Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize winner Angels In America is full of potential - but the sprawling epic is so rife with artistic and technical challenges that it has the potential to be electrifying theatre, or an absolute disaster.
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production is a triumph.
This is actually only the first part of Kushner's two-play cycle, Millennium Approaches (WJT will open its next season with the second part, Perestroika). So yes, it ends on a wee bit of a cliffhanger. But you'll want to come back next season to find out how the story ends.
First produced in 1993, but set in Reagan-era New York, Kushner's three-hour play is a smart, funny, and still sometimes shocking piece of work deserving of its many accolades. The story revolves around two couples: guilt-ridden Louis (Michael Rubenfeld) and his partner Prior (Ryan Miller), afflicted with what was then a relatively new horror called AIDS; and devout Mormon Joe (Jeremy Walmsley) and his Valium-addicted wife Harper (Tracy Michailidis). As the couples are torn apart by forces external and internal, Kushner addresses his larger themes of connection, loss, and our responsibility to one another against the backdrop of an anxious and often cruel mid-80s America.
Kushner subtitles his play "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," and it is indeed fantastical
Ryan Miller and Michael Rubenfeld in Angels in America. (Dylan Hewlett)
at points (the long-dead visit our characters, there's a brief interlude in Antarctica, and yes, there is an angel). But it's also brutally and wrenchingly real in its depiction of AIDS, and of the pain the human condition can bring. Under brilliantly creative and assured direction from Christopher Brauer, this production strikes a perfect balance between those extremes - offstage actors sitting in a fully visible "backstage" never let us forget that what we're seeing is fantasy, but the powerful performances from the superb cast of eight (rounded out by Mariam Bernstein, Nicholas Rice, Jamie Robinson and Marina Stephenson Kerr) keep us grounded in the often harsh reality of Kushner's play.
While it may be unfair to single anyone out in a cast that delivers such uniformly strong performances, Rice is a force of nature onstage as Roy Cohn, an absolute pit bull of a lawyer who is somehow able to be simultaneously fiery and icy, and still seem dangerous in the throes of an insidious disease. Miller, best known for his work with the comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, proves he's more than got the dramatic chops to pull off the demanding role of Prior.
Brauer's smart direction, and the superb work of set designer Janelle Regalbuto and lighting/media designer Hugh Conacher successfully handle the play's many technical challenges. Multiple locations using bare bones staging are handled cleverly by Conacher's video, projected onto Regalbuto's stark but striking set (between-scenes video clips of everyone from Ronald Reagan to Dr. Ruth also provide useful context). And of course, there is the difficulty of how you make an angel appear onstage... but I won't comment much on how the production team accomplishes that except to say that it works beautifully and quite literally gave me chills (thanks in no small part to a wonderful performance in the role by Stephenson Kerr).Angels In America: Millennium Approaches
is a divine piece of theatre. Miss it, and ye shall repent.WJT unveils 2012-2013 season
Coming off a season that was all hits and no misses, WJT has another remarkably promising lineup for 2012/13:
Angels In America: Perestroika (Oct. 24 - Nov. 4):
WJT reunites the cast and production team behind the first part of Tony Kushner's epic for the Winnipeg premiere of its second part. After seeing Millennium Approaches
, this is now the production I'm most looking forward to seeing next season.SondheimFest Special (Jan. 23 - Feb. 3):
WJT returns to the MTC-sponsored Master Playwright Festival with two shows. During the first week of the festival, Toronto improv company The National Theatre of the World (who delivered a spectacularly hilarious show at WJT earlier this year) return to improvise in the style of Stephen Sondheim. And during week two, WJT partners with local musical theatre company Dry Cold Productions to present Sondheim's musical revue Follies.Rewritten (May 1 - 12):
A world premiere of the latest from local playwright Alix Sobler (whose last WJT show, Some Things You Keep
, was a winner). This play takes as its premise the idea that Anne Frank survived the Second World War, only to struggle to tell her story in 1950s New York.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer