Memories, guilt, sadness, mourning all washed through me during Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's opening night of Tony Kushner's play Angels In America: Millennium Approaches. Like everyone around me in the audience, however, by the play's end I felt exhilarated, and thrilled by beauty, tenderness and courage.
This is a brilliant play met by a brilliant production. My first reaction on entering the room was wonder – I had no idea the Berney Theatre could look like this. Janelle Regalbuto's set is dramatically beautiful, and abstract enough to allow the constant fluid changes in location called for by the play. Director Christopher Bauer writes “On this very small stage we chose to expose the entire machinery of making the play. To let telling the story be also about how to tell the story.” The challenges of the space, Artistic Producer Michael Nathanson told me, led to unique approaches to the design.
An important aspect of this production is the lighting and media design by Hugh Conacher. He defines the space for each scene with light, and creates a fascinating backdrop for the play with projections that loom above the actors.
Tony Kushner was honoured with the Pulitzer prize as well as many theatre awards for his play, written in 1993, looking back into still fresh history, the year 1985. As Associate Artistic Producer Suzie Martin phrases it, the play is a collage of everything preoccupying America that year, seen through the particular lens of gay men in New York. Amid a swirl of concerns and hopes for America, the central characters cope with the sudden rise of AIDS in the gay community.
For me and my companion that evening, many personal memories came up. I remember slow losses, and also the disappearance of acquaintances, people I hadn't know were ill. I remember irrational anger at friends for having put themselves at risk, and anger at myself for my squeamishness, for never giving enough support. I remember the denial and the marginalization of victims, and the frustration and pain many of us felt in the face of what then appeared to be an instant death sentence.
There are many explorations of identity in the script – certainly with a central focus on gay identity and the many subcultures within the gay community. There are questions of claiming labels as one's own, and of rejecting the labels entirely. Coming out as queer, still so risky for many people in 2012, was inconceivable for even more people in 1985. Questions continually arise – what does a person owe to others; to himself; to love.
Jewish identity is also an important aspect of the play. The first images we see are dramatically specific Jewish symbols – before the play begins, we see a table spread with a cloth bearing a huge star of David, draped with a prayer shawl. I though it might be set for a Torah reading, but in fact the table represents the coffin of a matriarch. A cartoon-like, cute old Rabbi delivers the first words of the play, in a eulogy that soon becomes profound, moving and challenging. The many colours of the script – comedy, intellectual challenge, sentimentality and raw emotion – are all established in this opening.
Two main characters in the play, both secular Jews, present very different images. One carries the burden of guilt symbolically throughout the play; the other, historical figure Roy Cohn, is ruthless and proudly impervious to the stuff. (There's plenty of non-Jewish guilt in the play as well.) There are touches of “Yinglish” -- American English tinged with Yiddish. Cohn, amused, keeps shouting “Only in America!”
This is not an easy play. Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the content, the visual presentation and some rough language. Many of the images are clear, others I found hard to understand, and in some cases I'm puzzled about why certain scenes were in the play at all. Many conflicts remained unresolved and painful by the end of the evening.
Brilliant casting is also essential to a brilliant production. While I may find more words to describe the work of some actors than others, believe me, each performance is moving, visually thrilling, funny, frightening, tender – I always run out of adjectives at this point. The ensemble of eight actors offers many more characters. As indicated in the script, many of the male characters are played by the women in the cast, adding an ironic layer to gender identity questions – as the gay male characters debate the politics of drag queens, we watch women on stage in drag as men.
Tracy Michailidis is affecting as the delicate, troubled, fiery Harper. Her male character, Miller, comes across farcically, but I think that may be intended in the script.
Mariam Bernstein was completely successful at drawing me in with her male characters; I simply accepted them as who they were. Her varied female characters were beautiful blends of tenderness and grit, filling me sympathy and admiration.
Jamie Robinson shows compassion and flair in roles that play with stereotypes.
Jeremy Walmsley looks like he comes from an earlier era – he appears at first like the clean cut, earnest, All-American young man of the early '60s. He shows huge range and passion as he goes through his challenges in the story.
Roy Cohn really does come from an earlier era, reminiscing about his successes working for Eugene McCarthy in the '50's. Nicholas Rice is a larger-than-life, mesmerizing presence as the powerful, unscrupulous lawyer. Remarkably, author and actor work together to make this character, who behaves in unlikable ways, moving and intriguing – and like the rest of the ensemble, very, very funny.
Michael Rubenfeld, as the very Jewish Louis, with great openness shows us a lovely, loving man facing his own unlikable behaviour and his ongoing belief in love.
Marina Stephenson Kerr shines in her many roles. I particularly liked the nurse, practical and calm, finding gentle ways to treat her patient and his friends as individuals, worthy of much more than physical care.
Kerr's eery performance as a bag lady brought applause from the audience, in the middle of the play. The actor was humble when I spoke with her about this moment; she said the audience was probably in need of some comedy at that point and applauded with relief. But it struck me that I've only experienced that kind of interruption of a dramatic work with applause during an opera – and the scene that Bernstein and Kerr shared, with intense changes in tempo, volume and vocal colour, was operatic, and Kerr's rising, flowing monologue drew the response of a triumphant aria.
I began to see the whole play in terms of opera, and the actors I mentioned this to found it made a lot of sense to them. There is musicality and rhythm throughout.
Ryan James Miller fulfils in dazzling ways the emotional and physical heights of his diva role. He is gripping as the beautiful, vulnerable and tough Prior Walter.
Exhilarating, uplifting, this is an important play to experience, and we are lucky to see Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production.
Angels In America: Millennium Approaches
runs to April 1 at the Berney Theatre.
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production of
Angels In America: Part Two Perestroika
will open in October, 2012