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Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 13, 2019

David Ryan Smith, Barrett Foa
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is continuing its new production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with Part 2: Perestroika, which will run in repertory with Part 1: Millennium Approaches. It’s an ambitious undertaking, staging both plays at the same time, since seeing both requires a large time commitment. Still, it’s an endeavor that’s more than worthwhile, as now having seen both parts, I can’t imagine seeing one part without the other. And the Rep’s staging makes this challenging, thoroughly compelling drama all the more essential, with strong acting all around and even more stunning production values.

Part 2 is an excellent play on its own, as is Part 1, but if for some reason you only have time to see one of them, I think Part 1 makes more sense without Part 2 than the other way around. With this installment–subtitled Perestroika after the Soviet Union’s “restructuring” (the word’s meaning in English) in the 1980s–playwright Tony Kushner picks up almost exactly where Part 1 left off, after a brief prologue showing a speech by the “World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik” (Meredith Baxter) that foreshadows some of the play’s themes, but isn’t particularly essential to the plot. Once the plot gets going, we’re expected to know who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing, which makes seeing Part 1 all the more necessary. Although we do get a “recap” of sorts from the perspective of one character, Prior (Barrett Foa), other characters continue their stories with little or no preamble, as confused, valium-addicted Mormon housewife Harper (Valeri Mudek) first appears in the middle of one of her drug-induced fantasies, and other characters such as the ailing angry, self-serving lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette), Prior’s estranged boyfriend Louis (Ben Cherry), and Harper’s conflicted husband Joe (Jayson Speters), Joe’s recently relocated mother Hannah (Baxter), and Prior’s friend and hospital nurse Belize (David Ryan Smith) simply continue the stories they began in Part 1. A lot more happens to them in this installment, and some themes that were hinted at in Part 1 are spelled out a lot more thoroughly, and the fantastic goings-on that began in Part 1 get a much more complete explanation, especially concerning the Angel (Gina Daniels) that visits Prior. Here, without spoiling too much, I think it’s safe to say there are a lot more angelic happenings in this installment, as well as a lot more intense, sometimes harrowing human drama. Even with the fantasy elements, this is ultimately a thoroughly human story, and the main characters, no matter how noble or evil or somewhere in-between, are undeniably human. Like Part 1, it’s an adult story, with frank talk of sex and sexuality, some brief nudity, and an unwaveringly honest depiction of the horror and suffering of AIDS. It’s a remarkable, insightful, and sometimes brutally intense play, even more so than Part 1, but even with the dark themes, there is light, and hope, especially in the sense of “chosen family” that develops as the story plays out and characters from different walks of life are brought together in sometimes surprising ways.

As with the first part, the cast is an impressive one, with Foa, Frechette, Smith, Mudek, Daniels, and Baxter especially standing out in this part of the story. Foa carries a lot of the emotional weight here with an intense, thoughtful performance, and Frechette manages to mine a degree of sympathy for his unlikable character in the midst of immense suffering. Cherry and Speters are also fine in their performances, although I didn’t quite feel the connection between their characters. For the most part, though, the ensemble chemistry is more than credible. In fact, it’s the connection between all these disparate characters that drives a great deal of the drama.

Technically, this production continues to impress, and the special effects are even more extensive in this part. The staging and especially the flying effects by ZFX, Inc. are dazzling, and Broken Chord’s music and sound design is used to excellent effect. Also notable are Alex Basco Koch’s vibrant projection design and, again, Tim Mackabee’s simple and versatile set, Dede Ayite’s ideally suited costumes, and Xavier Pierce’s powerful, cleverly constructed lighting design. It’s a well-paced production that blends technical expertise with acting excellence, to remarkable effect.

Overall, I would say this much-touted production has more than lived up to its hype. It’s somewhat amazing to think that the Rep has never staged this show before, although considering its time commitment and technical demands, perhaps the delay is understandable. I would say this production is more than worth the wait. Whether (like me) this is your first time seeing these plays, or if you’ve seen them before, I would say this is a must-see exercise in theatrical excellence from the Rep. It’s an especially memorable way to usher in a new era for this company.

Barrett Foa, Meredith Baxter
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika in repertory with Part 1 until October 6, 2019.

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Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 6, 2019

Valeri Mudek, Jayson Speters, Barrett Foa, Ben Cherry
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening a new season with a new Artistic Director, and a two-part production of a play that has become a modern classic. I have to admit I had never seen either part of Tony Kushner’s much-lauded Angels in America before, and I was looking forward to this opportunity. So far, this production has lived up to the hype, with an excellent cast including a few high-profile names, and truly stunning production values. It’s a fascinating story with richly drawn characters as well, although it’s clearly only half of a two-part story. I was actually considering holding off on this review until after part 2 opens next weekend, but I had to write a few words about this memorable first chapter.

