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Jane Enkin's Review of WJT 's Perestroika-A Gorgeous Production

by Jane Enkin May 3, 2013

 

 

Angels In America: Perestroika

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

Berney Theatre, Rady Centre

May 1- 12

 

Angels In America: Perestroika is part two of Tony Kushner's grand drama about sweeping changes in the 1980's.   This is a gorgeous production. If you were lucky enough to see last year's production of Millenium Approaches, you'll be happy to watch the characters' stories unfold. If you attend this play without seeing or reading the first part, just arrive early enough to read the very detailed plot description of Millenium Approaches included in the program.
 
The first scenes of Perestroika begin in the moments when Millenium Approaches ends: real life ultra-conservative lawyer Roy Cohn is confronting AIDS, his protege, married Mormon Joe Pitt is confronting his desire for men, and the beautiful, AIDS-striken Prior Walters is dealing with his encounter with an angelic visitor.
 
The clearly stated themes of the play, however, are new. While Kushner creates characters that can bring us to tears, and builds lots of action into his plays, he repeatedly brings attention to sets of ideas. In Perestroika, he explores the dynamic between the value of stayng still and the value of forward motion. He looks at the possibilities and limits of change for individuals and for societies, and the costs of change even when it is inevitable and ultimately beneficial.
 
Kushner also devotes attention to forgiveness. I was very moved, and impressed, that some of the moments of real bravery in the play come when characters find lines in the sand and choose not to forgive.
 
Forgiveness, caring, bravery, change – these are spiritual matters for Kushner, and, I think, are shaped by his Jewish background. Kushner weaves lots of Yiddish motifs, off-beat variations on Jewish mysticism, and Bible references – a common ground for the Christian, Mormon, and Jewish characters – into the narrative of the play. Jacob, especially, is a touchstone for several of the characters.
 
The language of the play is rich and varied, and the outstanding cast revels in it, meeting every challenge. Kushner tosses in aphorisms like a modern-day Oscar Wilde. “Not physics, but ecstatics,” keep the world running. “My heart is an anchor,” says one character. “Leave it, you can't carry the extra weight,” is the response. He writes lush Shakespearean monologues, then bursts lyrical bubbles with deadpan humour or outcries of pain. There are great laughs throughout the play, even as we are carried on vivid emotional and intellectual journeys.
 
Mariam Bernstein plays many roles, most movingly as the caring, assertive Mormon Hannah Pitt. She draws our empathy through the deep empathy she offers. Bernstein is also an amazing presence in the stoic, intense role of Ethel Rosenberg.
 
Eric Blais and Jordan Pettle take over the roles of the the new lovers Joe and Louis. Joe's character is the one Kushner has changed the most from the first play, so that may account for why I found this year's performance less interesting-- a restrained, closeted, burning volcano of a character is more exotic for me to observe than one as emotionally wide open as Joe becomes in this second play. Blais was effective in his complex, tender, painful scenes with mentor Roy Cohn. Pettle has some fine moments when Louis tunes into his biting intellectual power.
 
This is the third show I've seen this year with a lovely performance by Erin McGrath. Here she brings the appropriate delicacy and steely core to Harper Pitt, Joe's damaged wife.
 
Jamie Robinson, as the nurse Belize, is the calm centre in many scenes. The role is mercurial, with flashes of anger, flights of lyrical descriptive speech, moments of gentle care. Robinson wonderfully brings out the different physical expressions of this man, with smooth, utterly believable transitions from his queen persona at leisure, his professional demeanor at the hospital, and tender moments when the professional nurse gives way to the healing nurturer at work.
 
Nicholas Rice owns the stage as Roy Cohn. This is a firecracker of a man, greedy, exploitive and explosive – and endlessly entertaining.
 
I was so excited to find that Marina Stephenson Kerr's Angel was a huge presence in the play. A sudden apparition in the first play, the angel returns as a complex, important character in Perestroika. Stephenson Kerr gives a fascinating physical performance, gripping to watch and to hear.
 
Ryan Miller, as Prior Walters, looks like he stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, He carries with tenderness, vulnerability and ethereal beauty both the craziest fantasies and harshest realities of the play.
 
A visually fascinating aspect of this production is the onstage costume and set changes. In his program note, director Christopher Brauer explains,
 
“...we are working with the idea of 'exposure' as our central aesthetic premise: the stage is too small to hide anything, so instead we show everything. Which makes the whole project an event-- you aren't just seeing a story, you are seeing the telling of a story.”
 
This is not to say that the play is low tech: exciting sound and light effects, music, slides and video shape our experience.
 
I left with Perestroika's final moments filling me with a feeling of buoyancy, refreshed and exhilarated by powerful performances, exciting design and and deeply moving writing.
 
 
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