Theatergoers who balk at sitting through all seven hours of Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America at Court Theatre can relax. Director Charles Newell’s staging is note perfect, so engaging at every moment that the time speeds by. Even with your posterior immobilized for the duration — and yes, you can take a break for dinner or choose to see the parts on different days — your mind will be fully exercised. Invest the time — three hours for Part One: Millennium Approaches and four hours for Part Two: Perestroika — and you will be richly rewarded.
Everything about this production works, beginning with its scale. Although Angels is an epic creation — with 59 scenes that cut between New York City, Antarctica, Salt Lake City and, naturally, the heavens above — staging it in an epic space would mean foregoing the intimacy in which Kushner’s work can flower. The Court’s 250-seat space restores that intimacy and connects the audience to the players, who make their entrances and exits through the aisles.
The set (scenic design by John Culbert) is proportionally scaled down and stripped down. The backdrop is a tri-level framework, resembling the unfinished portion of a skyscraper, a blank slate that affords maximum flexibility. Front and center on the stage is a rectangle that often serves as a bed, a necessary prop in a play that deals with love and with illness, specifically the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. The lack of frippery puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the splendid cast.
The minimalist background also allows for some colorful stage business. The eight actors play multiple roles, necessitating dozens of costume changes (costume design by Nan Cibula-Jenkins), from business attire to feathery angel wings. Dramatic lighting by Keith Parham and sound design (plenty of thunder) by Joshua Horvath and Kevin O’Donnell highlight the action. Especially effective is projection design by Mike Tutaj and Rasean Davonte Johnson that can transform the stage into a Mormon museum exhibit or create a stairway to heaven. And of course, expect to see angels flying.
As excellent as all these production elements are, it is Kushner’s script — almost Shakespearean in the richness of its language and in its comic relief — and the high caliber of the acting that allow Angels in America to soar at Court Theatre. Every member of the cast is superb, but Larry Yando takes a star turn as Roy Cohn, the real-life Republican lawyer and power broker upon whom Kushner’s character is based. Yando so fully inhabits this unlikeable character that we can’t help rooting for him despite his flaws. A Jeff Award to Yando, and one to Newell for his direction.
All the parts are smartly cast: Eddie Bennett and Rob Lindley as lovers Louis Ironson and Prior Walter; Mary Beth Fisher as the tart Angel; Geoff Packard and Heidi Kettenring as Joe and Harper Pitt, a Mormon couple transplanted from Utah to New York City’s very different soil; an appealing Michael Pogue as Belize, a former drag queen turned R.N.; and Hollis Resnik, most of the time playing Joe’s mother, Hannah, but more fun as Ethel Rosenberg, another real-life character reborn in Kushner’s script.
The characters grapple with meaty issues — politics, morality, sexuality, mortality. Part One of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes premiered in 1991 and Part Two a year later, followed by a Broadway debut in 1993. Some 20 years later the lines still sound fresh, but at the same time the play serves as a history lesson for a generation who came of age after the early years of the AIDS crisis. At that time, before the widespread use of AZT, HIV-positive status was thought of as a death sentence. Angels in America reminds us that these issues remain. If Kushner decides to pen Part Three, I hope he stages it at Court Theatre, with Charles Newell directing.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
March 30 – June 3, 2012
Part One Tuesdays through Sundays; Part Two Wednesdays through Sundays
Box office: (773) 753-4472 or www.CourtTheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow