Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches is set around 1985, and was written (along with Part 2: Perestroika) in 1993. The University of Alberta student-led performance group Abbedam chose this play as their 2013 production, and it opened last night at the Timms Centre Second Playing Space. The director is Nick Eaton, director and co-creator of the Fringe 2013 show Into Oblivion.
I had never seen or read the play before. Unlike the majority of the opening-night attendees, I remember 1985, although I wasn’t particularly paying attention to American politics then, I wasn’t yet part of queer community, and I was just starting to be aware of AIDS. Also, I’d never encountered any Mormons and had met very few Jewish people. So the play has been making me think about changes in those issues and in my life in the last 30 years. But if I waited ‘til I could say something articulate, I’d miss posting before the end of the run. And I want to post, because it’s a good show and I think lots of people should go see it.
Knowing a little bit about the milieu of gay men in New York City in 1985 and about Mormon and Jewish attitudes to family and to ethical decision-making helped me appreciate the context of the story. But I would also have benefited from knowing more about the McCarthy era in American politics, in particular about the lawyer Roy Cohn, who was a character in the play (played by Cristian Badiu, a PhD student).
I found this character one of the most intriguing and complex in the play, although definitely not the most likeable. Cristian Badiu didn’t attempt one of the stereotypical New York City accents, but his mannerisms and way of speaking certainly pegged him right away as an arrogant NYC lawyer. I was particularly fascinated by the speech in which he explains to his doctor that the label “homosexual” does not fit him, because although he has sex with men, his power and prestige define him in a way that’s not compatible with being considered homosexual. His doctor eventually gives up or accepts what he’s saying, and suggests that he can use his White House connections to get into the experimental trials of the new drug AZT for the “liver cancer” that he insists he has rather than AIDS. I was also fascinated by Cohn’s relationship with Joe Pitt (Roland Meseck) the young law clerk he tries to mentor and manipulate. His speeches to Joe about choosing father figures were intriguing, as neither character acknowledges a facet of sexuality in their relationship. It remains unclear to me whether Cohn was just drawn to young men like Joe in a platonic nurturing sense, whether he’s attracted to him and not expressing that openly, or what extent of his interactions with Joe are directed at getting Joe to do favours for him in Washington.
Joe’s wife Harper Pitt (Emily Howard) was charming. She apparently copes with her emotional troubles by taking a lot of Valium, but she is present enough to be funny and to wish for better things, and brave enough to eventually get her husband to acknowledge that he is “a homo”.
The other two main characters (a cast of 15 played about 20 characters) were Prior Walter (Gabe Richardson) and Louis Ironson (Joshua Edison), a 30ish couple who have been together several years, who are both witty and affectionate and very likeable. In their first scene, we see Prior supporting Louis at his grandmother’s funeral, teasing him gently about acting butch around his family, but the balance shifts quickly as Prior then rolls up a shirtsleeve to show Louis what looks like a bruise, but in that context is undeniably a Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesion. Throughout the rest of the play, the two of them go through the range of responses of a dying man and of someone who loves a dying man, together and separately, in compelling convincing anguish.
One of my favourite minor characters was Belize (Matt Ayache) a nurse of colour and sometime drag queen. Without exaggerating the flamboyant stereotypes, he contrasts with the other characters’ gender presentation and also speaks the most directly about racism, changes in queer culture, and treatment of the dying. Lauren Derman was also impressive in understated portrayals of a calm accepting hospital caregiver (I wasn’t clear whether she was a nurse or a doctor) and of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
The action took place in a simple set on a revolve. Actors and additional crew shifted furniture quickly between the many short scenes, and sometimes two scenes would be alternating on different sides of the stage. There were some eerie and/or amusing special effects, supernatural adventures, and dream sequences, of which my favourite was Harper’s dream of Prior in a sheer négligée and wig cap doing makeup for drag.
The original play was written as a continuous narrative running about 7 hours. This production of Part 1 ran about 2.5 hours, and ended in a slightly disorienting way. Wikipedia does not have a very good plot summary (it would be great if someone reading this who has access to the play text could improve it). At least it could satisfy some of my curiosity about what would happen to these characters in Part 2. But I wish I could see these actors finish the story.
The production continues until November 17th, Sunday night. Ticket information is on the show’s Facebook page.