Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Case For “Angels In America” And None Too Soon!

Timing, they say is everything. What goes around comes around. Just say to NO to drugs. Equal rights for all. Civil Rights. Roe v Wade. 14th Amendment. 15th Amendment. First Amendment. Aren’t we such a sophisticated lot? Aren’t we just the beacon of justice and liberty for all?

When did we start to take all of our freedoms and rights for granted thinking they were etched in stone only to see them being chipped away when enough time lapsed? Or new politics entered the arena? Or our courts were stacked as they are now and memories of past injustices got lost on a new generation?   

When I tell you that Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize two part epic Gay Fantasia on National Themes “Angels in America: Part I, Millennium Approaches ” and Angels in America Part II: Perestroika” (will open on April 22nd.), is now being mounted in a stunning revival at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town through April 20th, believe that it is a none too soon wake up call to acknowledge that our country is devolving into a Trump nightmare.

Set in New York City in 1985 and spanning oceans, “Angels” travels into the world beyond, and anchors itself deep in the politics of history of the then and now and in particular the AIDS epidemic that ravaged gay men in the sixties. 

What’s so striking is that what was going on in the politics of the pre Ronald Reagan years and during the McCarthy era hearings and it’s chief counsel Roy Cohn, is ironically current history with the same government mentality under Trump and Pence still refusing to grant equal rights to gays, denying a women’s right to choose, limiting voting rights to poor rural Blacks, keeping trans individuals out of the military, bringing the KKK into the mix while keeping the wealth limited to a chosen few.

The fact that AIDS drugs were on the horizon then and the disease isn’t in the spotlight now as much as it was doesn’t lesson the opinion that, once again, the powers that be still use gays as whipping boys and corruption still runs rampant. Luckily new drugs are proving to be successful and two cases, just now are on record of being AIDS free.

The names have been changed as we are now in the age of Trump but the corruption, the mega bucks and the dirty politicians and their rhetoric are now praised with a loyal following including some churches and F**ck the rest of us.

Alex Bodine with Wil Bethmann
Kushner’s play centers on two couples. One is a homosexual couple, Louis and Prior (Wil Bethmann and Alex Bodine), and the other a Mormon couple Joe and Harper (Connor Sullivan and Rachael Van Wormer).  Both couples face emotional ups and downs as the political environment and personal constraints in which they live force them into lifestyles not often of their choosing.  Their lives crisscross, zigzag and intertwine often paralleling each other.

Others in and outside their orbit, strange bedfellows all, circle the wagons and bring some cohesiveness and disruption along the way.

As unbelievable as it may seem two characters from history Ethel Rosenberg (Rosina Reynolds), and Roy Cohn (James Newcomb) are real. His fantasy takes us from Washington, DC, to South Bronx to Salt lake City, and Antarctica with a long twist of other characters that include a Bolshevik, an angel (Debra Wanger), an old world rabbi (Rosina Reynolds), Mormons, Jews, Wasp’s, and a drag queen called Belize (Kevane La’Marr Coleman). And with it all Kushner manages to create credence in this work that ties them all to one another.

Connor Sullivan with Rachael VanWormer
Joe is a lawyer destined to go places.  He also happens to be a closeted gay Mormon who repressed, to some degree, his homosexual urges since a young boy.

He takes long walks in Central Park. His wife Harper, feeling the lack of any real connection with her husband, is a pill-popping neurotic. One can hardly blame her for hallucinating and taking her mind to some pretty weird places that scare the hell out of her. Little does she know that what’s frightening her out of her wits is her own husband.

One phrase that caught my ear over and over again when the two were locked in at the dead end of a little tiff was when Joe leaned down for a ‘buddy kiss’ from Harper. A Buddy Kiss??? (Rubbing Noses?) That should have been her first clue.

Armed with an exceptional ensemble of fine and dedicated actors and under the sharp direction of Sean Murray  ‘Angels’ moves along at a pace that gives one only moments on which to reflect yet keeps the cohesiveness together even with double and sometimes triple casting.

Connor Sullivan’s Joe Pitt is one stunning and agonizing portrayal of a man in search of self. His journey from chief law clerk in the Federal Court of Appeals about to reach his potential working for Roy Cohn almost comes to an abrupt dead end when his homosexuality gets in the way as he watches his life slowly unravel amid the complex world of politics and sex.
Rachael Van Wormer
Pitifully, Rachael Van Warmer’s agoraphobic Harper is on that same journey as the fallout from his admission of being a homosexual and moving to DC if he wants to work with Cohn sends her off onto another planet or to places unknown.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking watching her. Both actors are at their professional highs. Van Wormer is one big moving target as she huddles in the dark, talks to herself, moves in and out of reality, her hands jerking in different directions, going from one hallucination to another into spaces no one dares go and she does it oft times with out of this world worldliness where she often collides with La’Marr Coleman’s (Belize) who is on his own journey.

What caught my eye and sent my head into a whirl was when the four, on the stage at the same time were crisscrossing/bypassing each other, all talking at the same time, reminded me of a quartet in say a Verdi Opera. It was beautifully choreographed by Murray and Michael Mizerany (movement) and will continue to send pictures when I think of the overall success of the production and how convincing and compelling those scenes were.  
Rosina Reynolds as Ethel Rosenberg and James Newcomb as Roy Cohn
James Newcomb is amazing as Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy’s right hand counsel during the Hearings on the House Un American Activities Committee and master sleaze ball and snake (As he was in real life. I do remember the hearings and no better bastard was there sitting along side Joseph McCarthy, another no-good-nick.).

