Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, a two-part series (both parts standing as independent pieces) is puzzling yet satisfying, epic yet personal, enigmatic, yet funny and cogent. Key characters are Mormon, yet it’s not immediately apparent why the Mormon church is vital to content. When Angels premiered they weren’t the only church condemning same-gender sexuality, but somehow the (shall we say?) more fanciful details of their theology seems consistent with the deadpan strangeness of the tone. The characters are not heroic but they seem swept up in the forces of history or zeitgeist or perhaps something greater? The one character who seems aware of his place in the politics and cultural evolution of America is Roy Cohn, a powerful, intelligent, reprehensible attorney who believes in contextual morality.
Louis and Prior are lovers. They are not apparently activists but neither are they in the closet. Prior has just discovered he has sarcoma lesions: the first stages of full blown AIDS. As we all know, such was a terminal diagnosis in the early 1990’s. Joe and Harper are a married Mormon couple. Harper suffers from Clinical Depression (if not other emotional diseases) and has vivid, interactive hallucinations. Joe is a rising attorney and protege to Cohn. Cohn is and Joe is in denial. The two couples (perhaps three?) are shown in parallel to one another, often using a split stage. There are serious problems between Prior and Louis, Harper and Joe, and Roy and Joe, bubbling beneath the surface. As Fate would have it, in each case, AIDS precipitates issues that already exist. And the Angels. There are voices, literal angels, drug-induced apparitions, prophesies and revelations. And Kushner mixes them all in the same cauldron, distinct and yet somehow, similar.
When Angels opened transgender cast doubling was an original way to add depth and complexity to a story. The idea that the inexplicable, mysterious gender we are is the one we just happened to wind up with. In 2016, maybe not so much. Kushner’s cunning is in his ability to personalize the impact of AIDS, as a barometer of an ethically pathological America. Not in the sense that some men were making love to each other, or frantically copulating, but that our hysterically heterocenterist society forced them into hiding. Villified them. Instead of addressing AIDS solely as metaphor or politics, he pulls us into attachments that emotionally involve us too, and walks us through the consequences. By weaving in gobs of often wry humor, he avoids pity, maybe even tragedy. Absurd, comical scenes have somber subtext. Poor Prior isn’t thrilled when a glorious angel appears. He’s terrified. His wrenching pain is treated as a stepping stone to his role in some kind of profound watershed for America’s future. But we won’t find out till part two.
Cheryl Denson has directed a sublime, crisp, infinitely intriguing and enjoyable show. The cast is skillful, agile and resonant with genuine emotion. They have captured a very difficult tone, flippant and grave. Sorrowful and resigned but nonchalant. The stony, monolothic, minimal sets by H. Bart McGeehon are appropriate and powerfully nuanced. Special kudos to Emily Scott Banks who handles her descent with poise and (forgive me) grace.
Uptown Players presents: Angels in America: Part One: Millenium Approaches, playing November 4th-20th, 2016. Kalita Humpreys Theater 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75219.214-214-2718. uptownplayers.org