summer's festival. It's a risky move to present only these plays, but it's also both a look back at a great moment in Intiman's history and the belief that the play still speaks to LGBT folks today. 

While the script is wildly intelligent, as Kushner is, as we watch the play today we witness a whole lot of self-loathing in the characters. It may have been less apparent in the past, but there is no character except perhaps the genial and compassionate Belize (the always outstanding Timothy McCuen Piggee) who seems comfortable in his or her skin. 

The production has a 'big' feel to it, particularly with the grand and spacious set by Jennifer Zeyl, which lends itself to the portentious nature of Part 1, Millenium Approaches. The biggest issue with the set, however, is how it's used, and the choice to make the locations for the action diffuse. There is Harper and Joe's kitchen and Roy Cohn's office and a hospital room, etc. But there is no 'there' there, since only singular pieces of furniture are wheeled on and off to suggest the locations. This gives the blocking a kind of random feel, since no one is oriented to a specific space. As the characters feel rootless, it makes it difficult for the audience to care about and like them much. That caring is crucial toward having a stake in what happens to them. 

The biggest difficulties are with young Alex Highsmith and Ty Boice as Harper and Joe. They have little chemistry between them and Highsmith does not seem needy at all, so there is no tension around the idea that they might split up. In fact, it would almost be a relief if they did. 

Quinn Franzen and Adam Standley have good chemistry as Louis and Prior, which comes partly from their many years acting together. One important aspect, however, for both Quinn and Charles Leggett as Roy Cohn, is that there is little Jewish feeling, and little New Yawk feeling, which is a bit puzzling. Those two atmospheric character-anchors are crucial to understanding their points of view. Director Russell, having spent years in New York, could clearly infuse more of that from personal experience, one would think. 

Part 1, Millennium Approaches ends with the Angel finally appearing to Prior. Part 2, Perestroika picks up from there and the themes focus on an attempt to explain huge concepts of belief and spirituality and what life is for. Perestroika opens tonight (September 5th). Both Part 1 and Part 2 will be playing through September 21. Part 2 has a lot more action and interaction and it will be interesting to see if there is a palpable difference. You will be able see both of them back to back on the weekends, if you like. (Watch for my review of Perestroika next week.) For more information, go to or call 206-315-5838. 

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