While Cohn was helping to kill careers of actors, writers and ‘Hollywood’ big wigs he was schtupping G. David Shine, a wealthy heir to a hotel chain. (Believe it or not Cohn was also a mentor to a younger Donald Trump working with Trump Sr. in a discrimination case against African-Americans. Cohn’s advice: “Tell them to go to hell, and fight the thing in court.” Lesson learned: never admit wrongdoing.)

Schine was big on scarring the bejesus out of the American public with his anti-communist propaganda. He became a consultant to Cohn at the McCarthy hearings on ‘Communists in the military’.  

Small in stature, Newcomb’s Cohn carried a mighty stick and whacked a powerful hit out of the park as we watched him juggling phone calls from friends looking for favors while on the other hand trying to convince Pitt to come to DC and work in the Justice Dept. so he could have an ally in Justice, that was investigating him for wrong doing.

That SOB (Cohn) another closeted gay who bashed the gay community and died of AIDS just before he was disbarred, refused to acknowledge that he had AIDS insisting all along he had liver cancer.

A Jew by birth, he was one of the biggest anti-Semites instrumental in sentencing the Rosenberg’s to death (“Every day, doing what I do best, talking on the telephone making sure that timid Yid nebbish on the bench did his duty to America, to history.”) not unlike Stephen Miller the architect of Trump’s travel ban and policy of separating migrant children from their parents; and another anti-Semitic Jew hell bent on leaving his mark.   

But as the powers that be can pinch you in the butt as quickly as not, Kushner, in brilliant move, brings Rosina Reynolds as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (she and her husband Julius got the death sentence for trading secrets to Russia, a move pushed by Cohn because he could) back to visit Cohn as he’s dying of Aids.  “I take pleasure in your misery”. “You don’t look good Roy.”

Reynolds portrays Joe’s mother Hanna Pitt, an old world Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Chemelwitz eulogizing a woman he never knew, but with conviction of a personal friend, with just the right intonations and accents and later in the play saying the Kaddish over Cohn (bring tissues).

She should be headed toward ordination as an honorary Jew. (One someone in the know at Cygnet shared with me that when she was on stage no one had to worry about a thing. He was right.)

Alex Bodin’s is most effective as Prior Walter, whose affliction from the AIDS virus becomes the major theme of Kushner’s work. Paradoxically when the Angel informs Prior that he is a Prophet and big things are expected from him, it doesn’t go unnoticed that she chooses the most physically infirm among the group to do the healing.

Wil Bethmann’s Louis is Jewish and ambivalent about everything including his Jewishness, yet especially his guilt and baggage that comes along with the ethnic label. Prior, his lover of four years has AIDS and needs the support of Louis, but when Prior’s condition worsens and those dreaded lesions begin to appear on his body, Louis along with his high flouting liberal ideals and Jewish guilt are history.

He’s gone but shows up looking for love in all the wrong places. Bethmann succeeds and convinces as the fast talking neurotic and frightened lover who can’t manage being around and seeing his boyfriend through his most trying and frightening times.

Alex Bodine and Kavane La'Marr Coleman
Kevane La’Marr Coleman is also a hoot as Prior’s best friend, former drag queen and nurse, Belize and Mr. Lies (Harpers imaginary friend and travel agent).

His sashays are one for the books and he does them well, but don’t dismiss him as all fun and games. His serious side gives us red meat to ponder as well as he shows some kindness to Cohn, as he is dying from Aids related symptoms.

Debra Wanger, an actor of unlimited qualities and who takes on several characters is a treat as the prophetic, yet quirky Angel of America. (She also plays the no nonsense nurse to both Cohn and Prior).

Her entrance at the end of Act I (“Greetings, Prophet; The Great work begins: the messenger has arrived”) that should have rocked the house, the buildup was so great, but it wasn’t. It was a big disappointment and letdown.

Book cover photo, The Sarabande Press.
Dressed in all white (Shirley Pierson and dressers do a fantastic job of quick costume chances) as she was ushered in on a large ladder surrounded in a halo of light Chris Rynne) with huge sounds (Steven Feffue) of something big about to happen, but never did; no feathers no earth rumbling.  It was anti-climactic and one not fitting for such fine work.

I rather expected her to be dropped down from the large rectangle shape that hung over the stage lighting up every now and then, (or something of that nature) designed by scenic designer Andrew Hull.

The simple set backed by a brick wall with two doors on either side was the focal point for different colored projections (Blake McCarty), geometric designs and on either side of the stage hospital beds were rolled in and out.

Overall and clocking in at a little over three hours, this not to be missed provocative play by Tony Kushner will not disappoint, in fact it might move some to become more active in a world turned topsy-turvy. 

  “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: “Angels in America, Part I, Millennium Approaches” runs through April 20th. And will run in repertory with  “Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika”.
Part II begins previews March 22nd and continues through April 20th.
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619-337-1525
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, San Diego, CA 92110
Ticket Prices: $25.00-$60.00
Web: cygnettheatre.org
Venue: Theatre in Old Town
Photo: Daren Scott

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