Winged Victory

Kushner's free-flowing fantasia also grows to include the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (executed for treason in 1953, owing in part to Cohn's behind-the-scenes maneuvering) and Joe's mother, who flies into town to check up on her son (Cynthia Caquelin plays both women); drag queen turned registered nurse Belize (James Randolph); a rabbi, Prior's nurse, and, among others, various personages from Harper's drug-induced hallucinations. Historical, spiritual, and imagined characters coexist in Kushner's disjointed universe, where, during a gleeful haunting of the stricken Cohn, Rosenberg declares, "History is about to break wide open. Millennium approaches." Unquestionably, the play's depiction of an unanchored past crashing into the present provides a startling metaphor for an age in which a newly discovered disease began to claim its first victims, felled by their own prior behavior. That unhinged time stream is only one of the currents flowing through Millennium Approaches; the work also courses with sardonic humor, philosophical musings, and cutthroat pragmatism, all of which carry the work in different directions.

Nor is there a linear relationship between actions and consequences in Kushner's AIDS morality play, which casts no victims or villains, but rather a combination of the two. Luis proffers both indictment and absolution when he proclaims, "There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past." While Kushner's neutrality makes for a very PC view of the epidemic, it's a nonetheless dramatically ambivalent one. Likewise, during its three hours (counting two intermissions), the play provides a wide-angle view of gay politics and AIDS rather than a close-up examination of their realities. Struggling to fashion a framework for a play with so many shifting subtexts, co-directors Rafael de Acha and Deborah Mello give Kushner's evocative dreamscapes the space to dazzle while steadfastly holding the production to its human story of disconnected despair.

As a result of Kushner's penchant for favoring dramatically compelling polemics over fully realized characters, the actors are left to fill in their roles' unscripted nuances. In a mesmerizing performance as Prior, Wright provides the heart and soul of the play, portraying his character's descent into serious illness with scared bravado; over the course of Part I, Wright gives us a Prior who hangs on to life with a pain-wracked tenacity before fearfully accepting the visions and voices he hears as signposts on his final journey. Caquelin instills the iconographic Cold War martyr Rosenberg with earthly emotions, and she capably conveys Joe's mother's divided feelings as she rigidly denies her son's anguished sexual identity crisis even while rushing to offer help.

Conversely, armed with the well-documented colorful personality of Cohn, Kwiat depicts only the lawyer's outward bluster and phone-jockeying pursuit of power. The actor fails to summon the ruthless determination to win at all costs even if it meant denying his sexuality in order to maintain his power base. And while LeGette, Cirone, and Roza ably pull off the script's tricky surreal situations and verbal gymnastics, they merely skim the surface of their characters' humanity. On the other hand, appearing only briefly, both Randolph and Bohall adeptly lay the dramatic foundation that will support their enlarged roles in Part II: Perestroika.

The unseen stars of this production turn out to be the gifted design team that creates a compact canvas for Kushner's grandeur, most notably scenic and lighting designer Jeff Quinn. His whitewashed panels conceal hidden recesses and provide a neutral screen for Kushner's emotional projections, as well as for literal projections of stars and stripes, apartment window panes, office blinds, and the crosses that fill the walls of Prior's sickrooms. Sound designer Steve Shapiro's discreet yet effective soundtrack nicely complements Prior's and Harper's hallucinations, while costume designer Marta E. Lopez's character-at-a-glance costumes facilitate following the cast members through their multiple roles.

Millennium Approaches is a strongly recommended prerequisite for anyone interested in attending Perestroika, which picks up with the same characters where the first part leaves off. Likewise, those seeing Part I will derive more satisfaction from the experience if they follow the combined work through to its conclusion. Whatever your choice, I recommend you act swiftly. Although New Theatre has expanded its artistic vision with Angels in America, the house's limited seating capacity remains unchanged.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
Part I: Millennium Approaches. Written by Tony Kushner; directed by Rafael de Acha and Deborah Mello; with Bethany Bohall, Cynthia Caquelin, David Cirone, David Kwiat, Wayne LeGette, James Randolph, Pamela Roza, and Matthew Wright. Through August 17 For more information call 443-5909 or see "Calendar Listings.

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