BWW Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES at The Acting Ensemble
Under the direction of James Geisel, The Acting Ensemble opened their newest show, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, this past Friday. The play is the first part of Tony Kushner's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with the second part coming later in the season as a staged reading. The play is a highly recognized and award winning piece of theatre that looks at the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's, through the experiences of various characters. The Acting Ensemble's approach is to take the play and strip it of all the fancy production elements that usually accompanies the play, and leave Kushner's words as the most dramatic element.
Sitting in the talkback after the show, what sets this Angels in America apart from all the different versions of the play that have come before it, is it's bare-bone take. Audience members who stayed behind to discuss the show after it ended kept mentioning that they weren't sure how impactful the show was going to be without all the usual hoop-la that the play is normally known for. However, it seemed everyone had been won over by AE's approach, and the consensus was that letting Kushner's words be center stage was commanding enough. I couldn't agree more. Sitting in Studio 217, a small, tight room that makes for AE's main stage, there is no escaping the intense and emotional storylines in Angels in America. With some stools, a few black boxes, coat racks with clothing items, and some more obvious props such as a telephone, all that is left are eight actors who play numerous roles, making Tony Kushner's play come to life with just their acting. There really is no looking away when things get real and uncomfortable, or when the audience is faced with the hard realities of the characters they're watching, because the actors are right there in front of you. Therefore, what really makes this show are the performances from the actors.
Since the venue is so small, the turmoil the character's feel is palpable, the hard facts inescapable, and therefore, the show is all the more powerful. It's theatre, or really acting, at its finest. While the ensemble as a whole was very strong, there are a few actors, who played the protagonists, who really stood out with their unforgettable performances. Brad Mazick playEd Roy Cohn, a fictional version of the real person, who is written as a deeply closeted lawyer. Mazick played the intricacies of his character's thirst for power, as well as his deep-rooted denial about his homosexuality, flawlessly. With undeniable acting prowess, he had one of the best scenes of the night where he calmly, but most emphatically, explained to his doctor the difference between a gay man and a man who liked to have sex with other men; in conclusion, he stated he was the latter. KC Matthews played Joe Pitt, a married Mormon who is also closeted. Matthews took the character, who outwardly is a quiet and unsuspecting man, and added complexities to his many struggles, that supplemented his character's depth, but kept his soft and meek nature. From his seemingly shallower interactions with a few characters, to the more profound revelations with others, Matthews created a realistic Joe Pitt; somebody who everyone thought they knew but didn't really. Benjamin Cass played Louis Ironson, a gay man struggling to come to terms with his lover's AIDS diagnoses. Cass's portrayal really lead the audience down a difficult path; do you sympathize with his character, who seems so genuine and believable in his love, guilt, and weaknesses, or do you hate him for not being stronger and more selfless? Without Cass really taking the time to develop all sides of his character's dilemmas and then nailing the choices, his character wouldn't have been so successfully controversial and interesting. Tiemen Godwaldt played Prior Walter, a gay man diagnosed with AIDS who is subsequently abandoned by his lover, Louis Ironson. Godwaldt was incredible; there wasn't a moment on stage where you didn't feel his plights, whether he was outwardly showing them or quietly suffering on his own. What was fascinating about Godwaldts portrayal of Prior was his ability to play the contradictions of his character; Prior was wise but also naïve, strong in nature but extremely lonely, and heartbroken but still able to have a sense of humor. These choices created a fully developed character that no audience member could deny having feelings for. At the end of the night, anyone who sees this show is going to remember Tiemen Godwaldt.
These remarkable portrayals are really what made the no-frills version of the play work. The intimacy of the theatre and having the character's problems right in our faces wouldn't have been so successful had the performances themselves not been outstanding. The emotional highs and lows would have just been plateaus and the show would have left us wanting.
Don't miss The Acting Ensemble's version of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. It's a refreshing look at the renowned play while still being provocative and relevant. It plays for four more showings: April 15th and the 21st-23rd. If you'd like to find out more, please visit - http://www.actingensemble.com/next-on-mainstage-angels-in-america-millennium-approaches/
Photo Credit: William Heimann