Friday, March 29, 2019

“Angels In America” Part Two: Perestroika As Good As It Gets At Cygnet.


If Roy Cohn, the self -loathing son of a bitch, no good-nick Jew left this world rotting away from AIDS with only a small audience to witness it, he certainly deserved it. He also deserved to die alone but fortunately for him, Jewish law forbids it.

Cohn, one of the major figures in Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America A Gay Fantasia”, Part I The ‘Millennium Approaches’ and Part Two ‘Perestroika”, resurfaces after the ending of Part One where he is again in his hospital bed on death’s door begging his nemeses, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg to sing him a lullaby. The scene is about as funny as it is tragic.
Rosina Reynolds and James Newcomb
Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is now on the second round of Kushner’s two part stunning epic work with the building of ‘Perestroika’, sometimes seen on it’s own and sometimes, depending on one’s endurance (running time for both plays together is about 6 hours, give or take), seen in repertory in one long afternoon/evening of theatre which by the way, yours truly has done twice.  

Part two of the epic drama that is both funny and tragic, continues with the same characters  we met in Part One: Cohn, big shot and evil Washington lawyer, gay Mormon Lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, Cohn’s nurse Belize, Joe’s mother Hannah, entertainer/ free agent Prior Walter and his ex boyfriend Louis and the prophetic Angel whom we met at the end of Part One.

In Part One, the big focus is concentrated on the rise of the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan years, the McCarthy hearings and a world in chaos; deeply divided by race, religion, sexual priorities, politics and more politics. It is chillingly similar to today’s unrest.  

 In Part One we watched as two couples, Joe and Harper and Louis and Prior danced around each other trying to be good mates but Joe was a closeted homosexual, Harper was agoraphobic. When Prior was diagnosed with the HIV virus, Louis headed for the door and Prior was left to face the music with his deadly disease alone.

Cohn is a closeted gay yet successful lawyer who saw right through Joe Pitt. Pitt refused Cohn’s offer to advance his career but in Part Two we find him hooking up with Louis, Prior’s ex.  Cohn singlehandedly was responsible for the deaths of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; he wanted them dead! He was one of Trump’s despicable’s. Yes, he taught Trump well.
Rachael VanWormer
Harper is out on a limb with her fears. She and Joe play hide and seek at pretending to be married and Belize toggles back and forth as nurse/travel agent.

In flashback the Angel all but anoints Prior as a Prophet, gives him a sacred book, a prophecy; “Greetings, Prophet! The great work begins: The Messenger has arrived.”
Debra Wanger as the Angel and Alex Bodine
‘Perestroika’ opens in 1986 with the worlds oldest Bolshevik (Rosina Reynolds), asking,  “Are we doomed?” “Will the past release us?” “Can we change?” “In time?” Or, can the world survive without communism?

Of course it can and does and the play continues on its poetic path once again moving forward with the playwright showing a more humane, honest, in depth and healing side of the characters. In essence he is saying stop being too proud to be humble. Stop changing/breaking the rules and listen. Listen, see, heal. God is pretty angry by societies lack of interest.

It expands even more with a brief and funny diorama of the Mormon’s ‘coming west’, a bonding between Prior and Hannah, Joe’s Mormon mother and oddly, a relationship between Joe and Louis, Prior’s former lover.

Five years pass to the fall of the Berlin Wall where we catch up with Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah. They are upbeat and look to a future where the Prophet Prior proclaims, “The disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” 

No one ever accused the movers and shakers of Cygnet Theatre Co. of being slackers. This mammoth undertaking under the deft direction of Sean Murray is a stirring homage to what excellent theatre is all about, past present and future with a must a must see approval rating.

James Newcomb’s portrayal of Roy Cohn, that was electrifying in part one is even more riveting in part two. Every time he calls for his nurse Belize (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) or is in some kind of a dastardly rant or is making racial slurs against Belize the atmosphere in the theatre seemed to take on a life of its own. His command performance is striking.

Rosina Reynolds’ Ethel seems even eerier and more haunting as she stands over Cohn just watching him; staring in silence and finally stepping in to help Louis with the Kaddish (mourners prayer) when Cohn finally succumbs to AIDS. It was more than he deserved.

Connor Sullivan’s Joe Pitt digs deeper into his groins and comes out a force with which to be reckoned after finally giving in to his homosexual needs by hooking up with Louis, ironically only to be rejected by him.

Wil Bethmann, Rosina Reynolds and Kevane La'Maar Coleman
Louis (Wil Bethmann) gradually finds his big boy mensch suit, Jewish guilt and all and as such becomes a worthy soul mate to Prior. In a turn about of fair play, Prior picks and chooses how much of Louis’ help he really wants and Reynolds’ Hannah Pitt has softened somewhat toward her gay son, unlike her stealth portrayal as Ethel Rosenberg.

Both VanWormer and Coleman, who meet up again under unusual circumstances, revive their excellent roles as Harper and Belize. Coleman’s sassy attitude as Cohn’s nurse just about turned the SOB ballistic when he was giving Cohn an intravenous pain killer but calmed down when he threatened with the sharp needle.

Debora Wanger whose appearance at the end of part that was a divine revelation, has plenty to say in part two and she does it with elegance and a force that sends Prior (a brilliant Alex Bodine) as the messenger, into the world to do some super human healing of Biblical proportions and there are many.

References to that effect between Louis and the Rabbi, Jacob’s wrestling the angel, The Book of Isaiah and the mark of Cain come often, and Joseph Smith and the word of the Angels, also surfaces in conversation. References come in many tones and voices.

 Hebrew letters can be seen cascading downward onto the large brick wall in the background (Blake McCarthy’s projections on Andrew Hull’s geometric set design illuminated by Chris Rynnes’ spot on lighting design.

To Murray’s credit two -strong- armed yet silent partners dressed in white (Shirley Pierson) lift and move the angel around as if flying, given that there is no fly space to have her actually do that. With Steven Leffue’s effective sound design, the angels’ wings can be heard flapping, as they move her from place to place keeping a watchful eye on Prior.  

Every scene captured my imagination and never a doubtful thought entered my mind that the message, whoever the messenger, no matter from whence it comes, comes in equal parts over and over again throughout the bible and lest we forget, and God knows we do, no one wants His/Her wrath to be cast upon us.

Hannah: “When the Millennium comes…
Prior: “Not the year two - thousand, but the Capital’M’ Millennium”…
Hanna: “the fountain of Bethesda (in Central Park) will flow again.
And I told him I would personally take him there to bathe. We will bathe ourselves clean.”

For all of Kushner’s preaching about politics and religion, Perestroika and  Gorbochov, the now defunct Soviet Union, The West Bank, Palestine, Zionism, justice and responsibility, and  AIDS, I can’t help but thinking that the more things change the more they say the same.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Rotating in repertory Part One, 7p.m Wed. -through Fridays; 1 and 7 p.m. Sat. and Sundays through April 20th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619-337-1525
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4040 Twiggs St,
Ticket Prices: $25.00-$60.00
Web: cygnettheatre.com
Venue: Theatre in Old Town
Photo: Darren Scott

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