BWW Reviews: PERESTROIKA Concludes ANGELS in Powerful Fashion
Greenville's Warehouse Theatre has unleashed "Perestroika," and it's a powerful conclusion to Tony Kushner's two-part epic "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes."
This inspired staging by director Jayce Tromsness offers perhaps the finest acting I've ever seen on a Greenville stage.
It's thrilling to witness several familiar Greenville actors at the absolute top of their game. The eight cast members play their roles with fierce commitment, plumbing the depths and occasionally breaking the heart.
Both parts of the Tony Award-winning "Angels" - about the intersection of the personal and political in the early years of the AIDS epidemic - are a suitably bold vehicle to honor the 40th anniversary of Upstate South Carolina's gutsiest theater.
"Millennium Approaches," the first part of the 1993 "Angels," was unveiled first. Now that "Perestroika" has opened, the Warehouse will feature both on alternating days.
Theater-goers should be warned: With its strong language and explicit sexual content, "Angels" is for mature audiences only. Both parts also are quite long: more than three hours each.
The two parts of the play present an interesting contrast: "Perestroika," it seems to me, offers more of everything. It's more intense, more surreal and perhaps more humorous - in a broadly comic vein.
Set mainly in the mid-1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, "Angels" maintains several story lines at once, touching on law, politics, religion, sexuality and philosophy.
At the play's center are two very different gay men suffering from AIDS: Prior Walter (Thomas Azar), a descendant of an old Puritan American family, and Roy Cohn (Paul Savas), who is based on the combative New York lawyer (and former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy) of the same name.
Prior and Roy never meet in "Angels," but they are linked by a chain of relationships. Louis Ironson (Matt Reece), a liberal firebrand and Prior's lover, becomes involved with Joe Pitt (Matthew Merritt), a rising young Republican (and Mormon) lawyer who is Roy's protégé. Joe is married to Harper (Maegan McNerney Azar), addicted to Valium and given to quirky hallucinations.
In Kushner's fraught, churning world, the natural and supernatural easily coexist. Things that can't happen in real life do happen in Kushner's wildly inventive play: an angel barges into a living room, a dead woman appears in several scenes, a man in a religious diorama suddenly morphs into a main character in the play. Kushner's theatrical legerdemain offers the antic appeal of an M.C. Escher lithograph.
One can draw many ideas from the sprawling "Angels," with its elaborate flights of poetry, rhetoric and cosmology. For this writer, what emerges most from "Millennium Approaches" is Kushner's overarching compassion for our shared vulnerability and humanity - and a plea not to allow anyone to fall through the cracks.
"Perestroika," meanwhile, seems to reflect a tremendous hope in a future of progress and social cohesion. "The world doesn't spin backwards," a character memorably says. "Listen to the world, to how fast it goes. That's New York traffic, baby, the sound of energy, the sound of time. Even if you're hurting, it can't go back." No lilies of the field for Kushner.
Tromsness' staging is vivid, vigorous and detailed, and, thanks also to a top-notch technical crew, includes some dazzling theatrical effects.
Azar brings a quiet intensity to his marvelously sympathetic Prior, a man enduring harrowing pain.
Reece is excellent as the high-strung Louis, conveying the character's conflicting emotions. Merritt also is superb, playing Joe with nuance and ample emotional range.
As Cohn, Savas is a roaring force of nature, even as Cohn lies on his deathbed. Cohn, a man motivated solely by self-preservation, is described by Louis as "the polestar of evil," an emblem of the Reagan-era hyper-individualism that Kushner loathes. Yet Savas, the Warehouse's artistic director, finds unexpected vulnerability in the character in "Perestroika."
Maegan McNerney Azar brings a glowing appeal and winsomeness to the likeably kooky Harper.
Travis Lemont Ballenger plays the kindly drag queen and nurse Belize with zest and panache.
Kerrie Seymour takes on several roles, perhaps most memorably a formidable reactionary angel.
Anne Kelley Tromsness also plays several parts, including an impassioned Ethel Rosenberg.
Shannon Robert's scenic design is ingenious, resembling a cavern with arches. The production's other technical and creative elements - light, sound and costume designs, and incidental music - are first-rate.
For tickets to this spellbinding "Angels in America," call 864-235-6948.
Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.