This part of the story introduces the major characters who will continue into the next part. It has the air of the epic about it, telling a tale that blends realism and fantasy, focusing on a small group of characters primarily based in New York City in the mid-1980s, during the escalation of the AIDS crisis in America. The various threads of the story seem isolated at first, but connections gradually develop as the play progresses, and each of the actors plays more than one role. Most of the characters are fictional, although a few are based on real people–particularly, high-profile conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette). In addition to the aggressively closeted Cohn, the characters include boyfriends Prior Walter (Barrett Foa) and Louis Ironson (Ben Cherry), who face trials when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; as well as Joe Pitt (Jayson Speters), a young Republican of Mormon background who works for Cohn and who is struggling to come to terms with an important reality in his life; and Joe’s unhappy wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), who faces the truth about her relationship with Joe and goes on medication-induced flights of fantasy. There’s also Joe’s mother, Hannah (Meredith Baxter), who travels from Utah after a sudden revelation from Joe on the phone; and Prior’s longtime friend Belize (David Ryan Smith), an ex-drag queen and nurse at the hospital who provides support for Prior and difficult truths for Louis. And then there’s the mysterious Angel (Gina Daniels), who speaks to Prior with confusing and unsettling messages. The cast members play other roles as well, as the various plots unfold and intersect in different ways, some expected and some more surprising. The whole story has the air of an epic about it, with moments of searing drama blended with humor and wild fantasy, telling the story of mid-80s America and challenging major elements of society, such as materialism, corporate greed, social and religious conventions and restrictions particularly dealing with homosexuality, social progress, predictions for the then-future 21st century, and more. It’s a highly ambitious piece, and it’s at turns insightful, affecting, and challenging. The sense of suspense as a cohesive story begins to unfold is palpable, and some of the characters’ plots seem to be only just getting started as part 1 ends, adding to the anticipation for part 2, which I’m eager to see. These are compelling stories that one play–even with a running time of more than three hours–can’t entirely contain. The way the plot is structured, Part 2 is as necessary as it is inevitable, even though part 1 is remarkable on its own.

The overall tone of heightened realism and forays into fantasy is well maintained by the physical production of the show, as well as the perfectly paced staging by director Tony Speciale and associate director and “violence, intimacy and movement director” Tommy Rapley. Tim Mackabee’s set is versatile, making ideal use of the Rep stage’s turntable and trap doors, and the scene changes are elegant and fluid, aided by Broken Chord’s poignant and stirring original music and sound design. There’s also evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, ideally suited and period appropriate costumes by Dede Ayite, and excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. It’s a stunning play to look at, listen to, and experience, with a full range of emotions reflected in the whole look and feel of the production in addition to the remarkable script and first-rate acting. It is for mature audiences, considering some of the language, intensity, frank talk of sexuality, and one brief scene of nudity.

As for the cast, they are universally superb, led by a trio of actors who are probably best known by the general public for their television work but also have a good amount of stage experience. It’s an impressively cohesive ensemble, with excellent work from all. Particularly effecting is Foa as Prior, whose journey is as compelling as it is harrowing. Foa brings out the many facets of the character with approachable and charismatic presence. Frechette is also strong as the confrontational, perpetually-in-denial Cohn, managing to make a character intriguing to watch even when he’s not particularly likable. Mudek, as Harper, is also remarkably affecting, as is Baxter in a variety of roles including Hannah, an elderly Rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Also convincing and effective are Cherry as the conflicted Louis, Speters as the confused and also conflicted Joe, Daniels in a variety of roles including the Angel and a hospital nurse, and Smith as both Belize and a character from Harper’s fantasies called “Mr. Lies” . This is a cast that mines emotion without overdoing it, bringing out the nuances in character and making the stories all then more compelling in this installment and creating even more promise for part 2.

So far, I would say Hana S. Sharif’s first season as the Rep’s Artistic Director is off to an impressively promising start. With a stunning Angels in America part 1, the only real “letdown” is that I the first part is only half of the story, but that makes me even more eager to see the continuation.  Part 1 is powerful, emotional, and challenging, and creates anticipation for part 2, which debuts this weekend–and the Rep will also have some “marathon days” for theatregoers who want to see both parts in one day. Go see it! It’s an excellent example of the Rep–and theatre itself–at its best.

 

Peter Frechette, Jayson Speters
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches until October 6, 2019. 

 

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