Winged Victory

For decades, when theater folk used the word angels, they were referring to those rare investors who could miraculously save productions with their financial backing, but whose good will proved to be as difficult to attain as divine providence. In 1993, Angels with a capital a became the theatrical buzzword, but this time everyone was talking about Tony Kushner's epic two-part Angels in America, which was steamrolling onto Broadway with that year's Pulitzer Prize in tow. As it turns out, the two plays referred to by the shortened form Angels are every bit as enriching yet as frustratingly hard to find around these parts as those stagestruck moneybags.

From the start, the physical and financial demands of mounting Kushner's sprawling six-hour work (in which a cast of eight plays 23 characters) worried potential producers almost as much as the plays' controversial elements, which have, in later productions, sparked protests in some cities. Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner's sweeping depiction of AIDS and the politics surrounding it serves up a free-association test for the nation's moral consciousness. The plays' liberal gay rights agenda undeniably suggests a parallel between the renewed national clout of the religious right and the anticommunist persecutions of the mid-Fifties; gays, Mormons, a heavenly messenger, and real-life twentieth-century lighting rods Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn all interact in Angels's dreamlike quick-cut scenes. Angry picketers have denounced its profanity, homosexual encounters, and occasional nudity.

Originally commissioned by San Francisco's Eureka Theatre for a 1989 opening, Angels in America was developed in its two separate parts, with Part I: Millennium Approaches first presented in a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before it received a fully staged production at the Eureka in 1990. The Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Part I at London's National Theatre followed in early 1992, earning the critical raves needed to pave the way for a staging of Part I and Part II: Perestroika at the Mark Taper later that year. Emboldened by bankable out-of-town reviews and the Pulitzer for Part I, producers mounted both plays on Broadway for a successful run starting in 1993.

Although Angels in America went on to win consecutive Tony Awards for Best Play -- Part I in 1993, Part II in 1994 -- South Florida's regional theaters and the local presenter of the Broadway touring companies all declined to add Kushner's work to their schedules; the plays' only South Florida appearance occurred in 1995 when Miami's financially strapped Gusman Center for the Performing Arts presented a six-day engagement of the national tour, in what turned out to be a profitable high-risk gamble. Now two of the most critically acclaimed plays of the decade finally receive their first production by a local company. Coral Gables's intimate New Theatre is staging both parts as its ambitious season opener, with Millennium Approaches continuing through August 17, followed by Perestroika beginning August 21. Produced on Broadway with mammoth sets, this ambitious saga seems a tight fit for New Theatre's 63-seat space, yet the play retains its majestic scope and continues to be a marvelously theatrical, intellectually stimulating, and captivating work, effortlessly making the transition to the small stage.

Set primarily in Manhattan in 1985 (the year that Rock Hudson's AIDS-related death drew attention to the disease first identified four years earlier), Millennium Approaches immediately puts a human face on the epidemic in its beginning when desperately frightened Prior (Matthew Wright) confesses his HIV-positive status to a stunned Luis (David Cirone), his lover of four and a half years. Guilt-ridden but increasingly unable to face the horrors of his partner's illness, Luis abandons Prior. Devastated and alone, Prior fears his disease has progressed to dementia when he begins to receive sickbed visits from dead ancestors and hears disembodied messages announcing the impending arrival of an otherworldly herald (Bethany Bohall).

While legal clerk Luis cruises Central Park, a lawyer in his firm, Joe (Wayne LeGette), struggles to stay in the closet for the sake of both his religious faith and his marriage. A Mormon who was raised to believe homosexuality is a sin, Joe entered into a doomed marriage with Harper (Pamela Roza). His wife, another Mormon having difficulties with the church's teachings, gobbles Valium to escape her crumbling marriage. Tired of deflecting Harper's probing questions and Luis's disquieting advances, Joe seeks solace from his mentor, the nefarious power broker Roy Cohn (David Kwiat); he's unaware of Cohn's underlying motives for pushing him to take an influential job in Washington, D.C. Certainly Cohn knows politics, having built a career hunting reds with Sen. Joe McCarthy in the Fifties, and later represented powerful clients (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and J. Edgar Hoover). He won acquittals in three trials of his own for obstruction of justice, bribery, blackmail, and corruption. Cohn also knows about being a self-loathing closeted gay (his panel on the AIDS quilt reads "Roy Cohn -- Coward/ Bully/Victim"). In Kushner's view of history, Cohn responds to the threat of being outed by his disease with characteristic malice -- he threatens his doctor with a libel suit if he doesn't go along with a diagnosis of cancer. When the doctor insists that gay sex caused Cohn to contract AIDS, the infuriated lawyer insists, "Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man ... who fucks around with guys."

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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