The first question you have to ask yourself going into a three-and-a-half hour long play is: "Is it worth losing a bit of sleep over?"
And the answer with Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's electrifying production of Angels in America: Perestroika is a resounding, "Yes."
That will come as little surprise to anyone who saw WJT's production of the first part of Tony Kushner's award-winning two-play cycle last year - and if you didn't, make sure you arrive with enough time to read the handy plot synopsis of part one in the program.
Ryan Miller and Marina Stephenson Kerr (Dylan Hewlett)
Perestroika picks up right where its predecessor, Millennium Approaches
, left off. Set in early 1986, the story follows Prior Walter (Ryan Miller), a prophet who has, much to his dismay, been visited by an angel (Marina Stephenson Kerr). Prior is also suffering from AIDS, and has been abandoned by his conservative, Mormon, but still very much gay boyfriend, Joe (Eric Blais).
The ensuing story tracks Prior's efforts to deal with the role of prophet - and the struggle of the people around him to deal with the AIDS crisis, their faith (in the supernatural and each other), and the reality of America in the time of Ronald Reagan.Perestroika
is not as perfect a play as Millennium Approaches
- it sometimes sags under the weight of its own mythology. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable piece of writing - Kushner's dialogue is by turns profane, poetic, and laugh out loud funny ("This is my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother" is a line hilarious in part because it makes such perfect sense in Perestroika
And it departs from Millennium Approaches
in even more fully embracing the fantastical in what Kushner subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Here we have not just one angel, but a whole group of them - and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg not only visits, but recites the Kaddish.
Christopher Brauer's inventive direction once again rises to the technical challenges of bringing the fantastic to life on stage. As with part one, he removes artifice from the theatrical experience. Stage manager Lisa Nelson's verbal cues are amplified to the whole theatre, and there's no attempt to hide the work of assistant stage managers Suzie Martin and Brett Mikulik as they move set pieces and props in Brauer's fluid, well-paced production.
Brauer's design team finds creative ways to make Perestroika
's epic scale work on the small stage of the Berney Theatre. James Jansen's creative video projections play out on Janelle Regalbuto's cleverly-designed set. Bill Williams' lighting design and Chris Coyne's sound work both add high drama to key scenes, especially when the angel appears, and Maureen Petkau costumes the production smartly.
And while we are never allowed to forget that what we're watching is theatrical, the superb cast of eight (some returning vets from last year's Millennium Approaches
, some new to the cast) bring the reality of their characters into stark focus.
There's some standout work here - Stephenson Kerr delivers both gravitas and sly humour with her portrayal of the angel; Miller is wrenchingly open and vulnerable as Prior; Nicholas Rice makes the fierce arch-conservative Roy Cohn a formidable presence, even in the late stages of AIDS; and Jamie Robinson nearly steals scenes from him with spot-on comic timing as the flamboyant and steel-nerved nurse Belize. Mariam Bernstein, Erin McGrath, and Jordan Pettle round out the uniformly-strong cast.
It all makes for an enthralling, heady night of theatre, culminating in an unexpected celebration of hope. And you'll be genuinely surprised how quickly the 210 minutes fly by.WJT's Angels in America: Perestroika runs at the Berney Theatre until May 12.
WJT's 2013-2014 season
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre has unveiled its next season - one dedicated entirely to new, made-in-Manitoba plays:Good Intentions
by Ginny Collins (Oct. 9-20)
Collins, the playwright behind the Fringe hit The Good Daughter
, delivers a morally complex story about a doctor working in Africa.Ivanov
by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Michael Nathanson (Jan. 29 - Feb. 9, 2014)
WJT's entry in next year's Master Playwright Festival sees WJT artistic producer Michael Nathanson turn Chekhov's play into a dark comedy set in 1950s Winnipeg.Shiksa
by Cairn Moore (Apr. 2 - 13)
This culture clash comedy follows the story of Zack, who must choose between the love of his life and the love of his parents, who are unable to accept the fact he's secretly married a "shiksa."